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Sunday, March 18, 2012

SXSW Day Four

Posted by Ned Lannamann on Sun, Mar 18, 2012 at 3:09 PM

Anais Mitchell at the Folk Alliance showcase on Threadgills backyard
  • Anais Mitchell at the Folk Alliance showcase on Threadgill's backyard

[UPDATE: Now with pictures!]

By the time the final day of SXSW rolls around, it's necessary to downshift into a slightly lower gear. Feet are at their sorest, ears are at their tiredest, the brain is at its least functional. I spent a couple wasted hours yesterday morning getting my bearings, eventually upping the total taco count to 15—a number that would hold until the end of the weekend. (Turns out you can tire of tacos. Shocking, I know.) Then I walked over the river to check out the Folk Alliance showcase, taking place just on the south shore of Austin, a welcome distance from the gibberish of downtown. With a bit of Texas heat pushing its way through a cloudy sky, Threadgill's backyard was a fine place to grab a seat and a Shiner.

Anais Mitchell has just released a magnificent new album, and she ran through a brief set that featured some of the highlights from Young Man in America. She'll be in Portland soon, but her upcoming Doug Fir show will be dedicated to a performance of her Hadestown operetta, so it was great to be able to see her do some of the Young Man in America material—in particular, the shimmering "Shepherd," an entrancingly complex song on disc, but a relatively straightforward and unadorned one live. Her set was so good that it was too bad she ended things with a cover of Counting Crows, who were in town as well. Mitchell is approximately nine thousand bajillion times a better songwriter than Dreadlocky Duritz, so there was no need for her to waste a precious slot in her short set on a song that wasn't her own. Joe Pug followed, proving himself a failsafe live performer who can't turn in a bad set.

Anais Mitchell
  • Anais Mitchell

More wandering followed, and a few stops in and out of bars, seeing bands whose names I couldn't tell you. It felt good to shift gears and stop chasing bands, instead using the time to meet up with friends, sit in the sun, and drink makeshift Lone Star shandies. It was also St. Patrick's Day—and a Saturday—and E 6th St. was swelling into an avalanche of partying. I'd wager there were more folks wearing green, looking to bro down on what is actually a pretty religious holiday for Ireland, than there were festival-goers, although it's possible that they were just substantially more conspicuous. Still, the level of douchery was unparalleled.

I still felt like I needed to see more in the way of Portland bands at the festival—first, because I really like them; second, because it's interesting to see how non-Portland crowds react to Portland bands (uniformly positive, perhaps even a bit more exuberant than hometown crowds do). I took the opportunity to see Ramona Falls again, who were playing in a bar unfortunately called Peckerhead's; they were great, as usual. Then it was time to find somewhere to sit and eat, but before leaving Peckerhead's, it's possible that a holiday-appropriate Irish Car Bomb happened. It's also possible that we were dismayed to discover that Peckerhead's has no idea how to do a proper Irish Car Bomb—they use shot glasses the same width as the pint glasses so that the shot can't even be dropped into the pint. It's also possible that getting grumpy about improper Irish Car Bomb procedure should be its own source of shame. Moving on.

Holcombe Waller (and in the foreground: party hats)
  • Holcombe Waller (and in the foreground: party hats)

The next noteworthy thing I saw was Holcombe Waller's set at Central Presbyterian Church—that most hallowed of SXSW venues and a perfect setting for Waller's crisp, deliberate folk. Each note he and his two backing musicians played rang clearly through the spacious room, and he found a level of intimacy for his performance that drew everybody in. I saw Blouse at the Parish, and was more impressed with them than I'd been in the past—a larger room suits the band well, amping up their unemotive shoegaze-crush to proportions that felt anything but subdued, which the band can sometimes seem on record or at lower volumes.

The Lumineers electrify the crowd at St. Davids Sanctuary.
  • The Lumineers electrify the crowd at St. David's Sanctuary.

A quick trip to the other church—St. David's, which I'll maintain is just as great a venue as Central Presbyterian—for a career-defining performance from the Lumineers. The band was, simply, staggeringly good, playing with both delicacy and the kind of contagious enthusiasm that people are looking for when they turn to bands like Mumford and Sons and the Head and the Heart. It's obviously apparent, though, that the Lumineers are far better than either of those bands, offering haunting and indelible melodies that only come from superior songwriting. I've never seen a happier performer than the Lumineers cellist Neyla Pekarek, who was beamed widely for the entire show in a way that felt completely genuine. At one point, the four members unplugged themselves and wandered into the four corners of the large room to play without any help from the PA. It was a stunt that worked magnificently.

Lost Lander followed, proving themselves a terrific live band—and there shouldn't be any question about that at this point. Although the DRRT album was much less of a band effort, this is a four-piece that's fully locked and firing on all cylinders. Their cover of "State Trooper" is a showstopper, and "Cold Feet" has become the uplifting live anthem it always deserved to be. Across the street to the Mean Jeans, who whipped the crowd into a destructive frenzy. A glowering security guard spent the full set in front of the band, trying to keep the crowd at bay. But the pit was about as nuts as it could be without any injury. A lighting rig was nearly toppled. The security guard had to be relieved by another, larger security guard. A splendid time was had by all—except the security guards, of course.

The Mean Jeans lapsing into chaos is more or less a microcosm of what Saturday night at SXSW became—the streets were running over not just with music but with St. Patrick's debauchery and stupidity; bands were at their tiredest; everyone was getting in one last chance at oblivion before the party was over. And then—the party was over.

Walking through that same stretch of E 6th today, it was a marvel at how the street already seemed transformed. The filth and debris of an international, multi-day party had almost completely disappeared. Bands quickly clustered in town, then just as quickly disappeared. A few lives and careers were changed, I imagine, but for the most part it was just another gigantic party—a gigantic-er party than most, sure—and when the sun came up, it was time for most people to shake off the hangovers and get on with their lives.

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