Thursday, my second day at South by Southwest, began with taping of Spoon for the first episode of the 30th season of the show "Austin City Limits," which is, with very little competition, the best live music show on American television. The sound was perfect. Spoon played for an hour, energetic and charismatic as always, focusing on music from their brilliant upcoming record "Gimme Fiction."
These songs turn '60s rock clichés into something strange, angular and, for all the retro tics and mannerisms, very modern. Frontman Britt Daniel has an ideal rock 'n' roll voice, scratchy and swaggering and brash, and drummer Jim Eno plays and composes like an anal Ringo Starr -- and I mean that as a very high compliment. At one point, the band brought on M. Ward, who provided menacing snarls of guitar feedback on a performance of "The Beast and Dragon, Adored," the first track on "Gimme Fiction."
Later on, I ended up at a Daniel Johnston show -- a revelation. I'd never been impressed by Johnston's music before, and had assumed that much of the adoration he received was due to a fetishising of his mental illness. But this show hooked me. Strumming erratically on an old nylon string guitar, he sang songs with a wit, dignity and kindness that moved me in a way that nothing else I've heard here has. As a skeptic turned awestruck fan by one live performance, I urge you to see him in concert, should the chance ever present itself.
After a brief stop at an Irish showcase, where I heard Bell X1 (free download: "Next to You") and the Immediate (free download: "Never Seen"), I headed over to the Merge Records showcase, where a newly reunited Dinosaur Jr. was rumored to be making an appearance. Their gear was in the club, but the band never showed up. Word is J. Mascis had "missed his flight." Spoon went on instead.
My evening ended at the DKNY Jeans late-night party, held in a hangar at a defunct airport a little ways out of downtown, with music provided by the Bravery, Diplo and Queens of the Stone Age. I arrived just as Queens were taking the stage. The band put on a good show, but there's something mystifying about their shtick: Frontman Josh Homme holds himself with the preening, laughable arrogance of a rooster, and for all the skill and power of the music, it feels like loud rock made by a bunch of jocks. It's hard to know what to make of such a heavy, ferocious band sound topped by singing as incongruously clean-cut, boyish and blond as Homme's.
At some point, Mark Lanegan, former Screaming Trees vocalist and sometime member of the Queens, joined the band for a few songs. Lanegan is one of the greatest rock vocalists alive, with a seething, quaking powerhouse of a voice, and with him fronting the band everything clicked: The music lost its cleanness and became a prowling, menacing beast. A good show became, briefly, a great one.