The SXSW Music Festival opened with a jolt on Wednesday: Big Star frontman Alex Chilton had died of an apparent heart attack. From that point until the end of the fest, when Big Star’s closing showcase at the hallowed blues club Antone’s turned into an all-star tribute to Chilton, songs in sets near and far were dedicated to the man who brought us wistful, right-of-passage classics like “I’m in Love with a Girl” and “Thirteen.”
Yes, the bands played on. There were a handful of older acts getting back into game. Courtney Love’s Hole slithered onstage after a ten-year hiatus, new members intact, to polarize crowds and promote her forthcoming album “Nobody’s Daughter.” Roky Erickson, whose psych-rock band the 13th Floor Elevators was the stuff of Austin in the late ’60s, returned to the fold bolstered by the music of fellow locals Okkervil River, in support of their collaborative album “True Love Cast Out All Evil.” And then there was the Queen of Rock, Wanda Jackson, to whom Jack White is giving the Loretta Lynn treatment.
Beyond that, indie bands Surfer Blood and Titus Andronicus scored lots of ink. Obscure, old-school punk band Death made good on critics’ praises. Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, who with Natalie Maines are the Dixie Chicks, debuted their own band, Court Yard Hounds. Timber Timbre, the moniker for Taylor Kirk, upped the ante on singer-songwriter fare. Drive-By Truckers, Band of Horses and Broken Social Scene played an incredible triple bill. And Demolished Thoughts, a super-band comprised of Thurston Moore, J. Mascis and Andrew W.K., blitzed through a run of ’80s hardcore covers.
This year’s SXSW Music Festival had more than 13,000 registrants. Many left with a better sense of the word “pop-up.” There were pop-up shows, including a spontaneous lunchtime gig in a parking garage on Red River Street featuring Broken Bells, an experiment between the Shins’ James Mercer and Gnarls Barkley’s Danger Mouse that failed to live up to expectations. There were also pop-up shops. Jack White’s Third Man Records set up a storefront at the gourmet hotdog restaurant Frank to push vinyl and White Stripes paraphernalia. White’s wife Karen Elson, a musician in her own right, played there Saturday night, allowing at least the possibility of a White sighting.
Free day shows have become the norm for a new generation of festival-goer incapable of paying upwards of $500 for a badge to the 24-year-old festival. It’s at these day parties where the ratio of music, accommodations and booze can turn into magic, like at this year’s Nonesuch Records party at Hotel Saint Cecilia. (You may recall Nonesuch as the label that rescued Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”) Standing out on the bill was the Low Anthem, a sepia-toned four-piece out of Providence, whose debut album “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” is an elegant affair. Their four-part harmonies pierced the breeze, on a tail of clarinet, bowed saw and pump organ. One new song, about going to the apothecary to pick up the cure, featured a maraca made out of pill bottles.
The Village Voice Media day party was another scene altogether, body upon body in pursuit of Facebook friends. But that ceased when London trio the XX, playing in support of their narcotic, vocal-volleying self-titled album, blanketed the crowd with a layer of black velvet cascaded over with electro beats. Bassist Oliver Sim knew all about the buzz behind his band. He told the audience “thank you” at the end of the song “VCR” before they even had a chance to clap.
Carolina Chocolate Drops played one of two distinctly excellent day-show parties in South Austin on the final day of the fest. The three-piece, performing at Jovita’s, mined old-timey tradition with determined authenticity. They opened with “Chased Old Satan Through the Door,” blazing with violin, banjo and foot-stomping. They followed it with square dance and Charleston numbers, accented with jug-blowing and wild dancing. On “Cindy Gal,” from their debut album “Genuine Negro Jig,” Dom Flemons played cow rib bones, prefaced with instructions on how to play ’em: hold one tight and let the other one smack it.
And then, in the hours leading up to the Alex Chilton tribute, Quasi stabbed through the suddenly frigid temperatures with their fortysomething slacker rock on the back patio of Home Slice Pizza. The Portland band has been trucking on and off for nearly 20 years, predating Sleater-Kinney, the band drummer Janet Weiss is most remembered for playing in. Weiss provided thunderous rhythm for ex-husband Sam Coomes’ tales of grown-up woes, powerfully conveyed on songs like “Repulsion” and “Little White Horse” from the band’s killer new album “American Gong.” The late, great Chilton would have appreciated their candor.
[Photos by Kathy Hoinski]