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Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Back Pockets tour log: Pt. 3 (Wed., March 16)

We make it to Austin around 1 p.m., and we don’t have much time before their first gig at Club 1808. Anticipating scarce parking, we anchor at the gay bar they’re playing later tonight. There’s no sign for it of any kind: it’s just a one-story grey building at the dead-end of a street, and honestly, it looks abandoned. The band reassures me that it’s definitely the right place. They played there last tour.

While we unload and plan for the long trek — it’s about two miles to the venue — someone spots a porta potty outside the warehouse next door. A gravel lot houses rows upon rows of rickshaws, all neatly lined up. Heather and I wait our turn and a totally Austin-looking guy walks out. (What qualifies him as typical Austin is, in short, a generally laid-back vibe and overwhelming friendliness.) He offers us coffee. Soon the entire band is in and out of his warehouse, filling up cups while Emily and Billy figure out how we’re going to lug all of the equipment through Austin.

“We look like the most desperate hobos,” Lam says as we depart. It takes three of us to push and guide the cart full of equipment, Lam’s rolling his amp on a wheelchair and everyone else’s hands are full. It’s crowded in Austin, of course. People are gawking, pointing and waving. Cars are honking at us. Almost everyone has their face painted, Lam’s shirtless with shorts and fishnets and from afar, Emily looks like she’s just wearing lingerie. Billy’s outfit is like day glow diarrhea (in the best way). We do look pretty tragic on this Oregon Trail of a journey. I hope nobody gets cholera.

After the show at Club 1808, the Back Pockets play Dominican Joe’s Coffee Shop. They had small crowds for both, but the performances were engaging—even in the quiet coffeehouse, the crowd energetically participated when drumsticks were handed out during the standard closer (“Love Like”).

The real meat and potatoes of the day is the CNN showcase at downtown Austin’s CNN Grill. Kim from Mixtape Atlanta, who’s arranged the lineup, ushers us onto an elevator in groups and into the fanciest place we’ve been all week. There’s security everywhere, we’re given lanyards and, most importantly, the band is given a brief but intense lecture. Really, it’s Kim’s way of covering her ass. She tells them that if they break something, they’re buying it. The screen behind the stage, which boasts a giant CNN SXSW logo, costs more than all of our lives, she warns.

An R&B singer, Miguel, is crooning sexual love songs with a cheesy-looking band backing him. They’re totally choreographed, rotating and ticking simultaneously. Someone (not in the Back Pockets) says this Miguel guy is the next Prince. I call bullshit. His sterile, dull display—even when he’s writhing on the floor it feels contrived—reminds me that the Back Pockets offer something unique, true and interesting. Yeah, Of Montreal puts on a theatrical live show. And yes, there are a few similarities to Cocorosie. But neither comparison accounts for the spontaneity of the whole thing—not to mention the organic grit that Emily exudes.

Musically, the CNN set is flawless. Emily emits a Homer Simpson-style belch and, in general, doesn’t censor herself here, despite the fragility of the stage and the pricey cameras shooting only feet away. Near the end of the set, she kicks over her keyboard and is soon curled up on the floor, screaming into the mic. Mon and Trevor’s costumes are child-themed and look especially odd here. George, the guy from Wowser Bowser had split to find his band earlier, but he’s back, and is kind of fumbling around. The whole thing’s hilarious and chaotic, but it’s perfectly the Back Pockets.

In light of Kim’s disclaimer, drumsticks aren’t passed out. But that doesn’t keep the band from gaining a handful of fans. A couple guys ask for pictures afterward and Trevor and Mon sell some merch. Kim takes us upstairs to the restaurant area, where she’d reserved two tables for us. The meal is on CNN, and the band is elated.

As we squeeze the cart and the rest of the gear past diners on our way out, an employee says, “You guys are your own parade!” A woman beside her remarks, “That is so Austin.”

It’s dark and our collective legs feel like Jell-O, but we haul everything all the way back to Chaindrive (the gay bar) for their final show of the day. They’re especially well-received here. We crash a few hours later—some of us on the bus, Adam on the venue stage outside and David, Michael and George set up on wooden platforms in the warehouse next door’s gravel lot. Nobody’s sleeping too comfortably tonight, but let’s hope it doesn’t ruin anyone’s good spirits, they’re supposed to play another four shows tomorrow.

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