If you do a Google Image search for “Austin” this is one of the first things that pops up. Two girls at the 1998 Austin Corvette Day. Granted, this probably has nothing at all to do with SXSW–yet judging by my first impressions of this place, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if by the end of the week, I end up seeing two highly siliconed and bleached women purring atop a sleek sports car. It's shaping up to be that kind of trip.
SXSW is essentially a trade show. Except instead of blonde spokesmodels insinuating that they will be yours provided you spend $60,000 for a car that will make you look douchier than Steve Sanders, SXSW (and the major corporate behemoths paying for it), attempt to ply you with nothing but free booze, free food and free music. As Dilated Peoples once aptly put it, “You Got to Work the Angles.”
Last night, Austin seemed swept up by a sort of wiry, nervous energy as though the place was about to burst. I half-expected someone to stop me on the street, hand me a Shiner and offer a toast with their best Jeff Spiccoli refrain of, “Hey bud, let's party.”
That didn't happen. Sadly. Instead, thanks to the machinations of LA Weekly editor Randall Roberts, I found myself surrounded by a gaggle of film geeks, standing at the head of a lengthy line to get into the Independent Film Channel's “Crossroads Party.” Though I like the independent movies as much as the next man (oh, how that Juno has spunk) , hob-nobbing with the “indie cinema” crowd wasn't why I was at the Parish bar. No, I was there for the party's entertainment: Yo La Tengo and the best band in the world right now, My Morning Jacket.
Austin: Where the Beer Flows Like Wine
Inside, the place was a zoo, a hot, humid pit of people decked out in most cool/un-cool black glasses and their most lustrous beards. Since I have neither of those things, I felt a little out of place. Luckily, there was an open Absolut-sponsored bar, which naturally helped to ease me into my surroundings. Waiting in line for a drink, I happened to make conversation with a spectacles-sporting girl. Somehow, the band Ghostland Observatory came up and she starting telling me how the entire city of Austin is none-too-happy with Pitchfork's lacerating review last week where they labeled them as “Daft Punk for Frat Boys.” Sarcastically, I asked, “so what you're trying to tell me is that I shouldn't yell out 'Spoon sucks' just to piss off the people here.” She gave me a semi-smile and replied, “that might not be the best idea considering Britt's right over there.”
Sure enough, I turned around and to the right of the stage, where watching Yo La Tengo erupt into a feedback-drenched white squall of noise, was Spoon's front-man rocking out. It was weird. As for Ya La Tengo, the set started slow but picked up intensity rapidly. They don't have much charisma on-stage, which makes sense considering they used to be music critics, and like most music critics they have a salient awkwardness to them, moving in stiff disjointed rhythms, more cerebral than visceral. I mean really, there's only so wild you can get when your first name is Ira. Still, the band put on a good show. Score 1 for music critics.
But enough about that. There's only so much time I have right now (I really should be at the Gorilla Vs. Booze party right now, rather than at the Red Roof Inn typing up this report. And yes, in case you were wondering, The Red Roof Inn is even classier than it sounds.) So let's talk My Morning Jacket and how once again they completely re-wrote my previous definition of what great live music sounds like. With Jim James still rocking the Grizzly Adams beard, but looking noticeably thinner (Atkins diet?), the Louisville five-piece kicked off their marathon 2-hour set with “Evil Urges,” the title track from their much-awaited new record. The song itself is a weird and warped psychedelic jam, with some outer-space keyboards floating into tight guitar pyrotechnics and Jim James' ethereal voice threatening to the blow the roof off the stage. Within seconds, the band had the crowd locked in.
Gideon: Not Actually About the Gideon Bible
But it's not until the set's fourth song, “Gideon” when the set really takes off, with MMJ launching into a devastating, crashing rain of flying V guitars, James' seraphic voice floating high above the fray and everyone turning to each other and wondering if this is actually happening. The next cut, a new track called “Highly Suspicious” channels Prince crossed with Neil Young and somehow James pulls it off. By now, Britt Daniel is long gone, which is too bad because I would've been curious to have asked him who he thinks does better purple one impression, him or JJ?
“What a Wonderful Man” boomed through the tiny club like pure lightning and thunder type wrath, all yellow energy and blue air and sound and fury that leaves you struck with the thought that watching this band is the closest thing we have right now to understand what it must've been like to have seen a Zeppelin, A Dead, A Pink Floyd in their prime. Whatever rock critic foolishly claimed that there are no rock stars in the 21st Century has obviously never seen My Morning Jacket in concert. Jim James is a whirling dervish, jumping on top of the speakers, flailing with his flying V, even playing some weird electronic device that looked like the Power Glove on “Touch Me Part 2” (which appeared to be the highlight of the new album.)
Watching these guys, a palpable joy slaps you across the face and all you can do is stare in awe with a big dumb grin. As for the new material, it sounded great, a bridge between the rural hay-seed vibe of the At Dawn era and the crunchy psych of Z. And by the end of the set, you can't but have all those pretentious, ridiculous notions of the idea of music as something bigger, as something atavistic and primal that hits you at a gut level. Few bands bands making music right now can inspire such a feeling, the transcendent notion that whenever you're at a My Morning Jacket show, everything else seems strangely meaningless, that in all the world at that second, there is no better place to be. Well, other than maybe the 1998 Austin Corvette Day.