AUSTIN, Texas — Were we, perhaps, wrong about the Stone Temple Pilots? Well, not all of us, but an overwhelming majority of the so-called rock critics, the gatekeepers whose job it is to separate the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff? Did we completely miss the boat on STP? Were they something more than Nirvana-bes? Were they — gasp! — actually a pretty great band?
Short answer: probably. Because on Thursday night at South by Southwest — the night when the fest (un)officially shifts into high gear — STP put on a positively bombastic show at the Austin Music Hall. It was packed with more hits than you could possibly remember, and it served notice to the hundreds of bratty, buzzy blog bands parading around town that this is how you do it. After 20 years (and nearly as many arrests), the Pilots are still here, with a killer songbook and an undying legion of fans. They have a new album due out May 25. And they are perhaps better than they've ever been before (or at least healthier).
Take, for example, lead singer/ lightning rod Scott Weiland, who has spent much of the '00s leading Velvet Revolver and cementing his status as one of rock's most charismatic — yet least-appreciated — frontmen. On this night, he strode onstage dressed in a skinny tie and gray slacks, his eyes hidden behind a pair of shades, and spent much of the next 90-some minutes sweating, spinning and spiriting his way through the band's set. He looked healthy, like a man who has finally beaten back his demons, or, more probably, has simply replaced them with a dogged focus on music. He strutted like a peacock, writhed like a snake and sang into a megaphone for added oomph. And the mostly older crowd appreciated his newfound vigor, cheering wildly, stomping their feet and singing along to (almost) every word.
But this most certainly wasn't just the Weiland show. The band matched him every step of the way. STP opened with "Vasoline," from their 1994 album Purple, still as grinding as you recall, still featuring a swirling solo from guitarist (and secret weapon) Dean DeLeo. They ripped through harder hits like "Wicked Garden," "Sex Type Thing," and, of course, "Plush." The band — the DeLeo brothers on guitar and bass, ageless drummer Eric Kretz behind the kit — pummeled expertly, adding flourishes when necessary. Then, during the slower portion of the set (which featured even more hits like "Creep," "Sour Girl" and "Big Empty"), they gave the songs added depth and scope in dreamlike, extended middles, widescreen harmonies from Robert DeLeo and countless cascading guitar solos from Dean.
And as for the new songs, well, they were new songs. They're not quite there just yet, but some of them (like first single "Between the Lines") are close. Some of the others — "Hickory Dichotomy" and "Huckleberry Crumble" in particular — just sound like Aerosmith B-sides, but that's neither here nor there. What's important is that, for the first time in nearly a decade, STP have new songs to play, and their SXSW gig was the first time they'd done so for their fans.
There was a sense of history to Thursday night's set, most noticeable during the two-song encore, which saw them covering the Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" (with Doors guitarist Robby Krieger nonetheless) and closing with "Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart." At the end of the latter, Weiland stood atop the in-house monitors, looked out into the crowd and bellowed — as only he can really do — "I'm not dead, and I'm not for sale." In this case, on this night, it was more than just a lyric; it was a statement. One that every other band in Austin would do well to listen to.
Other Highlights From Thursday Night at SXSW
A smiling, surprise set from the legendary Superchunk and a rather gutsy turn from She & Him (singer Zooey Deschanel has been battling throat problems all week) at the Merge Records showcase at the Cedar Street Courtyard. ... A fierce set from the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA, followed by an artfully mopey performance by hotly tipped Brits the xx at the Mohawk. ... The one-two-three combo of the Drive-By Truckers, Band of Horses and Broken Social Scene at the standing-room only Stubb's.
MTV News is at SXSW all weekend long, so check back for more show reports, interviews and blog posts on what's going down in Austin.