[UPDATE: Now with photos!]
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Day two of SXSW got off to a slow start, due to a terrible internet connection which kept me in front of the computer through the early afternoon. (It's only very slightly better today.) Three tacos ensued (total count: 10) and a bit of aimless wandering around downtown before settling on Dan Deacon's camp-counselor-on-crack set at the Mohawk. The mid-afternoon set was actually a lot of fun, as Deacon and cohorts led the crowd through organized activities like the dance tunnel and an interpretative dance that involved a lot of swaying arms.
I trucked over to the Google/Youtube party on the roof of a nearby parking garage, with the endgame of catching the Shins' later set; I figured it would be good to catch them down here as their only current Portland show is in Bend. I was also given the heads up that it might be good to get there well ahead of time. Turned out not to be an issue, I waltzed straight up and found myself in the middle of a laid-back Jimmy Cliff set. Playing an acoustic guitar and running through an astonishing number of very familiar hits, Cliff was solidly entertaining as he varied from sunny love songs to fiery political numbers. I was very glad to have accidentally seen him.
"Talib Kweli & Guests" were up next, but if you were thinking you know what "& Guests" means, Kweli immediately announced to the crowd that Mos Def wouldn't be there. But there's no way Black Star fans could have been disappointed, as Kweli delivered a strong, energetic set and brought out a dizzying number of other guests, including Jean Grae, Pharoahe Monch, and Jill Scott. There were others up there, too—it became an all-star party onstage and everyone looked like they were having a great time.
The Shins closed out the party with their new lineup; it's a totally different band from the one that made Oh, Inverted World!, but they still sounded great opening with "Caring Is Creepy," and even better on the new songs. It's pretty fucking hard to find fault with a band that includes Jessica Dobson on guitar, Joe Plummer on drums, Richard Swift on keys, and Yuuki Matthews on bass. "Simple Song" is easily one of the finest Shins songs to date, a power-pop classic that could comfortably live on the shelf next to "Shake Some Action" and the Cars' first album.
James Mercer spoke inaudibly to the crowd in between songs, but his singing voice was loud and clear; I'm still amazed he can hit all the notes in "Simple Song" live, which I think range from a high D an octave above middle C, and a low F#. Mercer announced that it was keyboardist Richard Swift's birthday, too.
Then it was time to wander to the Merge showcase to catch the much-anticipated Hospitality, from New York. They played tasteful, speedy, articulate rock with intricate melodies, and were exceptional. After the show, there was mention of their similarity to '90s bands, but I hadn't noticed any of that; the '90s were a time of overprocessed guitar effects, of which Hospitality has none. Their set seemed to last no longer than 20 minutes, and I could have easily watched them play for three times as long.
I thought about rushing across town to see Of Monsters and Men, a band I find totally boring but thought would be at least worth seeing right before they dominate 2012 the same way Mumford and Sons dominated 2010. But it was too far, and not worth it, so I found some solace in tacos (total count: 12!) and got to the Sub Pop showcase in time for King Tuff.
Who were great. Frontman Kyle Thomas seemed a little weary, but that didn't stop him from delivering a terrific set of bubblegum punk. Blond, mustachioed bassist Magic Jake looked like a gay porn star, which I'm sure was the point, and the trio blasted through highlights from King Tuff Is Dead as well as their current 7-inch "Wild Desire" and the brand new "Bad Thing" track from their forthcoming album on Sub Pop, which might very well have been the highlight of an altogether excellent, fun set. Can't wait for the new album to come out.
It seemed worth investigating the line for Jack White's solo set, but a quick glance at the hordes camped outside the show made it easily apparent there was no way of getting in. So a few doors down, I checked out Mr. Gnome at an atrocious bar called Treasure Island, the kind of spring-break-year-round themed place that you're embarrassed to set foot in once you turn 21. The Cleveland duo was crammed into a corner in the front of the room in such a way that only the 10 people in front could see them. Plagued by sound and feedback problems (which seemed largely due to a shoddy lighting rig) Mr. Gnome nevertheless soldiered through a loud, fine set that pointed to how great it will be to see them in the future under better circumstances.
With Jack White's show underway—which I could hear a little from the street, it didn't sound like anything too special—there was a bit of hemming and hawing before deciding to return to the Sub Pop showcase. Spoek Mathambo was playing a really good set of what I hesitate to call garage-rock Afrobeat, but it was kinda something like that? And on the patio outside, the mysteriously named Father John Misty took the stage—and it turned out to be none other than Josh Tillman (of countless J. Tillman solo records, and former drummer from Fleet Foxes). Backed by members of Blitzen Trapper, Tillman offered gospel folk-rock, with lots of hip-swiveling in the process.
Following a long conversation in the street with a good friend, the night was essentially over; on the way back to the hotel shuttle, I kept my eye out for one last taco, but the search was fruitless. I settled on a donor kebab, which I ate in a parking lot, staring in fascination as Texas mook-metal band played. Taking their cue from Korn, right down to the lime-green guitar strings, they immediately erased any memory of the good music I had heard earlier that night. When they, for some reason, covered "Jailhouse Rock" I knew it was time to call it a day.
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