I spent most of last week recovering from spending most of the previous week at the 30th annual South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. This was my 12th or perhaps 13th time indulging. SXSW is a music lover’s orgy that challenges any orthopedic issue and opens your ears to sounds you never knew you loved. I wrote a post for WMNF.org about two extreme keyboard talents and another comparing two highly disparate bands.
My hand fascination began years ago when I watched some forgotten guitar god and felt a ripple of the particular intimacy that can sometimes exist between master and instrument. Once identified, to keep looking feels almost indecent. Commanding hands sliding up and down a well-worn fret. A casual instinctive confidence that anything desired can be extracted from the rounded body hugging their own. Of course, it’s impossible to look away from such symbiosis.
But to say it’s the hands is a misnomer. The hands are the manifestation. My fascination comes from the holding. If you look carefully, you can see it before a note is played. It’s a familiarity forged over multiples of ten thousand hours. The discipline of hard work is infused with a magic that you can see in how they handle their guitar.
I was so tired that first Wednesday night of SXSW. We left Tampa in the morning and were trooping around seeing bands by two. The biggest showcase, Iggy Pop, started at nine in the fancy studio auditorium constructed for the Austin City Limits TV show. Iggy’s band came on stage dressed in dark suits. An extremely tall blonde man began to play and even from the recesses of stage right, I could see, instantly, that he was one of them. The way he bossed around his guitar, the way she sang for him. It was chemical.
Iggy did a crowd dive about half an hour in. Back on stage, he drug his left leg behind him for another hour as he bounded and bounced, shirtless and ripped for an almost 69-year-old. As the proud hipster beside me noted, “Back in the day, he got hurt and he always kept going.” A copy of Iggy’s new vinyl was tucked under his arm. The blonde giant kept punishing his guitar, sweat dripping as they plowed through the old and the new. The two thousand-plus people around me probably knew the virtuoso I was admiring was Josh Homme, founder of Queens of the Stone Age and Iggy’s collaborator on their new album, “Post Pop Depression.” I didn’t care who he was. I couldn’t stop watching his hands.
I spotted another one on the last night, when we dropped in the Barracuda club between scheduled stops to check out a Canadian line-up. Jackson MacIntosh was fronting a band from Montreal called Sheer Agony who were giving the small crowd reason to rock heads and hoist beers. Jackson MacIntosh has an engaging stage presence; but when I watched him handle his guitar, I stared. He had it. And that made me look with new eyes. He was tired. It was almost eleven on Saturday night and SXSW was nearly over. His band hadn’t met with overnight success for the time and money and willpower it took them to make the trip to Austin. But the songs they played from their new album, “Masterpiece,” sounded good. Maybe guitar-hand-magic will light the road for them. Anything’s possible.
Jon Langford also has that way with his guitar. I went to an afternoon party at Yard Dog specifically to see him and as usual, he didn’t disappoint, once he arrived. I overheard one of the organizers explaining, “Jon’s late because he overslept, so [mumble] went to get him.” This time, Jon was ostensibly not leading a band called Bad Luck Jonathan. The front man, Martin “Blueshammer” Billheimer, stole hearts with the line, “We’re middle-aged, fat, and damn sexy,” as he rubbed his Buddah belly. But no matter what band he’s in, from the Mekons to the Waco Brothers, Jon Langford is the driver. Like his bandmates, his guitar answers his every nudge and tick. That guitar longs to be in his hands, ordered by a master who is loving but stern enough to demand they stretch a bit beyond where they went yesterday.
At the official Bad Luck Jonathan showcase late Saturday night, described in an article by Lynne Margolis for American Songwriter as a combination of “punk rock and drunk rock,” the venue pulled the plug on their amps and asked them to leave mid-set. They even stopped serving alcohol, probably in honor of Jon and his posse. Silly, silly venue. Jon Langford is full of play but when it comes to playing his guitar, soberly serious. Just look at his hands.