Last Words: Thoughts on 35 Denton 2013

35 Denton deserves more time between its end and the beginning of the music portion of SXSW. It only gets more interesting by the year, and therefore deserves a proper amount of consideration. But one does not exist without the other, and in a way, the changes seen rippling through Denton exist on an ant farm-like scale with which to view the impact that Austin’s monstrously large event has had on that also larger city, which is currently having a bit of a tug-of-war between its historical preservationists and the endless asphalt scythes of commerce and development. The second, third, and fourth days of 35 D showed us how capable the festival has been to address multiple crises when they arise, and perhaps considering how the day was saved more than once, these could be looked at as glory days for both the event and the town, since these changes have already impacted Denton as well as they have in our capital.

The Smokiness of Denton 

It’s still easy to park and walk in Denton. For as long as that’s true, don’t take it for granted and kiss the ground after the fifty-minute drive. The amount of articles I’ve read that reference tired feet are simply absurd, but I also know most writers are not exactly be the running kind. What are you doing out there? A few blocks at most? With stops for drinks and pizza? The lot of you are Grade-A wimps, and I’m starting a crowd-sourcing fund to buy appropriate footwear for tired journalists and bloggers. More on footwear later.

Denton is walkable and convenient in the dreamiest way. What Denton also is, that is not dreamy at all, is smoky. As in, dogs playing poker and pool on velvet smoky. And the velvet is on fire. Some music fans love this about the town, while many others despise it. The despising party is not enough, however, since the partial ban that goes into effect in April, is as confusing as it is toothless. But some ex-Denton-ites, have fond memories of being able to light up at will. One former UNT student who now resides in Chicago told me that he loves the town for the simple fact that he “hasn’t smoked indoors since Chillwave.”

As for metaphorical smokiness of another kind, the booking can be heavily psychedelic and druggy at 35 Denton, but that’s no surprise for any fest. But Roky Erickson and Sleep in one evening? One wonders if booking meetings are just a group sitting around, and from behind squinted eyes proclaiming, “Dude. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the 13th Floor Elevators played with SLEEP?!” Both acts were great, with Roky performing admirably after a lifetime of hardship, and Sleep being every bit as repetitive and powerful as they’re talked up to be. At one point I went away for a weak wine-margarita at Fuzzy’s, only to find that the group was still on the same riff in what seemed like an eternity later. Roky played enough classics to get a record collector ticked off at me when I later told her what he had performed.

Later in the indoor portion of the evening, Cutter proved why they are still one of Dallas’ best exports, and Def Rain did the same at The Hive, as Ashley Cromeens performed with a confidence that was not always apparent in her old band, Record Hop. In Record Hop, Cromeens performed as if she were embarrassed to be fronting a band at times. That’s not the case with Def Rain. You do not perform in a reflective silver hood-ie if you’re ashamed of anything. Her performance is all the better for it.

Shiny Around the Edges put on a performance that was too atmospherically vast for the tiny confines of Banter, but it was also one of the better shows at that particular venue all weekend. It was disappointing to find that Wiccans cut their performance short after what front-person Adam Cahoon said was only about eight minutes, after one of his fans was handled more roughly by security than he preferred. He said the set would be made up at a DIY taqueria show, which apparently went off rather successfully later that night.

It seems the festival can never be punk or dangerous enough for certain individuals, and yet its booking is far too obscure or unconventional for many casual music fans and less-informed observers among us. Too bad for them. If the festival were to simply cater to big-band-of-the-moment tastes, it would never last. It helps to remember that SXSW started by having predominantly obscure and local acts, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt them. Smaller talent is about the long game. You look like a complete idiot if you end up having your generation’s Save Ferris or New Radicals as headliners.

BREAKING: Sometimes it rains on Earth in March.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend was watching Twitter as bloggers and reporters breathlessly outdid each other to give increasingly dramatic weather reports. So it rained a little. I’m impressed. The hail never came, and though the winds were a little strong, they were nowhere near tornado-like or anything else  that was implied by these mini Delki and wannabe Dungans. And just as the Observer reestablished its local music authority with the Hive exclusive, they also had the most accurate updates on who was playing where, when shows were relocated.

