SXSW | Best Of | Morgan O’Kane

8 Apr

Morgan O'Kane 1 photo by Jay Armstrong

So I realize I’m dragging this whole SXSW 2014 way past its “fresh by” date but life happens ya know; moving, living, the usual. There is three, maybe four, “Best Of” posts left and all of these dudes (and babes) rule so I don’t mind if it is going on a month since seeing them. Great shows stick with you a while.

So I’d hung out on 6th street to catch J Roddy Walston play what I thought was an early afternoon set only to find out after an hour it was only for some live interview which goes without saying, but I will say it anyways, that I was less than stoked. Feeling somewhat defeated I decided to try catching The Rich Hands play a few blocks away. As I made my way east I heard the sound of a banjo and a voice distinctly familiar that part of me was beyond skeptical that this would be one of those rare moments where reality and expectations actually align. Those of you who follow HCK! on Facebook have already seen a few videos I have posted from the guy so you may not be surprised just how childlike I felt as I caught site of the man making the noise and to realize that it actually was legendary New York City busker Morgan O’Kane. There in the flesh was all the hours I’d spent putting pot to great use, I was enthralled and I’m not just using that word because mesmerized sounds generic, this guy is pure.

I stood and watched him play for what must have been a half of a pack of cigarettes (those of you unfamiliar with band time that is an hour and a half), sharing small talk between songs. He continually pointed out that he does tour with a band and that they play on his latest record which he has no qualms fervently suggesting when someone asked which album of the three he was selling they should grab. Without having indulged in all of them yet I can’t vouch for whether I agree but after watching him play as long as I did I am fairly certain he is not pumping a dry well. This was the same night I caught Parquet Courts and Real Estate, if I hadn’t seen him the same day I may just as well have been writing about that showcase instead of O’Kane, them’s the breaks though and those two bands combined nearly put me to sleep compared to watching a ravaged weary yet optimistic soul attempt to escape through a glass slide trying to set fire to a banjo.

As great as the music was, getting to watch the crowd swell and dwindle and swell endlessly is what kept me standing around as long as I did. There were times when people stepped practically over his suitcase which he kicked a drum pedal into with one foot and a tambourine with the other giving the impression that his presence was greatly hindering their day only to within minutes have a crowd of seventy people blocking the street climbing on each other to catch a clearer glimpse of all that is right in the world. Dollars would be thrown into his guitar case, cd’s would be signed, everyone seemed to just want to shake his hand, catch a picture, share in the moment, at least fifteen people stopped just to mention that they see him play everyday at a certain subway stop in New York followed by the usual niceties you would expect from someone who traveled all the way across the country to stand and watch the same show they get for free everyday of their life without realizing what they had truly been seeing. I spent a third of my SXSW watching bands I get to see nearly every week in Austin so I completely understand. It is like Donald Miller says on the opening page of Blue Like Jazz, “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

As with all great moments I could only hold on for so long before letting it pass into a memory. Like all the others we shook hands, shared a few small-talk laughs, and I headed on to the rest of my life. All night long I mentioned Morgan to any ear who would listen, part of me wanting to go back, I knew that people appreciated what he was doing but in a large way I found myself thinking of that Bukowski poem that Tom Waits reads about the bus stop and people not noticing the magic, I thought I’ll just stay here,” that one but I didn’t. Yet fate and a willing spirit often direct our steps so I met up with my friend Kate after work the next day to catch one of her current favorite bands The Front Bottoms (they were really good, actually they were nearly great and it was only like a four o’clock set and I really wanted to not like them, I’m that way sometimes). After watching three bands at The Liberty she mentioned wanting to track down some coffee, a pastime you will never hear me turn down, and next thing I knew we were making our way up and down dirty sixth cussing Yelp for being as unhelpful as ever, I was talking her ear off about how great seeing him play there the day before was and how bummed I was she hadn’t caught it with me and sure enough as if Morgan O’Kane were that angel at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life there he was setting up camp in the middle of the street. I found a curb thirty yards away to sit on and I watched the whole mad display unfold once more. This guy lives in a reality where he is completely ignored, nearly walked over constantly by distracted iphone users, ran over by bicyclists looking off at god knows what, drowned out by nearby hip-hop shows, street drummers, promoters forcing flyers for terrible shows into unwanting hands, yet he is never defeated. He smokes a cigarette between a song, admits to me for a moment the frustrations without sounding upset, and starts up again, his songs like diesel engines on a cold Indiana morning, slowly coming to life, a yelled vocal, a quick trick of his fingers showing just how much he is reigning his talent in, the crowd takes notice like witnessing two cars at a stop light revving their engines before the scarf is dropped, we all know that white lightning’s still the biggest thrill of all only it is no longer the sound of rubber torqued beyond the ability to catch pavement, here now in post-whatever America with forty-five years of change since Merle Haggard first encapsulated those words they are merely metaphors in my mind for post-Guthrie folk with a delta blues touch.

They say lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, I saw first hand how it strikes on repeat as long as O’Kane has another song he is willing to sing.

Morgan O’Kane – Facebook | Website

Upcoming tour dates: (I believe these are with full band: He’s got like two pages worth currently up so here you go.


One Response to “SXSW | Best Of | Morgan O’Kane”

  1. Anonymous April 8, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

    Nice To Hear Someone Get It Rite…Great Writeup On Morgan O’Kane…

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