Mojo Nixon’s Annual SXSW Party Goes on Without Him, as a Last Testimonial to the Rocker-DJ’s Wild Mayhem

The annual gig that Nixon had hosted for two decades as counterprogramming during SXSW served as a raucous memorial this year, with the Knitters, Steve Earle, Jello Biafra, Rosie Flores and Jeremy Tepper among the celebrants.

sxsw mojo nixon
Holly Gleason

Mojo Nixon has left this earth, but he hadn’t quite left the building, when it came to Austin’s Continental Club hosting one last edition of his annual “Mojo’s Mayhem” gathering Saturday during South by Southwest, serving as a sort of raucous memorial six weeks after his untimely exit.

There was a moment when they might’ve needed Crisco to get one more person onstage for the “You Can’t Kill Me” finale of the supposedly final Mayhem. Worlds collided as Jello Biafra, Dan Baird, John Doe, Jon Dee Graham, members of the Beat Farmers, Exene Cervenka, Jon Langford, Dash Rip Rock’s Bill Davis and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel joined Nixon’s blazing barroom backup band, the Toad Liquors, for the conclusion to a raging set.

Trying to explain iconoclastic raving blues/alt-roots punk turned SiriusXM radio host Mojo Nixon to most people is an act of futility. Trying to celebrate the life of such a singular force of nature, who died from a cardiac event on the Outlaw Country cruise Feb. 7, would seem an impossible task.

Leave it to the full-throttled lunatic and social commentator to set up his own memorial, having declared before his death that his 2024 Mojo’s Mayhem — his longstanding SXSW subversion — would be the final incarnation of the mostly annual throwdown. Personally booked by the freewheeling songteller, the 19th or 20th Mayhem was hand-designed as a bespoke day of music with every band – all old friends — Nixon wanted to share a stage with. Designed as a sendoff for the now legendary event, the eight-hour throwdown ultimately served as a celebration of life, summit meeting for divergent people and retrospective survey of a time when cowpunk, alternative and college radio were everything.

And it was a gathering of tribes, from the surging British-American punks Waco Brothers to Southern-steeped, straight-up rocker Dan Baird & Homemade Sin to the Texas psychedelic high-plains pummel of James McMurtry. Los Angeles’ Appalachian-raw Knitters, the satellite acoustic band featuring X’s Doe, Cervenka and DJ Bonebrake with the Blasters’ Dave Alvin, made their first appearance in over a decade, as well. It was the crème de la scene playing with a passion not just for the songs, but their late friend’s lust for living.

The mayhem started long before the 9:30 a.m. opening of the doors. A lederhosen-clad polka band oom-pah-pahed around the corner onto South Congress to serenade fans who’d started lining up in earnest just after 6 a.m. in a cold drizzling rain, as a giant stand-up rendering of a naked Nixon appeared on the balcony of the Hotel San Jose, directly across the street. The club hit capacity long before the Allen Oldies Band, who’ve appeared at every Mayhem, dropped 50 minutes of ‘60s pop classics in suits, ties and tuxes. That line would last the entire day, 30-50 people deep.

It speaks to Nixon’s ability to create a space where truth-telling is a contact sport. Easily mixing bawdy lyrics, unthinkable allusions and a good deal of drinking and drugs for a cocktail of “take that,” the guy who once did unhinged promos for MTV created a world based on puncturing the bloat, the greedy and the self-interested with a throat punch to the obvious and a swaggering dose of high impact rock ‘n’ roll.

When the Beat Farmers took the stage, playing a raging “Riverside,” time cracked open. While Nixon’s best friend, “Country Dick” Montana, had died onstage in 1995, it showed the fire of the scene that the Jethro BoDean-on-mushrooms revival-style frontman emerged from: fraught, no limits, no filters, yet a strong undertow of power-pop, big hooks and no fear of an anthemic chorus. To see 2024 National Endowment of the Arts recipient Rosie Flores, easily the night’s utility player — who earlier strapped on Langford’s guitar for the Wacos’ “Folsom Prison Blues” — gleefully step into Montana’s boots for the Dr. Demento favorite “Happy Boy” was to understand how effervescent the cowpunk-and-beyond scene was.

Yes, there were moments of genuine respect. Steve Earle joined Baird for a straight-up take on the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” declaring Nixon would “always be the voice of Outlaw Country.” Baird, too, delivered a pungent take on his direct-from-Mojo request for the Fabulous Yayhoos’ get-on-with-living “What Are You Waiting For.”

But those moments were often matched by the ribald. Femme duo Folk Uke, a massive Nixon fave and last-minute insertion, offered their tender, minor-keyed “I Gave A BJ To A DJ” with a wink and chuckle, fearlessly delivering both ironic industry commentary and angelic harmonies. There were go-go dancers; women dressed like bees, manning a hot plate and cooking up pancakes on the foot of the stage for the opening set; bartenders in Hawaiian shirts and manly Daisy Duke shorts; and a giant Mojo stand-up outside for one last selfie with man who howled “OUTlaaaaaaaaw CounTREEEEEEEEE…” on the satellite radio station where he served as afternoon disc jockey.

As outrageous, as muscular, as musical as it was — and it was a day that saw Creedence, the Small Faces, the Doors and more invoked or covered — everything paled next to the Toad Liquors’ one-last-set-for-the-Gipper. Eschewing the obvious choices (which would have been “Burn Down The Malls,” “Elvis Is Everywhere,” “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant” and “Don Henley Must Die”) for a six-song set of the sublime, Pete “Wetdawg” Gordon” on keys, Mike “Wid” Middletone on drums and Matt “Earl B Freedom” Esky brought it hard.

If Dead Kennedys founder Jello Biafra dropping a full-on hard country lament, “Are You Drinkin’ with Me Jesus?,” wasn’t enough to shred the moment, Outlaw Country PD Jeremy Tepper fired up a slamming “UFOs, Big Rigs & BBQ” that was hardcore, punching into the air above the crowd’s head. The unvarnished pummeling of both performances demonstrated it’s not the genre, but the commitment, that defined Nixon’s oeuvre.

Ultimately, it was the train wreckage and euphoria of “Tie My Pecker to My Leg,” the many-versed catalogue of familial perversions and delights, that defined the night. Arm-in-arm, choking on laughter, the Toad Liquors, Your Mom and Some Other Whore – as they were billed – delighted in the lewdness that their friend lobbed with gusto. Realizing that this was the kind of revelry that had defined him, it was shouting, hooting and an audience chanting along.

In that moment, though no longer actually flesh, perhaps Nixon had crept back into “the building.” If his body was gone, his spirit was strong, and clearly – like his Elvis-invoking novelty smash – inside the collected tribe who’d flown across America to be there. Some had come for the legendary bands of a certain vintage; to relive their coming of age when Nixon gave them permission or even cajole them to fly an even freakier flag. Others were teens, twenty- and thirty-somethings seeking the same frenetic chaos that had drawn Nixon to push any limit that was suggested as he fought any kind of censorship that came his way.

It was sweaty, ragged and loud. People were drunk before noon. Voices were lost. Musicians were reconnected and jammed. Stories were told. It was everything he stood for, everything he’d wanted his last Mayhem to be. Whether it was foresight or plain luck, we should all have a celebration of life that rocked as hard as this one.