AUSTIN, Texas — In life, there are few sure things. At South by Southwest, there are even fewer. Still, this one was about as sure as sure could get: My Morning Jacket — the nation's leading purveyors of bearded, multifaceted, critically adored, blog-approved rock — were taking their show down to Austin on Thursday night, to the music festival that has become practically synonymous with dudes with beards, rock critics and bloggers. And they were going to be unveiling a batch of songs from their hotly anticipated new album, Evil Urges. Oh, and Yo La Tengo was opening for them.
Yeah, it was pretty safe to say that this show was going to be a big one. From the venue — the cavernous Austin Music Hall, which, though recently renovated, still resembles an authentic Texas honky-tonk (albeit a ginormous one) — to the expectations surging through the thoroughly amped (and vocal) crowd, the show was as huge as you could possibly get at SXSW, rivaling the open-aired, free-wheeling spirit usually associated with fests like Bonnaroo or Coachella. Clearly, only My Morning Jacket could pull this off.
Throughout the course of the nearly near two-hour show, MMJ reared back, summoned up voluminous waves of sound, tossed around guitar solos with reckless abandon, stretched songs (and time signatures) to the breaking point, and squealed and echoed in their own, completely unclassifiable way. But on this night — or most others, as any true Jacket fan can attest — they also drew amazing power from the notes they didn't play, bringing volume to even the most quiet and spacey moments in their set, a strength particularly apparent in those aforementioned new songs.
Taking the stage under the veil of purple light and wisps of fog (organizers clearly blew their entire fog-machine budget on this show), the band launched headlong into the title track from Evil Urges, a twisting and often-ominous number that showcased the soulful side of frontman Jim James' (oft-derided) voice and featured a surprising middle section that was all hard-charging chords and James' wheedling guitar lines.
That was followed by "Off the Record" and "Gideon" from their 2005 album, Z, that packed a wallop but also displayed the power of "loud-quiet-loud" syncopation. Then, it was time for another new song, "Highly Suspicious," which commenced with James pushing his voice to previously unheard-of heights (seriously, it sounded like he could hurt himself), but was quickly tossed into a head-whirling mix of Roboto vocal effects, crunching chords and a driving, machine-like back-end that had kids in the audience doing that hippie shake thing.
There were more songs from Z (a shimmering "Worldless Chorus," a raucous "What a Wonderful Man") and even older fare (a truly massive "One Big Holiday," an excellent take on "The Way He Sings"), but really, the songs from Urges got top billing on this night, and justifiably so.
"I'm Amazed" was a take on a traditional country rocker run through the wringer, thanks to some nifty guitar interplay between James and multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel. "Thank You Too" was a pretty, mellow number that showed off a newfound sensitive side. "Sec Walkin' " was a twisty, dreamy number, buoyed by Broemel's pedal steel and featuring lyrics about traffic lights, and most noticeably, "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Part 2," with which MMJ closed their set, featured James strumming away on an Omnichord and some genuinely heart-quickening work by the rhythm section.
As "Touch Me" ended with a yelp from James, MMJ departed. But, in keeping with the whole "massive" theme of the night, they quickly returned to tear though a four-song encore (an unheard of thing at SXSW), before practically having to be dragged off the stage by Music Hall employees, to loud cheers from those still standing after a near two-hours of rock topography.
Much like R.E.M. on Wednesday night, My Morning Jacket's show was great primarily because it didn't feel like your typical SXSW showcase in any way, shape or form. It was loud, soft, loose and tight, often at the same time. And you get the feeling that unlike most bands spending the week in Austin, if they had the opportunity, MMJ would still be playing as you read this. For real.
Other Highlights From a Terrific Thursday in Austin, From Our Intrepid (and Tired) MTV News Team
I began my day with a sidewalk encounter with the name that, let's be honest, is on more lips than any other this SXSW '08: Vampire Weekend. Surely it must be just a tad embarrassing for them to come to Austin this week and mix it up with the rank and file, while riding a ridiculous wave of national attention, the cover of a little magazine called Spin and an appearance on a little show called "Saturday Night Live." So what do they do? They stick to the VW party line: This is not gonna change who we are or what we do; we can't control it, and we're just happy to be here. Vampire Weekend are doing everything in overdrive, and I think they are officially post-caring about the haters. Besides, hating on them is frankly pointless, they made a great great pop record. More power to 'em. (Read more about Vampire Weekend in the Newsroom Blog.)
Power? Dean and Randy of No Age embody that every time they take the stage, even when playing in the afternoon sun of an outdoor show sponsored by Rhapsody. I watched from a roof patio as L.A.'s noise-art duo powered through Weirdo Rippers favorites, as well as songs from the upcoming album, Nouns, including "Eraser" and the amazing "Teen Creeps."
My producer, Christopher "CJ" Smith, recently got me into Tyvek, a band of lo-fi Midwesterners that he was truly excited to see down here at SXSW, and once again his faith was well placed. After an alleyway interview, in which they explained their dedication to the basic, no-nonsense approach of what some call lo-fi, we watched them tear through a set at Beerland, one squall of ragged, raw rock after another in songs like "Give It Up" and "Stand and Fight."
