For longtime Austinites, or even SXSW veterans with many years of the fest under their belts, it was like a homecoming: Spoon, one of the city's most durable musical exports, was playing at Emo's, the storied dive bar.
Only it wasn't exactly Emo's: That club shuttered several years ago, but Spoon had reanimated its black-painted carcass for a trio of nights celebrating the group's new Matador album Hot Thoughts. Three nights, three different six-band showcases, handpicked by the band and each offering one last-minute special guest. On Tuesday, The New Pornographers filled the TBA slot; Wednesday was !!!. And Thursday night, fans learned that the lead-in artist would be Hamilton Leithauser, sometime lead singer of The Walkmen.
Before that, though, the growing crowd was treated to the usual quick-change efficiency and short sets of a regular SXSW showcase. The house was getting fairly full by the time Walter Lukens came on, playing songs from his Never Understood EP, produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno. (Speaking of Eno: These three nights were cheekily dubbed the "Eno's residency," with the old Emo's logo reworked to spell the drummer's name.)
Next came hometown buzz act Sweet Spirit, longtime Spoon associates whose energies can't be contained by a single band name. (In a different configuration called A Giant Dog, they had played the Spoon residency on Tuesday night.) "She's tamed down her clothes," one audience member said of lead singer Sabrina Ellis, leading one to wonder how she normally dresses, if this -- black underwear beneath a sheer, purple-sequined body stocking -- was tame. Ellis' poses and look-at-me calisthenics embodied rock-star mojo in a weirdly pure way: If one of Molly Shannon's SNL characters grew up to be as talented as she thought she was, she might resemble Ellis. Things got considerably calmer when Leithauser took the stage, playing songs from his solo catalog with a backing band of Austin musicians.
When Spoon went on shortly after 1 a.m., they showed no evidence of the intense performance schedule they'd endured here this week. "How ya doin'?," frontman Britt Daniel asked early on, and when the crowd cheered happily, he replied, "Yeah, us too." They opened with a couple of songs from the new album -- "Do I Have to Talk You Into It" and the title track -- both sounding as tight as if the band had played them for years.
Favorites from previous records soon followed, with numbers like "The Beast and Dragon, Adored" sounding less spare and more muscular than on record. Keyboards stood in for the horn section on "The Underdog," making that song more jagged than jaunty; the "do-doo-dooo"s of "Do You" no longer recalled disco-era Rolling Stones.
Clearly energized by the intimate setting and an audience packed with friends and associates, the band was in top form even when its equipment wasn't: At one point, the group went into a holding pattern so Alex Fischel and stagehands could work on some guitar pedals. (He wound up pulling off his boots so he could jab them more easily.) Winding up the residency -- but not the week's work, which would continue with a Waterloo Records show the next day -- Daniel looked energetic and gratified. "It mighta been hard getting in here tonight," he told the very tightly packed crowd. "Thank you for making the effort."