AUSTIN, Texas — If you somehow managed to make it all the way down to the Convention Center, wait in line to get your badge, wade through the crowds on Sixth Street, stand outside a tiny bar (or promotional space) for an hour to squeeze into a showcase that was "at capacity," down some gristly BBQ, scam a couple free beers and not die of heat exhaustion, then you still wouldn't have been able to catch the biggest show of Wednesday at South by Southwest.
Because that show actually happened on Thursday.
Well, now we're splitting hairs. R.E.M. actually took the stage at Stubb's, Austin's landmark BBQ shack/ rock space, at 12:20 a.m., making Wednesday's most-anticipated, most-attended gig actually a great kick-off to Thursday's rock action.
And from minute one, Athens' premiere elder statesmen knew all eyes were squarely on them. Frontman Michael Stipe strode to the mic, rose his arms, Messiah-like, and greeted the masses ("Children of South by Southwest," he laughed, "come to me!") before the band launched into "Living Well's the Best Revenge," the lead track off their upcoming Accelerate album (the promotion of which was, in theory, the reason they were playing SXSW).
"We're going to play a lot of new songs tonight," Stipe smiled. "Luckily, they're under two minutes. So if you don't like it, you can go take a pee."
But no one moved. And they were rewarded with a one-two punch of vintage R.E.M.: "Second Guessing" (from their sophomore album, '84's Reckoning) and "Drive," the lead track on '92's Automatic for the People. Camera phones were held aloft, Stipe's oft-inscrutable lyrics were shouted back at him, and everyone basically behaved unlike a SXSW audience is supposed to — they were acting like fans attending a once-in-a-blue-moon show by a truly legendary rock band. Equal parts flaunting of the new album and joyous, intense workings of older classics, the gig — and R.E.M. themselves — was solid, tight and really quite stunning.
"Well, this is Stubb's Bar-B-Q, and I've never been here before," Stipe said at one point. "It's a great pleasure."
And you get the feeling he meant it.
Other Highlights of a Wild Wednesday in Austin, From Our Intrepid (and Tired) MTV News Team
White Williams. I got to know these synth-pop guys from Ohio-via-Brooklyn a couple of months back and was psyched to run into them in our hotel this morning. They seemed quite excited as well (and they'd better be) to be playing shows at SXSW '08. Unfortunately, their first was a tough one. At the Peacock, an all-blue lounge/ party space well east of Sixth Street, White Williams — now a four-piece with the recent addition of a live drummer — were wedged onto a stage that was maybe 30 square feet, with a guitar player, Hayes Shanesy, who was so sick that he spent the night before at a Dallas hospital. Suffice it to say, they'd all had better days. Still, they soldiered on with a too-brief set that had a newfound edge, thanks to the ol' drum kit, which rendered synth-pop songs into (nearly) rock.
Lightspeed Champion frontman Dev Hynes is a native Texan-turned-Brit who used to be in an art-punk group (the Test Icicles), but, with the help of Bright Eyes' Mike Mogis, has just released a beautiful country-tinged pop album called Falling Off the Lavender Bridge. They turned in a terrific acoustic set Wednesday at Antone's. Earlier in the night Dev told me that Lightspeed may indeed be the "champion" of this year's SXSW — he is playing no less than 14 shows here this week! "I was told that Black Lips played 12 shows last year," he said (sounds about right), "but I guess we got 'em beat."
Out at La Zona Rosa — a big barn of a club that held the "Free Yr Radio" party — the crowds were small (thanks, R.E.M.) but the lineup was huge with talent, including the fantastically fuzzed out Times New Viking and Brooklyn indie giants Yeasayer, both of whom deserved — and usually get — more attention.
Forget R.E.M. and Times New Viking. The best band on display Wednesday night at SXSW was undoubtedly the Plastic Constellations, Minneapolis' premiere purveyors of fist-pumping, buddy-hugging, six-pack chugging, adrenaline-surging rock. And, yeah, I know I've wasted a bunch of virtual ink on these guys already, but they're going on indefinite hiatus after the release of next month's We Appreciate You album. That — coupled with the sheer lack of recognition they receive — makes me a tad bit wistful. And their gig at the Mohawk — which doubled as a label showcase and a farewell show — made me even more teary-eyed (though that could've just been caused by all the beer being tossed into the air) amid the flailing guitars, karate kicks and super-good times. So, basically, it ruled like every other gig TPC have played over their decade-plus together. It's a shame you never got to see them.
At the same showcase (sorry, I didn't mention it earlier, but it was for Frenchkiss Records, which is a totally great label), I also really enjoyed Call Me Lightning and Tejas' own Fatal Flying Guilloteens, both of whom played music that sounds exactly like their names — hard, fast and dangerous (though the 'Teens also added a large degree of blood, sweat and honest-to-goodness, seizure-inducing, strobe-aided terror). Both were awesome and made you want to fight someone.
Other highlights: YACHT (Gil's got more on them in a second) and Does It Offend You, Yeah? at the Levi's/Fader Fort, getting to hear three songs from the Cab's upcoming Whisper War album (while sitting on their tour bus, no less) and running into actor/musician Lukas Haas on the street outside Stubb's. Apparently he's playing a show here Thursday.
Gil Kaufman: South by Southwest is best when it's like one of those sampler platters at a Chinese restaurant, the kind where you don't necessarily know what everything is, but it doesn't really matter, because even the stuff that doesn't taste that great is still pretty interesting. Which explains a day that began with Los Angeles' Foreign Born — who, though together twice as long as Vampire Weekend, still kind of reminded us of that buzztastic New York combo — and ended with Nashville's spazzy surf-punkers Be Your Own Pet.
In between, I was treated to the anarcho digital terror of YACHT, whose singer/rapper, Jona Bechtolt, jumped into the audience at Emo's to bounce along with the hyped-up crowd and ended the show by repeating the "thank you" on his prerecorded digital track. And though John covered London's Lightspeed Champion above, I primarily want to give props to him for managing to work a shout-out to Elijah Wood into his set.
Speaking of celebrities, Austin's great for rubbernecking. Hey, there's former neon-dreadlocked 'NSYNC member Chris Kirkpatrick, wobbling his way down the street, hoping to see anything good, including a band we've never heard of called I Laid Your Mom (we think he made that one up). And there's Cisco Adler, roving with an eight-person crew and hoping someone notices him. And though the woman working the door at Stubb's didn't recognize them, we saw Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and former Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell ducking in to see R.E.M. at midnight.
And despite all that, uh, star power, perhaps the best moment of the night came just before the hyper set from Nashville's Be Your Own Pet, when a suave gentleman up front was trying to chat up a few young ladies and asked them if they were going to see Vampire Weekend. "What's Vampire Weekend?" squeaked one of the girls, proving she may be the only non-blogger here, as well as one of the only people not trying to get into the VW show. All hype was forgotten, however, when Pet took the stage and lead singer Jemina Pearl — wearing yellow tights under a microscopic black miniskirt and a gray sleeveless T-shirt — proceeded to bounce around the stage like tattooed pinball, rolling on the ground and smashing into her bandmates as they chopped out double time surf-punk tunes from their upcoming second album, Get Awkward.