SXSW Day 5: Experiencing One Or Two Technical Difficulties

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The final day of SXSW and I’m on a quest. Phosphorescent play their last show today and I have tried and failed to get into four previous ones already. So it is the long walk away from downtown and up to the San Jose Hotel day party, I arrive hot, bothered and five hours early…but I’m in!

No matter either because Shakey Graves is on and he has been a longtime fave on MM, with an easygoing line in between song banter and exuding good natured bonhomie he sets the day up perfectly with a perfectly judged mix of story songs and folk tales including the wonderful So It Goes. And another band I’d been hoping to catch were up next; The Allah-Lahs had been described as the most laid back band at SXSW and it was easy to see why as they delivered a fantastic set of west-coast inspired 60s rock that outjangled the Byrds at times. A true hippy treat in the Texas sun (“It’s been a long, long journey and I don’t know where I left my mind“), and with Tell Me (What’s On Your Mind) and Long Journey I have two more songs added to my imaginary set-list of the best songs of SXSW.

Next up is Lucius who offer a fizzing blend of indie pop with touches of soul and folk, and plenty of catchy harmonies, before another band on my must-see list Foxygen are due on stage. Except they’re not because they can’t be arsed to show up and so we’re treated to some stand-in Texas blues boogie that consists of a set of covers from Bowie to the Killer Bees and fine though it is, it ain’t what I came to SXSW for…and nor is Lissie who is up next with a set of country rock standards that I can’t recall the moment she and the band have left the stage.

C’est la vie so they say. But finally here is Matthew Houck and Phosphorescent who prove that all good things are worth waiting for with a sublime set opening with Terror In The Canyons from forthcoming album Muchacho, then Pictures Of Our Torn-up Praise, taking in a majestic Song For Zula, and closing with an epic version of Los Angeles.

Satisfied at last I headed back towards downtown, stopping at the gas station for refreshments. Behind me in the queue (or line as I like to say here), a man fell into me and to the floor, I helped him up and was overwhelmed with the smell of sour sweat and alcohol (or liquor as I like to say here). Despite being no more than thirty, he was totalled despite protesting “I’m not intoxicated“. He carried two cans of beer in his hand and two or three crumpled dollars in the other, and mumbled something else at me before saying more clearly “I’m thinking I should move away and start again, tho’ I ‘spect it will be just the same, whaddya think?” Before I could answer (like I’d have a clue) he went on “yeah, I have myself a couple of opportunities, a couple of opportunities if I can sort out one or two technical difficulties.” He looked at me quite lucidly for a long moment and then said “Course those difficulties is I’m a drunk and I don’t got nowhere to live.” As we neared the counter he offered some final words for me, “You know they say the greatest gift is God’s love. You know, loving one another and looking out for ’em and shit. Well I think the greatest gift would be a buck from you so I can buy this beer, whaddya think?

Having stood outside in the sun all day (again) and I decided to finish my evening in as mellow and as relaxed a way as possible, which meant folk music in the splendour of the Austin Central Presbyterian Church, where a number of people had told me the acoustics were fantastic. Taking my seat in the pews seemed a little weird but a solid set of folk tinged with ambient electronic washes from WALL confirmed what I had been told about the acoustics. Next it was a wonderful set of back-porch Americana from the Milk Carton Kids who received a standing ovation for their mix of wry, self deprecating humour and bittersweet songs of perfect pitch and harmony that were somewhere between the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel. Memoirs Of A Once Owned Dog will stay with me for a long time to come! You can download two albums for free from their website here.

Freak-folk artist Devendra Banheart, by contrast, seemed a little out of sorts and while he undoubtedly possesses a rare talent, tonight his attention seemed elsewhere and he struggled to get, or keep, any momentum. While his thoughts and emotions clearly lay very close to the surface and this, combined with his fragile voice, is capable of creating something of unique, heartbreaking beauty, it didn’t quite happen this time.

And so to my last show of SXSW, and an acclaimed legend of contemporary singer-songwriters in Iron & Wine who seemed as much at ease and content as Devendra had been anxious and fidgety. He opened with two brand new songs, and although I wasn’t too familiar with his work, the second of these (provisionally titled Lowlife Buddy of Mine), was as good as anything I’d heard all week. He happily took requests from the packed audience and ran through a back catalogue of fabulous songs including Grace For Saints And RamblersJesus The Mexican Boy, Fever Dream, Woman King, the Postal Services’ Such Great Heights and closing with Lion’s Mane.

Fittingly another standing ovation and out I go into the warm night. I negotiated my way back through the frenzy of Sixth Street for a final time: through the shouts and screams, the rap music, the rock music, the punk music, the house music, the man playing a grand piano in the road, the woman dressed as a gargoyle, the hustlers, the arguing, the angry, the buskers, the bouncers, the old, the young, the drunk, the crying and saddest of all, the man desperately handing out posters for his lost dog.

Despite a couple of “technical difficulties” of my own at times, SXSW has been everything I could have hoped and more. Cheers Austin…

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