At the Drive-In: Anatomy of a SXSW Pop-Up Show

At the Drive-In at SXSW 2017
At the Drive-In at SXSW 2017
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr
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There’s so much music at SXSW that only a fool would utter, “If I don’t see [insert band name], my whole SXSW will be ruined.” But Mohawk Austin was surrounded by those kinds of fools Wednesday night. Word trickled out earlier in the day that At the Drive-In was making a special guest appearance, and getting into the show became the barometer for whether SXSW 2017 was a failure or success for some visitors.

The announcement and ensuing events allowed us to witness a SXSW phenomenon first-hand. This sort of “pop-up” show is the kind of moment the festival’s visitors hope for, but one that we blindly walked into. We joined a line that stretched down Red River from 9th to 10th streets, on hand to catch the set by Le Butcherettes, a gig we’d penciled in long before news of ATDI’s “surprise” show broke. So, we completely lucked into an opportunity to see the reunited act (sans Jim Ward) in advance of its Revention Music Center show here in June. Our early assessment is if you don’t already have tickets for that show, get ‘em fast. The band performed about an hour-long set that was largely comprised of Relationship of Command material.

Watching the show was a little like watching two parties perform CPR on each other. In this instance, it’s the band and its fervent fans saving one another by breathing the same air, inhaling deeply and giving life to one another. It’s that passionate an affair. We were privileged to see it all unfold.

Le Butcherettes' Teri Gender Bender peers into our souls
Le Butcherettes' Teri Gender Bender peers into our souls
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.

And, it was fun being part of the day's developments. The buzz for the show began sometime earlier in the day and was at a fever pitch when we got to the line (two lines, actually: one for badge holders, the other for wristbands). We witnessed a lot of anxiety in those lines. We struck up a conversation with members of Wesley Jensen and the Penny Arcade. They’re genial fellows from Denton, but epitomized the nervous excitement of the night. Are we in the right line? Do we get in quicker if we have a badge? Are they letting two people in for every two out? It’s hard to have a discussion when there are so many distractions, but we did learn that one is a former Houstonian – an actual former resident of the original Houston House of Creeps. We talked about Houston stuff to pass the time and quell our worries.

Some people in line talked about how these shows make SXSW special. Were you there when Jack White showed up at that one bar that one time and played? Or the time Green Day did it? That Metallica pop-up show was legendary. We have no idea if any of this ever happened. It’s part of the lore. But, if we get in and see this actual show, we vowed to make a record of it so no one can say it did not occur.

They were letting us in five at a time, and it was nearly 10 p.m. when our group edged to the front of the line. “We’re gonna get in!” someone behind us kept saying to whomever he was with. Then our group of five was hailed to the door; we were like those Price is Right contestants with the winning bids who now get to go onstage with Drew Carey. We tried to walk to our prize calmly, but the giddiness in our step showed. As we approached, an interloper tried to sneak in line ahead of us and was summarily dismissed with a harsh rebuke by the astute doorman. We fumbled for our credentials and were allowed in, leaving hundreds of envious wrong-bid contestants behind us.

ATDI's Cedric Bixler-Zavala
ATDI's Cedric Bixler-Zavala
Photo by Jacob Calle

By the time we squeezed into Mohawk’s smallish indoor show space, Le Butcherettes were down to their last few songs, which we caught. The band’s animated front woman, Teri Gender Bender, was drenched in sweat or maybe blood. It was hard to tell from the room’s red hue. They finished and ignored the encore calls because the surprise guests were all set up and prepared to wreak havoc.

Had we not been so in awe of the moment, we might have seen our friend, artist/filmmaker/comic and fellow Houstonian Jacob Calle at the foot of the stage. To be sure we weren’t just tripping on all the excitement of the event, we asked him to share his morning-after thoughts on the set. He’s seen the band play live multiple times and had one of the best views of the show.

“Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] announced it early Wednesday morning on social media but no set time was given so I rushed to the venue to hunt for the info,” said Calle, whose parents drove him to Austin in 1998 to see ATDI play a free afternoon show at Emo’s.

“This would be my eighth time seeing the band and by far one of the best performances yet to date, even with the absence of Jim Ward,” he said. “Being up front and center felt like getting a lq3wap-dance by Cedric the entire set.”

The set opened with “Arcarsenal” and the crowd erupted for favorites like “Sleepwalk Capsules” and “One Armed Scissor.” Even those in the top tier of the building seemed to be able to connect with the band from afar. That’s the kind of performance you’d hope to see from a “surprise” set. Being part of it was like happening upon a special sort of SXSW badge, the exclusive kind you can only get from being in the right place at the right time.

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