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SXSW Day Two: One-Armed Drummers, Feeling Unimportant, and Seeing That Nirvana Documentary for the First time

We're still surviving.
March 19, 2015, 6:13pm

Photo via @whatthekids

The dawning of day two at SXSW is looking pretty rough for the drummer of Viet Cong. Mike Wallace has his left arm strapped to his stomach—it’s busted, dunno why—but he’s playing on, one-handed, and somehow making it seem like it’s no big deal. Then again, it seems the Calgary quartet who combine, mathy-noodling with bubbling basslines and post-punk (with a pinch of pop) toplines, excel even though the singer plays the guitar with his eyes closed and the bassist looks as stoned as Ren and Stimpy. Still the sun is shining and someone is blowing bubbles which is exactly the moment when you should opt out and head to whatever you want to see next 20 minutes to an hour early, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the 24 hours of SXSW it’s that you, the music fan are this:

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And if the act is hotter than a tamale party then you probably won’t get in without the ability to peel yourself away from something you’re really, really into, mid-set, in the hopes of seeing that other artist you have your heart set on. Waiting in lines is just all part of the fun. I had to peace on Viet Cong because I had my heart set on Shamir: perfect postured, XL-signed-signed, fresh from his teens, gap-toothed cute, Las Vegas boy, Shamir. “No more basic ratchet guys / Listen up I’m saving you!” he sings to a rammed room. Shamir is coyly engaging between songs, but when he gets into his groove, he’s pure sass and androgynously-vocaled seduction. Of course “On the Regular” gets the biggest boom, a cowbell-clanging cut of funked up synth-pop, but the newies he road tests sound just as sweet. He ends on the wriggly disco of “Head in the Clouds,” jumping into the crowd to exuberantly embrace his friends in the front row as much as the strangers at the back. Let “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample,” be your new euphemism for “Don’t touch, step back. Bitch.”

I love Courtney Barnett and her stompy twist on indie rock, and the way her Aussie accent bleeds through, and how she sing Evan-Dando penned lines like, “If I was a booger would you blow your nose? / Where would you keep it? / Would you eat it?” And while new songs like the disconsolately affecting "Depression" and punk-scuzz of "Pedestrian at Best" are stellar, it did occur to me while watching her set yesterday that the 20-something singer is an infinitely cooler, rougher-round-the-edges, distortion pedal-acquainted Sheryl Crowe. No shame in that.

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After that I hightailed it to the Paramount Theatre for some quiet time to relive my teen angst and re-remember why Nirvana are just so fucking good and why Kurt Cobain’s life was both a triumph and a total tragedy. Yesterday Montage of Heck­—the first Nirvana-sanctioned doc, with Courtney and Frances Bean as exec producers—debuted at SXSW. We have a full, exclusive interview with director Brett Morgan coming soon, but know that even if you have no love for Nirvana, if you’re a music fan this is a must-see.

With it combination of animation and voice recordings as narration, it’s extremely innovative, but more than that the wealth of intimate family shot footage makes this doc uncomfortably, palpably intimate. I grew up in the 80s and I don’t think my parents even owned a handycam, but Wendy and Don Cobain—who both tell their story here—have handed over reams of Super 8 footage so audiences can see baby Kurt, toddler Kurt, and adolescent Kurt in real time. Watch his bright blue eyes morph from playful and open to watchful and withdrawn as their divorce, being shunted around to different family members, and the struggles of being a high school outsider, start to take their toll. And how in turn, this anger, loneliness, and restlessness fueled his art.

I say “quiet time,” but one of the joys of this documentary is hearing Nirvana’s music blasted at top volume from a cinema sound system—whether it be excerpts from early shows in someone’s living room, or the bloodied dive bar chaos of Bleach-era, Nirvana, or the goosebumps-on-the-back-of-the-thighs-inducing, now legendary 1992 Reading Festival performance.

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Besides the early-years footage, it’s the videos featuring Courtney Love, Frances Bean, and Cobain that make for both the most rewarding and awkwardly voyeuristic viewing. There’s Cobain and Love obsessed with each other and in love, the camera millimeters from their mouths as they swap saliva—they stand united and cackling against the world, and the media. Or Cobain playing with a giggling Frances Bean, and later, heartbreakingly, holding her in his lap as he nods off, clearly off-his-face high. You know how this story ends—the stomach-lurching epitaph—and still, 21 years later, the sadness and loss of it has yet to pall.

Emerging blinking from the theater, it was a bit hard to get back into the messy Mardi Gras boozy body smoosh of SXSW’s main strip, so I headed straight to Noisey’s night to catch Public Access TV. I’ve seen singer John Eatherly in a number of guises over a number of years—first as the drummer in raucous teen garage rock act Be Your Own Pet, then playing with Luke Rathborne, then The Virgins—but taking the leap to be a frontman is his strongest move yet. Super loud and powered by charm, NYC-srut, and oodles of late-70s/new wave pop panache, Public Access TV are hands down my new favorites. (Sorry Shamir, but let’s all be polygamous, yeah?)

Twin Peaks followed by plugging in and tweaking out: Crowd surfing, hair flying, and larynx-shredding vocals that maintain just the right amount of sing-ability. Indie rock is not dead, so can everyone stop going on about it. That being said, after Twin Peaks, I was over guitars. I wanted bleeps! I did not want The Horrorist who looks like Bono in a Berlin fetish club. L-Vis 1990 brought the bangers—with a few nice nods to Bmore/Jersey club—and an alarming immobile coiffure (hello Ryan Cabrera from Day 1, is this an emergent boy-hair trend? DOWN WITH THE MAN BUNS ALREADY!)

To close out the night at the unfeasibly early time of 2 AM was Sophie who is playing a record 10 shows across five days this SXSW. The man in the kimono and the backpack was very down. Sophie (can we just call him Sam?) is ever so handsome in his mock white turtleneck and his side-swooped ginger curls. With every wrist flick and nob twist he’s pouted like a new romantic, or an Olsen twin. Musically I’d like to think that Sophie resurrected Keyboard Cat from the dead because he couldn’t find a suitable collaborator IRL and they started making tunes together and what came out was PC Music. Sophie is the sonic equivalent of kawaii. Bai.

Kim Taylor Bennett is very important, no matter what a wristband says. Follow her on Twitter.