AUSTIN, Texas — It's something pretty much every South by Southwest vet will tell you, but at first, you probably won't believe it: Saturday sucks.
It's got something to do with the fact that, for four days now, everyone's been going nonstop, partying way too hard, eating terrible food and watching the same bands play the same "at capacity" venues. There's a strange sort of weary tension that descends upon Austin come Saturday, like everyone is just looking to make it through the festival's final 24 hours without killing anyone. It wears you down, honestly.
And then there's Sixth Street, the city's main drag, which has become a clogged tunnel of tired, sunburned and slightly buzzed humanity. Come midnight, it's like "Day of the Dead" out there, as packs of drunken college kids stare down hipster dudes in skinny jeans, and shirtless meatheads cruise the strip, looking for something to set them off. The cops are all edgy, the gutters lined with garbage, and everything sort of smells like a locker room. There are sirens and car horns blaring throughout the night, and everyone is shouting and full of booze and generally unpleasant. Really, Saturday at SXSW sucks.
So perhaps it's fitting that Saturday's biggest musical moment was also perhaps the smallest and most intimate of the entire SXSW festival: an acoustic set by My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, limited to just 240 seats and taking place inside the 150-year-old St. David's Episcopal Church. (Read about My Morning Jacket's big SXSW show on Thursday here.)
Four hours before James was scheduled to play, MMJ fans began lining up, hoping to snag one of the spots in the tiny sanctuary. Once inside, the lucky 240 were treated to a few intense, hushed ballads from Los Angeles' Jacob Golden and a brief set from M. Ward, who played a walking blues version of his song "Rollercoaster" after a nearly speaker-blowing cover of "Oh Lonesome Me," during which he looped his string-scraping slide solo as he accompanied himself in real time.
James came out a short time later and played the rest of the set with Ward, including their 2006 collaboration on "Chinese Translation," which melded James' honeyed, ecstatic wails with Ward's scratchier, sandpaper vocals. The lyrics to the new MMJ song "Look at You" seemed custom-made for the hushed setting, with James intoning, "We believe in your power to guide us in this world ... look at you ... you're such a glowing example of peace and glory." The shaggy-haired frontman seemed genuinely honored to be playing St. David's, saying that although religion can sometimes divide people, he appreciated the opportunity to play in the sanctuary, thanking God for "letting us use his house, or her house or its house."
Once Ward left, James took over, and with the occasional assist from MMJ multi-instrumentalist Carl Broemel on lap steel, he played a spare "It Beats for You," with barely perceptible guitar strums underneath his soaring voice. During "What a Wonderful Man," James played on the Omnichord, a battered keyboard on which he pressed buttons with his left hand and made space-age droning sounds by rubbing his index finger on a mouse-pad-like surface.
Another new song, "Librarian," featured site-appropriate lyrics, including a line about how "when God gave us mirrors, we had no idea." Through it all, James seemed humbled by the hushed space and attentive crowd, and as the last, haunting chords of "Gideon" bounced around the room, it was clear that they had shared something truly special, and maybe even a bit sacred.
But, given that this was Saturday night at SXSW, the shows weren't all reverent. Across town, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton had decided to throw himself a party, complete with a fully functional hair salon, lots of free booze, snooty, clipboard-clutching doormen and, of course, plenty of beautiful people.
There was also plenty of music, though none of the acts Hilton assembled for his soiree could top his opener: ultra-sleek, super-sexy (and fabulously profane) Swedish star Robyn, who, for most of the past decade, has been writing some of the most forward-thinking pop music on the planet — and doing so without a label here in the States.
Hilton introduced her as "the most exciting thing happening in pop music today," and Robyn didn't disappoint. From the minute she strode on stage — poured into a tight black jumpsuit with a cape stretching down her left arm — she primped, preened and steamed, breathing heavily through a shimmery version of "Who's That Girl?," then slipping effortlessly into her take on Snoop's "Sensual Seduction," which was all slink and supple electronic baubles.
Then, she turned up the raunch, pushing headlong into her hit "Konichiwa B----es," which takes the art of the sexual metaphor to heights (lows?) that only Luther Campbell could dream of. And then she threw in a showy little cover of Prince's "Jack U Off," which had the crowd singing along and the Mohawked Hilton shimmying stage right. And to top it all off (and to make sure you all have your minds off church), Robyn invited several scantily clad ladies onto the stage and grinded with them while performing her current UK single, "With Every Heartbeat."
And if you're gonna close a Saturday-night SXSW set, that's the way to do it. Perhaps it's not as bad here as we'd originally thought.
Other Highlights From a Sorta Scary Saturday in Austin, From Our Intrepid (and Tired) MTV News Team
With 1,700-plus bands in town, there's way more music than any one person could begin to get a handle on here. Still, every year there are some artists that just seem to be ubiquitous. Lightspeed Champion told us a couple of days ago that he was playing 14 shows here, and that seemed like a lot. But everywhere you turn, it seems you're seeing another performance by the Cool Kids, F--- Buttons or She and Him, the duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward.
