Saturday, March 16
4:39 pm, 6th Street
It's St. Patrick's Day, so of course a bar named BD Riley's is already overflowing with day-wasted revelers. At least the band playing traditional-style Irish drinking songs appears to actually be from Ireland. People inside the bar and watching from outside are clapping and dancing. One woman crowd surfs. Two doors down, a showcase of Canadian pop is significantly less raucous. Maybe next year the last day of SXSW will fall on Boxing Day. And then, it is they that will have the party.
4:51 pm, 6th Street
A small group of fundamentalist Christians are posted up in the middle of 6th Street's hedonistic maelstrom waving anti-abortion signs and a placard condemning, in order, drunks, homosexuals, abortionists, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, witches, and idolaters. Naturally, they're being harassed by an opposing group with homemade signs, scantily clad college girls and guy dressed as some kind of goat-viking. They're standing their ground, though. Sure, they might be trolling in the name of God, but you've got to admire that kind of verve.
5:15 pm, outside Austin Convention Center
Y'know, it's a good thing Lil' Wayne didn't die the other day, because according to every telephone pole in Austin, the dude's guesting on upcoming tracks from every no-name rapper in the world.
5:50 pm, Red River Street
A girl carrying a life-size cardboard cutout of the Most Interesting Man in the World down the street bops a homeless man on the head with it as she passes him by. "Stay thirsty, my friends," the man says, and everyone has a good laugh. Of course, the truth is, that guy probably really is thirsty right now, and will likely stay that way for a while.
6:30 pm, 7th and Congress
There's a great, impromptu ebony-and-ivory moment happening between two apparent strangers waiting for a bus. One is a bedraggled, weather-beaten, possible Vietnam vet, the other is an African-American gentleman with a VIP badge around his neck, and they're going back and forth singing lines from "Black Betty." Of course, the former keeps on singing long after the latter has returned to checking his phone, but they had a real human connection there for a minute.
7:05 pm, The Hideout
"Anyone here play drums?" the guitarist for Austin's Kay Leotard asks the crowd seated in this tiny theater situated behind a coffee shop. Their drummer is running late, and they need someone to set up his kit. Almost immediately after a volunteer completes the task, the sweat-slicked drummer appears behind the set, and the band leaps into its short set, having already lost about 15 minutes. Despite their name, the band doesn't exude the swollen-hearted misanthropy of the late Jay Reatard, only the burning power chords, with its dual female vocals lending its garage rock '60s-pysch drama. It's a good thing the drummer showed up, too: He's damn solid.
8:20 pm, The Stage on Sixth Street
Brazil's Bonde do Role figured that, since they were playing a showcase curated by National Geographic, it'd be a good idea to show up dressed as animals. I'm not sure how the blow-up dolls tie into the theme, though. Depending on your point of view, the group's brash brand of baile funk is either a glorious sensorial assault or just very obnoxious, but the band's live show certainly doesn't give you much time to think about it. It's a non-stop barrage of big bass, strobe lights, scream-raps, the aforementioned sex dolls getting bounced around the crowd like beach balls and, for this performance, uncomfortable-looking bird costumes. Appropriately, the last "song" of their set is a prerecorded version of "Surfin' Bird," which their DJ throws on, allowing the group to charge into the crowd for a spastic dance party. Several blowup dolls are violated.
8:56 pm, The Stage on Sixth Street Patio
Even confined to a chair and using what looks like an oxygen tank, Mabon "Teenie" Hodges—guitarist for the Hi Rhythm Section, house band for legendary Memphis label Hi Records in the '70s—is the coolest dude in the room. Rocking a blue do-rag, flannel-pattern pants and shades and playing a headless guitar, he looks more like an ex-member of Parliament-Funkadelic than the guy who played on, and in some cases wrote, some of the classiest soul songs of the '70s. One of his most indelible riffs leads the band—made up mostly of his brothers—through "Love and Happiness," with singer Percy Wiggins, bedecked in a gleaming white suit, sitting in for Al Green. Though the horns that elevated much of their classic material are replaced by cheesy '80s synths, too often making them sound more like the house band for a hotel lounge instead of one of the best soul labels of all-time, they still manage to find the funky sweet spot of the original recording, thanks to Hodges' playing and Al Jackson Jr.'s on-the-money drumming.
9:20 pm, The Stage on Sixth
Brooklyn's Red Baraat begins its set by teaching the crowd its own personalized dance move, a peace sign-waving, shoulder-dipping shimmy. It goes quite well with the band's music, a mash-up of Indian wedding music, go-go rhythms, New Orleans brass and broad political sloganeering. Led by a singer with a looks straight out of a '70s punjab action movie—stache and all—and spends most of the show shouting directives while throttling a large, two-sided percussion instrument, the group is poised to take the mantle of every NPR subscriber's favorite multiculti protest party band from Ozomatli, who headline this show, though hopefully that doesn't include soundtracking a Toyota commercial anytime soon.
