With tails fanned wide they descend in groups of 10 or 12 their glossy, gun-black bodies falling in line on telephone wires overlooking the Red River district, scratching at each other in small packs, eyeing the heels of bread behind the Sixth Street dumpsters. We're debating their breed Magpies? Blackbirds? before accepting our driver's gruff authority: "Grackles. Most terrible-sounding birds too. At night they can drive you crazy. I've always thought that tail makes them look like an F-11 fighter."
By them and us, Austin is under siege. Every captivating strain of central Texas' charm during the 20th annual five-day SXSW music festival Billy Bragg's political sermons, pulled pork and bluegrass duets, and Alejandro, of course Alejandro still lies ahead, but rolling into town it's the metallic gun-black birds that greet us, grackling, by the dozens. They gossip with their machine-gun chatter, or hop small circles in a lopsided dance, but mostly they perch and watch us with flat yellow eyes as if waiting for some unknown signal. As if they're trying to figure us out. As if they're mocking us.
The grackles are certainly unimpressed by the circus on Austin's Sixth Street. It's only Thursday night and already hell has broken wide open every surface in sight is littered with fliers and plastic cups, the sidewalks overrun with University of Texas girls stacked in low-rise jeans and beer-bodied music industrialists. The rumble from countless bass cabinets thunders out of the open doors that line the closed-off street. When we finally duck into one place, Elysum, it's the Tiny Steps' Rickenbacker-pop arrangements played notably with a bass player who had been in the band less than 24 hours that offers the only reprieve. The bar is peppered with the group's three-song discs, and when they play through those, the band's affection for Teenage Fan Club and the Replacements is well stated, even with the new guy and the road-weary circles under their eyes, even though the venue has a smallish crowd that mixes overzealous friends and skeptical arm-crossers, even if the next band on the bill sits at the bar testing 9-volt batteries on the ends of their tongues. And when it's done, we're drinking beers, talking with the band's manager, and running off again into the street, where the pitch of everything is now raised to a shrill.
So we run across the street, get around the metal band, and there's His Name Is Alive. It's Warn Defever weaving through the crowd dispensing rattlers, shakers and tambourines before plugging in his Flying V, leading the wittingly disaffected band through the synth-wet pop. Want nerds? Look about you. HNIA pulls in the most beguiling variety all of them in funny hats with funny beards and sure not to dance.
At this point in the evening, with only two smearing door stamps under wrist, it's still impossible to know whether or not the whole scene including Defever's curly white guitar cable and the metal-band welcoming committee is some kind of ornately ironic joke, with a punch line that remains just out of reach. More likely, Defever's years in front of the pallid tube-sock set, so far ahead of some musical curve that, for the rest of us, it's pretty tough to navigate.
But no time to pause, furrowing our brow about this! Chicago's Chin Up Chin Up is on across the street. This is their last song? It's alright. Just a quick sip and Thunderbirds Are Now! are down the street, batting cleanup at the Soho Lounge for the Frenchkiss Records showcase. It's no surprise that the set is delirious, smug, spazzy and leaves the young crowd (TAN's audience must be an average 20 years younger than any other Detroit band's in the festival) feeling the same.
During the next day, when everyone in town is face-deep into buckets of brisket, we get the cab up to the UT Communications Building Studio 6A, the set of Austin City Limits. There, KEXP, a college station from the University of Washington, hosts live sessions with songwriters Jolie Holland and Jose Gonzalez.
Gonzalez may be the dark horse for the biggest SXSW buzz; it's the Argentinean-Swedish songwriter's first extended performance junket in the United States. Certainly Gonzalez is a wunderkind and rare talent who's already well-recognized abroad after a UK Top Ten (his single "Heartbeats" is currently in some commercial with bouncy balls). There's really nothing to it when you see him: just a slouching kid with a high, clear voice and a classical guitar, but against the silhouetted skyline of the famous stage, amid the festival's noise, it felt like watching a star be born.
Seeing Lyle Lovett join Rosanne Cash for "Seven Year Ache," then sticking around for Lovett to lead his band through a set of tunes selected mostly from his last three records took up most of Saturday, and even though Stubb's was packed ass-to-ass with excitable, doughy central Texas fans, Lovett still had to shoot daggers at a woman near stage front who picked up a call during a quiet moment. The ring tone? The new Yeah Yeah Yeahs single. It'd be a safe bet that the woman was planted there on purpose, since the only thing more common than the tired phrase "I have to blog about that" is promo junk for the YYYs. There are banners and lighters. The evil geniuses behind the band (who didn't play the festival, but were felt in schwag) even planted Yeah Yeah Yeahs promotional receipt tablets for the taxi drivers.
But who can afford a cab? After three days of fighting upstream against a sea of regrettable tattoos, frats, entertainment lawyers, Japanese tourists, panhandlers, dot.com survivors, hustlers, journalists, bimbos, self-promoters, small-time media moguls and those in their favorite rose-embroidered cowboy shirt (when you're in Texas, you can only blend in wearing second-rate pearl-snap Roy Rogers' gear, right?), nearly everyone was gone when we woke on Sunday.
The town is all but nearly abandoned, the sidewalks already swept, the cedar-scented rain washing piss and ammonia and stale beer back into the river; we were happy to see it gone. Aside from a couple stragglers zombie-walking through the rain, half-dead from all the coke-binging and head-banging, Austin is again the dominion of grackles, churchgoers and hotel maids.
But maybe without that utter Sunday bleakness, the regrettable excess, the week of whoring and feedback and industry nonsense, there would never be the gift of Alejandro Escovedo. Escovedo has made a tradition of playing Austin, his hometown, the night after the circus leaves town. His annual Continental Club show benefits a local charity (this year, the Austin Child Guidance Center) and costs $20 SXSW festival badges and wristbands be damned. To ensure a chance to see Escovedo's midnight set, you have to get your ticket at 6:30 p.m. (no advance sales, of course). "For people in the know, this set is the icing on the cake," a friend says. "But it might just be the cake."
By the time the cake is getting ready to be served, most of the bar has been there for more than half their day, throwing back beers and chopped brisket sandwiches smothered in barbecue sauce.
Escovedo takes the stage, and every person in the place stops and braces themselves. Without a word, Escovedo looks at his band, drops his arm across a thickly distorted black Gibson SG, and suddenly all of the chaotic SXSW claptrap make sense.
We're not here because there's a buzz about him; no, we're here because he's good. He's not playing to get famous; he's playing for people to enjoy it. The word "Podcast" is not uttered all night. It's a show worth paying for.
It was Rolling Stone's David Fricke who said "musically, Alejandro Escovedo is in his own genre," but tonight, Escovedo and his seven-piece band (two cellos, violin, bass, two guitars, drums) seems to be inventing it on the spot. The man's history with the Nuns (who opened, ahem, the Sex Pistols' final show in 1978), Rank and File, and True Believers hints at the palate of the night's guitar power, but it's more than that: Somehow Escovedo's songs, and the way he delivers them, here, tonight, doesn't feel like the last, best night of this weekend; it feels like the last night, the best night on Earth. He's on stage tearing everyone's heart out, sucking the oxygen out of our lungs, giving fucking chills.
When he's done, two and a half hours later, and we're done screaming and stomping and of course, some people, who could blame them? crying, we leave the club in a speechless stupor, walk back across the empty sidewalks that we've crowded down all week, and, over the ringing in our ears, listen for a grackle.Nate Cavalieri is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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