SXSW10 Day 4: Cold and heat, criticism and fandom [Paul Thompson]

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Capstan Shafts (Photo: Paul Thompson)
  • Capstan Shafts (Photo: Paul Thompson)

"'Come down to Texas! Play on a rooftop! It'll be great!'" That was Capstan Shafts mainman Dean Wells, speaking from the Wave Rooftop around 9:15 last night, who I'd suggest was dripping with sarcasm were said sarcasm not frozen to his temples. It was cold yesterday, man. Cold in a way Austin, Texas isn't used to, certainly not in the back end of March. And windy, too; oh lord, was it ever windy. Long walks between venues were swiftly reevaluated. Souvenir sweatshirts were purchased en masse. And a whole bunch of people seemed to think three days of music was just quite enough for them, thanks.

The inclement everything certainly had me reconsidering my plans, which were to just go nuts: last day, good lineups all around, and a few things I considered must-sees. All things considered, I did better than expected (thanks, souvenir sweatshirt!), but I wound up stuffing my critic-hat into my back pocket and coming at yesterday like a fan. In that weather, I wasn't about to trek across town for an unsure thing, some untested heat I expect to hear more about in six month's time; I think anybody out there yesterday would've agreed with me. If you were willing to brave the whipping winds and the sour moods, you really wanted to be where you were going.

The critic/fan dichotomy's always fascinated me. We're asked to give our honest opinions on things, yeah, but they kick you out of the club if you bring up the radness of Kiss too many times. I think Kiss is way rad, honest to God, but that's as a fan of dumb catchy songs about the hotness of hell. As a critic, I know Paul Stanley's kind of a crappy singer, and that their albums are way uneven, and that "Beth" is pretty creepy. In some music those things would bother me. But Kiss I let slide; I'd just, uh, never voice that one in a public forum. I found myself operating largely as a fan yesterday out of necessity; there were plenty of showcases featuring promising unknowns, any of which I would've happily had my mind blown by on a nicer day. But I had neither the inclination or insulation to slog through a bunch of unsure things just to get to the good stuff.

Critically, I know Ty Segall isn't doing anything Jay Reatard wasn't doing better a few months ago; his whiplash garage-punk's a little sweeter and more soulful than the late Reatard's razorblade deathtrips, but with a lot less character of its own. Had you walked up to me yesterday at Beerland and asked me what I thought, though, those are not the words I would've chosen: Ty Segall killed it. He and his band, tight as tight could be, tore through a speedy set of chunky Nuggets with an energy I was sorely lacking even that early in the afternoon.

Segall's a monster singer, swooning mightily and cramming syllables into the tight cracks of his power cords, and a smiler; it was as fun to watch him bash out his two-minute tunes, his long hair flopping this way and that, as they told us Wavves was gonna be. He even made tuning up his second guitar entertaining, sliding slinky notes around spy-movie-soundtrack style, before knocking out another one and then cracking the thing in half (this, at a day party!). I mean, yeah, objectively I don't know that Ty Segall's ever going to gain much footing outside of the garage-rock underground in which he's a rising star, because the songs just aren't quite there yet; still, I'm a fan, and he was great to watch. Down here, that's really about all that matters.

I wandered out to a bookstore I thought was much much closer than it was to once again check out Sonny and the Sunsets; I was so impressed with their Friday night set I just had to do it again, and besides, who knows when they'll get big enough to come through Chicago? The critic in me thinks Sonny's really doing something special here, and the fan's just happy to watch it happen again, even if I did have to huddle on a frozen metal bench and avoid eye contact with those Joan of Arc clowns to make it so. It's hard to imagine somebody not liking the music the Sunsets are making now—it's warm, funny, and familiar without being overly derivative, which is kind of the trifecta—but I'm sure some critic will come along soon enough to point out just who they're ripping off, and why that's a problem. I think I'm becoming a fan of Sonny's enough to get a little irked by that very idea, but as a critic, I know it's okay to disagree with, well, me; I'm always honest, but nobody's ever "right" about these things. Except Grayson, of course.

