Thirty years into South by Southwest, all the talk about branding and corporatization of the event can’t keep the smart ones from realizing what the event can still be about. “If there’s one place you could play a bunch of new songs and have that make sense, it would be South by Southwest,” John Doe said as he started his set at the Main II on Thursday evening. Indeed, that’s the heart of SXSW Music: the artists who are seeking out a continued rediscovery of who they are.
And so, while he tossed longtime fans of his legendary punk band X, and of his many solo albums, a couple of bones in the form of “The New World” and “Golden State,” Doe’s set was a celebration of looking forward. At 63, the stage-commanding vocalist and consummate bandleader still has a lot to give. And his current band is one of the best he’s ever had: Austin guitarist Jesse Dayton walks just the right edge between roots and punk, and singer Cindy Wasserman — whose black dress with giant daisies was probably the best stage attire I’ve seen all week — may just exceed the chemistry he’s long had with X’s Exene Cervenka, heretical as that may sound.
The limitations of SXSW remain the transitory nature of some venues. Still vacant since the relocation of Emo’s many years ago, the spot at Sixth and Red River used in recent years under the names the Main and Main II apparently didn’t have the direct-input line Doe needed for a couple of acoustic numbers, so they plowed ahead with the electric stuff, which the crowd seemed pretty much fine with.
Doe closed with the cutting political tune “Never Enough” from his 2011 album “Keeper,” giving a shoutout to Austin’s late Big Boys bandleader and poet Randy “Biscuit” Turner and noting that he’s rolling over in his grave at the current campaign cycle. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is so much bull—- in this country,” he declared loud and clear. “It’s gotta change.” So, new songs, yes, but in terms of principles and purpose, Doe remains the same dedicated activist he’s always been.