Endless Music Vs. Endless Promotion

From Austin, Texas—

You'll never believe that the last show I saw at SXSW was also the best. It seems too good to be true, like I'm giving it too much weight, trying to wrap things up with a dramatic flourish, faking a climax for the sake of a good story.

But I'm not. If I had the motivation in me to lie to you, I'd say the last best band I saw were some Orange County upstarts who alternately brought the crowd to tears of joy and howls of passion with the most amazing music I'd ever heard. I'd tell you that our county had birthed the next big thing and that at the end of their set a beautiful woman grabbed me and kissed me and we fell in love. I'd write that the band invited me to cover their triumphant world tour and that they would credit the OC Weekly with their discovery. That would be a good story.

That's far from the truth, however. The truth is, the last best band I saw is called Frog Eyes and hails from Canada—pretty far from the OC. They've been around for a while and certainly won't be catapulted to new levels of stardom just because I'm writing about them. I wish I had the words left in me to tell you more about their music, but I left my thesaurus at home and I fear my use of words like “ferocious,” “passionate,” and “unhinged” will soon become redundant. It's hard to sit in an airport and come up with new terms to describe the kind of bellowing, crashing, bombastic music I tend to love when you're as physically exhausted and mentally tired of trying to intellectualize and verbalize (however poorly) the purely emotional experience of listening to music as I am. And now, with “bellowing, crashing, bombastic,” I've just used three more words that will eventually grow tiresome if I'm not careful with my vocabulary.

By now, you know the spiel. “Check these guys out at www.myspace.com/frogeyes! If you like A, B, and C, you'll love them, etc.” I will say that the increased prominence of lap steel in their live set enhanced their element of fragile beauty that is often easy to overlook, inserted subtly as it is beneath frontman Carey Mercer's vocal histrionics and ticks. It's scary and lovely at the same time, like the feeling you get when you're having an anxiety attack and you bolt through your front door into the night air to power-walk it off and swing at ghosts, but it's never sounded as much like that on record as it did last night in the wee small hours of the morning on an outdoor patio next to a canal on 6th Street.

I'll freely admit that there were factors completely separate from Frog Eyes' music that so destroyed me last night. The band came on at one in the morning, the culminating act of four straight days of virtually non-stop music, sleeplessness, and drinking at the annual South by Southwest festival. I'd met up with some friends when I first arrived in Austin and had attended most of the shows with them, but they opted out of this one, so I was left to soldier on, exhausted, overwhelmed, feeling very far away from my real life, alone and lonely. The weather was perfect with a refreshing breeze coming off the canal, so pure and energizing, it made me momentarily ashamed to have relied so heavily on artificial chemicals to spur my soul in the three days prior to that night.

About two songs into an already remarkable set, someone in the crowd moved closer to me, and I realized that they were wearing some unique combination of perfumes or shampoos that smelled so much like my first love, I was struck with a flashback, sitting on the roof of her house, holding hands, trembling with a virgin panic that predicted on a grand scale the effect Frog Eyes would have on me 10 years later. I won't be so dramatic as to say it broke my heart a little bit, but it certainly forced it open and held it that way for the rest of their set, and I became enamored with the humanity of everyone around me, from the drunkest St. Patrick's Day heckler who seemed to have just wandered in off the street to the most clichd nerd college-rocker—who, yeah, pretty much looked exactly like me, fists jammed in his pockets, head bobbing alternately forward and back, side to side in time with the music.

So, there was a lot going on. But isn't there always? Music is a tricky thing in that the response to it can be so personal (and occasionally so divorced from the art as an artifact—detached from space and time and spring breeze and perfume) that one man's raison d'tre is another man's soulless noise. I could barely understand a word of what Carey Mercer sang, but I know how it made me feel and I won't pretend to speak for anyone else at that show. I had come to SXSW with the irrational amateur fear that I would be depended upon to comment on the music by utilizing some tangible universal hallmarks of good and bad, but by the end I realized how impossible that truly is. It's the mark of any decent critic to admit that his or her opinion is ultimately constructed upon the foundation of his or her life experience, but ideally some universal truths might poke through and someone will read this, know what it's like to sit on a rooftop and feel an exquisite terror/excitement at the prospect of the rest of your life coming at you, whether you're ready for it or not, and will check out Frog Eyes and be reminded of that fragile beauty, too.

I have no idea if these kinds of things go through Mercer's head as he sings. Probably more exhausted than any of the rest of us, he walked off stage quickly after the crowd coaxed the band back to perform one final song (“We've never had an encore before,” he said), and I didn't get a chance to ask him. Sometimes the motive for art is important, sometimes it isn't.

Periodically throughout the week, the fact that almost everybody at SXSW—including me—was essentially trying to promote themselves got me down, but I guess that's true about life in general, and you can either embrace that as an unavoidable part of humanity or you can rail against it, scream yourself blue in the face and feel disconnected from the lives and feelings of your fellow man. Truth be told, I generally lean toward that frustration and cynicism myself, but I'm working on it and the more I experience the kind of performance that can provoke the catharsis I felt at the end of the weekend, the easier it gets to feel alive and aware and beautiful again, regardless of how upsetting the rest of the world can be. For whatever mysterious reasons, during Frog Eyes' final show of the week, I was able to close my eyes, bob my head and feel like nothing else matters except endless music.

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