March 13, 2014

SXSW Wednesday: Trying to Make Sense of It All


Bipolar Sunshine

My phone rang at exactly 1 a.m. I’d just gotten through a big line and ushered into a packed show by Spandau Ballet—the group’s first U.S. appearance in 28 years—so I didn’t take it. I texted back, though, and asked, “What’s up?” The response was chilling: “Horrible accident outside The Mohawk! Gruesome scene. Just making sure you're safe.”

I was. I’d decided the previous hour to leave the line outside The Mohawk on Red River Street and miss seeing Crosses, X and Tyler The Creator (photos from that show here). I’d already seen the last two several times. And I wasn’t regretting my decision to leave to see Lisa Marie Presley (who took the stage almost 25 minutes into her allotted 45-minute set length), because her voice was strong and her lip would intermittently and seemingly involuntarily curl into that same sort of snarl that her dad’s did.

I walked down Red River Street knowing that my people would be coming from that direction, and I hoped to run into them. I didn’t.

And when the text came through, Spandau Ballet—whose performance was flawless and whose biggest worldwide hit “True” does the group a bit of injustice by denying its true strength (i.e., white soul straight from the stylistic and emotional heart of latter-era Roxy Music)—was bouncing its way through the buoyant “Lifeline.” The lyrics (“Neither has the ghost of a chance…/ You never really know just what you're giving 'til you're living/ In the lifeline we're moving/ In the lifeline we're walking/ In the lifeline we're throwing/ So live and let live in love”) were immediately both soured and surreal.

Yes, I was safe. Earlier in the day, I’d lounged on the newly installed lawn at the Fader Fort and seen Manchester, England’s Bipolar Sunshine, which wound up being the first new-to-me band I wanted to tell everyone about; its blend of danceable non-jagged post-punk and smooth post-punk R&B (of the same vein that gave the world Orange Juice and Simply Red) was refreshing and joyful and full of spirit. And I’d seen Leeds, England’s Eagulls, and kept thinking that if the band's members had American accents all their songs were be really kind of mediocre. And I saw Glasgow, Scotland’s Casual Sex, which seems to have formed an entire band around the cowboy fetish of The Clash and the contingent parts of Madness’ somber “Grey Day.” (It’s OK, UK. One out of three ain’t bad.)

I was OK. I’d seen a great big dog with goofy glasses and a cool owner who was totally cool having his photo taken, and I’d had delicious coffee at the artisan bakery Easy Tiger, a place laid out with gorgeously lettered glass and walls of windows. I sat and watched people baking, and realized for the first time how physically demanding that job is and how much attention is paid to detail.

Later that night, X had just finished a rousing set and the audience was understandably pumped up. A Mohawk representative got onstage and advised that no one could exit onto Red River, but would have to go out the back way. I walked down Red River Street knowing that "my people," so to speak, would be coming from that direction, and I hoped to run into them. I didn’t. Police had barricaded the street just past Stubb’s, where Blur’s Damon Albarn was still plowing through his set for NPR Music.

(There are two schools of thought regarding this. One says that NPR should have stopped their show—only a block away from The Mohawk—as soon as they found out what had happened. The other holds that NPR made the right call to continue, because to stop would have released thousands of people into an already confusing and crowded scene and made police work doubly difficult.)

Slowly, I learned the details of what had happened. At approximately 12:30 am Thursday morning, Austin police attempted to pull over a small grey sedan moving east on 9th Street for alleged drunk driving. The car maneuvered through the Shell gas station just on the other side of I-35, fled west on 9th and made a hard right onto the blocked-to-traffic Red River Street. There, the driver plowed into a man and woman on a bicycle and a moped, killing both. Eyewitness reports say the driver then sped up, leaving a wake of carnage before fleeing on foot. The suspect, identified this afternoon as 21-year-old Killeen, TX resident Rashad Charjuan Owens, was found, tased and taken into custody. Chief of Police Art Acevedo announced he will charge Owens with two counts of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault.

All told, in less than a minute, two people were killed, 23 injured and five left critical. (The latest news now indicates that three of those five are now non-critical and on the way to full recovery, and that the injured list ranges widely in severity.) 

But I was safe. And only moments before I was asked that, so were they.

Follow @gordonlamb for updates.