If ever there was a day to remember, this was it. Since the previous day at SxSW was a mild day of catching only a few acts, this third day was one in which to go full-throttle, checking out as much good music as humanly possible. That, and of course catching the illustrious Jack White. But more on that later. It turned out to be a 12-hour marathon of dark venues, sunburned cues, and very little pause for food or drink – but in the end – one of the most worthwhile days of music this author has ever personally witnessed.
Sissy Clerks @ Dirty Dog Bar’s Minnesota Music Showcase
Lured in by the promise of free BBQ and the intrigue of never previously heard bands hailing from MN, this seemed like a good way to start the day. First up on the venue’s bill was a new band called Sissy Clerks. Apparently the winners of a Minneapolis band contest to appear on the bill, it was clear why they were chosen since their music was fun and catchy. The band members’ profiles were somewhat fitting of the band name as they were led by a striped sweater-clad girl in thick-rimmed glasses playing guitar and singing with slightly cutesy, high register vocals. If you like your indie rock with some healthy twee and stabs of accordion, then this is a great new and upcoming band to look into. Their Facebook fan page can be found here.
Dark Dark Dark @ Dirty Dog Bar’s Minnesota Music Showcase
This is the band that inspired a trip to the Minnesota Music Showcase in the first place. Since exploring their music after learning too late of their fall tour last year with another favorite of mine, A Hawk and A Hacksaw, Dark Dark Dark has been on my must-see list. Thankfully that came to pass sooner rather than later, and it was well worth the wait.
Here’s the catch though. If you’re having that 2:30pm feeling that requires an energy shot, this perhaps isn’t the best band to see early in the afternoon with a belly full of BBQ. If you’re ready for it thought, their music is like a slow, sad waltz—40 minutes of serene beauty. Lead chanteuse and keyboard player Nona Invie was very quiet and unassuming, saying they were going to mostly play brand new songs. The crowd sat in a trance as song after song delved into heartache and harrowing chronicles of the human spirit as the band shifted around from trumpets, clarinets, and accordions depending on the song, making for an incredibly diverse sound for one band. At its core it was all held together by her fantastic voice. A highlight was when fan-favorite “Daydreaming” was performed and many in the audience sang along. If you like your indie rock with an old world feel ala Beirut but with a feminine touch, then run, don’t walk to check out this incredible band.
Dark Dark Dark’s Daydreaming
Shearwater @ Convention Center
Back to the familiar setting of the convention center to hear one of indie rock’s best kept secrets. If you’ve never heard them, they are definitely for fans of Fleet Foxes and The National, with a dash of Explosions in the Sky epic’ness, crafting haunting, insular rock hymnals. Even in this formal showcase setting they managed to awe and inspire the crowd with songs from their new album Animal Joy. A particularly great moment came when singer Jonathan Meiberg introduced new track “You As You Were” by telling the story of playing a gig on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, right after a rapper who poured booze on the crowd during his set, which made them ask themselves “how did we end up in this moment? That’s what this song is about.” The song certainly contained none of the humor of the story, but it was a nice anecdote to humanize a band that usually seems so ethereal and otherworldly.
Shearwater’s As You Were
Punch Brothers @ Convention Center
This was a band that had been hyped quite a lot by many around me, so with guarded but eager interest their set in the same room directly after Shearwater seemed like the perfect time to check them out. If there could be only one newer/lesser known band to recommend to everyone out there based on SxSW performances, Punch Brothers would be it. Neither brothers nor physically violent on stage, this modern bluegrass band takes the principles of the genre and uses them to make affecting and arresting modern music. Armed with a banjo, mandolin, standing bass, violin and guitar, they rocked a 45 minute set where each song sounded like a musical pat on the back, encouraging you to pick yourself up and carry on with life. But the inspiring can also be inspired as they proved with their spellbinding instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A.” The way they took such an electronic and processed song and turned it into something so human and fragile was a work of art. Looking like a scrappy Jude Law, singer Chris Thile sported a huge grin most of the time, seemingly overwhelmed by the positive response. It is well-earned my friend.
