One of the things that South by Southwest teaches best is that choice, and the illusion thereof, is potentially paralyzing. At seemingly any given time, there are at least two worthy acts competing for your attention. It’s enough to make even the most level among us reach for the Ritalin. So while it might seem counterintuitive, it’s kind of nice when others make your decisions for you, a point well illustrated when some friends dragged me to the second annual Mess with Texas festival at Waterloo Park, a bit off SXSW’s beaten track.
That this festival-within-a-festival is curated by some cats with good taste handily cuts what is an overwhelming embarrassment of riches down to a slightly more user-friendly handful of hard decisions. “Atlas Sound or Holy Fuck?” “Simian Mobile Disco, NOFX, or the Breeders?” The former choice was relatively easy for me, especially after I watched Bradford Cox, the strikingly tall (Marfan Syndrome-afflicted) frontman of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, amble onstage in a wryly selected Breeders T-shirt and a pair of the neon-framed sunglasses that are this year’s must-have South By accessory. From many perspectives Atlas Sound is a side-project, and I’m sure that at least some of the people congregated on the gentle slope in front of their stage are just counting the days until Cox returns to the mothership, but frankly, this band makes the music that I had always hoped Deerhunter would: swirly, aching, neo-shoegazer limned with subtle electronics and backed by a surprisingly sturdy low end. Cox showed a little of the confrontational stage presence he’s known for, making a slightly uncomfortable joke about the juxtaposition between the beautiful Austin day and the tornadoes that reportedly ravaged his Atlanta neighborhood the day before, but mostly he just played, loudly and beautifully.
Next up was a quick check-in with MTV sketch comedians Human Giant, who seem to be everywhere. Aziz Ansari and Rob Huebel (sans Paul Scheer) have been running around dressed in tracksuits and brandishing shockingly powerful T-shirt guns to great hilarity. They also made an appearance at the Pitchfork/Windish party on Friday. Their shtick hasn’t changed much from gig to gig, but it was still pretty funny when Ansari led the crowd in a call-and-response oral agreement to not sue “Human Giant or any organizers of this event” should the T-shirt guns break a face.
After some much-needed nourishment (and beer, and Grant Gee-directed documentary about Joy Division, courtesy of Austin’s entirely necessary Alamo Drafthouse theater/restaurant), we went back on the town. And since a documentary that climaxes when Ian Curtis kills himself is a perfect prelude for getting footloose, we headed to Austin’s warehouse district, where the DFA Label Showcase was getting underway at the entirely douchey bottle-service club Pangea. Let’s pause a moment to discuss the probably unintended hilarity involved in having the DFA—whose natural habitat, in my New York experience, has been grungy Greenpoint discos and bed-bug-infested loft parties—play a showcase at a club that serves $400 bottles of Grey Goose and hires girls who are just this side of stripper to grind on the subwoofers. It was like some parallel universe where the dudes who wear way too much hair gel and fake tanner go clubbing and listen to spacey experimental dance music instead of a hit parade of Benny Benassi. And color me shocked that a place as outwardly down-to-earth as Austin would adopt that most loathed nightlife caste system, the bottle service nightclub, let alone make it even more loathsome by sending each new bottle out to patrons with a Roman Candle strapped on top. But yes, it’s true. And unfortunately for all involved, instead of turning this Bizarro World scene on its ear, the second-stringers the DFA turned out to DJ couldn’t muster up anything mind-boggling enough to save the scene from itself, opting instead for long, amateurishly mixed sets of anonymous-sounding, mildly corked vintage disco. And aside from a kind of awkward transition between Holy Ghost!’s “Hold On” and Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind,” they didn’t even really tap into the label’s own rich catalog of floor-fillers. To their credit, though, they weren’t quite boring enough to eclipse headliner Digitalism’s poorly mixed, white noise-spackled set defied odds to register as the biggest disappointment of the festival for me.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.