So, in the grand scheme of things, six performances only qualifies as a modest amount at SXSW, yet Memphis indie-punk stalwart Jay Reatard, who's playing that many this week, says there is a noticeable difference in the crowds this year. We spoke to Jay just after his rapid-fire, 10-songs-in-15-minutes set at Beerland, and he said that there definitely seems to be an ongoing discovery of his music, as evidenced by the recent renewed interest in his 2006 album Blood Visions.
Also on the bill at Beerland: Atlanta punk in the form of Beat Beat Beat and those lovely ladies whom I met at last year's fest, the Coathangers. I don't know if any band has more fun onstage than they do, what with all the trading of instruments, wearing of wigs and singing of tunes like "Nestle in My Boobies" and "Don't Touch My Sh--."
From there it was up to Waterloo Park for the best way to spend a sunny Austin afternoon: an outdoor fest, in this case the Mess With Texas party. Three stages, tons of merch, beer and, most important, veggie dogs meant I was set. On the music front, it was a lot of this week's usual suspects, including Atlas Sound, Yeasayer, White Denim, Two Gallants and, onstage as we arrived, Ethan Miller and Howlin Rain. And, of course, Mess With Texas was the only place you could catch the Breeders, in town to promote their upcoming Mountain Battles album.
Highlights of a Saturday spent trying to find the strength to make it through one more day: interviewing the mighty Ice Cube in a bathroom at the Convention Center, then heading over to Beauty Bar to talk with Rachael Ray about her SXSW party and her seven-layer sliders (that's a fancy name for "little hamburgers," which ruled). While we were there, we caught her husband's band, the Cringe, playing an afternoon set and jamming out with surprise guest Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top (he ruled more than the seven-layer sliders). No Eliminator in sight, but hey, you can't have everything.
Later in the day, we went to the Q magazine party, which was held at the very posh Driskill hotel, where I caught These New Puritans (who looked like they worked very hard at looking painfully disinterested) and Kate Nash, who is way more talented than you probably think and deserved better than a mid-afternoon set over the din of inebriated partygoers. Then, as I mentioned above, there was the majesty of Robyn at Perez's little shindig. I had high hopes of catching another Swedish act, the Tough Alliance (who I'm told don't really perform as much as "press keys on a laptop and hold baseball bats onstage," which is badass), but I was told the venue was "at capacity," and after just slogging through the sea of (drunken) humanity that was Sixth Street, I decided that it was time to pull the plug on SXSW 2008.
Other quick moments: Having a 15-minute conversation about puppies with Ally and AJ's mom in the lobby of the Omni Hotel, then shaking hands with M. Ward mere moments later. Seeing My Morning Jacket patrolling the lobby of the same hotel a few hours earlier. Laughing at former teeny-crooner Ryan Cabrera's new hard-edged look (think tats, hilarious facial hair, permanent scowl). Eating an Austin benedict at the Driskill hotel. Not dying of heat exhaustion. Falling asleep.
Earlier in the day, I was trying to keep the schedule light and, ironically, I had to travel more than 1,000 miles to see a band from my hometown. Cincinnati's Foxy Shazam have earned a well-deserved reputation for their wild, unhinged live shows, and they brought the whole arsenal for their day show at Emo's. Lead singer Eric Nally sliced his hand open writhing on the stage, flossed with the microphone cord, shimmied up a support beam, did a clumsy upside-down stripper-slide down it and nearly brained himself with the mic stand trying to kick it up off his foot in a punk homage to James Brown. All the band's members got into the act, jumping up and down, bashing into one another, wildly thrashing their heads around and in the case of keyboardist Schuyler White — who might own the biggest muttonchops on this side of the Atlantic — standing on his keyboard and pounding on the keys with his fists like a great ape.
The band's chaotic sound mixed punk, some spoken word, emo and prog-rock for a messy car crash of energy that had the crowd staring in awe, especially when Nally lit three cigarettes and then proceeded to chew up and swallow the burning butts.
I also checked out Florida teenage metal revivalists Black Tide, who proved to be well up to the Metallica comparisons they've earned, with a thrashing set of hair-flying agro anthems. Lead singer/ guitarist Gabriel Garcia, 15, alternated between grunting out the lyrics to songs like "Show Me the Way" from the band's major-label debut and playing acrobatic bundles of riffs as his nearly waist-length hair whipped back and forth, obscuring his face.
The night ended with a fun set from Los Angeles' Phantom Planet, who worked out some of the new, harder songs from their upcoming album, while treating the fan-boy/girl audience to favorites like "Lonely Day," "By the Bed," the new up-tempo single "Do the Panic" and, though I didn't stick around to see it, the expected show-closing anthem, "California."
Before calling it a night, I checked in with one of my discoveries from last year, Pittsburgh psychedelic freakers Black Moth Super Rainbow, whose trippy alien jams were just the thing to cap off a weird, wonderful week of music. As a bonus, in an homage to the Flaming Lips, they also took the prize for the best props by filling the audience and the stage with colorful balloons, blasting confetti cannons onto the crowd, tossing out candy-filled piñatas and passing around tiny, half-dollar-size tambourines for people to play along on. If there's a better set of lasting images to go home with, I can't think of them.