I trudged out to god knows where to see Titus Andronicus, who've managed to make quite a few new fans off the back of their stupendously challenging yet wonderfully cathartic new album, the Monitor; I wonder where they were when the every-bit-as-good Airing of Grievances dropped to only mild laudation a couple years back, but as a fan, I'm just happy those kids are probably eating a little better these days. From there I hightailed it to Wave Rooftop to check out Capstan Shafts, essentially Dean Wells' attempt to channel both Bob Pollard (the delivery) and Tobin Sprout (the voice) at the exactly same time. As an avowed GBV nut, Capstan works like methadone, and they've managed a few pretty stellar moments on their own; if you like unassuming yet nuttily catchy pop-rock, you could do worse than Fixation Protocols from a couple years ago. Capstan almost never plays live, as Wells would rather write another mess of songs than hit the road for a month, so this was a rare treat for the fanboy in me.

On that level, it delivered completely; Wells' band clearly love the music as much as he does and I do, he can pick the "hits" out of his hundreds of songs, and unlike so many enigma-revealed sorta shows, Wells just seems like a completely normal guy with an aversion to travel. Critically, I recognize Capstan Shafts are never going to get past a certain point; strong as their songs are, they are as derivative as derivative can be, and judging by the, oh, eight people who turned up specifically for the set, he's not exactly got this winning fans thing down. One gal in a spangly number did walk right up front of us nerds and dance like a normal. "Aren't you cold?," Wells asked. It was cute.

Neither rain nor sleet nor waiting around for three hours was going to keep me from DJ Quik, the legendary West Coast rapper/ producer who made a rare appearance east of Vegas to be out in Austin for South by. Quik's one of the best that ever did it, but the distance between us is quite a distance, and as far as I know this is the closest I've been to a Quik show in years. I'm such a fan of the dude-- especially following last year's knockout BlaQKout LP he did with Dogg Pound MC Kurupt, who also performed-- I was willing to wait through a string of b-level talent, hold my spot despite an overwhelming urge to grab another beer and/or pee, and basically freeze my ass off in service of the g-funk. The showcase, a grabbag of West Coast MCs, ran late all night, and ride pimper and occasionally rapper Xzibit never showed. My camera battery died halfway through Kurupt's set, never to return, but I waited through hours upon hours Jay Rock and U-N-I and Murs (all good, none great) not because I wanted to dissect the state of west coast rap as it was presented to me by Vibe Magazine and Skullcandy headphones; I did it because I'm a fan of Quik and because I had no idea when I'd have the opportunity again.

After popping up a few times throughout the night, Quik split most of his own time between his stone classic debut Quik is the Name and his forthcoming solo record; the old stuff sounds like the platonic ideal of g-funk, while the new stuff is frothier and knottier and might, like BlaQKout, even be a little better. All the while, he did that duckwalk dance he's always doing, dropped his mic and did charades, explained what the weather would do to a turntables ("condensation"), told stories about how long he'd been doing it, and basically acted like the friendliest dude in the world with that many songs about bitches and being awesome. He's a devastating MC, his voice's easygoing elasticity still youthful sounding at age 40, and the slurry whomp of the beats he makes (coupled with gads ambient pot smoke, no doubt) had me thinking I was cooling out in Cali, not freezing stuff off in Texas.

DJ Quik (Photo: Paul Thompson)
  • DJ Quik (Photo: Paul Thompson)

A few songs in, Quik stopped the music to announce there were a few more legends in the building: 3/5ths of the recently reunited Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, fresh off their hardly-a-secret set to close out the Fader Fort, had stopped by to pay homage to their myriad dead homies and rap very quickly. I've never been a big Bone Thugs fan—I could never love Ynqwie either, for the very same reason-- but I knew in my heart of hearts I probably should've gone to see them at Fader Fort, that being a much bigger deal. But they were pretty great, better MCs than I ever gave them credit for and with a couple songs I had forgotten were theirs. So I think I might be a Bone Thugs fan now.

They left to go party with Snoop, and despite repeated promises of same, Quik hung loose, going through a few more hits and one curious new one with a hook about how long it'd been since he stepped in bubblegum. You could tell his energy was flagging, as was everyone's; I have to assume they broke curfew at deVille, since I certainly didn't see any other shows over there going on until practically 3. It was a wild, if wildly uneven night of rap, capped off by a freewheeling performance by one of its true greats, and not unlike Kanye's epic guest-laden ender last year, I realize this is the stuff I keep coming back to SXSW for: to see things that just don't happen, well, anywhere. It's good to get down here and play critic for a while, but I realize, at the end of the night, bundled up, back aching, and bleary, I'm being a fan. Something to be said for that, I think.

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