Saturday’s SXSW brought back days of SXSW Past, appropriate on the festival/conference/spring break’s 25th anniversary. The Mojo Magazine Party at Mean Eyed Cat was sufficiently off the beaten path that 75 or so people could comfortably enjoy a series of strong, short shows, starting with Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, playing an “acoustic” set. Acoustic in the sense that he played an acoustic guitar, but he played it through an amp that faced him, not the audience, and one that went through a series of pedals including a looping pedal and one that drenched his acoustic in his trademark fuzz. The smallness of the moment—Mascis sitting down by himself onstage—emphasized the fragility in his voice, something that also evoked slacker when fronting a band. Perhaps he also suggested that as a way of thinking about him when he covered Edie Brickell’s “Circle,” singing, “I give up / nothing’s good enough for anybody else.” But it wasn’t all confession; he dipped into the Dinosaur Jr. songbook a few times, most powerfully on “Get Me” and an extended “Little Fury Things.”
He was followed by the spectacle of London’s Jim Jones Revue. The band looked like they mugged the London Calling-era Clash and stole their stage clothes, and they brought that intensity to their take on classic American R&B/rock ‘n’ roll. It was riveting stuff for a while, but in the end, it sounded like Dr. Feelgood and a number of early 1970s British pub-rock bands, but harder. Offstage, Jones was wearing a Professor Longhair T-shirt.
The draw for the day was Hurray for the Riff Raff, who thankfully had the puzzling and very British Erland and the Carnival between them and the pounding Jim Jones Revue. “Me and Johnny Cash share the same birthday,” Hurray’s Alynda Lee announced from the stage of the club named for a Cash song. “I promised myself I’d brag about that.”
The band didn’t need to brag, though, drawing the audience in from the opening cover of “Little Black Star.”
Hurray for the Riff Raff make country and folk that evokes years gone by while staying contemporary, linking the themes of songs from the past with today and suggesting that they still speak to us. At one point, Lee sang “what’s wrong with me” about how her guy mistreats her (which country singer hasn’t sang that thought?) and “Daniella” features her singing to a woman in a similar relationship with a hint of ambiguity. Is she singing out of sisterly concern or something more? (Which country singer hasn’t sang some variation on that one?). Lee, like John Michael Rouchell, makes herself the subtext of the songs, which makes it easier to connect with the band than a band that simply has good songs, and the strength of the band’s performance drew everybody into the room, where they watched, quietly enthralled. That’s more of an accomplishment than it sounds during SXSW.
Unfortunately, seeing Hurray for the Riff Raff kept me from seeing OffBeat consulting editor John Swenson take the stage at the Continental Club. For years, Mojo Nixon has organized a Saturday afternoon show there during SXSW ending with some Nixon performing in some configuration or crazy scheme. This year: Mojo-oke, with people singing karaoke versions of Mojo Nixon songs. According to an eyewitness, Swenson wrote new lyrics to “Tie My Pecker to My Leg,” making it about members of Nixon’s band, and was one of the high points of the event. I couldn’t be prouder.
Finally, on the flight home, I ran into the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band who confirmed that crowd waiting for Widespread Panic was so loud that they couldn’t be missed onstage either. After the show, I called my wife to tell her about it, and a Pres Hall fan who heard me complaining walked up and shouted into the back of my phone, “They ruined it! They ruined it! I hope all the acid they’re taking gives them all bad trips!” The irony eluded him, but it’s the sort of odd mayhem that, outside of good shows, makes SXSW worthwhile.