To conclude: Susan Cowsill and the Watson Twins sang "September Gurls," with the remains of Big Star playing loose and beautiful all around them. It shouldn't have happened; most of what happens shouldn't. In life, as with music, we only get so much say.
Alex Chilton's passing just days before Big Star's scheduled appearance on the final night of South By Southwest 2010 cast a numb disconcertion over the jammed-to-walls crowd at Antone's. Everyone wanted to see what would happen, who would perform, what would be said, and how the evening would make sense out of a complex, frustrating, pivotal figure in rock music.
Heather West (publicist and close friend of Chilton) cradled her iPhone on the stage and read a deep, long, beautifully unsentimental letter from Chilton's wife, Laura. Four surviving members of Big Star--Jody Stephens, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer and original bassist Andy Hummel--guided the parade of friends and admirers who just sang, all joyfully, in their own ways, with little comment and few tears.
Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood struggled with "Don't Lie to Me," but Chris Stamey killed on "I Am the Cosmos" and "When My Baby's Beside Me." M. Ward captured the weird paranoia of "Big Black Car," drawing out the spittle from the phrase "ain't gonna lasssssssssst," and Mike Mills of R.E.M. had a blast with "Jesus Christ." John Doe sang "I'm In Love With a Girl" with twangy sweetness, while the night's youngest performer, Sondre Lerche, put everything he had (a lot) into "Ballad of El Goodo." Evan Dando said two words - "Thanks" "Fuck" - and then creeped through "Nighttime." No one had any intention of stealing the show. Chuck Prophet, however, did just that, simply by being the lovably and supremely hip presence he is, and by pushing "Thank You Friends" to edge. The relatively unknown Amy Speace made her own mark with an alluring "Try Again."
And though the performances were all moving and heartfelt, and Jody Stephens drumming alone could have provided hoped-for transcendence, a feeling of forced sedation, almost ennui, remained.
Understandable. It was also the last night of SXSW 2010. The buzz never lasts.
Here's more of what happened on the final two days of the festival:
#preppysoulfail. Motown revivalist Mayor Hawthorne, at a free day party at the French Legation Museum in East Austin, proved that you can make good-sounding soul records wearing an IZOD cardigan, but live you need a little more than trend hopping.
#threesongswtf. The Courtyard Hounds (aka Emily Robison and Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks) badge-only day stage set at the Convention Center ended before it began, though Emily slipped nicely into Americana soft country rock songstress mode.
Turn up the background singers. Jakob Dylan, backed up by Neko Case's regular band, and featuring Case and pal Kelly Hogan on background vocals, played a substantial day stage set, filled with apocalyptic songs about love and love songs about the apocalypse. He sounded both dogged and at ease, even if his supporting singers were barely audible.
Lone horse, winged horse. Tyler Ramsey, guitarist and harmony singer for Band of Horses, riveted during an early opening set in the Central Presbyterian Church on Friday evening. When Ben Bridwell and company filled the sanctuary with new songs, one as yet titled, and reflections on "The Great Salt Lake," "Ode to LRC" and an honored request for "Weed Party," the sound was so rich and southern soulful (without ever sounding country) and happy that the church shook like a revival and people danced in the aisles. Of the 40 or so shows I caught this past week, BOH's set was second only to Ray Davies' for pure pleasure and beauty.
Horse of a different, paler color. Boxer Rebellion at an over-capacity rooftop set at Maggie Mae's on Friday sounded fine, but no more than that, like Band of Horses too well-trained, too well-fed by critics.
Sing me Spanish post-techno. At Emo's Jr. the four-piece Barcelona band Delorean managed to hold my attention with Who's Next-like synth programs, and lots of thump, a good live rock drummer, and songs that found their way within the electronic labyrinths. Memory Tapes, just around the corner at Klub Krucial, were less inspired, nearly dreary, or perhaps my anti-band-in-a-box prejudice is showing.
Punk demonology. Veteran Portland-based garage doom punks Pierced Arrows, featuring Fred and Toody Cole (who nailed the mid-exorcism Linda Blair look and sound), sounded potent, punchy and playful on the Encore Patio. Easily the best punk show of my week.
Please to translate "smoking hot" into Khmer. With trumpet, sax and psychedelic keys, a fierce rhythm section, and the best beard at South By (the torso-long chin fur of Ethan Holtzman), Dengue Fever should have blown away the Encore Patio on Friday night, but even the tightest band in Austin this week couldn't cure a crowd of Caucasianism. Singer Chhom Nimol was resplendent and sexy and happy to share her supple voice with the front row, including her sister, who she hadn't seen in years. A booking agent in St. Louis needs to bring this sick band to town very soon.
Twangfest vs. climate change. Saturday, March 20, 2010 set a record for my 13 years visiting Austin in the spring. Wind chill maybe hit 37 degrees, skies menaced, and the 1200 people who RSVPed for the KDHX and Twangfest Day Party 2 at Jovita's abandoned the outdoor stage, and jammed into the restaurant for sets from Gina Villalobos, the Waco Brothers, Legendary Shack*Shakers, Chatham County Line, Chuck Prophet, Deadstring Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose set was an amazing coup for the organizers. No space to move but people moved anyway. The afternoon was the best attended since Calexico played the parties years ago, and the lineup was impressive and diverse. (And I'm still a KDHX DJ and Twangfest volunteer.) The 50 or so folks who stood athwart the winds on the back patio heard sets from Otis Gibbs, Kevin Gordon, Joe Pug, Moonlight Towers and St. Louis' own Brothers Lazaroff. The small crowd boogied and did the worm.
Saturday trip to Paris. Marianne Dissard played to a tiny audience in a doublewide trailer of a club called the Beauty Bar Palm Door. She deserved a better slot than 8 p.m. on Saturday. Mixing punk and jazz vocals, backed by a locked-and-key-tossed electric combo, with baritone sax and a clocking drummer, she was eccentric, sweet, genuine and gracious, tossing in silly American slang with her rich French imagery. "Treasure your language and dialect," she said. "It's all you have."
And music, performance, and stars, big and small.