SXSW Diaries – That Friday I sorta met a hero of mine.

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Note/Warning: My proper reviews for SXSW will be on La Pop Life and Gold Flake Paint soon(ish). For Sloucher, I’ll be posting diary-style stuff, mostly unedited (barring a few typos that had to go away, replaced by more typos. Most of these diaries were written late at night and honest to God, this is how they went. No clear cut narrative is intended, just general ramblings. Enjoy this Gonzo-style experiment.

Managed to walk three blocks from the bus stop and I’m ready to call it a day. Thankfully, the food at Blue Ribbon BBQ offers a moment of relaxation. As I finish my meal, a rapper and his posse come in. One of them is talking to another who is filming everything. They say, loudly, that each one should seat in a separate table and “do the thing.” I was already leaving anyway, but I get a refill of iced tea. The guy filming says hi, I greet him back. The manager/cashier is outside, having a photo op with someone I should recognise, but I don’t. Just when I leave, I realise I might be featured in their vlog. Glory awaits!

Have I mentioned I have an Internet addiction? My painful walking is no match compared to my necessity to tweet and post inane rantings on Facebook. I stick around, jolt down a few maps in my notebook so I walk the least amount of time and distance and make my way to see Actual Wolf at the Liberty Bar. I should be used to getting ID-ed by now…

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A very loud band is inside the bar and for a minute there, I think I’m in the wrong place. A waiter sees me confused and points to the back door. Lo and behold, there’s a backyard and there’s a stage too. The people from Rock The Cause have a little stand where they sell the double CD tribute to Jason Molina. It’s only ten bucks, it’s before it’s officially released and it includes a poster. I buy it. There’s no poster, never mind.

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Actual Wolf is solo today. The sound from the metal band resonates in the empty bar, getting a little amplification. Still, the overlapping isn’t that bad and Actual Wolf sounds good. He makes fun of the metal band a lot. “Once they finish college, they’ll become fans of Low and Mark Kozelek” he deadpans while tuning between songs. “Once they grow up and give that hard bullshit they’ll find there’s more to music that screaming”, he quips, before playing ‘Let it go’. A couple of new fans come by and talk to him when he’s finished, I disappear back into the streets as I make my way to another venue.

I consider another pedicab ride, but they are all taken and traffic everywhere is ridiculous. It’s like México City during mornings. What’s the human/bike equivalent of gridlock? Anyways, I made it to Uncorked Tasting Room. It looks dead from outside, but once you sneak your way to the back, it feels (and looks) like the wedding scene from the beginning of The Godfather. There are some local ales (I go for the blonde ale).

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I found Those Darlins thanks to American Laundromat’s Repo Man tribute album. Safe to say this band is a heckuva live act. Guitar posing, solos and a double vocal attack are part of their sweet Tennessee sound, part country, part punk and very garage. They made me forget about my ailing legs and that was no mean feat at the moment.

The Papergarden Records people are around and they are friendly. There’s some industry heavy types, you know the kind: old, wise and sly wheeler dealers looking for the next act to peddle to the public, the ones that take a sip or two of alcohol, let you take a gulp or two and then steer it all towards their advantage. That’s the way business is made. Audience seems to be equal parts bands and young upstarts looking to be the next one in charge. Safe to say some of them will crash and burn; others will learn the game and play it. Saw a guy from Leeds who used to be in a band. He recognises me and goes away. It’s my hair, right?

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Alvvays remarks about the ubiquitous Half Circle of Death (TM), noting that it’s for the best as 2 of their band members got food poisoning. The Canadian dream pop ensemble marched on and no incidents happened. Guitars squiggled, louder than the gusts of winds that never delivered a storm; post punk moods that clamoured for rain never got their reward.

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I planted myself in a remarkably comfy chair during Vaadat Charigim’s set. Their sound is supposed to be shoegaze, but I found it more rock and drone than anything else. Hypnotic at moments, time changed its linear progression. I think they played ‘Odisea’, which is a pretty good song to start with. I could swear their bass player was the body double of my PhD supervisor but I’ll assume it’s just tiredness speaking.

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Drenge are playing at this big ass tent set up by Gypsy, between Comal and Onion. When I see them, I give them a hug; God knows I’ve missed the Yorkshire accent for what feels a lifetime. While they are still soundchecking. A severely inebriated woman asks me if I know the setlist and if they will play ‘Fuckaround’. She keeps asking me even when I say no and then asks me if I could sneak her in to meet the band. I try to stay away from her.

