The highlights: Jay Reatard, Dark Meat and Syd Straw
My third night with aching feet and ringing ears spent crawling down Austin’s main music drag of Sixth Street started with a set by underground favorite Jay Reatard, the Memphis garage punk born Jay Lindsey and recently signed to Matador Records, which is set to introduce him to the widest audience of his career by releasing six 7-inch singles in the coming year.
The fact that the 45 is the singer and multi-instrumentalist’s chosen format is indicative of his fondness for the short, sharp shock: Performing at a club called Vice, he tore through one rapid-fire barn-burner after another with impressive energy, and his set was all over in less than 20 minutes – record brevity even at SXSW, where every show is limited to three quarters of an hour.
Since it was over so soon after it began, and it never stopped pummeling forward while it lasted, it was really hard to quibble with anything Reatard did. And it provided the necessary double-espresso adrenaline rush to power me forward for the rest of the night.Even better, however, was the next set at the same venue, a visual and aural bacchanal from the Athens, GA, 11-piece art-punk ensemble Dark Meat.
Dressed in outlandish, mismatched thrift-store duds and sporting strange face makeup, the members of this horn-heavy ensemble threw small plastic glow sticks and glitter confetti at the crowd, and they responded by throwing it back along with rolls of toilet paper liberated from the rest rooms.
All the while, the band churned out its gonzo but melodic high-energy sound, which it describes as “the Stooges meets Crazy Horse with killer Stax/Funeral/Marching band horns, wailing gospel-style female backing vocals, ripping Eddie Hazel guitar leads and Albert Ayler breakdowns.” I think “the evil, punk-rock flip side of the Polyphonic Spree” also works pretty well.
The group self-released a strong 2006 album called “Universal Indians” that Vice Records is now reissuing to coincide with a 60-date tour that you’ll need to see to believe.
My final highlight of the evening was, like R.E.M. hours earlier, a veteran performer looking for a new start: the always endearing chanteuse and comedian, Syd Straw.
For those unfamiliar with Straw, who lived for a time in Chicago but now calls Weston, VT, home, she is best known, in this order, as the voice of the ’80s indie supergroup the Golden Palominos; an actress whose credits include “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” and “Tales of the City”; a backing vocalist for Rickie Lee Jones, Richard Thompson, Daniel Lanois and Pat Benatar and a fantastic if not exactly prolific solo artist -- her second and last album was the wonderful “War and Peace” in 1996.
Now, the singer and songwriter finally has a new disc called “Pink Velour” ready to go – “Give me enough money and I’ll put it out right now,” she said when someone asked her when it would be released – and her rare gig at a dreadful Sixth Street bar called Bourbon Rocks found her fronting a quintet with mandolin and four guitars, including one played by Lucinda Williams’ virtuosic bandmate Gurf Morlix.
Straw made no secret of the fact that the group had neither rehearsed nor soundchecked, and perhaps to make up for those handicaps, she spent as much time cracking wise as she did playing several pretty new ballads (the best was called “Casually”), a few old favorites (“CBGB’s,” but no “Black Squirrel”) and a cover of a tune by Austin’s Jo Carol Pierce.
As is her style, Straw tossed out one wry bon mot after another. The one that stuck with me and made me smile all the way back to the hotel at the midpoint of this conference was her description of the SXSW experience:
“It’s all about rubbing elbows in hell.”