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SXSW 2009: The Decemberists Unleashed! Others, Leashed!

Maximum Performance

Speaking as a writer who has every intention of documenting the thrills and spills to be had at this year's exciting South By Southwest Music & Media Conference, it would not behoove me to begin this account by grumbling about my personal travails--the hardships faced in establishing a respectable Internet connection in my hotel room, the horrendous distance I find myself regularly walking from hotel to Event A to Event B to Event C and back to my hotel room, or the nefarious behavior of the actual hotel in promising me a smoking room well in advance but now claiming to have established a new "no smoking" policy only last week--so instead: Let's talk music!

Getting something of a late start last night, I trudged over to the wonderful Stubb's venue, anticipating seeing Ladyhawke, who I like, and the Decemberists, who I like very much, and the two artists in between. Sadly, my compulsion to quench my thirst, so to speak, on the way to the venue led me to missing Ladyhawke, but I believe there will be ample opportunities for that in the next few days. Arriving just as she'd vacated the stage, I opted to quench my thirst yet again, resting comfortably on the hard ground and leaning against a nearby wall. Let me show you the scene from my perspective.

My perspective:------------------------------------->

Soon enough it was time for the next artist, whose name I'd heard before and--can I be frank?--thought it somewhat silly. Yet there they were, the Heartless Bastards, performing as I sat there, drink in hand and my view obscured. Hey, interesting voice this guy has, I thought--sort of a cross between Terry Reid, Andy Fairweather-Low and Sting. Not bad at all. Though the band's songs were kind of ordinary--wandering around in blues-based, countryesque territories--I do like this guy's voice, I thought. Imagine my chagrin, then, to finally stand up and see that the lead singer of the Heartless Bastards was in fact a female--and as a member of the human race, thus predestined to have a higher voice than is the usual male norm!

Knowing that, I therefore added up all the ordinaries and did the math: ZZZZZ.

Deciding that it might not be a bad idea to actually look at the next band I was going to hear, I made my way back to say hello to the guy running the beer-sale concession and stopped right around here to watch the next band perform their set.

Right around here:------------------------>

Kind of small, weren't they?

Anyway, in one of those peculiar quirks of multiple-artist concertdom, the dudes walked onto the stage and started playing without any introduction whatsoever. Now admittedly, had I done my homework--actually checked who was scheduled to play between Ladyhawke and the Decemberists--there'd have been no problem. But I didn't. Figuring that I'd eventually get a clue as they performed--with a banjo and a stand-up bass, I figured I'd guess soon enough, dice. Ever the friendly guy, I did my journalistic duty and asked random people who were walking by me: Say, do you know who these guys are? Interestingly, after four unsuccessful attempts ("I dunno," "I didn't hear," etc.) someone finally sort of told me: The Avid Brothers. Oh, I get it: the Avett Brothers! The recipient of more than one "Next big thing" claim by my count! Even their record company thinks they're good!

Well, I wish I could say I was impressed. But I was not. I sensed no "there" there in their music, and did not feel a need to keep listening until I found one. Sorry, dudes! I have a brother, too!






Finally came the moment I'd been waiting for: And right after someone offered to buy me a beer, the Decemberists came onstage! And more significantly, the band was planning to play The Hazards Of Love, their brand new album--and it's a good one--in its entirety!

I am happy to report that the performance was smashing, excellent, dynamic, and everything else that the earlier bands' performances were not! As a rule, seeing a band you like playing an entire set of music you've never heard before is somewhat off-putting--I mean, everybody likes hearing something familiar once in a while--but song for song, there's enough variety and a sufficient number of recurring musical themes to make even a first listening completely satisfying. I was pleased as punch to witness this performance, and in fact you yourself can hear it by going to and kicking around a little.

Departing from Stubb's, a friend and I walked down to nearby Emo's, where lovable Liverpudlian moptops Echo & The Bunnymen were doing a late-night showcase. Talk about a new music festival! Though I could hear them playing quite loudly as I stood outside the entrance, I was unfortunately denied admittance due to my lack of a SXSW badge, which I hadn't yet picked up. But I could hear actual notes and everything!

Aiming to fix my badgeless state, I just came back from SXSW headquarters, credentials in hand, as I write this. While picking up my bag of exciting info, I happened to run into singer Willie Nile,whom I last encountered in--get this--1980. I had interviewed him for CREEM magazine, and dug his first album a lot, when his label was hyping him as the new "New Dylan/Springsteen etc." When we had first spoken, he'd told me a fascinatingly colorful story about the intensity of rock 'n' roll--something about his seeing Tom Verlaine playing with such enthusiasm years ago that "a string of snot" was dripping out of his nose, but Tom--driven by the power o' rock--kept playing on obliviously! I somehow remember being told that Verlaine had read the quote and found it amusing. Or something.

Anyway, Willie was completely charming, looked exactly like he did 29 years ago, and proceeded to perform for me--completely impromptu, holding an air guitar and reciting the lyrics--the title track of his upcoming new album, House Of A Thousand Guitars. It sounded great, as impromptu air guitar performances go, and I look forward to seeing him play live again.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go outside.

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