9:58 pm, 6th Street
A DJ has set up in the window of a storefront and is spinning dancehall and hip-hop, attracting a small curbside mob of bikini-topped dancers. It's the only party on 6th Street without a line, so why not?
10:45 pm, Brazos Hall
The aura of Depeche Mode's show the previous night is still thick inside this relatively tiny event space, but Seattle's Night Beats are doing their best to blast it out of the air with pulsing bass lines, loud guitars and lots and lots of reverb. (Of course, it's hard to completely erase the memory of the synth-pop demigods who stood on the stage the night before when the framed computer screens on the adjacent wall are running through slideshows of pics from the show fans posted to Flickr.) It's pretty typical, of-the-moment psych-garage stuff, but as the saying goes, you don't need to reinvent the wheel to make a nice pair of tires, and this trio's wheels run nice and raw.
11:35 pm, outside Copper Tank Event Center
Justin Timberlake's "secret" Myspace-sponsored club show is being held inside an 800-capacity brown brick building. A chain-link fence surrounds the perimeter. Most of the crowd has gone outside, but the front door remains open. I can see Questlove DJing from the stage.
11:42 pm, Maggie Mae's Gibson Room
I feel like I've walked into a rich Guitar Center clerk's opium den. Paintings and photos of Jimmy Page and Hendrix hang on the walls alongside various Gibson guitars; the room is outfitted with purposely tacky cow- and cheetah-printed furniture. On the stage in the corner, sleaze-psych cultists Gram Rabbit are performing. Singer Jesika von Rabbit—no her real name, I'm guessing—is looking extra Gaga-ish, switching eyewear with every song. Guitarist Todd Rutherford looks like a replacement member of Buckcherry. There's a dancer writing around in a skeleton bodysuit with a blonde wig and a mask dangerously close to being black face. Random audience members are wearing bunny ears. I wonder if this what the JT show looks like on the inside. Probably not.
12:15 am, Maggie Mae's Gibson Room
If Rodriguez portrayed John Waters in a movie about his life, he'd look like Kid Congo Powers. Powers—no longer a Kid—has played guitar for legendary L.A. punk acts like the Cramps and the Gun Club (as well as the Bad Seeds), and now fronts the Pink Monkey Birds, singing absurd songs about Phyllis Diller and his hatred of fast food against some righteously funky garage rock grooves. He's got the look to match the weirdness of his subject matter: Coke-bottle glasses, pencil mustache, a '50s-style varsity sweater (worn by the rest of band, too), and a generally strange demeanor. ("This song's about a rubber chicken!") In short, he's awesome, and his band rules, too.
12:50 am, outside Copper Tank Event Center
Justin Timberlake is now performing inside, and the club's decided to keep the front door open, so a mob of onlookers are pressed against the surrounding chain link fence, trying to get a look. Riot police—atop horses outfitted with face protectors—are ready to…I don't know, pepper-spray squealing girls? I'm a JT fan, but I kinda feel like these "secret" shows from huge artists have helped dilute the appeal of SXSW. It used to be that you'd travel to Austin to find undiscovered bands. Now, it's all about clamoring for tickets to see some major performer in an intimate space. It really has little to do with music. It's more about status—who has the connections to pull enough strings to get into the big show. That said, I would stab somebody I love to get inside the Prince show at La Zona Rosa right now.
1:15 am, Suite 101
Y'know you're in a hot nightclub when there's not one but 27 disco balls hanging from the ceiling, all clustered together like some really gaudy wasp nest. I'm here to see Mystikal, but right now there are two burly dudes in tank tops on stage, apparently acting as hype-men for DJ Hella Yella as he spins one hip-hop hit after another. After 15 or so minutes of this, with no mention of when or if Mystikal will actually be appearing, I decide to split, figuring he's either not coming out or will play two songs at 2 am and split.
1:34 am, Hype Hotel
What the fuck?! How did I end up back here, ending my SXSW in the big, crappy, Taco Bell-laden warehouse where the festival started for me? Well, for one thing: free drink tickets. And for another, if I've learned anything about SXSW, it's that the festival is really only fun when you're watching a band. Otherwise, it's like going to Spring Break where you're surrounded not just by drunk college kids but music industry assholes. I went into this experience telling myself I wouldn't be one of those people complaining about spending four days consuming nothing but beer, bands and tacos, but if I'm going to be honest, SXSW is reaching a saturation point where the only people going are, well, thousands of drunk college kids and music industry assholes. As it stands, you can still make it enjoyable by seeking out the bands you trust. And I trust !!!. The mutant disco ensemble has smoothed some of its edges over the years, but it's still legitimately funky in a way few second-hand indie dance bands are. Frontman Nic Offer—shorn hair and all—remains a firecracker party shaman, voguing at the front of the stage in a pair of short-shorts. He looks like a goofball, but he's sincere in his goofery, which is the key to his weird charisma. He's soon joined onstage by a random crowd member, who's taken Offer's mantra of "everybody cut loose" to heart and ripped off his own pants to boogie in his underwear. This is how my SXSW will end. And I am pleased.