The festival had no choice but to move things indoors, and when one considers how many scaffoldings have hurt concert-goers in the past few years, it becomes even more clear how important that decision was. I was not afraid of the stage though, however. I was afraid of that “You are Beautiful” public art piece that had been moved to the parking lot of Wells Fargo. Did you see what that thing did to a car? Though they buried the lede a bit, the Denton-chauvanist blog, We Denton Do It, had the scoop on a piece of the art falling off of Dan’s Silver Leaf, destroying the windshield and roof of a vehicle. It was the word, “YOU,” and the ominous cloud that left over the beginning of the event was concerning. This was underreported. A piece of public art destroying a car is a critic’s dream and you failed me, Dallas. It almost seemed like a coverup. Dan’s Silver Leaf was then referred to as “Building 7.”

This fiasco did not ultimately paint the entire festival in the way that it could have, had things gone more awry. There’s no such thing as common sense, but I recommend the following when you attend your next large-scale music event: Wear proper shoes, combat boots, if you can. And if it rains, go indoors. I went to house shows when the downpour came and caught Prisons, the duo who used to run Time Bandits, a vintage clothing and record shop off the Square. It was one of the most enjoyable sets I took in all weekend. They used a tableful of effects to create a very direct and focused rhythmic noise. Many tabletop-based sets can devolve into an open sonic mess that becomes obviously indulgent, and while I admire that, I have loved these twos’ propensity for sticking with an attack plan. That’s something they also did well in Cuckoo Birds, another wild and successful project of theirs.

The house shows that spring up around 35 Denton are actually worse than they are at most festivals. But that’s a compliment, since the lineup is usually so strong that the houses just can’t compete. There were a lot of great acts hidden away in the neighborhoods, but the majority of it was off-brand Denton and Dallas bands who just aren’t that hot and who perhaps don’t blend well into 35 D’s overall loose, but still defined aesthetic criteria.

Though the Hive can be awkward when it’s partially full, it really came into its own when it was packed out. Lines and drink prices aside, it was a suitable setting for the bigger acts, such as Solange, even if that wasn’t the original plan. It added a spontaneity and excitement to the proceedings that can’t be bought or arranged.

Sunday: The Impossible to Navigate Finale

The last night of 35 Denton made it so impossible to stay in one place that I ran from J&J’s, to Dan’s, to Mellow Mushroom, to The Hive, to Rubber Gloves, and I have no idea if that was the order. From the intimidating physicality of Prurient, to the Silver Apples proving that the future was indeed predicted deeply from the last century, it was very difficult to choose where to be stunned.

Some personal favorite local acts showed up to remind us why we ever cared in the first place. Eat Avery’s Bones provided more crowd antagonism than has been seen in Dan’s in years, and bassist Meggie Hilkert has provided a fascinating counter to Matt Burgess’ original role as the lead-singing drummer. Violent Squid fulfilled all of its conceptual promises in a single set. Though the band is filled with more all-stars than it needs, it was seeing lead member Ty Stamp almost directing the band from the sidelines that revealed the group’s playful genius and charming lack of a cohesive ego. They are preparing to release a three-disc set of music, further proving that they have little regard for the normal trappings of a successful strategy for a career in music. That’s also charming.

Earlier on the main stages, the Reigning Sound provided one of the most emotional sets of the weekend in both highs and lows. The invitation of a fan on stage to play tambourine was a highlight of the weekend, and the removal of the group’s rhythm section during the last number, “What Could I Do?,” only allowed the song’s impossibly sorrowful lyrics and sounds to become more like a full-on sob as opposed to a soft cry.

When Thurston Moore turned Chelsea Light Moving’s soundcheck into a thirty-minute improv, I watched an icon pull me back into his corner, after what I felt were many faxed-in attempts to half-decidedly keep his career just gently bobbing in the industry. When his band attempted to communicate an idea, they succeeded, whether it was one of volume or one of stillness. He could have written this music in his sleep all these years, so why didn’t he? As opposed to, say, a record like Murray Street.

While Moore’s performing, and I’m actually having a great time in the midst of Denton’s aggressively inhabitable quaintness, and its helplessly lovable inhabitants, I notice the condos behind the Main Stage. In the upper stories of one of the new condos on Bell Avenue, I see someone folding shirts. The person is completely oblivious to the display of no wave pop down below. Will Denton’s progress too spread with such a disregard for its own greatness?

Image: Sunday’s outdoor crowd at Stage 2 for Thee Oh Sees. Photo by Andi Harman.