This SXSW wasn't a pretty one by any means, with a camera boom falling on fans at Stubb's before Orchestral Manoeuvers In the Dark, Ben Weasel lashing out physically at unruly fans, the Death From Above 1979 police party, and the massive crowds seemingly dwarfing the numbers from the past few years.
Add to that Rebecca Black, the super-moon in the sky, and the UN allies bombing Libya, and it was a virtual pop-culture maelstrom.
But aside from the mace, Kanye West, and the harried SXSW staff, this wasn't a bad year for music at all. We found ourselves wide-eyed and grinning every night in front of one or two artists, thankful to be in the right place at the right time. Here are our ten favorite things we saw last week.
Honorable mentions go out to the Black Angels, Buxton, and especially Billy Gibbons for showing up to the Rachael Ray Feedback party and playing Elmore James' "Dust My Broom" with a bottle of his own BFG hot sauce in his back pants pocket.
Charles Bradley: This SXSW we found our soul in Charles Bradley & The Menahan Street Band, during their opening slot in front of TV On The Radio at Stubb's. Bradley's R&B wail and stage gyrations and shimmies were like watching a scratchy, forgotten 45 from the back of a dusty record store come to life. Great stuff, and we hope to see more.
Sallie Ford: The PR hype was correct; she was just a like a female Buddy Holly, glasses and all. Ford's set at the Creekside Hilton came with lines dissing a boy for listening to emo-pop and enough of a humbled glow to show that she is still new to the game, but not a shrinking Violet.
J. Mascis: During his opening set at the Queens of the Stone Age show, Mascis played us cuts from his new solo LP, Several Shades Of Why, proving that even without his stacks and stacks of amps and only an acoustic, he can still wail. Plus, the material is highly personal and affecting.
Wanda Jackson: The Queen of Rockabilly played songs off her new Jack White-produced album at Rachael Ray's day party, and gave us all the warm and fuzzies as she related her own Elvis Presley stories from her long and illustrious career. She's truly a gem to see live.
Queens of the Stone Age: Queens' self-titled 1998 album is an almost scarily hard and fast affair, distilling most every thing the band would do it over it's now 13 year career into around 45 minutes of music. Of the current QOTSA line-up, Homme is the only one who played on the debut. Drummer Joey Castillo has now been in QOTSA since 2002, and played harder and meaner on songs like "You Would Know" and "If Only" than their recorded counterparts ever were. It was a fantastic return to the stage for Homme and company.
Hunx & His Punx: The trashy Oakland, Calif., band is like a imaginary John Waters movie come to life, with sassy lead singer Seth "Hunx" Bogart singing songs about cruising, crushing, and carousing with the help of a three-piece all-girl band. It's fun stuff, especially when the girls chime in with those demented doo-wop vocals behind their broken-hearted garage punk.
Valerie June: With a tangle of dreadlocks, a sweet Southern lilt, and obsession with kitchenware, and a musical template touching on Cat Power, Erykah Badu, and even the vintage sheen of Justin Townes Earle, June was pleasing to most every sense. Her voice alone had us enthralled, leaning against a toaster oven in the converted banquet hall venue, naturally. Her cut "Shotgun" hit the crowd square in the forehead and shut up the squawkers in her midst.
Robert Ellis: Saturday night, Robert Ellis & The Boys turned the backyard at Lustre Pearl into Fitzgerald's on a Wednesday for a searing set of the hard-edged country they have been doing best here in town for two years. It was a thrill watching rank strangers get down and dance to something that we see almost every week.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit: Isbell closed his set with a cover of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," bringing an even more haunted tint to his already ghostly and vicious Friday night set at the old-fashioned Swan Dive venue. He croaked like Tom Waits for an hour and held the crowd in his clutches.
Death From Above 1979: It was a fan's dream, one of your favorite bands of the past ten years reuniting. Even though the titanic-sounding Canadian bass and drums duo Death From Above 1979 only released one LP, one EP and a remix album up until their late-2005 breakup, they managed to cultivate a following of rabid punks, indie-rockers, and metal freaks. The reunion was mini-riot complete with a shoddy, downed fence, beer cans flying through the air, Austin police officers on horses, tasers going off, mace being expelled, and cops using extreme force to quell the crowd who couldn't get inside the tiny patio venue.
How did the band sound? Great, amazing, just like the past six years didn't go by insilence. They played all of their biggest fan favorites from You're a Woman and I'm a Machine and the Heads Up and Romantic Rights EPs. They played "Blood On Our Hands" as the crowd outside raged and moshed on the concrete in the back alley with cops looking on.
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