Punch Brothers’ This Girls
Third Man Records Showcase @ The Stage on Sixth
All of the previous shows were appetizers to the main course of the day, the Third Man Records Showcase. This is where Odysseus’ journey to see the oracle of rock begins. For such a high profile artist, Jack White chose a relatively small venue to showcase himself and his label mates. Knowing it was going to be ridiculously packed and difficult to get in, the journey started two hours prior to doors opening. This had less to do with the show itself and more to do with the Third Man Records Rolling Record Store. In front of the venue they would be selling a very exclusive tri-color 7” of Jack White’s new single “Sixteen Saltines.” Being an avid fan of all things Third Man Records and vinyl this was a must-have.
The truck rolled up around 6:00 with a substantial quasi-line already formed. After a crowd swarmed the truck and the venue staff having to make everyone back away safely, the line reshuffled back into place and the waiting began anew. But luckily they had 150 to sell so patience was a virtue. Eventually, both a show poster and the elusive tri-color were mine. Thus began the wait in line for the show. As a result of the limited venue capacity, staff told the line that only badges were being allowed in this evening. Some wandered away in disappointment and others strengthened their resolve and posted up outside the venue’s large windows. For the first in my many years of adventures to SxSW events, this was the first year where this wasn’t an issue and with a reassuring look at my badge I entered the line and waited as the waning sun battered my pale face.
About 30 minutes after the alleged doors time of 7:00pm the venue came around to each individual in line explaining the strict no-camera policy and then opened the floodgates and people trickled into the venue. Bear in mind that this camera policy is why there won’t be photos of the bands prior to Jack White. However, there was an informative sign in the venue that let people know that photos of the show could be found at www.jackwhiteiii.com the day after the show.
Some folks headed directly to the bar, some to the bathroom, some to merch, and insanely dedicated individuals such as myself headed to the stage and posted up behind the people that had already piled up on the rail in front of the stage. This meant all the Third Man artists on this stage would be about 5-10 feet away, but it came at a sacrifice. To have such a great spot and keep it, there could be no wandering between this main stage and the smaller stage out back where some fine acts like The Black Belles would be playing. It was a sacrifice that had to be made to get such an up close spot.
First up on the main stage was Electric Guest. They seemed like a fun bunch of guys making energetic and danceable indie pop, but unfortunately there was a problem with feedback that the powers that be weren’t willing to fix before their set so most of their performance was drowned out by feedback and notes that rattled rib cages in an unwelcome fashion. After careful deduction, it’s certain they played “This Head I Hold,” which is streaming on their official website, and it’s a great track. Hopefully they comeback soon when we can appreciate their sound with no problems.
Electric Guest’s This Head I Hold
These first two acts were unbeknownst to me, nor have they released anything officially on Third Man Records so it was experiencing something new. That wasn’t the case with everyone though, as one girl lucky enough to get a spot on the rail said she was here specifically for the White Rabbits, that everything else was just icing. It was an explosive statement to the people around her, including me, so this band had some very high expectations to live up to. What came next was mixed bag.
They weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but didn’t seem like a big enough deal to fight through hordes of Jack White fans to witness. At the time they seemed like a solid garage rock act, a bit rough around the edges, at times reminiscent of old pals of Mr. White the Whirlwind Heat. In retrospect this sound is confusing now that their music has been perused on Facebook, sounding slick and slightly electronic in nature. Their recorded material definitely sounds better than their live presentation. This is a band to keep your eye on, because they’ll probably develop their live sound soon and blow everyone away.
White Rabbits’ Temporary
For those that don’t know, Reggie is an amazing artist. He uses nothing but loop pedals and his own voice to create beats and music to sing, hum, and scat over. It has to be seen to be believed. The rock-oriented crowd didn’t at first know what to do with this strange man, alone on stage making his own uncategorizable music that wasn’t hip hop, wasn’t rock, but wasn’t exactly pure sound collage either. But eventually people got over their hesitations and got into it, clapping and bobbing in time to his mouth-driven beats. By the time it was over, the entire audience had been won over as they cheered wildly and looked around, still unsure of what it was they just witnessed.
