Austin’s South by Southwest music festival got underway in earnest Tuesday, and while this was supposed to be SXSW’s “slow day” — i.e., the initiation day to help us gently ease into the week’s routine of beers/bands/BBQ/repeat — we somehow forgot to pace ourselves, and we ended up indulging in a Texas-size portion of music anyway. It happens.
From special performances by Austin heroes Willie Nelson and Spoon, to serious discussions with Krist Novoselic and Kesha, to supercool sets by U.K. buzz bands Slaves and Temples, these were Tuesday’s most memorable, and sometimes educational, moments.
Surprise performer Willie Nelson was the guest of honor
Willie Nelson actually has an Austin street named after him, and the BBQ at his local ranch is a much-loved SXSW tradition. The guy is bona fide South by Southwest royalty. So Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson couldn’t have asked for a better party guest when the 83-year-old Red Headed Stranger showed up onstage at Benson’s 66th birthday bash.
The party — which served as a fundraiser for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM); also included performances by the Avett Brothers, Charlie Sexton, Shannon McNally, Carolyn Wonderland, and Marcia Ball; and featured an armadillo-shaped birthday cake — was cause for celebration in more ways than one. Nelson started off 2017 in rough shape, canceling several concerts for health reasons, so it was a wonderful relief to hear the legend (who resumed touring earlier this month) in such fine form, performing robust renditions of “Whiskey River,” “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” “Nightlife,” “Always on My Mind,” “Pancho and Lefty,” “On the Road Again” … and, perhaps most notably, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and the new tune “Still Not Dead Again Today.” (The latter’s lyrics went something like this:“I woke up still not dead again today/The Internet said I had passed away/Well, if I died I wasn’t dead to stay/I woke up still not dead again today.”
Proclaimed a delighted Benson, clearly speaking for everyone in attendance: “This is a present for me. It really is.”
Nevermind that grunge stuff — Krist Novoselic got political
The Nirvana bassist has long dedicated himself to political activism and the fight for election reform; since 2008, he’s been the chairman of FairVote, a nonprofit organization that “seeks to make democracy fair, functional, and more representative” by, among other things, dividing states into multi-winner districts represented by candidates of more than one party. “It’s what the voters want,” Novoselic declared during his capacity-attendance conversation with the Daily Beast’s John Avlon in the Austin Convention Center’s Ballroom D. “We pay taxes and are subject to the laws. But then we give our sovereignty away to these hacks.”
With the two-party system under scrutiny after last year’s controversial presidential race, election reform is a hotter topic than ever, so now, just like in 1991, Novoselic has become the voice of a generation — or maybe of multiple frustrated generations. “You’re liberal or you’re a conservative, and ‘I hate, hate you’ if you don’t belong to the same party. We’ve got to get past that and see each other’s humanity,” Novoselic stressed.
There were lighthearted moments of Novoselic’s talk, like when he discussed going back to college in recent years to earn a social sciences degree from Washington State University; he amusingly recalled working on homework while recording with Paul McCartney and having Nirvana producer Butch Vig proofread one of his assignments. (“I got an A,'” he quipped.) And in the final few minutes of the panel, Canadian celebrity interviewer/musician Nardwuar even hopped onstage. But Novoselic definitely gave SXSW attendees of all political persuasions some serious things to think about Tuesday afternoon.
We got our own private puppet show
We met up with the Cocteau girls — the felt femme-fatale backup singers for the world’s first (and probably only) emo puppet band, Austin’s own Fragile Rock — in a private, Pac-Man-themed karaoke room at the Highball lounge on South Lamar. Awesomeness ensued.
Slaves got to work
The hard-charging, Mercury Prize-nominated U.K. garage-punk duo of Isaac Holman (shirtless, sweaty, and raccoon-capped, pounding on his standup drum kit with barbarian force) and Laurie Vincent (wiggling his hips and climbing atop the bar like a drunk Coyote Ugly customer) performed a crazy set at the British Music Embassy on San Jacinto — all terrace-shouty choruses, angry cockney accents, and good old-fashioned moshpit-inciting fury. Legendary BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Steve Lamacq watched the entire spectacle from the bar with a big grin on his face, which was a very good sign.
Kesha displayed her warrior spirit
In her own Convention Center conversation with Refinery29’s Amy Emmerich, the troubled pop star discussed her battles with eating disorders (“It could kill you; I almost died”), self-esteem (“I’ve have done a s***-ton of therapy”), and cyberbullying (“The Internet is not a healthy place for me”) — sometimes through tears. But Kesha’s talk, while heavy, was ultimately inspiring. Read a full report here.
We worshiped Temples
The Noel Gallagher/Johnny Marr-championed English psych-rockers brought their Bolanesque swagger and even more Bolanesque heads of impressively lush hair to Pandora’s headquarters at the Gatsby, where their groovy set had revelers partying like it was 1969 — if music streaming services had existed in ’69, that is.
Spoon served up a big helping of indie rock
Local heroes Spoon settled in at the Main (the location formerly known as Emo’s, now temporarily nicknamed “Eno’s” in honor of Spoon drummer Jim Eno) for the first installment in their personally curated three-night residency. And for night one, they brought out the New Pornographers, A Giant Dog, the Bright Light Social Hour, Big Big Love, and Boyfrndz in their noble attempt to keep Austin weird. The Austinites will do it all over again Wednesday and Thursday, with different specially curated lineups TBD.
— SPOON (@spoontheband) March 14, 2017