On one hand, I feel like it sort of betrays everything South by Southwest is supposed to represent for me to spend my first night here watching Ray Davies and Roky Erickson
— two pretty safely established acts, I'd say, who probably aren’t in need of discovery or extra exposure, or much of anything really. (Though if you don’t know who one of those guys is, get to Wikipedia immediately, and I’ll pretend we never had this conversation.)
But on the other hand, fuck it. If Alex Chilton’s death has taught me anything this week, it’s that you have to see the legends when you get the chance, and I’ve never seen either of these dudes before. So after an extremely cramped shuttle ride with Snoqualmie Pass, Washington’s T-Bagging Bandits (sample dialog: “How come when you drive by a funeral home and they’re cremating a body it doesn’t smell like barbecue?”) and arriving at the Austin Convention Center just in time to get my badge before they closed, I hiked over to La Zona Rosa to go dancing with the Kinks. Davies opened with “This Is Where I Belong” and threw in a few Austin mentions, which I’m sure he’s totally never done for any other city ever. I expected a crowd of old farts, and there was at least one old guy literally farting non-stop directly in front of me. For the most part though, the crowd was pretty evenly split between grayhairs who’d probably bought Schoolboys in Disgrace on 8-track and 20-somethings who were texting the setlist to their parents.
Considering Davies was writing pleas for a return to the good old days of afternoon tea in the mid-to-late’60s, there’s something weird about people taking his picture on their smartphones. The mopey ass kicking of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” “Ape Man,” and “David Watts” transcend Twitter, Foursquare, Chatroulette and whatever the hell else you kids are doing these days, and the audience young and old responds accordingly. Davies tears through 25 songs in about an hour and the audience sings along with the songs they know, and cheers more than politely at the ones they don’t, of which there aren’t that many. Other than Waterloo Sunset, he plays most of the songs I wanted him to, obligatory (“You Really Got Me Now,” “Lola”) and those I’d assume are slightly more obscure (“Two Sisters*,” “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” “Celluloid Heroes”) but that the audience screamed wildly for. Guess I’m not such a unique snowflake Kinks fan after all.
Speaking of which, Davies has got to be screwing with the audience when he insists everyone sing along to the chorus of “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” but they do it anyway. Even though it’s most famously used in the Sopranos, the song’s part of a section of the show he dubs “Ray’s songs that have been used in movies,” which also includes “A Well Respected Man” from Juno and "Nothin' in the World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl" from Rushmore. He seems happy to play them, though he uses “Worryin’” to remind us just how long he’s been doing this. “I wrote this song when I was 17,” he said. The girl he wrote it for, he says, broke his heart. “But now I can’t even remember her name,” he says now, and it’s entirely plausible.
“Sunny Afternoon,” though he seems less fond of: “I wrote this song in a fit of depression,” he says. “And now I’ll probably have to sing it for the rest of my life.” He reads a short passage from his “unauthorized autobiography” X-Ray, and introduces “The Tourist” with a story about moving to New Orleans, which he jokingly calls a mistake. He impersonates a Cajun accent, imitating his neighbors: “You see that guy who moved next door?” he says. “You know who he is, don’t you? He wrote that faggot song Lola. Let’s shoot the motherfucker!” In NO, he says, he met Chilton, and the two recorded a duet of a Kinks song Chilton covered previously, “Till the End of the Day.” He sings it tonight in Chilton’s honor, and it easily takes on a greater meaning as a beautiful, unsentimental eulogy.
Davies’s voice has lost a little strength as he’s aged, requiring him to talk his way through some of the verses, late-period-Dylan style but he still has the energy to hop around onstage like someone who hasn’t been doing it for like 45 years, and the new songs he’s written sit comfortably with his older, better known compositions. “I like doing new songs,” he says before playing “Postcard From London,” originally a duet with Chrissie Hynde, which Davies says “you can download from space.” Must be working — tonight Davies looks like we’ll have the chance to watch him play for another 45 years.
*The video above was not taken by me and it wasn't at this performance, but it's the same tour and the same setup, etc. If you'd like to pretend I filmed it, just superimpose the back of former basketball player Gheorghe Mureşan's head over the bottom 3/4 of the screen.
Roky Erickson & Okkervil River
Former 13th Floor Elevator frontman Erickson played with psych-rock revivalists the Black Angels at last year’s festival, and that seemed like a natural fit, but the team up with not-exactly acid-washed Okkervil (the two have an album coming out April 20) could be pretty awkward. After 45 freaking minutes of setup, which included Okkervil’s Will Sheff checking every freaking microphone and monitor onstage himself, we finally find out that it pretty much works. Despite the fact that Erickson turned sideways to watch Sheff the entire performance, depending on him for the proper chord changes and the occasional whispered lyric, the two have found a common sound that shouldn’t piss off fans of either act. Erickson probably wouldn’t make the top 50 in a list of acts I suspected as Okkervil influences, but Sheff is clearly having a blast (something most Okkervil songs wouldn’t lead you to suspect he was really even capable of doing), rocking out with a hero on Erickson solo tracks “Two Headed Dog” and “I Walked With a Zombie.”
And “True Love Cast Out All Evil” the title track from their upcoming collaboration is stunning. The key phrase is repeated like a hopeful mantra, first by Erickson affecting a gruff-and-lonesome Texas yelp, then by Sheff with the whole band coming in soon after, eyes closed, faces glowing like a gospel choir. The song clearly has a personal significance for Erickson and Sheff that’s more than the actual meaning of the words can account for, they’re both entirely too good at what they do to feel an emotion onstage without conveying it to the audience.
The collaboration looks to be another good career move for Sheff, who’s been nothing but awesome since 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, and a truly exciting development for Erickson cultists. Hopefully, seeing these seasoned artists in action will work as a calibrator for me for the rest of this week, helping me keep perspective on the overeager hosannas praising these flavor of the minute buzz bands, but also reminding me that, hell, some of those songs Davies wrote when he was 17 were absolutely killer. Tomorrow I’ll go see some bands with pimples on their faces, I swear.