SXSW ’09 kicked off under sunny skies Wednesday as the music industry descended on Austin to see new bands, meet new people, and spend more time milling around a convention center in four days than most people do in a lifetime. Though the effects of the ongoing recession could perhaps be felt in the (blissfully) feather-light weight of the annual swag bag, the lines for wristbands and credentials still snaked long with skinny-jeaned attendees poking at their iPhones, and 6th Street — closed to traffic a day early, if I’m not mistaken — hosted plenty of cacophonous day-party-meets-spring-break nonsense well into the early morn.
The de facto main event for Night One was the NPR Music party at Stubbs, where, sitting in the spot occupied last year by a little band named R.E.M., we found the always-ambitious Decemberists setting out to play their new album/rock opera, The Hazards of Love, from start to finish. I purposely did not listen to my advance stream of this, instead counting the days until I could witness Colin Meloy and his able shipmates — now featuring Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden — do it live on stage. I’m so glad I waited: Though I have no earthly idea what the story is about, I’ve rarely felt so compelled to concentrate on the sounds exploding in front of me to the exclusion of all else (including the drunk guy trying to fall off Stubbs’ roof), and a quick glance at the rapt, upturned faces of the backyard crowd confirmed I wasn’t alone. There was just something hypnotic about the challege of a performance that swirled together harpsichord and steel guitar and chimes and thunderous drums and a (pre-recorded) children’s choir and two gorgeous guest-ladies in costumes as, out front, the newly mutton-bechopped Meloy guided us through with his fairy-tale voice to a climax that swelled to the heavens.
It was a ride I can’t wait to take again, and you can take it, too: Thanks to the magic of the intertubes, the whole show will be archived on NPR’s site at some point soon. Be sure to tune in for opening sets by the always kick-ass Heartless Bastards and the Avett Brothers. Actually, I wasn’t sure what I thought of the latter’s Appalachian punk thing at first — Dave Grohl fronting a jug band? Flogging Molly if there was no electricity? — but once they quit with the hollering and sang pretty songs, I liked them much better. Anyway. Pictures after the jump!