SXSW 2011, Friday: Wild Flag, Sharon Van Etten, Low, Versus, Wye Oak and Bizzaro Wendy's



Sharon Van Etten at The A.V. Club day party at Mohawk
Friday started as a tangle that unraveled quickly. I had wanted to check out the Bitch Media day party to see Thao, but that was a bit off the beaten path. I also wanted to check out whatever F-bomb-laden carpet-bombing of chillwave bloggers and Biz3 publicists that music-critical hellraiser Christopher Weingarten had prepared for his talk at the Austin Convention Center. Or maybe I wanted to see Wye Oak. As it turned out, I took too long writing my Thursday recap and missed out on all of that, especially because Weingarten's talk was on Thursday. As you can see, I had my schedule really worked out right down to the minute. But I did make it to Mohawk for the A.V. Club day party.

I had already missed Tristen and a few other bands (including Wye Oak), but got there in time for Sharon Van Etten. I had already seen her (along with, you know, Don Draper) on Wednesday, but her next tour skips Nashville, and to be honest, I wasn't sure if twice would be enough for me. Van Etten and band looked like they had gotten some sun, and for the first song or two her voice seemed a little raw. But it didn't take long for SVE and crew to kick things into gear, and she had a large, appreciative audience out on the patio hanging on her every word. She introduced "Don't Do It" by saying, "I wrote this next song about my stage banter." (I think she might have been joking.) On hand were Michael "Yewknee" Eades, a friend with a delightfully asymmetrical haircut who was introduced to me, fittingly so, as "Tall Jessica," and a fellow whose name escapes me, who used to live across the street from that monument in Murfreesboro that people would pee on to try to break the Curse of the Boro. Richard and Ed Baluyut of Versus were also in the crowd, and I heard several people call Van Etten "amazing" after her set. Co-sign.

Low at Mohawk

Low was next on the indoor stage, and their set of gorgeous, slow-burning tunes was as close to a religious experience as someone like me is going to have. The way Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker sing together gives me chills. Unrelated to those chills (I think), this was the portion of the day that found me one-two punching myself in the liver with beer and Jameson. Back out on the patio, I ran into and talked briefly with the very friendly, very cool, reminds-me-of-my-aunt-in-Ohio-but-not-in-an-old-lame-way Julianna Barwick, who opened for Van Etten at The 5 Spot back in January. Then headed off to the Kiss and Fly, a venue with a neon butterfly on its sign. This was the media party for, a new website launched by Vice that features short documentary videos of bands on tour. DPR has a more lucid recollection of this event than I'm able to conjure at the moment. (This is where free drinks and one-two punches started to catch up with me.) After a presentation I couldn't hear, I left to track down my second basket of amazing kimchi fries — cocktail wieners, however zesty, will only do so much to dent alcohol-induced famishment — and ran into Doug Lehmann of The Clutters, who referred to the Kiss and Fly's sign as "a giant tramp stamp."

At The Parish, I was reunited with my good friend Ben from the old Chicago days, who had been stalking Wild Flag all week. Not stalking in a creepy way, just in a fanboy, see-them-five-out-of-their-eight-shows kind of way. Telekinesis were pretty near the end of their set when I walked in, and I was glad I got to see them live, finally. They finished really strong with "Coast of Carolina," the first single off their debut.

American Music Club were up next, and Mark Eitzel crooned and, well, crooned some more, like a kind of parallel-universe Elvis Costello, right down to the pork-pie hat. (Hat experts may correct me here as to whether Costello wears a bowler or a fedora or what.) I can't say that I've ever counted myself an AMC fan, in so many words, but I found the set charming in a hangdog, Johnny Mathis by way of Stephen Merritt sort of way. He introduced "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" by saying, "I'm proud of myself for writing this song in 1957." (I think he might have been joking.) I'm probably about quatro Equises in at this point, and could not be more pumped to see Versus again for the first time in a decade, give or take a lifetime.

