SXSW ’09: Day Three (Amazing!)

Written by Music, SXSW '09

Craig Finn of the Hold Steady I took a lot of photos yesterday, but there’s just no time to go through them and put them online. Look for them coming soon.

Since I rode home on the shuttle last night, exhausted but exhilarated, I’ve been trying to think of the appropriate way to describe the best day of music that I’ve ever seen. I suppose I should describe it as it unfolded.

If my count is correct, I saw eleven bands yesterday. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. I saw ten bands, and one band twice. Each one was wonderful, but I want to focus on two bands that are very special, one a young band out of Oklahoma City who are on their way to something big, and the other a now established band that is the hit of this festival.

The Uglysuit from Oklahoma City are a bunch of skinny, long-haired kids who are doing something amazing. They have a self-titled album out on Touch and Go Records, but of course Touch and Go touched and went a few months ago. Their music is best described as an amazing stew of influences that adds up to a totally unique sound. Their songs are long, filled with interesting changes that run the gamut from epic to nearly silent. I can’t tell you much about their lyrics because they are nearly indecipherable in the live setting, but clearly they are striking a chord with their fans, who were out in force for their set last night. They are also winning new fans at every show. As I heard on guy tell a band member after their set, “you’re my new favorite band.” Do yourself a favor, their album is still available on Amazon, and probably the other usual places. Get yourself a copy, and the next time they’re in your area, get out to see them. Someday you’ll want to say you did.

My music day began with The Uglysuit, who were so good that I went back to see them again last night, and I was glad that I did. But the night ended with a simply astonishing performance by the Hold Steady, who are in my mind the best band out there working today. And boy are they working. It seems like they’ve been doing about three shows a day around town every day this week. I saw the Hold Steady at the Stone Pony a couple of years ago, and I was blown away then. Last night they played in a much smaller club that was totally packed. Hopefully you’ve been in a club where a band is playing with so much intensity, and the fans are responding with so much ardor, that you feel like it’s all right on the edge of going out of control. That’s how it was at the Mohawk last night. Led by songwriter Craig Finn, who is the band’s brilliant songwriter, the band played the most powerful set of music that I’ve seen in some time. The fans were right there with them from the word go, singing along, moshing, hands in the air, even a bit of crowd surfing. Thrilling, simply thrilling.

There were other bands though, and as I said, every one of them was worth seeing. After I caught my first Uglysuit set of the day, I headed to Antone’s for Little Steven’s Underground Garage show. With Steven himself as the day’s mc, some of the genre’s best bands did the garage thing the way it should be done. The Cocktail Slippers, from Oslo of all places, are an all-female band that echoed the girl groups of the sixties, but with a powerful rock punch. They were followed by the Living Things from St. Louis, who had all the requisite punk attitude, and the talent to go with it. The top band in the genre these days is arguably the Chesterfield Kings, who have been doing it since the ’80s. It was easy to see why they’re the top dogs. Fantastic energy, precise playing, and again, that all-important attitude. The day closed with hometown heroes the Arc Angels, led by guitarist/vocalist Charlie Sexton. They are not, in truth, a garage band. They’re a rock/blues band in the tradition of Bad Company. No matter, they played a really good set, and the local crowd was happy to have them there.

From there I was off to Jo’s Coffee, in what is called the SoCo (South Congress) district. This was another show held in a parking lot next to the actual building. The event itself was called South by San Jose, featured several bands from California. The Mother Hips, from Chico, Ca., played a nice set that had echoes of Wilco, and Death Cab for Cutie. They were followed by former Jayhawks Mark Olson and Gary Louris who played a gentle set of fine folk-rock, highlighted by their wonderful harmony singing. It was the perfect set for listening as the sun went down over Austin. The headliner for the show was the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra, 18 pieces strong. Though I am a fan of Alejandro’s, and I really want to see him in this orchestral setting in front of his hometown crowd, the lure of the Uglysuit was too much to resist, and I had to head back downtown to hear their set at the Flamingo. I did hear a few of Alejandro’s songs, and what I heard was wonderous.

After my second Uglysuit set of the day, which was longer and even more fascinating that the one I’d heard in the afternoon, I headed just down Sixth Avenue to catch the Felice Brothers at Habana. I’ve seen the band twice before, including an extraordinary set at Newport last summer, and they are quite possibly the most purely entertaining band you are likely to see. As usual, they were jumping all over the place, standing on anything in sight, and getting the crowd involved with their passionate music.

Then it was off to the Mohawk for that Hold Steady set that I told you about earlier. On my way there, I passed by Stubb’s, where Metallica was making a “surprise” appearance. The two huge semis parked out front seemed so out of character to the spirit of SXSW, but that’s just my feeling. I was much, much happier to be on my way to the Hold Steady show.

When it was over, I was thirsty, my feet were aching, and I was exhausted. None of that mattered though because I felt like I was walking on a cloud on the six block journey to catch my shuttle. Truly an amazing day of rock and roll that I will never forget. And there’s more to come today. One last day.