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Live: Vivian Girls and Ariel Pink in Austin, TX

April 13, 2009

Friday night a handsome crowd at the Mohawk turned out to see Yellow Fever, Vivian Girls and Ariel Pink & the Haunted Graffiti, who performed in tropicalia-cool outdoor conditions.

I dashed out of the cab in time to witness the Vivian Girls melodic pop structure served with a side of thrash urgency, which had the crowd bopping gently like a kindergarten music class. It seemed at odds to realize how many shows Vivian Girls played during the too-frenetic SXSW, which could never have captured so perfectly their mellow mood as did this random spring night. I could see the Beach Boys going out with these chicks. The crowd was pretty tame, save for a lone headbanger during the last song, "My Baby Wants Me Dead."

Unsurprisingly, Austin's weed game was strong from the jump of the Haunted Graffiti set. A flu with a vengeance turned Pink's pretty voice into a straight dinosaur groan, occasionally trailing into ghost blood territory. Ariel looked really sick onstage, from Raffi sweatshirt to stringy hair to echinacea throat spray—I just wanted to give him a multivitamin. I've never seen someone check the setlist so many times, after maybe the sixth reference he seemed to be just crawling along.

However, Pink's physical condition or lack thereof created a pleasant time warp effect. One fan in attendance, Johnny Cisneros, said he remembered seeing Pink solo back in 2005 with just a keyboard and an effects mixer: he mostly just stomped around, muttering, smoking cigarettes, wandering off... So this show was almost like a return to simpler times.

Flashback, my love for you is gone. For a moment, clutching the mic with both hands and shaking his hips, Ariel transformed into a tropical bird of passion, whistling about sunsets. It all made me think... I wish Mariah Carey's breakdown had gone further. Next thing I knew he was spraying a fragrant mist around the stage while crooning along to pre-Cruisin' USA underground rock. This was Willy Wonka's real dream.

How do they make it sound 40 years old while playing live? This carnival of hazy proportions tends not to play to the audience but to each other; I felt like I was watching through an interrogation mirror. But that's understandable, because the songs require constant attention to keep from crumbling into chaos, or as Haruki Murakami would say, "a pile of kittens." Bassist Tim Koh said the stage show is only possible with constant practice. "We try to play every nuance on the record, even the mistakes."

Live: Vivian Girls and Ariel Pink in Austin, TX