Glasgow, Scotland-based indie/folk rock band Frightened Rabbit have developed a bit of a reputation for being maudlin. Perhaps part of this has to do with the fact the mastermind behind the project, Scott Hutchison, has songs that include lyrics like “I think I’ll save suicide for another year” and “not miserable now.” The other part may have something to do with the fact that the Scotsman has permanent reddish-brown circles under his dark doe-eyes. Eyes that seem to scream “Help me! I am an equal parts beautiful and tortured musician and need you to adopt me and take me to my forever home!”
I should add that it seems as if he NEVER smiles. In every publicity still and YouTube-preserved performance, Hutchison’s lips don’t curl up enough to reveal a half-grin or even a smirk.
Although Hutchison likes to poke fun at his angst-ridden reputation, he seems to do little to shirk it off. And when I biked up to the French Legation Frightened Rabbit SXSW show on the one day the gods of cold, dark and crappy weather decided to strike sunny Austin, Texas — presumably as some sort of celestial practical joke — I was not surprised to see a dour as usual Hutchison prepping for his set in a frown and a black pea coat. Actually, about three of the five band members had black pea coats — not that there is anything wrong with this particularly flattering type of man-coat!
Anyway, thanks to the vindictive celestial weather gods and all the out-of-towners (who inevitably only packed those tiny short shorts and see-through patterned tights despite the fact that SXSW always has at least one day of wacko weather), there was a surprisingly small crowd for a band as beloved and buzzed about as the headlining Frightened Rabbit. Without a million hipster fashionistas and fashionistos, I was able to snag the best spot in the house, err, tent.
Just as I was about to cave in and file an adoption application for Hutchison and his sad puppy-eyes, he spoke:
“We are Frightened Rabbit and welcome to the last f@$king show we have to do for South By Southwest!”
As they burst into a sped up and lackluster version of one of their new songs, I felt pretty sure that the gents were jsut going to tear through this as fast and painlessly as possible, even if it meant putting on a sh*tty show. But things started to turn around when bassist Billy Kennedy unzipped his hoody to reveal what I dearly hope was an un-ironic Lady Gaga tee shirt. At this point everyone started to loosen up. The songs got tighter — Hutchison’s voice bellowed with a sweet yearning, Grant Hutchison’s drumming became more spot-on and every member of the band started throwing some nice musical improvisations in the mix. They were now rocking more than folking.
By the time Frightened Rabbit broke into their one poppy and upbeat song from the just released The Winter of Mixed Drinks, the redemption-themed and percussion-fueled single “Nothing Like You,” everyone under the tent was bouncing about and singing their hearts out. Hutchison seemed to be about as relieved as I was to finally see a crowd that had flushed all the pretense down the toilet and didn’t give a damn if the person standing next to them might be bothered by their off-key belting. After wrapping up the song, he looked out into the crowd and let us know that this was by far the best show they had played at the festival and we were “f@$king brilliant!” Well thank you, beautiful and now slightly less tortured musician.
The rest of the set was decided completely by requests from the audience. “I don’t give a f@$k what we play,” shouted a belligerent Hutchison. “We will play f@$king “Back in Black” if you want!” They, regrettably, did not in fact play “Back in Black.”
But after moving through FR hits like “The Twist” and “Backward’s Walk,” they did perform the first encore of my South By Southwest experience.
At the audience’s loud and vocal behest, after playing their last song their last song and saying their goodbyes, the guys jumped back on stage. This time Hutchison was missing his black pea coat and showing off a sweaty, grey button-up shirt. He looked out at the crowd before rushing into a jammed-out version of “Keep Yourself Warm,” laughed, and said “you guys made me hot enough, I had to take my coat off!” and –GASP!! — flashed a big, toothy, Cheshire Cat grin.