Highlights – The whole day. After a massive IHOP breakfast that soothed the hangover beast and obliterated the need for lunch, we set out immediately for Jovita's and Twangfest, probably the location with the best vibes of any SXSW venue (with apologies to The Mean Eyed Cat, since we didn't get there this year). Jovita's utilizes two stages- one indoor is a small, dark but homey bar/restaurant and the outdoor stage sits on a rickety porch with a wooden lattice fence on side, a stone wall behind and few tables lazily arranged on the other side. It's a couple miles out of town and has a bucolic charm a million miles away from the frantic frenzy of
We arrived a little late but caught the tail end of Chuck Prophet's jam packed set, quickly moved outside to catch the massively talented Joe Pug steal the day and some tears as he debuted 4-5 songs from his new album, the wonderfully titled The Great Despiser, out April 24. I can't really put my finger on what makes Joe Pug so great (it's probably the songs, stupid), but his wit and charm enliven small tales of everyday battles that recall the Midwestern grace of fellow Chicago storytellers John Prine and Steve Goodman. Then we rushed back inside to see the always great Waco Brothers, whose "Do What I Say, Don't Do What I Do" should be an unofficial
anthem. No one is more comfortable in his own skin than Jon Langford. Exploding
onto the stage next was star in the making JC Brooks, whose Uptown Sound is a
much tighter soul revival than the insanely hyped Alabama Shakes and who
acknowledged their Chicago roots with a blistering cover of local kid Jeff
Tweedy's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart". SXSW staple Glossary closed out our back
porch hoedown with a scoop of soulful southern rock, and we made a promise to
spend more time at Jovita's in 2014. Austin
Next up were The Shins in a converted (Spaghetti) warehouse, whose sleek, darkened, air-conditioned setting was the antithesis of Jovita's laid back scene. But there was free beer. And that is good. After too long a wait, The Shins hit the stage with a much tougher sound than they possess on record. But while James Mercer is a top flight songwriter, his on stage charisma is negligible. Mediocre sound and a by-the-numbers performance had us making an early exit, but did I mention there was free beer. Highlight!
The night began with Justin Townes Earle at Stubb's leading a full band for the first time and his Memphis fried americana is in full bloom, as noted by half a dozen songs off his brand new Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, including the highlight "It Won't Be The Last Time", an unapologetic apology for past transgressions with no promise of better behavoir. Then quickly over to the Cedar Street Courtyard to see another electrifying set by J Roddy Walston and The Business, followed by the amazing William Elliott Whitmore, whose gritty voice of god vocals consecrate working class spirituals for The Great Recession. His 2011 release, Field Songs, was among the year's best. After WEW, it was time to set the wayback machine to 1979, slip on a skinny tie and take a nostalgia trip with Peter Case and Paul Collins as they celebrated their power pop heyday trawling their melody rich catalog of tunes by The Nerves, The Beat and The Plimsouls. A balding, unlikable Collins and the incredibly likeable, wild-eyed gnome Peter Case blasted out a set that was better than it had any right to be. Dominated by songs from The Beat's sterling 1979 debut plus a few Case classics, their set gave a room full of aging hipsters a chance to let their hair down (so to speak) and engage in carefree shout-alongs.
The final show of my SXSW was Diamond Rugs, the likely one-off semi-super group featuring main man John McCauley of Deer Tick, Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) and other indie types from Black Lips, Dead Confederate and Six Finger Satellite. They played their upcoming debut straight through and reminded me of a scuzzy, Southern fried, whiskey swilling Rockpile masquerading as a Rolling Stones cover band. Yeah, it was that good. There were horn fueled stompers, balls out rockers, a psychedelic freak-out, and even the awful lounge lizard on Quaaludes misstep "Totally Lonely". John McCauley is quickly becoming the Jack White of the indie twang set (except, you know, without White's massive commercial success) who seems either hell-bent on self destruction or cranking out a genre-defining masterpiece. I hope it's the latter.Lowlights – Trying to order a burger (and avoid cheese) at a Mexican restaurant. The prospect of four hours sleep. Realizing Paul Collins is still a jackass.