The second “official” day of SXSW Music began normally enough: Lines stretched on impossibly at times, and the air was thick with revelry. Fighting sleeplessness, I embarked on my day. Predictably, it involved the Coachwhips again. Let me back up, though, to before that adventure.
That morning I had the opportunity to present on a panel about the influence of the late Paul Williams, the founder of Crawdaddy! Magazine in the ’60s. The discussions with my fellow panelists Ann Powers, David Fricke and Ed Ward were funny and profound, and it gave me the needed second wind to carry through the rest of the day. Sean “Diddy” Combs’s panel directly after was enlightening if only to see the entrepreneurial spirit manifest itself through words.
And yet yesterday’s memories are heavy, as around 12:40 a.m., a drunk driver drove past a barricade of closed-off streets near the venue Mohawk, an accident that took lives with it. Disorienting and strange, it reassigned a perspective to the spirit of the festival. It undoubtedly affected how I remember these performances, and informs how I will write about them now. But we’ll get there; first, the rest of the day.
After the panels let out, I squeezed past a bustling crowd and made it to Cedar Creek Courtyard. The Lagunitas Brewery-sponsored event featured a burlesque acrobatics troupe performing during set changes. Leopards and tulle-skirted dancers slunk around the back patio, hovering over the party as quiet guardians of weird. The quaint patio space, though, suited the bluesy-licks riffs and classic rock ‘n’ roll of Tennessee rockers J Roddy Walston & the Business.
Soon the soulful Allen Stone, took the stage, revealing a smile as earnest as those from the front-row fans. The jovial Seattle-bred singer seems truly moved by the spectacle of it all — the clapping, the singing along, the sight of strangers dancing among one another. Spasming, jolting and shimmying, Stone feels his grooves in every nerve and fiber threading through his system.
Skipping a much-needed nap and ignoring the signals from my body — standard practice in SXSW’s bender-like schedule — I boarded a boat in the last dregs of the afternoon for a Castle Face Records showcase. Fifty people, tops, were huddled on the top deck, the setting sun silhouetting the frames of Kelley Stoltz‘s band. The idiosyncratic songwriter is one whose appeal grows the more you expose yourself to his music. This time, coasting along the shore, on a small stage, Stoltz’s songs sounded more psychedelic than I remembered; woozy, even, as the evening’s violet light began to dissolve.
Afterwards, one of my favorite punk bands, Coachwhips, took over the space. Lead singer John Dwyer, who is also the leader of Thee Oh Sees and the co-founder of Castle Face with Matt Jones, leaned into the mike close to the audience. Coachwhips are just a guitar, the most basic of drum kits, a tambourine and a keyboard, but they still manage to create a joyous, demented racket, and the songs reverberated in the tightly packed space.
Nighttime, my time to leave the boat. At midnight, I caught Baltimore synth-swooners Future Islands at the KCRW bash. The DIY-leaning outfit — who admitted they’d never been keen on attending SXSW — made it this year, and they’ve extremely been well received. Singer Sam Herring is an emotive force, burning the band’s space-age synths and bouncing live drums into people’s minds. Gesturing and expressive, he performed at eye-level with the audience and dared them to stare back. From guttural moans to whimpers in a single turn of phrase, he held the audience rapt for a full 40 minutes.
I heard about the car crash shortly after Future Islands stopped performing. Mohawk was around that corner, and having grown up close to Austin, I’ve been at the intersection of Red River and East 10th more times than I can recall. My mind reeled. It was one of those spaces pivotal to my adolescence, that and Stubb’s across the street. The crash has changed the course of the festival. At this point it’s not about the music, but appreciating the ramshackle, serendipitous shit that keeps us bringing us freaks back year after year when we should be catching up on sleep instead.
After the accident, I ended up staying up with friends. We didn’t go out — just went to sleep, secure in that we knew the support of an artistic community was there. And you know; we all need somebody to lean on.