Reggie Watt’s Stick
John C. Reilly
Everyone knows him as the comedian and actor from media such as Walk Hard, Step Brothers and Tim & Eric, but few know of him as the traditional country musician. It’s a shame really, because the man has a true talent for it. His nasally, quaking voice may not be the best for pop music, but for a type of music as focused on truth, pain and the everyman spirit as folk country is, it is perfectly suited. It also helps that his delivery is sweetened by a female singer whom he called his sister, making the songs considerably more tuneful. The backing band as whole were all great musicians and only helped to solidify the heartfelt and genuine nature of the set.
No stranger to audiences, he wasn’t nervous, but was a perfectionist about the sound, asking repeatedly for more guitar and lower vocals, quipping, “I know us movie stars have egos and all, but not that much.” He also stressed the importance of the music, telling the audience, “I do this to keep these songs alive. I don’t need to be any more famous.” Cheering and laughing erupted, to which he replied, “no, really.” He even took a beer offered from a girl in the audience and drank it while performing. It was captivating, but unfortunately it was hard to focus at times because the set was acoustic and quiet, which didn’t work for the loud bar awash with the sounds of disinterested parties in the back mixed with the cacophony happening outside the windows on 6th street. Despite this it was a strong set and everyone who enjoys classic country would do well to check out both of his 7”s of music available on Third Man Records.
John C. Reilly’s I’ll Be There
Yes, she’s Jack’s ex-wife and got 2nd from the top billing. Yes, she’s a British model. But despite these things that could close a first-time listener’s ears she plays some amazing Gothic Americana, and her 2010 album, The Ghost Who Walks, was actually a personal favorite of that year. Because of this, finally seeing her live was incredibly exciting.
She played some of her best cuts, including “The Truth Is In The Dirt” and “Pretty Babies,” even throwing in a brand new song that sounded incredible and a cover called “Milk and Honey.” We were informed this will be the A side of her Record Store Day 7” single, so let the anticipation begin. The band was in excellent form, but then how could it not be when she has the best rhythm section in modern rock? This is of course “Little” Jack Lawrence on bass and Patrick Keeler on drums, AKA ½ of the Raconteurs. Holding down the bottom end, they left room for Karen to do her thing, strumming a lovingly worn-in acoustic guitar and hitting almost every vocal note perfectly. She had a real effect on the audience, who cheered for her ecstatically. Near the end of her set she gave a bashful grin and said, “Y’all are making me feel special!” To which an audience member replied, “Because you are,” which set off another round of applause. The most applause was reserved for her question of, “you know who’s coming on next, right? I’m excited to see Jack too!” We couldn’t agree more.
Karen Elson’s Pretty Babies
Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for was upon us. We’d have to wait a little longer though, because his crew were perfectionists and took a whopping 45 minutes to set up, checking mics and guitars multiple times. But this gave me the opportunity to take in the nuances of the environment and stage setup. One thing that’s certain is that Jack’s sensibilities of patterns and matching from his days as an upholsterer has followed him to every music project. With the White Stripes it was red, black and white, where the crew dressed in black suits with red ties. With the Dead Weather, crew wore black suits and yellow ties. As a solo artist he’s chose to combine baby blue with black as the color scheme and it showed everywhere you looked: the guitars were blue, the gels on the stage lights were blue and even the little glowing lights emanating from the incredibly vintage-looking amps glowed a soft light blue.
Out of nowhere the reason for the evening came into being as his all-girl band entered the stage and Jack strapped on his baby blue guitar and launched into the opening riff of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” driving the crowd wild with elation. He traded verses with the woman whom joined him on the SNL performance, adding a new depth and dimension to a familiar favorite. From there it was a wildly diverse set, ranging from unheard new songs and “Sixteen Saltines” to White Stripes classics “Hotel Yorba,” and “Slowly Turning Into You,” eventually throwing in fan-favorite Raconteurs song “Top Yourself.” This was the more folk and country-oriented set, and as such included his cover of the Hank Williams song “You Know That I Know.”
