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SXSW 2014: Tragedy, punks, and fighting in the streets

Photo: Wilson Lee Photography

 

…and metal, always metal. But you have to cut a headline somewhere!

 

The night before I arrived, a 21-year old from Killeen, trying to escape from police chasing him on suspicion of having stolen the car he was in, ran down 23 people on a pedestrian section of Red River Ave., killing two and critically injuring 8 others. There was concern as to what the appropriate response should be, but in the end, the show(s) went on.

 

After dropping my bags with my hosts near Lake Austin, I made my way into the fray downtown. Parking during SXSW is either expensive, labor intensive, or both. I managed to feed the maximum of 3 hrs into a coin-only meter. I’d already missed Trash Talk at the Brooklyn Vegan day party so decided to just try to find some friends and hang. I got to Red-Eyed Fly 3 min after one group had left. Tracked down another who was at Gary Numan but was headed to the Texas Rock Festival in a parking lot at 7th and Neches next.

 

Excellent. That was a block away. So I posted up there, watched band after band of passable blues rock, and had a truly great gyro (Kebabalicious food truck). But still no sign of Friend #2. It was getting to be time to move the car to a meter that would take paper or plastic instead of just metal. I left. He arrived minutes later.

 

My main musical goal the rest of the night was Truckfighters. It was their actual showcase though, and therefore limited to badge and wristband holders. I haven’t had either in 10 years or more and always have a great time.

 

Their set time was 9:50, and it was a little past 7 when I finally found a suitable parking spot. The meters run to 11:59 pm on Thursdays and I probably wasn’t going to able to make it back to the car until 11:00. With the 3-hr max that meant I shouldn’t feed the meter until 8. I called some people, tried to make some more plans. Dozed for a minute. Got out of the car. Walked back to Texas Rock Fest to try to meet up again, only to get a text that they’d just left to get some food. My other buddy let me know they were going to be staying close to home.

 

So zero friend meet-ups, and zero bands-that-I-wanted to see having been seen, after having been on the ground for five and a half hours. The question was this: to run the very real possibility of not getting into Truckfighters at all, killing 2 more hours in the process, and hanging up a goose-egg for the entire day? Or, to just cut my losses, turn in early, and hope for a better tomorrow?

 

In the end, this is a rhetorical question, even when posed to myself. Those who follow the one true path know there is only one answer. You must give to the metal, as it has given to you. In the end, your devotion is its own reward, and the powers you will reap are nearly limitless. But I digress…

 

I get to the venue, Old School Bar on 6th St., and find it pretty much empty. Ahh, but Trinity Hall, where the music is, lies up the stairs at the back, and there’s no line there either. Moving closer, however, the multiple ‘Badges’ ‘Wristbands’ ‘No Freeloading Scum’ signs become clear.

I get to the stairs to try my luck. Two large police officers are engaged with the door staff. I hover. One turns, eye-balling me. “Howdy,” I say, his gaze refusing to leave mine.

 

“Do you need something, sir?” he asks.

 

“Just to see the rock show.” I gesture toward the top of the stairs to indicate my desired destination.

 

“You’ll have to hold on a minute.” He turns his back to me.

 

After an indeterminate amount of time he motions me forward and the door person asks to see my ID. As I’m presenting it, the door person behind me asks to see the next person’s wristband or badge. I’m in! I’d just been pushed through security by the police! And a streak I’ve stopped counting of at least one successful (if sometimes inadvertent) SXSW gatecrash each year remains intact.

 

There’s next to no-one upstairs when I get to the top and the band that’s setting up is a four-piece. I step out on the only slightly fuller balcony to kill some time watching the madness below. As soundcheck starts I move back indoors and position myself just inside the stage-left PA stack near the stage.

 

The band looks interesting, but launches into a mid-tempo vaguely dark radio-ready piece that fails to impress. As the song keeps building, however, the powers of the band itself become clear. The drummer plays a rock shuffle like he’s doing nothing at all. The guitarist lays out the riffs on which rock was built while striking just enough of a shape to show he’s interested. The bass player is all energy and attitude. And the front man, well, damn, he’s a rare one; simultaneously funny and menacing, campy and sincere, with a blending of every move that’s gone before into a new pastiche that’s all his own.

