SXSW ended for me last night with a punctuation mark. My wife Kelley and our friend Trisha were keen on braving the chilly weather to see a free show down by the lake at Auditorium Shores. And I was game earlier in the day! But after fighting the cold, gusty March winds on a three mile run, and then eating a heavy Mexican lunch; my appetite for raw musical entertainment seemed to fade with the setting sun. Thoughts of warmth and a cozy couch made my head swim with syrupy slowness, and the mere thought of braving the stinging wind for a few bands I’d never or barely heard of seemed… less than attractive.
But it was Saturday. And Saturdays are for merry making and friends and beers and smiles and good times. Good times are sometimes had by oneself. This much is true. But on this day, somehow the prospect and allure of a solitary Saturday evening shriveled on the vine, and a cold day without the light of the sun, but spent in the company of good friends and a loved one, held enough promise of sunshine to get me out of the door.
We arrived beside the lake in time to grab a few drinks, make our way towards the stage, and huddle into the center of a tiny group of strangers before the music started. I’d never heard of Kimya Dawson (apparently her songs have been used in several films, including Juno). But it didn’t matter. She played her out-of-tune guitar alone on stage with numb but nimble fingers. Her voice was sweet and her lyrics were sweeter. It might not have been the kind of music that I would listen to on CD, but she put on an uplifting show in spite of the gloomy day. She was all smiles, cracking jokes, and laughing at times in the middle of songs. And it was all in good fun. The crowd was so small and we all seemed to be in on every joke. Her set was short, sweet, and at times enlightening.
By the time she was done I was smiling. I was smiling a smile of knowing. And it scarcely left my face for the rest of that day.
Dawes was up next. I’d heard this band mentioned before, but knew nothing about them. After their 20 minute set yesterday afternoon, I now call myself a fan. The lead singer’s hearty, soulful voice and affable manner made it hard not to like him. The band’s sound was a good blend of old time rock and roll driven by solid, yet simple, licks from the lead guitar, and supported by strong keys, bass, and drums. All members harmonized fantastically, and this was where they shined. Vocals traded off from drummer to lead guitar with ease, and the band hammered out an uplifting, short list of rock songs and ballads that had the crown singing along before they were finished. I will see these guys again. I’d have the debut record, North Hills, if Waterloo hadn’t been out of them. Can’t seem to get myself to buy into this iTunes thing. I like to have the disc and cover art. Call me old fashioned.
As day turned into night, Deer Tick took the stage and did their thing. I wasn’t terribly impressed with this band, but they put on a pretty good show despite some minor flaws. The drums were a bit heavy and overpowering, and the band just couldn’t ever find the same note vocally. I’d give them another chance, but I won’t toot their horn here just yet.
Kelley has been a pretty big fan of Lucero, but I hadn’t seen them live until yesterday. I have to admit that I haven’t found a whole lot to like about their recorded music that Kelley listens to around the house, but then again, I haven’t paid real close attention to it either. Last night, though, they had a horn compliment that was exciting and energetic to watch and hear. And front man Ben Nichols’ raspy voice (which, I assure you is not a put on) is something to behold live. Coincidentally, Lucero provided the soundtrack for Jeff Nichols’ (they are brothers) Shotgun Stories, which I mentioned here yesterday. Check out the band, and check out the film.
I’ll only spend a few lines of text on the one bad part of the evening, which came at the end, because it wasn’t bad enough to even slightly ruin how awesome the whole day was. The headlining act was one that Trisha and Kelley wanted to see pretty badly. I, of course, had never heard of them. Scratch that. I’d seen a bit of M. Ward at the same place the year before with my son Ethan, but hadn’t heard enough to really form an impression. She and Him is an indie folk-ish band centered around Zoey Deschanel (of Elf and (500) Days of Summer fame) and M. Ward, which have apparently gained some notoriety—mostly, it seems, due to the fact that one of the lead members, Deschanel, is an actress. Let me tell you quite simply: I was not impressed.
First strike against them (and I tried not to let this color my perception of their music) was the fact that every other band who played that day did so without any kind of fanfare or intricate stage preparation except She and Him. One act finished up, and the next one took the stage. She and Him apparently were much too big for something as humdrum as that. We waited in the freezing cold (by this time it was dark) for nearly an hour for them to come on stage. And when they finally did, Deschanel whined that they hadn’t had a chance to sound check before, and continued to whine that her monitor had no reverb. Boo hoo. None of the other bands had a chance to sound check either. Most of them couldn’t feel their fingers while they played in the freezing cold wind. But they did it. With smiles. She and Him are much too big for something as simple as getting on stage and playing their music. And this is where I find that I cannot abide celebrities whose eccentricities grow so that they can no longer see the humble dirt path they had to take to get to where they are today. And of course, the celebrity hounds close to the stage did nothing to improve my perception of what the show was going to be about, shrieking and screaming (I thought The Beatles had come to Austin) for the actress as she made idiotic jokes about the cold weather. Cold weather, huh? Did she think about the cold when she was taking an hour to come on stage?
In the end, we stayed for two songs which did nothing for me at all, and then the girls were ready to go. By the time She and Him got on stage to play their set, they were just too damned cold to stay and watch. If they’d taken the stage in 20 minutes instead of 60, I might be singing a different tune right now. All in all, though, this one, singular blemish on a nearly perfect evening wasn’t even close to being enough to upset the overall mood of my small group. We talked and walked the short distance back to the car, laughing about things we’d seen, and musing about which bands we’d liked the most. And we found warmth at the end of the line in a black Toyota 4Runner.
So that’s how I found myself shivering amongst a smallish crowd of music lovers beside the lake, with the city skyline hovering above us and against a purple-blue sky, my coat buttoned, collar up, hands in pockets, and a small, knowing smile on my face.
What did I know?
That you’re never too old to have an adventure, big or small. It’s never too cold to spend time with the people you care about. And good music, laughter, and friendship warms the soul.