SXSW Night 1: A tragedy of sorts
Thoughts on my first night at SXSW (and some blurry-ass photography) after the jump...
Because I am attending as many shows as possible by our local representatives to SXSW, I spent my entire first night at the Columbus Discount Records showcase. I figured I would grab a pulled pork sandwich at the legendary Jackalope then work my way over to Lambert's, whose patio was the site of CDR's show this year, by 8 p.m. But thanks to SXSW overload, the Jackalope took an hour to make my food (well worth it, by the way). And due to SXSW screwing over the Columbus Discount crew once again, it took a lot longer to get to this show than I anticipated. Lambert's, a fancy-pants restaurant on the west side of Downtown is significantly out of the way from most of the SXSW venues, requiring a trek through areas resembling South Campus Gateway more than the dingy bars where rock 'n' rollers feel at home. The result was a crowd made up mostly of Columbus folks—you're not going to get much incidental traffic when you're that far out.
I showed up at 8:30, fearing that I'd missed Night of Pleasure, but a problem with the lighting had delayed the start. It's a good thing too because I don't think I've ever liked Night of Pleasure as much as I did last night. It doesn't make sense—drummer Dan looked like he was about to die, new bassist Mike is obviously still learning the songs and the band suffered through more technical difficulties than any act should have to endure. But they plowed through a faulty PA system, a failing microphone and, eventually, a complete power outage. Maybe it's the new songs, maybe this band sounds best messy—I don't know what—but they shook me in a way they never have before. I always hear about how they're the heirs to the great Columbus punk bands of the 90s, but that always seemed like a stretch. Not anymore.
Technical difficulties would be a theme for the evening. Up next was The Unholy Two. Their noisy skree is always a spectacle, but it went so much farther than that last night. As with Night of Pleasure, the microphone kept cutting out on Chris Lutzko, and he was clearly frustrated by it. After two songs with Lutzko's eyebrow-raising banter barely audible (he claims "Death to Barack Obama" is a misquote), they stopped to try to get the mic situation resolved. While the striped-shirted sound guys, unsure what to make of all this scathing noise, tried to fix their sound system, the band grabbed their own feedback-plagued PA and set it up at the front of the stage. As they kicked back into their set, the soundmen helplessly tried to get Lutzko to use their mic and disable the lo-fi PA, but the band was determined at this point to do it their way, batting away the Lambert's staff's advances. By the end of the set, the band's drummer and guitarist had switched places and started battering their respective instruments, while Lutzko was huddled in a mass over the PA speakers at center stage, spewing another provocative rant. Not my favorite musical experience of the day, but definitely amazing in its own way.
Necropolis only continued the abrasive bombast with perhaps their noisiest set ever. It was clear what kind of show this was going to be when Adam Smith waved off a replacement guitar after breaking a string, choosing instead to gradually destroy the rest of his stings over the course of the performance. This band has been deconstructing its formerly airtight sound for a while now, and I'm not sure what to make of it. On one hand, they haven't sacrificed a sliver of their pure punk fury, and there's no denying the power of a song like the lurching "CSBMF." On the other hand, sometimes I fear they're blurring their songs so far as to render them a shapeless mess. That might be the idea, but it doesn't always do it for me. Suffice it to say that I liked it when they loosened up, but they might be starting to take it too far. Then again, it was that kind of night—strings breaking, mics cutting out, mic stands tumbling over, pants falling down—so this show may be an extra-sloppy aberration. One thing is for sure: They've succeeded in returning to their punk roots.
Guinea Worms put an end to the sloppiness. Their solid set was the most, ahem, professional of the evening, but it was as weird as any of the other bands' shows thanks to Will Foster's strange songwriting and twisted wit. The Worms deal in pronounced rhythms and bluntly shouted absurdities. The resulting rock was pleasing to me and everyone else in the room, including guitarist Gary; one thing I've noticed from seeing these guys a few times in the last couple months is the joy this guy gleans from being a Guinea Worm.
CDR recently reissued the long-lost Tall Tales of Trauma album by Tommy Jay, so Jay was scheduled to play this event. He couldn't dig his car out of the snow back in Ohio, so Mike "Rep" Hummel, one of Ohio indie music's patron saints, filled in for Jay, playing songs for the record and pretending to be the man himself. Hilarity ensued for sure, but it would have been nice to hear Jay as intended.
Last and best was El Jesus de Magico. The post-primitive punishers put on my favorite set of the night—quite a feat considering I was shivering out in that night air and my legs were about to give out from a day of traveling and rock. A month ago I sang the praises of their great "New Moses," but that all-time classic, awesome as it was, took a backseat to the new stuff last night. I can't wait to hear their new record; the unreleased stuff they trotted out was burning and blistering like hundreds of explosions inside the sun, a bluster of internal combustion that occasionally let loose with a fireball.
It's a shame that nobody saw it. By the time El Jesus took the stage, only a couple dozen people were left on the Lambert's patio. By the time they finished, maybe 10 or 15 remained. It was the best thing I saw Wednesday, a majestic display of primitive virtuosity, and it was for a crowd that could just as easily see them every month at Carabar. The fact that El Jesus came all this way just to preach to the choir is one of the great injustices of this SXSW. The same goes for the rest of the CDR roster, all of whom deserved better than this. Let's hope next year the powers that be drop the CDR crew in the middle of the action where they belong.