 

By the time all four are belting out the chorus to their second song – ‘We don’t need your fucking approval/we do this for ourselves’ – I know I’ve found my new favorite band. I introduce myself to front man Aidan afterwards and it turns out the band’s name is Wounds and they’re from Dublin, Ireland. He clues me in to an afternoon gig they have the next day and another way point is set.

 

Truckfighters are said by some (Josh Homme) to be the greatest rock band ever. They’re going to have to be pretty close to top what I’ve just seen.

 

The room fills up with fat cats and rich kids. The band comes on and, holy fuck, a whole new rock n’ roll portal is ripped open. Yes, they are heavy. Yes, they are groovy. And, yes, they are stoner-y. There’s even a little Bon Scott-era acca dacca in there, complete with stage presence that simply can’t be ignored. But what elevates them to the level of the true titans – as Mr. Homme cited, the Beatles or the Stones – is the smoothness and uncluttered intricacy with which it all goes down.

 

Truckfighers are simply beautiful.

 

I head for the car fully satisfied and call it a night.

 

===

 

The twin centerpieces of Day 2 are a rendezvous with a cousin down from Minnesota and hanging with a long-time friend whose booking agency is hosting a showcase. The cousin is out on the east side so I decide to both park and start my day out there. Scoot Inn is once again hosting the Converse/Thrasher Deathmatch during the days and parking on that side of I-35 is free if you don’t mind the walk back into downtown.

 

As I slowly make my way down 4th St. toward the Scoot, cars already parked on both sides of the road turning it into a one-and-a-half lane artery, a magical site appears: a parking spot right across the street from the venue. A Hispanic local eyeballs me as I’m backing in, the front of the spot ending where his driveway begins. I half expect him to tell me he’s saving the spot. But, no. As the doors to his garage open it becomes clear he’s just making sure I’m not going to block traffic to and from the chips and sodas stand his two school-age kids are operating.

 

Black Tusk was the first band on when I got inside the gates. Scoot Inn, already a favorite venue of mine for its ultra-laidback-ness, has spruced itself up without losing it hominess, adding a cash-only bar with a deck out front along the back wall. Lone Star in hand I make my way to the front for ’Tusk. Make what you will of their records, this band is in its element live, never failing to generate a great time despite the weight of the material.

 

As good as Black Tusk are, however, my favorite live act for quite some time is Dallas thrash band Power Trip, and they’re up next. What makes Power Trip work as a thrash band in 2014 is their lack of schtick. This is no flashback. These guys lay down the genre with the same combination of menace and youthful energy that made it king of ‘80s.

 

Frontman Riley Gale is calm and chatty before the show, mugging for photos with the new PBS mic band he’d been given. As has always been the case, however, once on stage he turns effortlessly into the scuzzy fuck who knows he’s better, cooler, tougher, and generally more kick-ass in every way than you are; without even trying. It comes from knowing his band is about to kill you.

 

Powertrip on anything resembling a home stage is a force to behold. The chaotic cycle set in motion between stage and crowd is truly terrifying if you don’t know what’s about to happen. I’m old, but I can still hang down front in most settings. I made it about 15 sec into my first Power Trip show before getting the fuck out of there as fast as I could. It’s not so much violent as it is inescapable…and jagged: like an undertow on a coral beach. All you can do is hope you bob back up to the top at some point without having already bled out.

 

A 2 pm outdoor set in a peaceful little place like Scoot with a half-industry crowd isn’t this setting, but they still deliver a musical bludgeoning to be proud of.

 

After a nice hang with the cuz, I hightail it back into town for my second dose of Wounds. Aidan and I greet one another and I suggest this crowd – many of whom are even older than me and appear more interested in their nosh than anything happening on stage – might not be ready for what’s about to happen. He assures me they’ll be fine, and sure enough they soak it in happily.

