Thursday, March 18, 2010

SXSW Day 2; March 18, 2010; Austin TX

You know you’re at SXSW when you walk into the lobby of the Hilton and Frightened Rabbit is playing. Since I had missed them the day before, and wasn’t sure I would get to see them again, I made a point to catch their 9:45 set this morning. The local public radio station KUT was sponsoring these morning short sets (also broadcast on the radio), and had an impressive line-up every day. Also on the bill were the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Dawes (who had played at 9). Only the frontman and guitar player of the Scottish phenoms were present for this gig, but since his voice is the defining characteristic of the band, he’s really all you need. I was convinced to stick around for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and was glad I did. The trio specializes in traditional music, but isn’t afraid to mix it up, like when Rhiannon Giddens took lead vocals on a decidedly modern song. Man, can that girl sing. I was sure I would see them again this week, but in case I didn’t, I was glad I got to see this.

I thought I was free until 1 when Califone was playing a day party, but then I heard that Darren Hanlon was playing at noon just down the street. The Australian Hanlon had opened for the Magnetic Fields when I saw them five years ago in Florida, and had charmed everyone with his catchy songs and sense of humor. He was playing in a dark cantina on 6th Street that I’d walked past a dozen times and never noticed. He started well after noon, but he finished his charming set which included a song about Squash (the game, not the vegetable) and a lullaby for a fussy child in the audience (though his mother said she usually has to play it at least five times lull him to sleep). Then it was over to the other side of the Interstate to see Califone at the French Legation Museum. I arrived right at one to see half the band standing around eating BBQ, “PA’s broken,” percussionist Ben Massarella reported. It wasn’t so much broken as just not ready for them to play, which meant the whole schedule of half hour sets between the large stage and a smaller one was going to be pushed back. Califone took the stage and battled feedback for most of their set, but I still thought it was brilliant, especially Tim Rutili’s rant about how we need to do something about “legation.” I must be in love.

I was just about to make the mile and a half jaunt to see Joe Ely’s one and only SXSW appearance when a friend from Madison spoke up, “you’re staying for Antlers right? They were the highlight of the Forward Fest for me.” Um… I hadn’t been planning on it, but they did have free beer here, and if they are that good I wanted to see them. I spent most of their set in a beer line that led to me getting to the front of the line only to learn they were out. What I heard of Antlers was good, and I will certainly check them out again.

The night before when the Ha Ha Tonka boys had asked me when I was going to come see them, I responded emphatically not till Friday’s Bloodshot party. Someone very wise told me before my first SXSW, “plan, plan, plan and then wing it.” Well, this was a wing it situation. Unfortunately they were playing at 700 West 6th Street and I was at 800 East 8th. I did have three beers and BBQ to walk off after all. I made it by 3:30 only to find an empty stage and no gear other than a bass amp and a minimal drum kit (even by Lennon’s modest standards), but the bartender confirmed that they were the next band up. Eventually, the band took the stage and Brian and Brett plugged into a couple DIs on stage. “We just spent the last half hour relearning some of our songs to play acoustically due to the situation,” Brian explained. Apparently two microphones were the entire PA. They played a twenty minute set, making the most of Brett’s mandolin and their exquisite harmonies. Probably not the best set I’ve ever seen them play, but still totally worth it, maybe even just for the fact that they were so surprised to see me. “I’m powerless,” I explained.

I then retraced my steps, hoping to catch a little of Califone’s set at the Flamingo Cantina. The guy at the door reported that they were about fifteen minutes into their set. Drat, why couldn’t they have been running late like everyone else? Still, I did get to hear “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers,” and tell them all how brilliant they were. Then it was time to head back to the hotel and catch a little nap before heading out to tonight’s showcase.
Frightened Rabbit at the Hilton

Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Hilton

Darren Hanlon


Ha Ha Tonka


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