It was only one act deep into the NPR’s live concert showcase at South By Southwest when some cohorts and I heard that Big Star’s Alex Chilton died.
The veteran band was due to take on SXSW audiences on Saturday, guaranteed to be a big ticket, exciting older generations who had followed the band’s tumultuous career since the ’70s, and with younger kids pumped to discover “#1 Record” for the first time.
I don’t have any of Chilton’s solo material with me in Austin on my iPod — only some Big Star and Chris Bell solo songs — but his influence is all over the place. Paul Westerberg and The Replacements. R.E.M. Elliott Smith. Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown. Wilco.
Chilton embraced the jagged edges that came after the pretty melodies of those two early Big Star records, wandering in and out of a solo career and ultimately arriving with some peace by time Big Star “reunited” for 2005’s “In Space.” That album wasn’t everything fans of Big Star wanted, but some of what Chilton devotees adored. It also marked a time of hope that Chilton, now resurrecting the Big Star name, would be playing that 1972-1975 material, even if Chris Bell wasn’t alive to share in that victory.
To fill the gap of time on Saturday that Big Star would have played, there’s talk of a tribute concert instead. I would venture to say hundreds of bands here in Austin already have a Big Star cover somewhere in their back pockets, so perhaps now its just a matter of who’s invited. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel were also skedded to host a panel on how Big Star’s music and career trajectory left its mark on entertainment; I’d be curious about what pours out from that.
Spoon, sons of Austin, had a triumphant kick-off to their spring tour as they filled the yard at Stubb’s, SXSW’s largest venue. Compared to earlier acts they played for an eternity, room enough to hit the majority of songs from new “Transference” and revisit earlier albums, mostly “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” and “Gimme Fiction.”
They opened with “Written in Reverse,” the first single from the new set, and stuck with plenty of the expected hip-shakers, but the set was broken up, too, but some left-fieldish picks like the creepy, meandering and brilliant “The Ghost of You Lingers” and a weird take on “Love Song” by The Damned (I wouldn’t recommend an encore performance of it.)
Britt Daniel is looking svelte and warmed up the chilly night as a friendlier performer, a feat that has taken him more than 10 years to fashion. It’s taken Spoon that time and more to become as commercially successful as they have, so far as they came in at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart earlier this year and have licensed songs like “I Turn My Camera On” to commercials, what-have-you. It was a good way to celebrate.
Visqueen opened up the night on a soulful note, as frontwoman Rachel Flotard delivered her tribute to her late dad, “So Long,” with a calm ferocity that made it all the more thrilling when she picked up the guitar and bolted headlong into “Hand Me Down.” The Seattle band’s “Message to Garcia” made my top 10 albums list last year, and their tight, hair-blazing set was a brilliant reminder as to why.
The Walkmen came after, and for some reason I found it odd how young they looked. Frankly, I feel generally indifferent about their albums, and I think the band felt and saw that same sentiment as the crowd chatted through their short setlist in wait for “The Rat” and the next opportunity to hit the long bathroom line. The band obviously works hard, but the same-note, midtempo material wearied us and them.
Now, I’ve heard competing stories: I heard from Sharon Jones’ manager, band, label folk and even her newest photographer that the singer is prompt, professional and, while prone to diva-ish behavior, respectful of the good of the group. A friend’s competing theory is that lately she’s been blowing off her interviews and makes her shows start late. What is consensus is that Jones has performed drunk before, and whether sober or not, she’s always a kick-ass performance artist.
In a fringe-doused green shiny dress and a raptor grip on the mic, Jones rip-roared through material old and new, including the ever-sultry “100 Days, 100 Nights” and takes on “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “This Land Is Your Land.” Woodie Guthrie never sounded so funky. The Dap-Kings kept the moves and the look subtle and let the lights fall on their singer.
As it is required and written, she took up a fan on the stage to dance with her — this one donning a mohawk. She also lost a shoe dancing, like she cares.
The new Broken Bells album is really, really good, guys. But to watch them live is to watch paint dry. Why, after all these years with the Shins and a stint acting in some independent movies, does James Mercer looked terrified to be singing? Would even a head bop hurt?
Taking a break from Stubbs, I wandered over to the roof of Wave, where much-ballyhooed Surfer Blood was playing. These dudes look like they’re 12, but when they play, it’s no amateur hour. I stayed only half a set and no legs were flying in the air by time I left, but had the over-capacity crowd not been akin to sardines in a half-sized can, perhaps some smiling and flailing of limbs could have occurred.
Well-past the 1am hour, drunk college kids on spring break shuffled around in their St. Patrick’s Day mardi gras beads and waited for a slice for roughly half a lifetime. The most clear-headed scene, though, was at High On Fire at the Mohawk, and it may as well have been, well, on fire. Because I’m masochistic, I don’t generally enlist my earplugs until totally necessary, but my lungs were already collapsing from the rhythm mix before I even got in the door. Post-hardcore, skin-scratching metal may not be your thing — it personally isn’t mine — but at that hour, it’s everybody’s thing, so it’s OK.
White Denim and Phantogram graced the Austinist party earlier in the day, at the same venue. I couldn’t tell you a single song that the former played, as it all sounds the same to me, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it all. Better still with the latter. Phantogram’s “Eyelid Movies” is the only CD I brought with me to the fest, since I accidentally left it in my laptop disc drive. It’s a happy coincidence anyway, as this excellent Barsuk disc is one of the year’s best so far. Live, they delivered their washy harmonies beautifully and actually looked like they were having a good time being there. They play more this week.
The subconscious theme of the day was Mayer Hawthorne, a name I heard no less than three times — once from a superfan of the neo-soul artist, one from someone who wants to sign him and one from an industry source I respect when it came to the topic of new songwriters who are working very, very hard.
For those who need to pick up their Fader Fort wristband: hit the line early or bring a good book.