SXSW Day 1- Califone; March 17, 2010; Austin TX
I’d been looking for plane tickets to SXSW for weeks when finally I thought I had found the best combination of price and times. We didn’t land in Austin until 2:55 on the first official day of the conference, but I figured we couldn’t miss much. Who was I kidding? This is SXSW. For one, Ha Ha Tonka played two of their six shows before I even landed. The first was Tuesday night for the Swollen Circus, an annual event at the Hole in the Wall that signals the beginning of the insanity. Their second show was at 2 PM today. Oh well, I was still sure that I would be able to get downtown in time to see the final two bands at the Paste party. Roky Erikson and Okkervil River were playing four times this week, and Frightened Rabbit something like six, but this was the only time that I knew for sure I would see both of them. Unfortunately the ride I was expecting didn’t show, and the airport buses don’t run very often, so it was five by the time I checked in to the hotel.
With all the free entertainment done for the day, and without a badge or wristband, I needed to pick my showcase of choice and get in line hoping to get in. There were several attractive options, including Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles and Raul Malo on the same bill (though four hours apart) at the Continental. However, I think I was kidding myself if I thought I was going to see anyone other than Califone tonight.
I don’t remember exactly the first time I saw them. A show at the Annex probably eight years ago is the one that comes to mind, but it’s entirely possible I’d seen them even before that. I’ve known them personally for probably four years owing to the fact that Ryan Hembrey is currently their sound guy/tour manager. Still, I’ve found their shows hit and miss, thrilling one time, sleepy the next. Until now. Strangely enough after all these years, they’ve become my new favorite band. I thought maybe their thirty minute set opening for Wilco was an anomaly, their impressively concise set owing to the time limit. But it happened again during the short set they played following a showing of All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, the genuinely good movie that band leader Tim Rutili made for which they provided the live soundtrack. I bought the double album of the same name that night and it hasn’t left my turntable since. I was awed, and I had to see them again.
Initially I had dismissed this showcase due to my utter indifference to the four bands playing before them. There was no way I could be expected to suffer through staggeringly boring indie darlings the Bowerbirds for a third time, let alone the suffocatingly earnest Dawes. Turns out I didn’t have to. Drummer Joe Adamik hustled me in the gate early under the guise of his tech and I was in. Since the band also had hours to kill before they played, we found a back bar away from the stage and drank Lone Stars and chat till show time. Happily enough, three-fourths of Ha Ha Tonka wandered in to see their friends Dawes (hmm, maybe I need to give them another chance). Even if I hadn’t gotten to see them play today, at least I got to see them, and buy them beer.
I was predictably a little drunk by the time Califone took the stage, but it was another amazing performance. The record’s title track is always a highlight, its mumbled chorus getting stuck in my head for days. “Giving Away the Bride” is another, the noisy double percussion somehow finding order. Rutili’s use of two microphones on most songs gives them their distinctive sound. Luckily, there was little disruption from the The Mohawk next door whose outdoor stage backs up to Club DeVille’s. Normally it isn’t a problem, but I was informed that the band slated for midnight over there was the notoriously loud metal band High on Fire. I think maybe you could hear them between songs, but I was too distracted by Califone to know for sure.