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From there we squeezed into the massive Matador Records showcase in the cavernous airplane hangar called the Austin Music Hall. The last time I saw former American Music Clubsinger Mark Eitzel, the show was so excruciatingly terrible he ended up writing a song about it ("Helium"). This time Eitzel's manic depression didn't drag him into a frustrating mess but instead guided him to a tender, disarming, clumsily beautiful set of sad songs. Eitzel was charmingly self-effacing, telling the crowd that he recently visited a bathroom stall in a bar in his hometown of San Francisco to write "Mark Eitzel sucks." The next time he went back, he said, the phrase had been scratched out and replaced with the statement, "No, still alive." Eitzel laughed as he said, "I couldn't tell if it was a putdown or not."
Matador's second act was one of the most talked about and anticipated at SXSW -- the reformed Soft Boys, the group Robyn Hitchcock fronted from 1976 until 1981. The label has just rereleased Underwater Moonlight, the band's underrated magnum opus, and Hitchcock recently got chummy with his old mates: guitarist Kimberly Rew (who originally resurfaced in Katrina and the Waves), bassist Matthew Seligman (last spotted in the '80s on some Thomas Dolby records) and drummer Morris Windsor, who also played in Hitchcock's latter-day band, the Egyptians. The SXSW appearance was the first Soft Boys show in front of an audience in 20 years. A great deal more gray hair was to be found this time around -- Rew and Hitchcock both wore distinguished silver shocks -- but the band demonstrated why R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck always insisted it was the Soft Boys, not the Byrds, from whom he copped his signature chiming tone.
The Soft Boys were superb, but the guitar gods of Glasgow, Scotland, Mogwai, came on shortly thereafter and laid waste to the packed house with a sweeping succession of sucker punches, narcotizing us with sweet, painterly soft passages only to drop anvils of tinnitis-inducing volume on our heads.
I've always been hesitant to attend SXSW because I'm no fan of out-of-control crowds, and I've always been too cheap (read: poor) to fork over the ducats. But I won't miss it again, especially since 99 percent of the bands at the event wouldn't come down to South Florida to piss on us if we were on fire. So an annual pilgrimage is in order. Let me know, and I'll bring you back some green chiles next year.