Screeching Weasel, 2011. Ben Weasel, foreground, hit a young woman in the face during an altercation at the band's SXSW showcase on Friday night.
WITH NUMEROUS UPDATES BELOW THROUGH SATURDAY NIGHT
AUSTIN—South by Southwest isn’t only about up-and-coming bands. There are heritage acts, too, groups that were an instrumental part of rock history as innovators of a classic sound, perhaps unrecognized by the world at large during their original heyday, but returning with music new and old to claim their long-overdue accolades.
Case in point: Screeching Weasel, the hugely influential pop-punk band from the Chicago suburbs and the missing link between the Ramones and Green Day, who came to Texas this week for a mini-tour and their first SXSW performance in a 25-year career, supporting a strong new album, “First World Manifesto,” on Fat Wreck Chords.
But, as is often the case with Ben Weasel, things didn’t go quite so well.
The always irascible Weasel, a.k.a. Ben Foster, was even more surly than usual as he took the stage at a venue called Scoot Inn on Austin’s east side. He said he was “sick as a dog,” suffering from a cold he caught from his young twin daughters. But what really bothered him was the industry spectacle of SXSW, even though he actually saw very little of it, only arriving in Austin on Friday after performing in Dallas Thursday night.
SXSW is a “really shameful carnival of schadenfreude,” Weasel said. “Ostensibly the only reason for doing this is it’s really good for your career,” he added with a sneer.
Weasel complained about the fans who had to pay a $20 coverage charge at the door. He complained about the number of badge-wearing conference attendees at the venue, even though there only were a handful. He complained that the band only was earning $250 for the gig when it usually earns 100 times that or more. He complained about the cockroaches in the band’s dressing room. And he complained—a lot—about music critics.
“I hate you f---ing parasitic rock critics,” Weasel said. “Get a real job!”
Mind you, neither this rock critic nor the two others beside me, Jim Testa of Jersey Beat and Todd Martens of the L.A. Times, took the slightest offense at this and other profanity-laden diatribes. Long-time Screeching Weasel fans, we know that this punk-rock Don Rickles routine always has been part of Weasel’s stage persona, and this was a return to form not seen since the band stopped playing VFW halls 15 years ago.
Though Weasel’s rants did interrupt the hour-long set’s momentum, the latest incarnation of Screeching Weasel proved to be a potent one, despite the absence of co-founder John “Jughead” Pierson. (The new group does include veteran Dan Vapid on rhythm guitar, as well as newcomers Drew Fredrichsen on lead guitar, Justin Perkins on bass, and Adam Cargin on drums.)
Screeching Weasel 1989, photo by Jim Testa
Songs from the new album and classics such as “My Brain Hurts,” “Cindy’s on Methadone,” “Hey Suburbia,” and “Cool Kids” sped by in a delirious blur of frantic drums, buzzsaw guitars, and indelible choruses. And the lyrics of the latter put all of the grumpy complaining about SXSW in perspective.
“There’s a real cool club on the other side of town/Where the real cool kids go to sit around/And talk bad/About the other kids,” Weasel sang, giving voice to outsiders everywhere. “Yeah it’s a real cool club and you’re not part of it.”
Had the show ended there, it would have been brilliant, and another highlight of the festival. But as Weasel rambled through the longest, nastiest monologue of the night, prior to a promised encore, the crowd started to boo. Then somebody threw a beer.
Weasel puffed out his chest and talked tough, threatening to beat up whoever had doused him. When someone shouted that it had been a girl, he joked that he couldn’t hit a girl, but he could hire another girl to do it. Then a woman threw an ice cube that hit him in the eye.
At that point, according to club booker Rufus Raxlen, numerous concertgoers, and security guards interviewed by this reporter and Martens, Weasel yelled at the woman; she spat at him, and then he jumped offstage and punched her in the face. One security guard said the girl was a friend of the venue’s owner, and when that woman stepped in to intervene, Weasel swung at her, too, before he was hustled out of the venue.
Weasel, the woman who was hit, and the venue owner all had left by the time Austin police arrived 10 minutes after the show ended.
Weasel did not return a call requesting comment.
UPDATED: Friday seems to have been a night of bad mojo at SXSW (should we blame the full moon?). Reports are surfacing that a camera boom fell at Stubb's before a show by '80s rockers OMD, injuring four people. Early reports can be found here and here. Stubb's is owned by one of the primary partners of Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents.
UPDATED: Screeching Weasel has canceled its Saturday night show in San Antonio. Todd Martens of the L.A. Times reports: "Unknown at this time if charges have been pressed against Ben Weasel. Austin Police Department's weekend [press office] can only release info on Saturday happenings."
UPDATED: Local television news in Austin led on Friday night with YouTube video of the Screeching Weasel altercation (trumping even the events in Libya). SXSW managing director Roland Swenson was quoted as saying that the incident "proves there's too much free beer on the streets," and that, in addition to SXSW having reached the saturation point with the crowds, meant the event would have to be scaled back in 2012, starting with cracking down on the many free, non-sanctioned parties. (Never mind that the Weasel show was a sanctioned SXSW showcase and that alcohol did not seem to have been a major factor in the incident; indeed, Weasel does not drink.)
Meanwhile, Todd Martens of the L.A. Times updated his post with a comment from a spokeswoman for Fat Wreck Chords: "Obviously, we don't condone violence, ever. We weren't impressed." The label had not had any contact with the band since the incident occurred, nor has the usually talkative Ben Weasel returned this reporter's call or commented on any public forum.