Jack White’s Love Interruption
During this set it seemed like his White Stripes instincts kicked in heavily as he looked to the drums in almost every song, whether looking for a signal for the next song or to keep time. He would saunter around the stage, sharing a mic with his bandmates, singing along passionately or in songs like “Slowly,” turning to the audience for crowd participation they only too willingly obliged him. Of the new songs, “Weep Ourselves To Sleep” had a blistering White Stripes-worthy guitar solo, giving the audience the first hints of what was to come later. After 9 songs his estrogen-fueled accompaniment exited the stage as White told the audience, “we’ll take a quick break and be back soon.”
It seemed somewhat uncertain at the time what was to come next. In the description of the night the second set was listed as “?” which makes the mind race with possibilities of surprises. ¾ of the Raconteurs had already been witnessed on stage this evening and Brendon Benson had been in town somewhere for SxSW, could we be in for a surprise Raconteurs set? Unfortunately this wasn’t the case, but instead his all-male band showcased on SNL took the stage and boy did the testosterone fly.
This was the raucous rock-n-roll set, filled with fiery guitar solos, slamming drums and a frenzied audience. Mr. White let the classics fly, opening with “My Doorbell” and continuing with “Hello Operator,” Hardest Button To Button,” and “Steady As She Goes.” He even threw in Dead Weather track “Cut Like a Buffalo”, making it a complete variety showcase of his various incarnations, all under one roof and set. New songs didn’t slow the pace down any as a new song whose name wasn’t announced or known had some audience members moshing as Jack stomped around the stage delivering a classic shredding solo on-par with any of his previous work. The variety didn’t stop at his main projects either, including the haunting Rome track “Two Against One,” which sounded even more desperate and sinister in-person than on record, proving its worth amongst his catalog. Near the end of the evening Jack got comfortable in rock mode, ripping through an impromptu instrumental blues jam that last nearly 5 blissful minutes before launching into an extended, jammy “Ball and Biscuit” that worked the crowd to a fever-pitch.
It should be noted that each member of this bad did an excellent job of keeping up with and matching Jack, but one member in particular deserves special recognition. On keyboards was Ikey Owens, formerly of Long Beach Dub All Stars and The Mars Volta. Anyone familiar with his previous work knows what an incredible musician he is and the near-legendary levels of jazz-like improvisation skills. But what of his ability amongst a more roots-rock oriented band? Turns out he adapts to the situation nicely, adding some beautiful and arresting keyboard accents to every song, even locking eyes with Jack on multiple occasions, sharing a moment of pure groove and satisfaction at just how locked in two musicians can be. Hopefully they continue to collaborate in the future.
The White Stripes’ Ball and Biscuit
For a slight bit of comedown after the barnburner that was “Ball and Biscuit” Jack played a new song that seemed to calm the audience a bit, but it wasn’t meant to last as the opening notes of “Seven Nation Army” rang throughout the venue and everyone went absolutely mental. Those familiar with live videos of this song know it is heavy on crowd-participation, rife with “woah-ohs” like a stadium of chanting soccer fans. He even looked to the throng of people collected outside the window and tried to include them in a sing-along that brought the house down. Everyone in the building was a rocking, writhing mess of excitement over the song. Word has it that Bill Murray was in the house, dancing on the bar during the song! Unfortunately this wasn’t personally witnessed because of how upfront my position was, but there are pictures out there to prove it.
Always an artist aware of transitions and famous for his concert closing performances of “Boll Weevil” with the White Stripes, Jack closed the show with a mostly acoustic rendition of the traditional yet made famous by Leadbelly song “Goodnight Irene.” He held has hands aloft, encouraging the audience to sing along, yet again encouraging those outside to participate as well. It was a warm and fuzzy moment as everyone swayed while singing, bringing to a close a complete euphoria-inducing evening of fantastic music from one of the best musicians making music today.
Jarad Matula | Senior Writer
Photos of Prissy Clerks, Dark Dark Dark, Shearwater and Punch Brothers by Jarad Matula. Jack White photos courtesy of Jo McCaughey of Third Man Records.