I hit Sixth Street in the later afternoon on Friday. At this point the bar crawl was totally packed with revelers and performers. The things that caught my attention: hard rock band And So I Watch You From Afar absolutely tearing it up at BD Riley’s. A large crowd had gathered outside the bar to hear the crushing chords and dervish drum spectacle. There were no words in the song I saw, but the action was so full-bore that lyrics may have overwhelmed the composition. The Irish trio put up their gear after that monstrous performance, and the crowd was giddy with “do you know the name of this band?” syndrome. Some people even got the name wrong as “Watching from Afar.”
Further down Sixth was an even bigger surprise: Say Anything playing a free show. At first the band’s sweet pop-punk made me think it was a Say Anything knock-off, because a national act would be unlikely to be playing a free show in the middle of the afternoon, but as people around me started singing along I realized it was the real deal. This is an example of one of the great surprises you can find at SXSW if you’re in the right place at the right time. You could see the excitement on people’s faces as they also realized that a major band was giving an unexpected free show. Obviously the bar was too crowded to get into, but there was no mistaking the band from the street.
Continuing further down, I ran into San Antonio’s heavy metal group Immortal Guardian, who were performing outside. They were performing a firebrand instrumental, the second I had heard in 20 minutes, but it was totally different from And So I Watch You From Afar. Although Immortal Guardian is listed as a quintet, only guitarist/keyboardist Gabriel Guardian and drummer Cody Gilliand were present on Sixth. It didn’t matter. It was eight minutes of deeply technical, virtuoso performing by both men. Especially impressive was Guardian’s ability to switch between his shred guitar tricks and lightning-fast keyboard runs without missing a beat. At times he played both the guitar and keys at the same time. I’m not a heavy metal guy but it’s impossible not to be affected by this. I’d love to see them in the full lineup.
Check out the street scene here. Also, there was this guy:
I had reached the end of the bar run at this point and figured I might as well visit the Austin Convention Center one last time before SXSW ended. It was a practical ghost town inside, although I did walk through a swanky fashion showcase that seemed to just be getting underway. I bought a personal pizza for lunch, finally found a water fountain upstairs (where it was even more deserted), ate my meal and headed out. The final few days of SXSW are not the most active times at the Convention Center, which is probably a “duh.”
I had one more drink on the roof of Shakespeare’s, and looked over the roof awning onto a street scene filled with one of those classic SXSW scenes: a jam circle in direct conflict with an Asian drumline. The things you can catch if you stick around, eh?
I headed off to see the first official show of my Friday. I have never been inside The Moody Theater (aka ACL Live @ The Moody Theater) before, but it’s a beautiful stage room! Deep and cool, with both stadium seating and a general assembly area, it was a totally appropriate venue for baroque, alternative pop legends The Magnetic Fields.
Before Stephin Merritt and his crew came on, though, I bought a fantastic mixed drink that had Jack Daniels “honey” flavor injected in it. Probably the single most delicious beverage of the entire week. At $9 that was pretty steep, but I would gladly have paid $7 and felt I got my money’s worth.
The War on Drugs was actually the next band. Their 2011 release, Slave Ambient, was championed by many as one of the best records of the year. So it was a great chance to see what the fuss is about. The impression I got is that The War on Drugs is a soulful, reverb-heavy quartet that relies on Adam Granduciel’s syncopated, endlessly arpeggio-laden guitar parts. The songs drifted together to a certain extent, but the sound was so pleasurable that it didn’t really matter. I bet if I picked up the record the tracks I heard would distinguish themselves better.
But The Magnetic Fields were still the main attraction. They just released Love at the Bottom of the Sea, their ninth proper album, so SXSW was probably nothing more to the band than a glorified tour stop. Stephin Merritt was his usual prickly self on stage, trading good-natured barbs with second-in-command Claudia Gonson after a false start. “That was a variation on a theme by Claudia Gonson,” he intoned with his trademark basso-profound voice.
Also, the continual chatter of the audience didn’t jibe well with The Magnetic Fields largely acoustic, drum-less setup. “I once wouldn’t stop talking at a show…and that’s why I’m so short,” Merritt deadpanned. When Gonson introduced a song from the new record by saying the band had just shot a music video for it, Merritt added “speaking of video production, could you please stop filming me with your phones?” iPhone use was at a high during the show, obviously, but after Merritt’s comments one of the Moody’s security guys managed to cut through the crowd with great ease to make sure the front man’s wishes were upheld.
As for the performance itself, it was focused on the lighter side of the Fields’ repertoire. Few songs from the loud, rangy Distortion were played, and the focus was on slower, more melodic tracks and many songs from Bottom of the Sea. No “Papa Was a Rodeo,” but we did get “Smoke and Mirrors” and “A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off.” Merritt has never been an effusive or braggadocio performer, so his modest stage stance and salutation at the end of the show was expected. However, The Magnetic Fields are a totally unique brand of American music, and The Moody Theater show was probably everything fans could expect, while providing a good fake rolex intro for new fans.
After that show closed down, I went over to Stubb’s in an attempt to see fun. a second time. The band’s profile has grown considerably in recent months, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that this was the longest line of the festival. For about 45 minutes there was no movement at all, and it was unclear whether or not I would even be able to get in. When I heard “Walking the Dog,” one of my favorite tracks off fun.’s 2009 debut Aim and Ignite, from outside the venue I thought I was a goner. But, lo and behold, the line started to move and I got through the gate.
Thank God I did, because fun. made everyone forget Wednesday’s abortive showcase with as rousing and spectacular a performance as you could hope for. The way that Nate Ruess was emoting in his singing, you could tell they were trying to make up for the technical difficulties 48 hours before. When “We Are Young” came up, the entire crowd burst out during the chorus. It was a moment where the energy between the crowd and the performers could be felt like rain on your skin; in many ways I think fun. was taken aback by how popular they suddenly are. It was really nice to hear them with their full set-up, as well. Despite the inevitable walkouts after the big hit, enough people were sewn to the spot to see the rest of the show. Show closer “Some Nights” (the title track from the new album) is every bit the song “We Are Young” is, if not even better. I wanted an encore afterwards, but we’ve gotta move things along! fun. exited the stage with most of the Stubb’s audience converted to fans.
The Drums, from Brooklyn, were up next. I stuck around to pick up one last drink and take in the leftover good vibes . I didn’t envy the quintet; they had to follow a ridiculously good show. But they stuck to their guns and played their vaguely New Wave-throwback set with professionalism and aplomb. Singer Jonathan Pierce’s onstage manner reminded me of Morrisey, and the band’s trimmed-down, somewhat dour stage attire was simultaneously eye-catching and slightly creepy. As the set went along more of the crowd got our of their fun. hangover, and it turned out The Drums are pretty damn good.
I listened to one last song (sorry, I’m not familiar enough with the group to know the title) and left Stubb’s. It was well into Saturday morning at this point, so I called it a night. But there were still many, many partiers littering Red River and downtown in general. They had two more days to enjoy!