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It’s been a while since I’ve seen Drenge live, but they seem to be getting fiercer every time. Like jumping manta rays, quick spells appear, fly then fall down. ‘Backwaters’ still is my fave song from their live set. After the gig, I manage to talk them (after making sure I wasn’t followed by the crazy lady.) Eoin looks tired, Rory looks fed up. We talk.

It hits me: SXSW hasn’t been what they expected and it hasn’t been for me either. “Just when you think it gets crowded on Division Street during Tramlines, you see Austin, right?” I try to quip, and although there was a joke hiding there, it’s more a spot of gallows’ humour. Still, even if they weren’t feeling it, they still gave a good show.

Sadly, I’m not as professional and I made up my mind: I was going to call it a day. I stopped at a Wendy’s and bought the biggest artery-clogging thing in the menu. I remember telling the cashier : “if I could buy a greasier sandwich, I’d be in Mexico”. I should really stop it with the obscure references.

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The Convention Centre is eerily empty. Everyone’s out there and I make my way to the middle floor, eating my food while looking out the windows. I stay there until we all are kicked out. I walk towards 6th street and just look at the crowds. A man with a Texas-sized cross passes by. It’s weird, but reminds me that we are in lent and, well, I don’t think I’ve followed lent since I left Catholic school. I find a place called Buffalo Billiards and I sit there, drinking a pint of Shiner Bock. It’s pretty good and there’s free wi fi…

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Buffalo Billiards is a funky place. There’s a crowd for every single stereotype you could imagine. Rockers, greasers, rappers, locals, people on the prowl and dim-witted tourists. I probably fit in one of those categories. Heck, with my girth I probably occupy a few of them. Whoa, a fat joke, cool it with the self-pity, man. When I finish my ale (it was a very comfy sofa), I walk out and hear some chanting. It’s a group of Hare Krishnas, making their way through the 6th street crowd. I want to yell “GOURANGA!” but again, it’s lent and I should cool it with both the obscure references and the self-pity.

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It’s almost 8 when I decide I should just call it a day. I make my way home, but, just for kicks, walk to see the crowd for the Pitchfork Showcase at the Central Presbyterian Church. It’s a mad queue outside and I’m half-tempted to do a funny “talk to the crowd” bit for a future podcast. Instead, I just talk to a nearby group of people. They’ve been there for 2 hours and the line has barely moved. I join them.

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Of course, it’s the line at the left of the entrance. We are The Wicked ones, set aside for the mortal sin of having a wristband. Whereas The Chosen ones are on the right handside, wearing their badges like plenary indulgences.

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I stick around for 30 minutes and just when I was ready to make a move, the line moves. We assume it’s only 3 or 4 people on our side going in, but no, everyone manages to go inside. I get a great seat and sit in awe. No particular reason, except the fact that it’s the first time I’ve seen a queue outside a church. It’ll probably be the longest I’ve been inside a church, willingly.

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First band is Hundred Waters. For a minute there, I confuse the lead singer with Ms. Polachek from Chairlift, but a closer inspection (camera tags, eh?) allows me to get some decent shots and also feel their music upfront. It might not seem like the heaviest band in the world, but it’s making the place vibrate a little. It’s a sweet, long set, hypnotic at times.

A stern looking man is sitting near me. I ask him about the upper balconies and he curtly says that it’s “for VIP only.” Seems it appears he runs the show, I double-check about the ban on photo and video during Mark Kozelek’s set. He says if anyone is caught, they’ll be shown the exit. I take it seriously. I also change seats, towards the front. I mentioned I’m a superfanboy and the closest I can get to God Kozelek, the better.

While that very tense, HBO-quality confrontation is happening, I catch with the corner of my eye a big procession near the church’s altar. This cool looking dude and a crew are placing what constitutes a minisound factory. Samplers, triggers, pedals and a noodle soup of electronic cables are meticulously arranged. The guy takes off his shoes and socks and starts his set.

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His name? Mas Ysa. What is it? Live electronics. And he is brutal. “Electronic music is not ‘real’ music” is one of my main pet peeves and I’d dare everyone who truly believes such fallacy to listen to Mas Ysa. Not only is the dude as precise as a metronome, his music has a lot of soul and at times, I feared for the structural integrity of the building. The loud waves made the building resonate both the building and our internal organs in a way I haven’t felt since I watched Sleepindog (it’s a band that has that fella from Stars of the lid – everything rumbles like Godzilla dancing salsa!)

I notice that Mark Kozelek is sitting in the bench next to time, talking a few times with Hundred Waters’ Nicole Miglis. I think of a thousand ways of casually saying “hi!” but he goes to the VIP area after the set is done.

Curses!

