Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
SxSW 2009 Night Four
Echo & The Bunnymen, Theoretical Girl, Wintersleep and more at SxSW
Frank YangThe last night of SxSW began not on 6th St, where it normally does, but down at the Auditorium Shores amphitheatre where the festival puts on large-scale free shows for the locals by way of thanks for putting up with the massive influx of visitors each year. Some friends wanted to unwind down there, away from the chaos of downtown, to the narcoleptic tones of Beach House. The last time I’d seen them they were lulling a dozen or so people to sleep beside a roaring fire in the front room of the Tranzac, so to see them on a massive stage in front of thousands in broad daylight was different, to say the least. But their sleepy spell was the same, just exponentially louder, so it was nice to just kick back with a beer and unwind for a bit.
But just a bit. Within an hour, I was in a cab back downtown, trying to meet up with a university friend with whom I’d been playing text-tag with for a couple days. We arranged to meet up at Brush Square Park, where as luck would have it Little Boots was getting ready to play a label party. I had hoped that this set might provide an opportunity for better photos than the Emo’s Annex show a couple nights back, but this time instead of red floodlights there were simply no lights. Terrific. Show-wise, notes from Thursday night’s to-do still apply – I watched the first bit of her set then went off to commiserate.
Heading into the heart of the bedlam that was 6th St, I wound my way to the British Music Embassy at Latitude 30 for a set by Theoretical Girl. Fronted by Amy Eleanor Turnnidge – the namesake of the band – and backed by players dubbed The Equations, they delivered archly charming and clever pop with a distinctly retro-mod vibe. The material all displayed a consistent level of goodness but not much really stood out as a single that would sweep the nation (whichever nation). That said, there’s enough appeal that I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in the near future, if her hooks become as sharp as her wit, success for the Theoretical Girl could became a reality.
At this point, plan “see Echo & The Bunnymen in small club” went into effect. The gist of the plan, essentially, was to show up at Rusty Spurs a couple hours early and just wait it out until their scheduled midnight set. The fact that there wasn’t an awful lot of interest going on elsewhere on Saturday night made it an easier decision to make. As chance would have it, the two lead-in acts weren’t entirely unfamiliar, both hailing from Canada. The first, Halifax’s Wintersleep, were largely unknown to me though I was aware they were one of the more successful new acts on the Can-rock scene of the last few years. Cursory listens hadn’t impressed, but seeing them live was, if not a revelation, a definite eye-opener. Their grand, atmospheric rock was much nimbler than I’d expected and they displayed a significant amount of on-stage presence and charisma. I understand why they’re of the stature they are back home, and from the enthusiasm of the crowd – presuming they’re not all Canuck ex-pats – their appeal seems to be translating abroad as well.
It was about now that the post-Hot Freaks adrenaline wore off and the weight of the week hit me like two tonnes of bricks. I actually almost spontaneously fell down during Wintersleep’s set, so that’s my excuse for not having a whole lot to say about the set from Montreal’s High Dials. What I found most surprising about their show was that the band still existed – I hadn’t seen or heard them in some six years, though to be fair, I wasn’t really paying attention. But here they were, still turning out high-energy but not especially distinctive mod-inflected guitar rock. And seeing as how the show was running some 30 minutes late, I just wanted them to be gone and the Bunnymen to arrive.
And 30 minutes behind turned into more than 45 before the Liverpool legends finally appeared. Now the whole “big band/little club” thing can be taken two ways – as an opportunity for superstars to re-connect on an intimate level with their fans, or as the manifestation of the proverbial, “see you on the way down”. This Echo & The Bunnymen show fell somewhere in-between. Having already played some three or four shows during the festival, there wasn’t quite the sense of occasion around this last gig – especially not with PJ Harvey wowing them at Stubb’s down the street – but the room, which by my estimation held around 400 tops, was still packed with fans from the surprisingly young to the unsurprisingly old.
Though a natural conclusion to make given the recent surge in ’80s/’90s-vintage reunions, it’s unfair to Echo & The Bunnymen in with those. Although down to only half the original membership, they got back together over a decade ago and continue to produce decent new works, if not nearly as seminal as their older material. And it’s almost unfortunate that they’re still a creatively active band, because that’s not what those in attendance wanted to hear. They wanted to hear the classics, dammit.
And not at all grudgingly, the band complied, kicking off with “Lips Like Sugar” and delivering pretty much a greatest hits set. Of the only two remaining original members, guitar god Will Sergeant looked decidedly his age but singer Ian McCulloch, improbably decked out in a woolen pea coat despite the sweltering heat, was almost eerily ageless. McCulloch was surprisingly gracious, given his irascibile reputation, going so far as to crack some jokes and even a smile or two over the course of the night, though his temper did flare up at a couple points in the evening. Vocally, he was also in pretty good form – any time you thought that his voice might be showing its age, he’d find another gear and belt out the most crucial part of the song the way it was meant to be. Similarly, Sergeant was inspiring on guitar, as much for reminding you of all the brilliant parts he’d written over the years as for what he was actually playing.
But somehow it didn’t feel like they were big stars playing a special, tiny show. For the greatness of their repertoire, their charisma didn’t feel stadium-sized and set to blow the club to pieces, but simply club-sized. Whatever presence McCulloch once had that allowed him to perform without moving but still mesmerizing isn’t really there anymore – see Liam Gallagher for an example of that talent in action. That, however, didn’t keep me from enjoying the show any less, though. I was perfectly happy to take them for what they were and enjoy hearing the likes of “Bring On The Dancing Horses”, “Back Of Love” and – most crucially – “The Killing Moon” live. A completely satisfactory way to close out SxSW 2009 as far as I was concerned.
And, save for another, oh, 40 or so of those little A/V posts – bear with me, please – that’s it for South-by coverage for this year. Final tallies were 46 performances by 44 different acts, 20GB of photos and one kick-ass time. I suspect there’s an inversely proportional relation between my perception of the quality of the festival’s lineup and how good a time I have. A couple months ago, I called the assembled talent “weaksauce” – meant partly in jest and only relative to the acts that I’d hoped would be in attendance – but I still nearly killed myself running around downtown Austin trying to catch all the bands I wanted to see and the last thing I needed was more choices to agonize over. And so to all bands and friends new and old who made the trip one of the best weeks I’ve had in recent memory, I thank you and will see y’all next year.