A lot of electrical mishaps couldn't spoil the fun in Austin.
AUSTIN, TEXAS - Something freaky was going on at South by Southwest on Thursday. Beyond the whole thing with the 16 straight hours of live music and 10,000 bands being in town, that is. At four different shows throughout the day I saw the power go out or the sound suddenly go dead. Perhaps Austin has hit overload.
It first happened to Minnesota’s own Trampled by Turtles at the Bloody Merry Morning Brunch on the new “Austin City Limits” mezzanine patio, where the power to the stage went completely kaput. No problem in this case. The all-acoustic pickers barely batted and kept right on playing – truly unplugged. They never did get the amplification back, and they were thus recruited to back Texas songwriter Ben Kweller (due up after them) through Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and other covers.
The sound cut out a couple times on the big Auditorium Shores stage across Town Lake during M Ward’s picturesque sunset gig, too. “Just like playing Emo’s,” Ward quipped, referring to Austin’s now sadly defunct mega-sized punk bar. He did OK playing a couple acoustic tunes on his own, including “One Hundred Million Years,” and his band was up to speed for “Whole Lotta Losin’” and several more psychedelic-toned new songs from an album due out next month. The Shins followed Ward to the stage to work out their own new tunes and a remade lineup. The single “Simple Song” sounded great, but the three other songs from the just-issued record I heard before I had to cut out for the Springsteen gig reiterated what folks often say about James Mercer’s band: It’s way better at making albums than playing gigs.
Spank Rock did it to himself. The Baltimore-based, hyper-tongued rapper was climbing and bouncing all over the stage under the parking lot tent at the Beauty Bar, and he eventually pulled out his microphone cord himself while ascending a stack of amps mid-song. He and his DJ and hype man were otherwise fully plugged in. They showed off the great electro-static spark on last year’s mouthfully titled, sadly underrated album, including “Birfday” and the sweltering “Hot Potato.” On stage, with his mohawky hair and spazzy delivery, Spank Rock added even more flair to the raunchy and rowdy songs.
Speaking of bawdy stuff, Minneapolis’ mouthy indie-rapper Prof covered through a spell of technical difficulties in his set by telling a sordid joke involving Superman and Wonder Woman and the Invisible Man (use your imagination; or maybe it’s best not to). Prof played to a crowd 50 times less the size of what he gets back home, butthat allowed him some funny face-to-face barbs with some audience members (unrepeatable here). Once his DJ, Fundo, worked out the wiring kinks, things got serious, especially in the howling and blear-eyed soul-rocker “Whiskey.”
There weren't any electrical issues at my last set of the night, the Cloud Nothings, a Cincinatti band that played the open-air rooftop of the 512 on Sixth Street. Alas, I can't say they blew the roof the place since they were performing on it, but they reached that point musically several times. A straight-up, two-guitar quartet whose new album was produced by Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey), the group bounced around musically and physically with its roller-coastery punk jams. Nerdy, scratchy-voiced singer Dylan Baldi is charming in a Milo Aukerman (of the Descendents) sort of way, but the highlight of the set was a long, bursting instrumental called "Separation" that reminded me of Husker Du's "Reoccuring Dreams."