Fighting through the stiff muscles and sleepiness, a conscious decision was made to make this an easier day than yesterday. Too little concern for one’s health is an easy mistake at SxSW, and this was a year where more opportunities were available than ever before, so it’d be fool-hardy to get burnout so early on. In an effort to ease into the day, perhaps it would be nice to hear the stories of a legend…
Bruce Springsteen Keynote Speech @ Convention Center
Tellingly, the collar of his shirt was blue on this day as he spoke of the history of music in America, and more specifically, of the songs of the workingman. As expected, the patron saint of the genre, Wood Guthrie was discussed in detail, as well as Bob Dylan; he proclaimed himself to be firmly within the “Church of Dylan.” The audience had a hearty chuckle as he reminisced about Loudon Wainwright III and himself being the new Dylan, “…and Dylan was only 30!”
He’s probably not used to being in front of an audience in such a formal context, and it showed as he fumbled with notes and stared down at them intently and read whole passages from them from time to time. But it was easy to forgive, as he was humble and extremely affable, even picking up the guitar and singing a few bars a couple of times when appropriate (which was of course met with wild applause). Springsteen also spoke of the invigorating spirit of the punk rock movement and what a kick in the ass it was to hear the Sex Pistols. A hefty amount of admiration was also directed toward James Brown, as he preached of how intense his performances were and what an inspiration that level of energy was on him.
Aside from the brief history of music, The Boss also gave advice to all the musicians in the room that came off a bit like a graduation speech, hoping to guide those young and hopefuls in the crowd. He preached of living in comfortable contradictions: “feel like you’re the best act in town…but you suck!” Or taking art deadly serious, but also don’t take it serious at all, because it’s only rock. The importance of a caring deeply but not taking things too seriously hit home as he thanked everyone for their time and declared, “everyone have a good festival, I’m going to go watch some Black Death Metal,” and walked off the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
Delta Spirit @ Convention Center
After a brief walk around outside amongst the hustle and bustle and aching reminders of the previous day in each step, the convention center with its large, sparsely populated, darkly lit rooms seemed the most logical place to post up for the day. Fortunately, the same room where The Boss laid out his wisdom also played host to some great music from fantastic up and comers Delta Spirit.
It wasn’t long ago that they were relative unknowns at SouthBy, playing in the middle of the day at free parties, happy to get gigs at such a large music festival. This year they return as respected indie musicians officially showcased on the same stage that held Bruce Springsteen. They appear on the convention center stage very unassumingly, like a couple of guys that happened to wander onto stage mistakenly, not like brilliant musicians. Lead singer Matt Vasquez sported a dingy Miller Lite hat and an acoustic guitar and greeted the crowd, jokingly welcoming the crowd to their 17th SxSW show of the week. It’s not far from the truth since anyone who looked at party and showcase lineups will notice their name cropped up quite a number of times.
Delta Spirit’s Children
Despite this the band managed to put on an energetic and spirited show, showing off songs like “Empty House” and “Idaho” from their new self-titled album released the day before. Also thrown in for good measure were older cuts “White Table” and “Children” from their first two releases. What really set this performance apart from previous ones encountered was their use of two drummers. Not with full kits mind you, but instead just a large tom and cymbal. It added more urgency and a rhythm-centric slant to all the songs. Aware of this, Young joked that this was their “auxiliary set. We’re in drum line mode.” It’s hard to beat the first time you encounter a band’s magic but this performance came close, personally. They even inspired the rather tame and seated crowd to jump to their feet, with a few even leaving their aisles and walking to the front to bob back and forth in time with the music. If you haven’t seen this band live, get out there and do it now before they start filling larger venues and the experience completely changes.
The Shins @ Auditorium Shores
It is with heavy heart that this portion is written. First, because it was this journalist’s first live experience with the Shins and it did not meet expectations in the least, but also because of this sentiment, it puts me squarely in agreement with Pitchfork’s thoughts on the show. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a great website for music news, but their opinions are divisive to say the least. It is rare that we agree on much.
However, one thing that almost all SxSW-goers can agree on is an affinity for the Shins. They probably appear in the middle of a Venn diagram of most music lovers at the festival, so suffice to say there was a massive turnout for this show. The grounds were overflowing with people, some not even entering the park proper, instead choosing to sit on the hill across the street to take in the music without dealing with park entry. This is the option that was chosen by my companions so that we could have a picnic and not deal with the crowd. It turns a throng of people had the same idea, which made for a very populated area. The thing is, while great music, the Shins don’t exactly translate to this sort of setting. The Strokes pulled it off last year and almost caused a riot, with people tearing down gates to get inside and get a piece of the action. Most of the Shins’ music is the sort that you listen to quietly while riding your bike, surfing the web or reading. It’s casual music. This means that with a crowd this size, the incessant casual chatter could be heard above the music the majority of the time.
Shins’ Simple Song
It didn’t help that singer and main man James Mercer chose to play mostly new songs, 7 songs in total from the new album. A crowd this big needs hits or at least things they recognize to stay motivated and focused, and he just couldn’t grab them. Of course there were great reactions to songs like “Kissing the Lipless” and “So Says I,” but it just wasn’t enough. Even “New Slang” seemed like only a minor thrill for the crowd who, if the people around me were any indication said, “oh, this is that Garden State song!” then went back to their conversation.
Despite the noncommittal crowd, Mercer and his latest guns for hire (he fired the other original band members some years ago) seemed to be having a great time, playing the songs with ease and casualness. Perhaps the crowd picked up on this vibe and decided to emulate it. It was great to see the band enjoying themselves, but it was frustrating to be amongst such an apathetic crowd after yearning to see this band live for so many years. Maybe this is a band best experienced in a smaller setting, such an indoor venue or at least a smaller outdoor theater like Stubb’s that allows for a least a little more intimacy with the crowd than a sea of people in field can offer.
Combine this with their new album being a bit underwhelming upon the first few listens, maybe it’s time Mercer calls it a day on Shins or at least tries to keep it a little more contained and doesn’t attempt large outdoor concerts like this. After all, Broken Bells (Mercer with Danger Mouse) was fun, exciting and knew how to get a crowd bobbing and having a great time. Only time will tell if it stands the test of time the way The Shins’ material does, but it seemed liked the most vibrant and refreshed Mercer has been in years. Let’s hope all of this is premature and it was just a bad experience or individual show, because this band is too good to fall by the wayside.
Jarad Matula | Senior Writer