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SXSW: Listening in with Kelly Hogan and the mayor of SXSW, Jon Langford

March 21, 2013

Kelly Hogan’s I Like To Keep Myself in Pain was the best covers album of 2012, a demonstration that punk/new-wave songwriting is as worthy of inspired interpretive singing as the songwriting of any other era. On Thursday afternoon, during the Blurt magazine day party at the Gingerman Pub in downtown Austin, Hogan made the point even more persuasively than on the disc. Wearing high heels with red ribbons around her ankles and a draped black jacket over a sparkly purple blouse, she sang the album’s title track, written specifically for her by Robyn Hitchcock, as a hushed country lament. In the ache of her voice one could hear the wish that she wasn’t in pain but also the desire to feel something rather than nothing at all.

“Robyn gave me that song for my record,” she said afterward, “because he knows my masochistic bent.” More likely he gave it to her because he knows her gift for sounding understated and gorgeous at the same time—a tough combination to pull off. She hit the combo again on “We Can’t Have Nice Things” by Andrew Bird and Jack Pendarvis, and “Ways of the World” by Vic Chesnutt. Better yet was the prickly, garage-rock ghost story, “Haunted.”

“That,” she said, “was a song by Jon Langford, the ‘unofficial mayor of South by Southwest.’” Hogan isn’t the only one to apply that label to the Welsh guitarist. For most of the past two decades, the leader of the Mekons and Waco Brothers, has been an inescapable presence at the annual conference, showing up at back-patio day parties and evening showcases all over town. He somehow captures the spirit of the week by coming up to people he knows well or not so well and swallowing them in a bear hug while insulting them so profanely and smilingly that they can’t help but return the insult and the grin. The conference itself likewise insults you in a hundred little ways but with enough charm and good intent that you come back year after year.

Langford’s third band, the Skull Orchard, which shares most of its personnel with the Waco Brothers, followed Hogan on the ramshackle wooden stage on the patio behind the bar. In these punk-rock stampedes, bristling with politics and humor, Langford adds just enough melody and poetry to make them memorable, much like his original role models in the Clash. Songs like “Trap Door,” “Deep Sea Diver” and “1, 2, 3, 4ever” had a pell-mell momentum that was hard to resist.

Langford curated the entire day at the Gingerman Pub, mostly showcasing bands from Chicago where he has lived for many years. Garage-rockers such as Twin Peaks and White Mystery had the reckless spirit of Langford’s bands if not always the craft or originality.