Right, I move another couple of rows forward. I’m on row 3 and plan to move to row 2 when this woman sits on row 2. She looks frighteningly familiar. I bid my time. I wonder for a minute if this church has wi fi. Lo and behold, there’s several networks available. One is called “Pope Francis, U there?”, but it’s password protected. The Presbyterian Church’s, however, isn’t. I get this warning.

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Oh, well, twitter time. While I keep ranting and making inane religious jokes, Forest Swords sets up and starts playing. Never as loud as Mas Ysa, but equally grandiose. For a few moments, I could feel myself dozing off. Not because it was boring, but there was something on their music, a strange mix of ambient, dub and tribal sounds that felt otherworldly. Almost forgot to take photo, but, dammit, I did it!

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And then it was time for The Great Kozelek to take the stage. I really thought about slipping by, undetected. I mean: how many morbidly obese Mexicans can there be at this church? No one will notice me. This is my gift and my curse, for it’s not a power I was born with but…

Holy shit! Eric Pollard (aka Actual Wolf) is on drums. And there’s Kozelek. He hasn’t even played a note and there’s thunderous applause. Both Kozelek and Pollard do their soundcheck by singing ‘O Come, all ye faitful’ a cappella. No introductions, just straight into the music.

I saw not one, not two, but a whole swarm of foolish photographers (and a dude with a video camera) place themselves in front of Kozelek. For a minute, I thought he was going to open his eyes and let the Omega Sanction beams fly and 86 the lot. But no. Just when I was going to say to myself YOLO (the new Amen!) the stern looking man and a few “helpers” waited for the song to be over and escort them all outside. I never saw any of them again.

I’ve seen Mark “Voice of Gold” Kozelek before, way back in 2009 in Manchester. I remember his humour being quite caustic and he pretty much obliterated hecklers, like some dumbass who kept yelling “Uncle Joe!” This time around, there were no hecklers, but Kozelek’s humour was in top form.

A few quotes I scribbled down (no evictions for writing – Kermit yay!). Paraphrasing might’ve occurred.

Someone yells “we love you!”, he replies “I love each and every one of you, even Pitchfork.”

“Why give an album a 9.2? what’s wrong with a 10?” – Referring to the recent Pitchfork review.

“I love Pitchfork! Best literature that can be read!” – He deadpans after remembering he is playing at the Pitchfork Festival later this year.

“I love the backstage here. Most backstages I’ve been to recently are like little jail cells. Right here you’ve got food and beautiful women. I should have opening acts more often.”

“There’s two types of people at SXSW – those excited about being here and those who can’t believe they got talked into it.”

Ouch. Anyways, he jokes a lot between songs and you know? It’s needed, because as rhythmically happy most of the songs were, they are of sombre subjects. Death of loved ones, whether due to natural causes or accidents, are the themes from some songs from Benji. It’s a great album, but it’s also very hard hitting. Kozelek’s voice and hard hitting lyrics are the staples of his career, I’d venture to say. The fact that it’s all zealously guarded by some rather excellent music makes it even better.

The woman in front of me still reminds me of someone. When the concert finishes, a lot of people leave, but there’s still a healthy crowd for Real Estate. The woman with black, curly hair stands up, turns around, looks at me for a moment and I draw a nesh smile and make it to the exit. Yup, that’s me.

On the way out, I see a guy selling Sun Kil Moon albums. Might as well treat myself to a physical copy of Benji. I get a free live CD and thank the guy. While I’m outside looking at the map for the night bus, I see a rush of people going for Real Estate. I wait for the crowd to get in, put my things on my backpack and stand up quickly and when I raise my head, Mark Kozelek is in front of me, by the gate. He looks startled (or upset – I dunno, it was dark) and I just say:

“Great show tonight!”

“Thanks.”

And he walks back to the church. One off the bucket list.

Eric Pollard was behind Mark Kozelek and we talk about the earlier show at Liberty Bar. We then bid adieu. I walk towards the night bus stop and, surprise, surprise, it has moved. Where to? Well, a bit of intelligent sleuthing was involved. By that I mean: run after a night bus when you see it in Congress Avenue. I manage to get the one I need and well, it takes ages to get there. First, there’s a crash on his route, so it has to take a detour. The driver ends up in some strange, narrow street and it takes about 30 minutes to back off and get out. Then panic sets and I swear I’m on the wrong bus, but thankfully something looks familiar (old navy!) and I am dropped off near the Walgreens by Cameron Road. I think about getting some food, but my bed calls. Again, I feel like John McClane, I wish I knew a few songs for a blue guitar and I know it’s pathetic but that was the greatest night of my life.

Words: Sam J. Valdés López

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