SXSW 2009, night one: Roky, An Horse & more

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For the first decade or so of South by Southwest’s existence, the full-on assault of showcase gigs didn’t begin until the second night of the festival. The only thing to do on Wednesday was to attend the Austin Music Awards, the city’s annual bout of self-congratulatory hoo-ha–laudable (Chicago wishes it had something as credible) yet ultimately, like all awards shows, pretty boring (especially to visitors from other cities).

Nevertheless, for years, I attended the awards lured by the promise of an appearance by Austin’s psychedelic-rock legend Roky Erickson, who inevitably disappointed by coming onstage for half a song and fumbling the words before shuffling off to return to a hermitage plagued by his infamous battle with mental illness.

Healthier and seemingly happier than he’s been in decades, Erickson was a revelation at a handful of Chicago shows in recent years, including appearances with his backing band the Explosives at the Intonation Music Festival and Lollapalooza. But I was excited about seeing him fronting the Black Angels, a wonderfully dense, droning and mind-altering Austin band that I first discovered at SXSW in 2006.

The Explosives were fine for recreating the caffeinated buzz of Erickson’s New Wave-era solo material. But the Black Angels promised to inject the otherworldly vibe and slight hint of menace so vital to Erickson’s pioneering’60s band, the 13th Floor Elevators.

Waiting for Erickson to close out the night at the Austin Music Hall, I endured a mercifully short but nonetheless miserable set by Austin’s Bob Schneider, who increasingly sounds like a third-rate imitation of Tom Waits (and the later-day Waits at that, not the great one of “Swordfishtrombones” and that era).

Much better was a reunion of Austin’s groundbreaking punk band the Dicks, justly renowned for battling racism, homophobia and police brutality in their music in the early ’80s. The highlight came when still-riveting vocalist Gary Floyd was joined for one song by their big fan David Yow, a former Austinite who’s gearing up for a reunion of Chicago’s Jesus Lizard at this yea’s Pitchfork Music Festival.

Next up, in between the endless bouts of awards and thank-you speeches, was a tribute to another Texas giant, Doug Sahm, featuring his former band mate Augie Meyers, his son Shawn Sahm and a guest turn by Alejandro Escovedo. But amazingly, the short set did not include Doug Sahm’s enduring classic “Mendocino.”

Finally it was time for Erickson and the Black Angels. The band opened by playing two of its own songs before being joined by Erickson, who seemed a lot more discombobulated than he did at his Chicago shows. The band stopped and started the Elevators’ gem “Splash 1 (Now I’m Home)” before struggling through a sloppy version of the tune, and then it ended with the classic “You’re Gonna Miss Me” complete with amplified jug.

But Erickson’s voice simply wasn’t there this time, and the sad truth was that the man didn’t really seem to be present either.

By far the highlight of my night came at Maggie Mae’s, a club back on the main musical drag of Sixth Street, with a set by the Australian duo An Horse. Guitarist-vocalist Kate Cooper and drummer-vocalist Damon Cox delivered a high-energy showt rife with exuberant and well-crafted hooks and laced with a nervous but endearing energy. And the band is just as strong on its recent album “Rearrange Beds.”

It was a welcome reminder after a long first day and night that for every disappointment at SXSW, a welcome revelation can be just around the corner.


Kate Cooper and Damon Cox of An Horse.

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