The barrage of showcases and parties of SXSW are easy to navigate and choose between so long you’re not being lied to, which is all the time. Start times for the sets? More of a guideline. RSVP? Whatever. Enjoy that line down the block. Free food? Sorry, all out. Free booze? We’re all out of that, too, or wait for the promo girls to hand it out, or I wouldn’t know anything about that, I’m just a bartender. Special guests? Yeah, they can come out perform one song, as I learned last night at Austin Music Hall. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
Aside from seeing bands you’ve seen before, chances are you may even see a band twice. I saw the Homosexuals twice in one day, and I wouldn’t take back either experience. Some things are worth repeating, and hearing “Hearts in Exile” live is one of them. While it’s not the original members, the current lineup remains phenomenal: They’re taut and intense, playing these songs with convincing grit, and flipping between twisted rhythms, thrash and noisy deconstructions with equal skill and aplomb. Singer Bruno McQuillan is my fashion icon, who played the Rusty Spurs bar earlier that day wearing a jacket that looked like he’d been wrapped in a Twister game board, and had changed for the Emo’s showcase with a new, equally loud and clashing outfit (including a knee-length shirt with some indigenous design rendered with neon puff paint). He’s looking a little old for his fey, mocking stage moves and green hair, but the sound couldn’t be more vital. Don’t take my word for it: While short on banter, he ended the set by asking the crowd to approach him later for a link to download every Homosexuals song. He was surrounded by fans until the The Oh Sees went on, but I didn’t see any of them asking for handoutsjust shaking hands and hugs and reverence.
Not a terrific amount of banter for The Oh Sees, either, just garage-pop that sounds like gritted teeth and exposed nerves played a thousand miles per second, often with a heavily-echoed mike halfway inside John Dwyer’s mouth. There was a dramatic exodus after their set, and Tyvek played to a half-empty room at midnight-which is just as well, because their live act is still pretty unpolished.
Despite their stripped-down punk songs that get straight to the heart of urban frustration and alienation in simple language, I have yet to see them get a cohesive live unit together. I was let down when I saw them at home last year, and singer/guitarist Kevin Boyer seems to have lost half his band in the meantime, paring down to a three-piece. Though the twisted guitar-pop of The Intelligence fared better, the crowd level had peaked, and the last men standing were The Oh Sees themselves, lined up in a row at the foot of the stage for the whole of the last performance.