Keeping it Midwest, why, here are Psychedelic Horsesh--. Every now and then, you just want to talk to a band that calls it as they see it, and PH deliver. Standing in the middle of Sixth Street, shoulder-to-shoulder with drunken fools at 11 p.m., PH opined on how this year's SXSW compares to last year's (answer: They haven't taken any illegal substances with Thurston Moore this year, something they say is necessary to appreciate "the vast majority" of bands at the festival) and spoke about the message behind their song "New Wave Hippies" and the line ("It's about Yeasayer. Bands like that."). Whoa.
And finally, late Thursday night, it seemed that a fair percentage of Austin was either inside — or outside trying to get in — a large, gray cinderblock warehouse at Third and San Jacinto. The occasion? Playboy's "Rock the Rabbit" party, apparently the must-attend event of the night. Was it the bill that featured, among others, French hipster superstar electroniques Justice and Brooklyn's headband-wearing duo MGMT? Maybe. But I'm gonna guess that number one draw was the Bunnies. I had a chat with one named Hiromi, who told me that she was a big MGMT fan and that the glorious single "Time to Pretend" (with its lyrics, "Let's make some music, make some money, find some models for wives") was on her MySpace page. Good choice, Hiromi.
Aside from MMJ, I really liked Islands' set at the Cedar Street Courtyard, and not just because I'm a big fan of dudes in pancake makeup, dueling Asian violinists and prog-rock songs about mythological appendages (though all of those things were part of the magic). No, basically, I've been an unapologetic shill for Islands' mastermind Nick Diamonds (he was the one in the pancake makeup on Thursday night) ever since his days in the much-missed bizarre pop outfit Unicorns. The stuff he's doing with Islands is much, much different — strings, Calypso leanings, a heavy dose of goofy mysticism, a whole lot of prog — but it's also pretty great. They played a bunch of songs off their upcoming Arm's Way album, and with their violin stabs, strange, herky-jerky movements, overall length and subject matter (it's a concept album ... about a magical arm), they're all guaranteed to annoy about 98 percent of the American public.
Also: Motörhead at Stubb's, because they're Motörhead and Lemmy will kill you. Eating breakfast at Guero's. Eating lunch at Iron Works BBQ. Talking to the genuinely good dudes from Tapes 'n Tapes about their new album, Walk It Off. Yo La Tengo, opening for MMJ. Going to sleep before 4 a.m. Oh, wait.
If you're me at SXSW, when you're not trying to bypass a block-long line by dropping a half dozen names until the right one gets you waved into some inner sanctum of rock, you're in search of that one great discovery. Every year, there's one band that transcends the hype and really does make you stop and take a long, serious listen. Luckily for me, that band was the very first one I saw on Thursday.
It was hard to take your eyes, or ears, off of indie electronica rock duo the Ting Tings, a kind of White Stripes in reverse, with frontwoman/guitarist/percussionist Katie White ruling the stage, backed by drummer Jules De Martino. Mixing up the Go! Team's dance beats and the Gossip's energy with punk guitars and sometimes rappy vocals, the Tings immediately won over the crowd with such English hits as the punchy "That's Not My Name." Remember the name because you're sure to hear it again.
Speaking of names, one of the most important decisions a band makes, London retro-rockers Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong should really have spent a bit more time on theirs. That being said, the band's disheveled "Panic at the Thrift Store" look and their high-energy British Invasion-style performance were compelling. Lean, wearing the tightest trousers in a city awash with them, looked like a tottering doe as he shimmied across the stage in his high-heeled boots and waved his spider-like arms in wide circles during songs like the Beatles-esque "Where Do You Go."
As unthreatening as the Jang Jongs were in their capes and double-breasted three-quarter length jackets, Virginia hip-hop duo the Clipse made up for that softness with a stripped-down, grinding afternoon set heavy on audience favorites like "Momma I'm So Sorry" and "Keys Open Doors." They also reclaimed the Baby song "What Happened to That Boy," saying they wrote it in the first place.
Wearing a gigantic, gleaming Re-Up Gang Records medallion, it wasn't long before Malice peeled off his sweatshirt and stalked the stage in a sweat-drenched white T, inviting Re-Up crew member Ab Liva up to give a hand. Liva, a mountain of a man with a low bass rumble of a voice that's almost as intimidating as his imposing stature, traded verses with Pusha T and Malice on the grimy street tale "Cot Damn" as the audience bounced along and a fragrant smell wafted up to the stage, prompting Malice to proclaim, "It smells good out there."
The afternoon also brought the star-studded Lou Reed tribute — where the Velvet Underground frontman turned the tables on looming photographers — and an equally star-heavy showcase for the Iraq-war documentary "Body of War," paving the way for an evening of chaos. It began with the band that seems to be stalking me at every SXSW, Toronto hard-core punks F---ed Up. Every year, it seems, I find myself face to face with 300-plus pound singer Pink Eyes, who invariably charges, sweaty and shirtless into me and drops me to the ground. At least he didn't pile drive me on the concrete floor like the guy next to me. I waited around for a blitzkrieg of punk thrash from prolific Memphis-based DIY auteur Jay Reatard, who didn't disappoint with a tight set of rapid fire blasts of fury with names like "See/Saw" and "Screaming Hand."