For those of us who have braved the hell of the Austin City Limits Festival one too many times in our lives, and/or those of us who are too old, poor and/or lame to go anymore, there are still plenty of other options in a sweet town like Austin to tide over your rock ‘n’ roll soul. One feature that always comes along with the ACL Fest is the ACL aftershows, held all over town at venues such as Stubb’s and Emo’s. The great thing about these shows is that you can see some of the best acts around in a slightly more intimate, much cooler (temperature-wise), and less sweaty setting. The awful thing about these shows is that the price of a ticket almost triples.
Anyway, on Saturday night, Gordon and I took an excursion down to Emo’s to see one of our favorite local bands, Okkervil River, rock out the Emo’s stage once again. The first time I ever saw Okkervil River was at Emo’s on 8/21/2004, when they opened for perhaps my favorite rock band that’s still playing together, New Jersey’s The Wrens. At that time, Okkervil River was still fairly unknown, with less than a year to go from the 2005 release of their breakthrough and critically adored 2005 record Black Sheep Boy. They made immediate fans of both Gordon and I, playing a restrained yet emotional set that hooked me from the beginning. Gordon has seen them several other times, while I’ve remained content to follow their progress by way of each successive album release. With the recent dropping of their latest record, The Stand Ins, and over four years since my last time seeing them live, I knew it was time.
By coincidence, José González happened to be playing the first set of the night on the indoor stage at Emo’s at 10:30, with Okkervil River playing outside much later. This may have been partly responsible for the tripling of Emo’s ticket prices from their usually reasonable amount, along with the madness that is ACL. Either way, I was stoked. I’ve been a fan of José González since first hearing his 2003 record Veneer. I was curious to see how his quiet lullabies were going to translate to a live setting in a small club.
Let me tell you, José blew me away! I have seen many a show on the indoor stage at Emo’s, and one common thread is that the sound is usually awful. Of course, the indoor stage usually plays host to many loud punk and metal bands, and the brick walls don’t do a great job of absorbing any of that crunchy sound. However, I have now discovered that the indoor stage is the absolute perfect setting for a quiet acoustic folk act like José González. With just his classical guitar, two pitch perfect backup singers, and some very sparsely used bongos, José absolutely owned that room. His voice was immaculate, his guitar picking a wonder to behold. He played several familiar tunes, such as “Crosses”, “Lovestain”, “Broken Arrows”, and “Remain”. It was a great show, even though someone in my near vicinity had a particularly bad case of gas.
It was now time fto move outside for Okkervil River. And what a huge disappointment it was. I cannot blame the band for the poor show, though. Frontman Will Sheff bounced around the stage with fire and energy, engaging the crowd at every turn, and the rest of the band played with precision. The thing that ruined this show was the sound. I don’t know if they have a new sound engineer at Emo’s, but this was hands down the worst sounding concert I have ever attended there, and I would estimate that I’ve been there somewhere around 50 times. Beginning with opener “Plus Ones” and continuing all the way through closer “Westfall”, the bass guitar was turned up way too loud, the vocals were turned down too low, and the whole band sounded muddled and almost indistinguishable from one another. The bass was so fucking loud that the hairs on my legs were vibrating. Later, the bass got turned down a little bit, but then the organ on new song “Singer Songwriter” was so loud that nothing else could really be heard. There was also a heavy haze of white noise throughout the entire set. It was disappointing to say the least. Gordon made the comment that he would have been disappointed if he had spent just $10 to see that show, but instead we paid $30 apiece. So Emo’s, what the hell? If you’re going to triple your prices for admission, at least give us a set worth listening to! Bad form!
Maybe I should have just gotten drunk.