Friday, March 28, 2008

SXSW Day Three - 3/14 (Night)

Friday night (Friday night already?! We just got here.) We started off at The Parish for a show billed as Portastatic, but turns out it was Mac McCaughan performing solo. Opening the show with a cover of Doug Sahm’s “At the Crossroads”, it was clear McCaughan was feeling at home when he sang the festival-savvy mantra “But you just can’t live in Texas / If you don’t have a lot of soul”. Two songs from Be Still Please (“Cheers And Applause” and non-planned set closer “Song For A Clock”) and memory-challenged “I Wanna Know Girls” from Bright Ideas were as current as the set list got, save for the new, and terrific, imagined road trip tale to “Amarillo”. Four songs from 1995’s Slow Note From A Sinking Ship plus “Impolite Cheers” rounded out the show. A fine set but I did miss the full band.

Next up (or so we thought) was a show billed as Blue Rodeo & Friends, but my advance planning bit me on the ass. The Blue Rodeo showcase had been moved from 9 to 11 pm, which I realized as soon as New York’s Ladyfingers took the stage. I don’t know if it was the emptiness of the barren venue (something called Smokin’ Music presented by Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company), but I wasn’t feeling Ladyfingers’ earnest Americana and the mc – a suited, Beatle Bob-ish, dancing-by-himself-in-a-big-empty-room, overgrown hipster was creeping me out a bit. So it was one Miller tall boy and a hasty exit.

Over to Stubb’s, where we attempted to join the cognoscenti for Brooklyn buzz band MGMT. After a few minute wait to get in (yay badges!), we took one look at the assembled multitude and pulled the first Old Guy Move of the week. Too crowded and the original X is playing six blocks away. It wasn’t even a hard decision.

X was playing the Bat Bar (a sterile 1500 capacity room at the Austin Convention Center) in a show being taped for a DirecTV broadcast. There was pretty long line of badge holders and an even longer line of wristbanders. Still, we sat down outside and decided to wait it out. Right next to us was popmeister Rhett Miller all by himself, so we went over to chat. Turns out he’s a huge Teenage Kicks fan and asked if he could be a guest contributor (kidding… he knows there no way we’d post any of his nonsense). Actually, the guy couldn’t have been nicer, was thrilled we enjoyed the earlier New West set, and said he’ll be in Philly for a non-indoor venue in July. We made him promise to come back and play an Old 97’s show in a bar, and it was at that moment it was clear who the rock star was, as an official looking woman with lots of credentials whisked him into the Bat Bar before all the flotsam and jetsam.

While I’m generally not a fan of reunion tours, the disgust level usually rises with the size of the ticket price and venue. Since X has yet to graduate playing clubs and you can still see them for about $25, this X reunion tour merits the coveted Teenage Kicks seal of approval. And for crying out loud, what’s not to love? Their Bat Bar set blasts 15 songs in less than an hour, including a whopping 11 songs from the first two records, Los Angeles and Wild Gift. Even though we have no beer (line was too long after they waited so long to let folks in), the place has no vibe (it might be a conference room during the day) and I actually might skew young in this audience, X delivers a pounding, exhilarating, rock hard set that sees none of the flab and self-congratulatory antics of most reunion cash grabs. Exene looks like the scary bag lady from the bus stop (whose off-kilter harmonies still create ragged magic), DJ Bonebrake lives up to his name, Billy Zoom’s gigantic, economical, serrating power chords should be rock and roll 101 for anyone that solos over ten seconds (all the while flashing that maniacal Jerry Lee Lewis, I just married my 13 year old cousin grin), and John Doe is quite simply, one of rock’s great leading men. In Philly on 5/22 and coming to your town soon… go.

After catching two songs at her Twangfest set yesterday, we decide to hoof it over to catch Amy Lavere’s midnight set at Opal Devine’s on the west side of town. At a crowded, outdoor stage, the boisterous Memphis soul of The Bo-Keys is just ending up… they had the dance floor filled and folks were waving their arms in the air like they just didn’t care. A short break and SXSW 2008 heartthrob Amy LaVere takes the stage. Dressed in a short, black fringe mini-skirt, the tiny LaVere is dwarfed by her stand-up bass. She coos torchy, seductive woman-done-wrong songs and her three piece band swings with ease, knowingly enticing you with batted eyelashes while regaling with tales of spouse-cide (“Killing Him”) and the housewife escapist dream “Washing Machine”. Definitely a pleasant surprise but six songs in, we gotta go. Can’t miss Lucero.

I’m so anxious to make sure we don’t get shut out of the Lucero gig at The Red Eyed Fly (great venue, great name) that I insist on jumping in a cab for the dozen or so blocks to hasten our arrival. I probably should have gone to see some trendy male/female synth-pop duo that will fill the dance floor with nubile, halter wearing coeds, but I've seen Lucero enough to know I ain't missing them if they're playing in the same town I'm in. We arrive as prior band Cloud Cult is finishing their set. Plenty of time for multiple Shiners as we stake out a prime spot right in front.

Ben Nichols is a singer with a sandpaper and Jim Beam voice that writes vein-busting mini-anthems of drinking, despair and life on the fringes, and yet still has the self-deprecating, we're not that good, aw-shucks demeanor of the guy pumping gas at the corner. His stage banter reminds me a little bit of American Music Club's Mark Eitzel, but without the self-loathing.

It's packed and sweaty (as all good club shows should be) when Lucero launches into familiar opener "That Much Further West". I can already tell this will be a marked improvement over the last Lucero show I saw, where Nichols voice was totally shot and he apologized to the half-full Troc crowd in Philadelphia: "Y'all can you say you were here at The Troc, the only Lucero show at a place we'll never play again." (Note: Five prior Lucero shows were all raucous, beer drenched swabs of ecstasy).

Prior to the second song, (a roaring "I Can Get Us Out of Here Tonight"), Nichols admonishes a wobbly patron, seemingly displaced with one too many Shiners with a funny, dismissive "What's that, ginger ale?" The show is a ragged, blissful, captivating street fight of rock madness - the kids in front me polluted beyond belief but hugging each other and belting out the words to each song like it's the last show they'll ever see, the band's bemused expressions as they survey the crowd and their over-served lead singer - but every song just peals out like a kid who just dropped off his girlfriend three hours after curfew. Put these guys right there with The Hold Steady as the best show you can see in a club.

"SXSW stresses me out" Nichols says before launching into scorched earth classics like "Kiss The Bottle", "Wasted", "All Sewn Up", "Bikeriders", "Tears Don't Matter Much" and "Drink Till We're Gone". Nichols goes on to state "The rest of the band - Sober. Me - Hammered!". They finish with an aborted version of "The War" and, warts and all, they've delivered one of the best shows I've seen all week. I mean, X and Lucero in the same night... where else but SXSW?

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