 

Power Trip announced from the stage earlier that they’d be playing at 5:30 at Beerland, a room much more like their natural habitat. The line is long and slow, but I get in for the last song and a half. And what better did I have to do? Fuck all.

 

During the wait I asked the doorman what was getting set up on the patio. “Trash Talk,” he said. “You’d be pretty much in the front row if you stay right here. We’re just gonna empty the inside at 6 anyway.”

 

As I’m filing out, a crowd is gathering. The patio is covered by an awning and surrounded by a waist-high metal fence. Then comes the sidewalk. Then the curb. Then a series of bike racks. I position myself in the first layer of people on the far side of the racks.

 

At 6 sharp local punks Video fire up. Never heard of them, but won’t soon forget. This is old school, angry, ugly, and extroverted. They play for about 20 min. They finish and the air almost instantly thickens. People know what’s going to happen next – fun and chaos – they just don’t know how much or what shape it will take.

 

After vocalist Lee Spielman takes a few minutes coaching the crowd up and making sure everyone’s heads are right, it begins. People are jumping off the awning. People are jumping out of the trees onto the awning. People are brutalizing each other in the trench between fence and bikes. After each song Lee chats for a minute or so, before unleashing the maelstrom yet again.

 

Eventually a circle pit forms engulfing the whole of Red River. Before the song that fired it up is even finished though, quick, sharp siren blasts fill the air. Motorcycle police push their way through the crowd, followed by police on bikes. Then the police cars. Then the ATVs.

 

Lee asks if they can just play one more and then call it a day. The police are unyielding. Lee asks again. His posse sees things heading south and urges him to relent. He does, and after a little hemming and hawing, but no more overt action, order is restored.

 

===

 

After a slice of pizza it’s time for friends. Rocky Road Touring is the host and lots of other friends are in attendance. SXSW doesn’t pay anyone, but good fucking luck if you want to let a few people through the door without paying a cover, even at your own show. The others hadn’t eaten yet, so they go to grab a slice and I tuck in behind one the hosts for gate crash No. 2.

 

Musically, things started off on a high note with Austin’s own The Boxing Lesson. I’d been told repeatedly over the years that I would like them, and after seeing them I’m now of the belief that you’d have to pretty much not like music to find something wrong with them. Polished, pretense-less and rocking a combination of ‘90s alt, vintage psych, and classic riff rock, they leave you wondering how they’re not already at least 10 times as big as they are. They should tour with Queens of the Stone Age.

 

Beaumont’s Purple is up next. It takes at least three songs to even hear the music, with drummer Hanna Brewer creating an inescapable vortex of cuteness, rock-ness, and downright sex appeal. Once the sounds do filter through though, you get appealing radio-ready poppy rock with just the right amount of Texas honky tonk smeared all over its backside. Lots of the latter comes courtesy of guitarist Taylor Busby. They call themselves party rock, and that’s probably pretty accurate as well.

 

I couldn’t figure out any way to like Moving Units despite my by-then enhanced state of mind, and moved toward the back of the large outdoor patio to visit with host’s mom. We were joined not long after by Busby, and some of the most pleasant free-form hanging and shooting the shit I’d done in a while commenced. Couldn’t even begin to tell you what we talked about, but I know it was fun.

 

Ringo Deathstarr paled in comparison to The Boxing Lesson, lacking anywhere near the hooks. Calabrese’s punkish rock was a little too hokey for me. Up next was Star & Dagger, Sean Yseult’s largely-female rock n’ roll band. I’d loved everything I’d seen and heard up to that point and loved the biker vibe coming off the stage now that I was finally seeing them live. Truth be told though, they need to tour more. The edge you get from forging yourself as a unit was sorely missing, and a pub rock vibe set in by the end.

 

Har Mar Superstar entertained for two songs worth of lounge-y dance and then I hit the wall. Hard. Fortunately I’d warned everybody this might happen, and made my way peacefully into the night after one final round of embraces.

 

See you next year. Fuck the haters. Long live SXSW.

 

[Go to www.google.com for your “fighting in streets” footage. There’s plenty of it.]
Posted in: Music