  • Versus
I'll spare you the lecture on how great Versus were in the ’90s, consistently one of the best live bands on the indie circuit, arguably one of the most criminally underrated bands of that era, etc. Things I did not know before they played but found out later because Ben is buddies with the Baluyuts from way back: drummer Ed Baluyut had gum surgery the day before they left for the show; his son just started college (holy shit that made me feel old); the head of the Saucony sneaker company loves Merge Records so much he gave every member of every band playing the Merge showcase (and their crews) a free pair of Saucony sneakers just because. Versus keyboardist/violinist Margaret White — a relative newcomer to the lineup — opted to wear hers onstage, but that wasn't a condition of getting the shoes. Anyway, Versus were great. I wondered how a band that plays relatively infrequently now would compare to the tour-tight unit I saw last time out, but the ringing guitars, full of cleverly arpeggiated runs, the rock-solid drums, the sugary-melancholic vocals — it was all on time, and their combined powers are undiminished. If Yuck were twice as good, they'd be half as good as Versus. They closed with "Use as Directed" off Secret Swingers, even though some guy who probably should have started easing off the booze-throttle by this point yelled out "Blade of Grass!" like an idiot. (Sorry, Versus — I love that song, and you used to always close with it.)

I never ran into Merge honcho and head Superchunker Mac Macaughan, but if you believe Twitter, Scene photog Steve Cross was standing next to him at some point (#shutupsteve). It's probably for the best that I didn't see Mac, though, because I was several more Equises in, and might have said something stupid, like, "Remember that time in Seattle when we talked for 10 seconds backstage and I tried not to look at Laura while she was doing her crazy warm-up stretches?" Or, "Hey, do you know we were on the same podcast once?" So, yeah. I popped outside for some fresh air, and who should come bounding across the surging hordes of humanity but Sharon Van Etten, who flashed a smile that would melt a glacier. Even one that wasn't already falling into the ocean because of climate change. Seriously, she is the nicest person in the world.

We headed upstairs to see Baltimore duo Wye Oak, and damn, they really impressed me. First of all, Andy Stack plays drums and keyboard at the same time, and sometimes sings harmony on top of that, and he actually does it remarkably well. (Sure, the Lonesome Organist used to play one-handed guitar and harmonica on top of that, but can you hum a single Lonesome Organist song?) As someone who hadn't heard Wye Oak's latest, Civilian, yet, and was more familiar with their earlier, more folky material, I was simply not prepared for how hard Stack and guitarist/singer Jenn Wasner rocked. As luck would have it, SVE introduced me to Stack after the show, and — big surprise — he's a really nice dude. (Speaking of really nice dudes who happen to be really good musicians, thank you to Doug Keith for the beer — I never saw you again to reciprocate.)

I met some folks who are working to place some Van Etten songs in places that would make her some money, and then it was time for Wild Flag. I will say it again: GO SEE THEM tomorrow night at Mercy Lounge. They might not exactly be the second coming of Fugazi — as this very entertaining post argues somewhat cheekily, and somewhat provocatively — but they are the first coming of Wild Flag, and they are tremendous. Also: what Jessica Hopper said.

When I saw Wild Flag at the same venue on Thursday afternoon, there were some problems with the sound, one of Janet Weiss' cymbals fell over during the second song, and Carrie Brownstein seemed a little tentative playing her former co-workers' office party. I mean, they were still really, really good in spite of those minor difficulties, but on Friday night, any trace of uncertainty was gone, and they absolutely blew the place apart. If you want moves, this band has moves: Carrie Brownstein leaping and mid-air kicking into chord changes, Mary Timony finger-tapping and playing her Jazzmaster behind her head, Brownstein and Timony crossing swords mid-song and nearly crashing into each other during dense, spiraling psychedelic noise-rock passages that segue into pop-harmony break-downs and rough-and-tumble classic-rock chord riffs — Wild Flag do all that. And with the estimable Janet Weiss smacking the skins, and Rebecca Cole bopping hard on keys, this band is pretty much unstoppable. 2011 is the Year of the Glass Tambourine.

Chill Wave Parking Lot
  • Chill Wave Parking Lot
After the Flag, Ben made the call to hit a Wendy's for some dietarily questionable grub on the way back to the hotel, and the parking lot was like some kind of zombie-movie scene, with people wandering through listlessly, and a crowd of people hanging off the side of a raised lot, holding onto a railing while they watched some sort of chill-wavy band play in front of a parked school bus. The music was so loud that you couldn't hear anything, so Ben just kept yelling "Hello?! Hello?! Hello?!" in the general direction of the drive-thru speaker until we finally just pulled around to the window. Surreality: high and rising. I eventually made it back to the Wyndham and about a spicy chicken sandwich later I fell asleep with Rye Rye and M.I.A. on the TV. (Maybe I just dreamed that we were hanging out in a park lip-syncing?) I will say this: leaving a half-eaten bag of french fries and smeared ketchup on your nightstand does not make for a very pleasant potpourri when you wake up the next morning.

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