The Black Keys

Thoughts on my final day at SXSW are ready for the readin'...

Most days during this fest, I took my time writing my daily recaps and ambled out to start seeing bands by mid-afternoon. Saturday, I made sure I was out in the shockingly frigid climes by noon (winter cap in full effect) because I wanted to make sure I made it into the MOG.com party at Mohawk, conveniently located a block from my hotel, before an insurmountable line formed outside. I soon realized that thanks to a hookup from my pal Adriana, I had access to a VIP side door that led to an exclusive balcony with free booze. So not only was I guaranteed entry into this shindig, I could come and go as I pleased.

Even though I didn't really need to be there by noon, I'm glad I turned up because Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers shook me awake with their harmonium-infused garage brutality. She's such a little lass, but she barks and howls with a fierceness rarely encountered. This was inspiring enough to creep into the SXSW top 10 I'm publishing on Thursday. (Note: She'll be back at The Summit this Wednesday along with this guy.)

At the Mohawk's outdoor stage, Free Energy progressed from figuratively covering BTO to literally covering BTO. The Philadelphia rockers are all about big power chords, playful struts, fist pumps and ear-to-ear grins. Nothin' wrong with a 70s rock party now and again, though I can imagine a certain segment of the population wanting to wipe that smile off the singer's face.

Back at the indoor stage I witnessed Dum Dum Girls, who are like the equally talented, prettier version of Vivian Girls. That is, they specialize in mashing together shoegaze haze and girl group harmony, only they primp up like an old-timey girl group rather than rocking street clothes. I've got to admit the costumes add a little bit to the experience, though the music is strong enough to stand on its own.

I headed back outside to see Demolished Thoughts, the main reason I wanted to make sure I got into this party. The supergroup featuring Thurston Moore, J Mascis, Andrew W.K., Don Fleming and Awesome Allison had debuted the night before at the Ecstatic Peace party and announced their intentions: "We're a cover band." Just like the previous night, Andrew W.K. was nowhere to be found, so the bassist from F---ed Up filled in. Thurston read from a lyrics sheet and recited faux revolutionary poetry between songs. It felt like an elaborate inside joke. Had I known any of the classic punk songs they were blazing through I might have appreciated it a little more. But from where I stood, it seemed like a lark that was more fun for the performers than the audience.

At this point I bolted for the Levi's Fader Fort, where I arrived just in time for Dam-Funk. The stage setup was nothing more than a man, his laptop and his keytar, but when you're a natural entertainer like Dam-Funk, you don't need much to get the crowd going. He crooned nonsense like "I don't even f--- with Tiger Woods, n----!" and spouted asides like "Y'all ain't even heard funk like this since y'all been here!" which feels like a relatively modest boast. Anyway, dude rocked the party with some smooth, futuristic synth concoctions and a limitless supply of energy.

I hurried back to the Mohawk because I wanted to see The Black Keys for the first time since they opened for Sleater-Kinney at Little Brother's in 2003. I think it's fair to say a lot has changed since then they've become one of the most famous, respected rock bands in the world, for one thing but their live show is essentially the same, and all the better for it. Considering their albums have gotten a bit more clean cut over the years, I was pleasantly surprised at how nasty they sounded. In fact, Dan Auerbach's guitar tone might even be more abrasive now than it was in the band's infancy. I've never been a big supporter of blues rock, but this was exactly the kind of explosive, spontaneous, dangerous rock show I want to see.

Headed to the hotel for a sec, then back to Fader Fort for one last bastion of bands before calling it a festival. This was where I finally saw Washed Out, one of my must-see acts for the week. I'm inclined to retroactively proclaim "Feel It All Around" a top 10 single from last year, and really the entire EP is the freshest of the "chillwave" crop, but I feared that the live show might not have much to offer. Indeed, Ernest Greene started by dancing behind his laptop, which doesn't engage the audience so well in the absence of Dam-Funk/Neon Indian levels of charisma. Greene welcomed out the band Small Black to fill out the songs and create a more physical presence on stage, but it still felt like the live component of this band is superfluous. No wonder Greene doesn't tour.

I managed not to repeat bands much this year, but I was more than pleased to see Real Estate a second time. I feel like this band's lazy, ambling summertime indie rock was made just for me. Band crush in full effect. And Kevin is right, they're definitely treading the jam-band fringe, but in a focused, controlled context that separates them from the hippies.

I had no idea who Yelawolf was, but he turned out to be a white-trashy looking rapper who reminded me of Ninja from Die Antwoord. His skills seemed legit, but it was hard to assess his artistry because of the constant, enjoyably absurd showmanship. First he carted out a box full of Budweiser tallboys and chucked them into the crowd. Then he pulled a girl on stage and grinded with her. Then he added a second. The three of them cracked open beers and enjoyed a toast. Later came the hypemen fulfilling their secondary vocation as T-shirt tossers. They chucked a bunch of Levi's jeans and a couple pairs of Converse into the audience too before Yelawolf's 20 minutes were up. For better or worse, that's what I'll remember about that dude.

The last act I saw before succumbing to the cold and my impending early-morning airport trip was Sleigh Bells, whose overblown electro pop + overblown guitars formula is killer on my car stereo but made for a horribly flimsy live show. Besides the gal on vocals and the guy on guitar, everything else is pumped in. Despite her most enthusiastic efforts, gal pal seemed misguided up there, and none of the songs carried much weight. Even the monumental "Crown on the Ground" felt like a mess. I wonder if they'll win me back at the Major Lazer show a couple weeks from now.