The crowd couldn't get enough. A blonde in a tiny tank dress elbowed me as she pumped her fist--"Hey! Hey! Hey!"--and the two of us shoved some swaying, lip-locked couple as they threatened to topple us. An old bald guy with a cigar pushed me, and I pushed him back. Something wet thwacked my face. Needless to say, no one apologized.
By that Saturday night--or Sunday morning, whatever--I was numb and surly. My toes throbbed with blisters, and I was shaky from too much booze. I had spent hours walking up and down Sixth Street, a blues riff in one ear and Dutch people screaming in the other, and the only way a band could have kept my attention was by spitting on me (which the Riverboat Gamblers did, bless their hearts). There was nothing I wanted more than big, dumb punk rock. And if the Riverboat Gamblers didn't offer the perfect SXSW set, it was, at least, the perfect ending.
Fuck you and goodnight.
Let's get something straight: SXSW is a beating. For all it offers--celebrity sightings, free barbecue, music pouring out of every conceivable orifice--there is something cruel in its luxury of options, with more than 1,000 bands in over 50 clubs. People thrust fliers in your face and ply you with free beer. The rain comes, the sin stays and the evangelists, apparently, never give up. Young bands are everywhere, waving signs, chalking the streets with their stupid names. One band played in the flatbed of a truck. Another musician plastered the sticker "Dancing Monkey" across his chest and promised that for a dollar he would (you guessed it) dance like a monkey. Every hour presents another exhausting dilemma: Do you want to see unknown acts or reliable ones? Local bands or foreign? Serious music or Vanilla Ice? Maybe you just want a nap. I know I did.
Like the Gamblers, the best shows at SXSW seized me by the shirt collar. That's why I can't agree with the woman who said to screw the Hives--their show at Friday afternoon's Spin party was one of the festival highlights. The delightfully cheeky Swedish punk rockers couldn't have sounded tighter--no real surprise, as front man Pelle Almqvist admitted, "The Hives have been playing the same songs for about two and a half centuries." Their 2000 debut, Veni Vidi Vicious, is packed with short, atomic anthems like "The Hives Declare Guerre Nucleaire" and "Hate to Say I Told You So." I bought the CD, along with the hype, and listened to it three times in as many years. But even if their upcoming album, slated for summer, is somewhat unlistenable, the Hives' live show is electrifying. Howlin' Pelle Almqvist is a graduate of the Mick Jagger School of Preening Cock--a handsome and lithe performer who paused the show to get his photo taken and chastised the crowd at one point, "I don't think you're supposed to stop clapping so soon." In a festival packed with people clamoring for exposure, isn't it great when someone finally admits it?
After all, there is so much seriousness masquerading as art, so much volume masquerading as talent that it's nice to find performers having fun. That's why the Polyphonic Spree have made a splash every year since their debut in 2002. Their packed set at Stubb's was intoxicating, despite the fact that, like the Hives, their recordings have yet to match their tremendous stage presence. Same with the Trachtenberg Slide Show Players, a kooky family act that sings to a slide show of family pictures (not their own), and Petty Booka, two Japanese sisters who sweetly croon Patsy Cline. People at SXSW are waiting to be shocked, to be impressed and--most important--to be entertained. When jazz pianist Jamie Cullum took over the Driskill bar on Friday afternoon, I didn't expect much. "I saw him on TV this morning," whispered a man at the bar. "He's supposed to be the next Norah Jones," explained someone else. The cover of his album, Twentysomething, featured Cullum leaping Matrix-like over a grand piano. I took a seat and dared him to dazzle me.
He did. His cover of my favorite Radiohead song--"High and Dry"--segued magically into an a cappella version of "Singin' in the Rain." Who has that kind of nerve? Apparently, the same kid who dives under his piano to thump out a house beat to My Fair Lady's "I Could Have Danced All Night," then leads the audience in a jazz scat, leaping over furniture and planting himself on the piano stool just in time to nail the chorus. Cullum joined Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. onstage the next night and will probably be remembered as one of the festival's breakouts. Even if you didn't like the music, you couldn't resist this kid's joy.