South By Southwest is like a big vacation, but it's also a dilemma: no matter where you are, there's somewhere else you could be. It is like life itself: every decision means forfeiting all potentially better options. You're most free—and yet most frustrated—when you're waiting in line, not yet in and not yet out. Still able to change your mind at the last minute.
For 30 minutes on Saturday night, I surrendered the dilemma. I stopped thinking about the other bands, the other parties, my flight in the morning, the work I had to do, how tired I was, the whereabouts of the guy I had arrived with and become separated from. I even stopped checking my cell phone for missed calls, which had become like a nervous tick while circumscribed by the Austin city limits.
I was watching the Thermals, a four-piece from Portland, Oregon, who play jagged, momentous, fiendishly electrifying rock. They were crammed onto the corner stage at the Red Eyed Fly, which was far too small to hold the crowd that tried to show up for the Sub Pop showcase. Crowds swarmed outside. There's so much heart in singer Hutch Harris' voice, which is urgent without being maudlin, strong without grating. Part of the reason I was able to close my eyes and let the music push out all the other thoughts was that I know the album frontward and back. It's my favorite these days, and I really can't explain why; it's just something about the songs, the drums, the way the guitars sound smooth and rough at the same time. The way Harris sounds like he's in pain but trying to hide it, which is, when you think about it, kinda how we all are.
The Thermals don't wear crazy outfits and don't have a shtick. They don't even have a keyboard. But they lay themselves bare in a way that's both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and in this respect, they remind me of another band from the Pacific Northwest who captured a feeling in sound that everyone had felt but no one had—or ever will—put words to.
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