By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
The Eels, on the other hand, were astonishing from jump: Two songs into their set at La Zona Rosa, front man Mark "E" Everett led guitarist Joe Gore (of PJ Harvey's band) and drummer Butch through a dank, sinister rendition of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On"; you couldn't tell whether to grin or run. Behind his sunglasses and Unabomber beard and beneath his wool cap, Everett made a beautiful noise, vacillating between a punk-rock circus and a high school recital. For its efforts, the band was rewarded with that rarest of SXSW occurrences: an encore. Just as perfect was Neil Finn, the former Crowded House front man blessed with a band that features Wendy Melvoin (ex of Prince's Revolution), Lisa Germano (who's released her own excellent albums on 4AD) and ex-Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg. Finn proved, over the ruckus made by most SXSW attendees (who still wanna be the next Nirvana, apparently), that a man in his 40s can still make rock pop.
The best thing you can say about any band is that after hearing it once, you want to hear it forever--and you'll even pay for its albums, which, coming from someone who gets a bunch for free, pretty much says it all. It was disappointing, then, to discover after hearing My Morning Jacket twice that most of the songs the Kentucky band performed during SXSW were from its still-unrecorded third album. My Morning Jacket plays something not easily described--country, sorta; Southern rock, kinda; pop, maybe; rock, no duh. To not have that music in hand, to not be able to revisit it again and again when you want and need it, is like having someone whisper you the greatest secret without being able to tell anyone else.
But to me, the greatest South by Southwest moment is one that replays itself each night, and has for years. For hours and hours, Mary Lou Lord--one-time Sony Music signee and former Kurt Cobain lover--plays on the corner of Sixth and Brazos, outside a downtown Austin strip mall. She will strum and sing from 10 p.m. until the drunks and deviants run her off the corner, usually sometime before 4 a.m. Lord is no Norah Jones (might have been, once upon a long time ago), and she is no Dan Bryk, a comer forever looking up and wondering what might have been. She's in the middle, the worst place in the music business--trapped in the quicksand, teased by the fleeting success that shouts something indecipherable at her on its way to see some bigger, better buzz band. She's still around--her version of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" recently turned up in a Target ad--but you can only be the Next Big Thing once. You can't surprise anyone twice.
At 3:30 a.m. Saturday, Lord, clad in a red jacket and black wool, endured the shouts ("Jewel!" screamed some smart-ass filing out of an after-hours party nearby, where OK GO and the Promise Ring entertained the free-drink crowd) and picked up pocket change every night, selling her CDs and singing in that tiny baby voice of hers. Nearby, a bearded homeless man fought with an empty cigarette pack; winos huddled around and shushed the loud and inattentive. Lord even had a showcase forthcoming Saturday night, but still she serenaded the chilly night and the curious and bored and stoned for hours and hours. Near the end of her never-ending set, she sang "Thunder Road," and in that setting, it sounded sad and brand-new--as though she'd written it on the spot, for anyone who cared to listen. She sang of promised lands, of how people scream your name at night, about how she taught her guitar to talk and about how she was gonna get out of this town full of losers. "I'm pulling out of here to win," and for that moment, you kinda believed her.