Saturday, March 21st, 2009
SxSW 2009 Day Three
The Hold Steady, The Wrens, American Analog Set and more at SxSW 2009
Frank YangThe Hot Freaks! Yesterday was the day, the first of our third big to-do at SxSW. To say I was excited was an understatement – the past two were my highlights of SxSW if not my whole year and there wasn’t any reason to think this year would be any different.
And yes things got off to a bang. Throwing the whole notion of headliners closing things out, The Wrens agreed to open the show up at high noon on the Mohawk’s patio, and if they were feeling sluggish from their 1AM showcase the night before, it didn’t show. It had been some years since I’d seen them – over five, to be exact – but the band were manic as ever onstage, if not more. Maybe the long break since The Meadowlands has made them extra hungry to get out and play, but whatever it is, they who’ve been called the best live band in America show no signs of being ready to give up that title – give us that new record and hit the road!
As The Wrens finished up their set, I dashed inside the Mohawk where The Rural Alberta Advantage were starting theirs. They were the only band I had planned on seeing twice this week, and considering the first time was just last night, there’s not a lot else I can say. Granted, the inside of the Mohawk is a slightly different sort of room from the Central Presbyterian Church, but one thing they had in common was being filled with people discovering the band and presumably, since there’s really no other logical response, loving them.
Showing they know how to mark a tenth anniversary, Insound had stacked their stage over at Club DeVille to a ridiculous degree – this was where I was going to be spending the rest of the day, no question. I got there in time to see Handsome Furs, whom if you believe some of the coverage from CMW last week were the only band that mattered. I’ve never managed to love or even like the band as much as some, but do find their live show and its utter rawness engaging. Dan Boeckner has got rock star charisma to spare and Alexei Perry’s beats may be simple, but they’re insistent and effective. Hard not to get caught up in their set.
If they got Club DeVille worked up, then the briefly reunited American Analog Set brought things way down in the best possible way. On hiatus since 2005′s Set Free, they got back together to pull a “Don’t Look Back”-esque revisit to 1999′s The Golden Band for this show only. A special occasion to say the least. I’d forgotten how beautifully hypnotic AmAnSet was, particularly their earlier records – I’d only seen them live in their (slightly) more upbeat and poppier configurations. This show, however, was all shimmering vibraphone, whirring farfisa and Andrew Kenny’s somnambulant vocals – pure aural beauty in its sleepiest form. Though it’s great that Kenny has a new project in The Wooden Birds, I hope this isn’t the last of AmAnSet (although I sort of do, since it means I was there).
Though The Thermals were playing what seemed like a hundred and one shows at SxSW to drum up interest in their forthcoming Now We Can See, out April 7, they’re certainly giving their all to all of them, if this show was any indication. Mixing up new material with old, though tragically “Pillar Of Salt” was cut, The Thermals’ set was compact but pulverizingly good, with Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster bouncing around the stage while new drummer Westin Glass laid the foundation. Simple, direct and so good.
And finally, The Hold Steady. It’s possible they were at SxSW to promote their new live CD/DVD set A Positive Rage, out April 7, but it’s also possible they just heard that there was a big party down in Texas and there was beer. Whatever. The Hold Steady doesn’t need an excuse. Now most sets at SxSW – official or unofficial, big band or small band – clock in at around 40 minutes, and I expected The Hold Steady to do the same. But when they were setting up the stage in front of a jam-packed Club DeVille, they taped down a set list in front of me and there were 21 – Twenty-one – songs written down. This was not going to be a sampler, this was going to be a full and proper set. ZOMG, as the kids say.
And oh my god, what a set. I’ve seen the Hold Steady a number of times and it’s never anything less than a great show, but for whatever reason – maybe the small venue, maybe the party atmosphere of the festival, maybe the ruthless efficiency with which they tore through their set – this may have been the best one I’ve seen them play. Though they’ve justifiably graduated to larger venues and have proven their ability to work the large rooms effectively, they still come across best in the small scale where Craig Finn can sweat on you directly (as he did to me more than a little) and lead the audience in singalongs. And for 70 minutes, covering material from across their entire career, they just killed and killed and killed. They didn’t, however, make it all the way through the set list – they had to call it at 18, leaving out “Stay Positive”, “Cheyenne Sunrise” and “Slapped Actress”. I would have loved to hear them all, but I don’t think there’s any room for complaining of any kind here.