Saturday started with Houston’s Allen Oldies Band playing an outdoor show on South Congress. The question you have to ask yourself while watching the Allen Oldies Band is if singer Allen Hill is touched, if he grew up under powerlines, or if he’s a conceptual artist a la Andy Kaufman with 100 percent commitment to his character. Whatever the case, he sings classic garage rock hits with all the subtlety of a wrestler and with an inventive mind that every prop comic in America would envy. Anything he touches can be made a source of entertainment. And they rock.
Saturday on South Congress has a bit of a meeting of the tribe feel, but pretty much all SXSW is a yearly reunion of like minds – at the Continental Club for Mojo Nixon’s Pancake Breakfast, the day-long event brings together the monsters of college rock – Mojo and Dash Rip Rock – and some of their inheritors. The middle of the show each year are a couple of artists who don’t quite fit, but for many at SXSW, it’s the one chance they get all year to see Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry. This year’s set by Graham was among the most emotional – and emotionally complete – shows I’ve ever seen. He was physically warm with the rest of the band and wiping his eyes after songs about life’s disappointments. Before the first instrumental break in the hushed, bleak “Have You Seen the Change in Me,” he instructs the band, “Leave nothing standing” as they crash into a passage that hinted his rage at life’s betrayal. But he finished the set with the equally vulnerable and equally hopeful “Something Wonderful,” and it was as thrilling as the rest was sad.
The rest of the afternoon was a typical SXSW Saturday afternoon – a little music (with Jon Langford and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts) and a few margaritas with friends as the urgency to see more starts to fade.
After dinner and a short time out, I stopped in a Japan Night showcase, which is always another kind of uplifting. The young bands traveling to Austin from Japan treat the shows like Madison Square Gardens or Wembley Stadium, and their enthusiasm is charming. When the all-girl Stereopony finished, the singer gestured that she wanted a photo, so she and the other girls crouched onstage with their backs to the audience so a photographer onstage could shoot them with the audience as the background – to which everybody enthusiastically agreed.
Then to PJ Harvey and John Parish debuting new material and occasionally referring back to their previous album, 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point. The material echoed that album’s texture-heavy/melody-short material, but she was riveting. Often though, she sang quietly with so much reverb on her voice that it became so atmospheric as to disappear behind everything else onstage. Since there were points where she was also clear and crisp, it wasn’t ineptitude behind the board; it was an artistic decision, but one that was a little distancing at the outdoor show at Stubb’s.
Partway through, I slipped out to see the Knux, the L.A.-based hip-hop duo from New Orleans East. They had a DJ, a bass player, keyboard player and hype man onstage with them, and they generated a lot of funky energy onstage. But, it was also a typical SXSW occasion – a mediocre 6th Street venue with no good sightlines and a soundman who didn’t seem to notice that Krispy was the lead voice, but he was often low in the mix. Not so much that it ruined the songs, but we weren’t getting the songs the way they made them sound on record.
After that, it was time for a cab, though I did stop out of curiosity into a good-sounding British showcase to see Bish, who was dressed in a leather Xena outfit with racing stripes. She played an electric sitar over dance pop, and that was a perfectly odd and appropriate way to end SXSW.