I went looking for pictures from the one day of SXSW shows I attended. All were free. At the Radio Room, I saw a band of three girls play pretty good synth pop. All their voices sounded alike. Never caught their name. Then I saw Daniel Johnston and his band. Then the Wrens. Then I went to a Mexican dance club far from the heart of the city and saw the Lovely Sparrows.
Someone covered the Wrens show here. Unsatisfying.
Someone else took a picture of Kevin (Wrens):
Then I found some decent coverage of Johnston/Wrens. So I will let Jason Crock speak for me and interject where I see fit.
“So when “Daniel Johnston and the Hymns” started their set with two Johnston-less Hymns songs, I was ready to weep into my four-dollar beer. But Johnston did indeed come out, as promised. The band went into “Rock This Town,” and then walked off for Johnston to perform solo acoustic. He looked shaky by the second song, but he stayed composed nonetheless. He apologized or a lack of practice before a ringer stepped out to fill in on acoustic guitar.”
Yes, Johnston apologized a few times. I thought that was funny. Who expects Daniel Johnston to be in tune? His performance is so much about the force of his personality, the insanity behind his simple sing-song lyrics. To me, it was just exciting to see that he actually exists.
“For being some crusty Strokes-lookin’ also-rans from Brooklyn, the Hymns made for a fine backing band, playing rollicking Velvets-inspired rock at a languid, assured tempo, and rallying the crowd so Johnston didn’t have to. They tread very familiar ground without a hint of irony in their performance, which made them a pretty good match for Johnston. The naive and hopeful heart of Johnston’s songs translated perfectly even when they sounded professional instead of primitive.”
Or rather, a mix of professional and primitive, like a live band karaoke night.
“His records have been dear to a lot of people, evidenced from a packed house where even the youngest crowd members sang along to tracks like “Living Life.” As the Hymns rejoined him at the close of the set, I had to wonder if this was how these songs sounded in Johnston’s head before he got them down. This was an afternoon showcase in an outdoor tent behind Radio Room, where Johnston was followed by New Jersey’s own Wrens. Having seen them live a few times, the band’s performances have always been predictably unpredictable. Some of their sets’ surprises have grown familiar, including Kevin Whelan passing his bass into the crowd to play for a few bars, or the maximum-suspense version of “This Boy is Exhausted” that goes on for two verses between guitarists Charles Bissel and Greg Whelan before the band kicks in.”
Yeah, exactly. I’d love to see them vary the set more often too, but they’ve gotten so good at playing those Meadowlands songs. Even though the structure of “Exhausted” is no surprise, the dynamics still manages to surprise me. It’s not just that the drums and bass show up, it’s that everything gets amped up, including Charles.
“Some were more spontaneous, as when Whelan hung his bass from the tent’s suspension cables to sit down for a piano jam, or the version of solo piano yelper “This is What You Had Planned” that somehow needed three members of the band and as many microphones, all being passed back and forth at random. Another surprise? New songs. Two of ‘em, from indie rock’s greatest procrastinators: Both were piano ballads with a tense edge led by Whelan, with the guitarists playing incidental noise for atmosphere in both, promising an impending cacophony but holding back throughout.”
I liked them. I wanted to hear “Pulled Fences” or “new demo,” but they didn’t play those new ones.
“Whelan often strikes a welcomed buffoonish presence for crowds compared to his less-demonstrative bandmates, but he seemed a little more drill-instructorish then usual that afternoon: Put a mustache and sunglasses on his red, sweaty face, and he could have been Sgt. Slaughter. I was concerned he’d make some of us do push-ups if we didn’t sing or clap along at the appropriate moments.”
When a band is good, it feels nice to be taken care of like that. You want me to clap now? Of course I will. If a band sucks, it’s awful. I love seeing Kevin make up for everyone else’s (mostly Greg’s) lack of stage presence.
“All antics aside, Wrens still finds a way to reach into familiar songs and rip the hearts out of them to show to crowds. That “Hopeless” starts the same way every time live, with Kevin solo on piano, doesn’t stop it from being one of the decade’s best power-pop songs.”
I’m almost ready to call “Per Second Solution” their best live song. Mmm! Thanks, Jason, for doing all the work for me.
After the Wrens played, I left the venue, drank a Vitamin water, met up with sister and bro-law and Jon, drank a coffee, watched Sparrows play. They were great. Attendance was low, but the venue was a Mexican dance club on the outskirts of town, so you’d have to plan ahead and access a car to make it there.
Then we watched Watchmen and ate burgers at the Alamo. It was a horrible mess of a movie. So bad it’s bad. And long. I am forming the opinion that people who have read the book are less qualified to judge a movie than people who haven’t. Everything I’ve read that defends the movie praises it for its attempt at faithfulness. A movie is not a marriage.