Ready for pontification?  While Austin was crowded this year, contrary to media reports, it was not so crowded that you had to line up at 8:00 to see buzz bands like the Arctic Monkeys.  I got in at 10:45—without any wait for a show that went on at 12:00.  I just had to sit through some really bad band, unlike previous years when some of the “warm-up bands” (e.g. Preston School of Industry for Mission of Burma, The Beangrowers for Love Tractor or The Thermals for Sleater-Kinney, turned out to be highlights—one of the cool things about the festival format). Whether it was worth waiting for is another question answered  below after a bit more pontification. 

It is clear that part of the mallification of America is that SXSW, originally an outsider’s festival for independents has become an insider’s festival, complete with an increasingly extensive array of invitation only parties.  Luckily, I have some friends and instincts that can get me into some of these parties.  But, some of the best times I had and music I saw/heard resulted from roaming around record stores, galleries and bars that had shows which were free to the entire general public, no convention badge or wristband required (of the 17 bands I mention below, at least half of them had at least one show that was free to the public).   You might be surprised to know that there are people who come to Austin from so far as England to hear music and did not buy any passes at all, just going to free events.  Contrast that to the Yahoo and Blender parties that had free drinks, gifts and (Yahoo) free barbecue.  Another great party had an open bar and good tex-mex, but required a pass or invitation.  But Yard Dog Gallery (Bloodshot, Schuba’s and YepRoc) all had free music and beer for the masses—although the St. Patrick’s Day crowd at YardDog was clearly there more for free Pabst than for music, which hurt the Bloodshot party a bit.

Unlike prior years, I am having a hard time actually ranking the best bands I saw/heard.  I think there are two groups, bands I really liked and bands I liked, and it is hard to distinguish within the groups.

Tier One

The Morning After Girls (Blender Bar)- This is a band from Australia, who I am listing first because I had not heard them or heard of them before, and after hearing them, I bought their CD.   That qualifies them as a “find.”.  Their main qualification is that they are the best slow Jesus and Mary Chain-type band since Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (who, ironically, they have been opening for in the U.S.) went roots-rock and the Warlocks found their stash.  Great psychedelic and chiming, cycling, mirroring rhythm guitars—all dressed in black with black-dyed hair—they just needed a fog machine.  Their first CD is pretty good too.

Steve Wynn and The Miracle Three (Dog and Duck Pub)– Those of you that know me, may know that I am not big on superlatives.  However, they are simply one of the best live  bands out there.  While the band played 7 gigs during the week, I only saw one short set at a free party for Pop Culture Press, and they really gave it their all. Forget what I have to say, this is what Steve says about the gig on his blog “The Pop Culture Press party was our last gig of the festival and-pacing be damned-we turned out a punk rock wild one that felt like the moment that you slip on a banana peel but never hit the ground. Or something like that.”  I agree.   Don’t trust the recorded music.  If they come to your town-GO.

The Subways (Guerrero Produce Market-Yahoo Party)- My winner for the “it” band from the UK (over Arctic Monkeys, Art Brut and Dirty Pretty Things—although I did not see The Editors).   I saw them at 1:00 pm and they  had tons of energy and really rocked.  Who cares if their music is played on “OC”  I did not hold it against them—experiencing is believing.   Very good guitar playing, powerful drums, pogoing bass–danceable power pop and a lot of fun.  What more do you want from rock and roll anyhow.  See them at a small venue, though.  Not sure how they will do at Lollapalooza.

Echo & The Bunnymen (Guerrero Produce Market – Blender Party) – I really didn’t think they would be that good.   A few years ago I saw them with the Psychedelic Furs and they simply did not have the punch of 25 years ago, and Ian McCollough had clearly lost his voice—its back!  Ian did not have a cigarette until the last song of his set and has lost a lot of weight.  Maybe it was the fact that I raced to the show almost direct from the airport at 1:00 after throwing my bags on my hotel bed.   Starting with Lips Like Sugar, finishing with Crocodiles, Ian, Will and whoever they have now powered through Rescue and Villiers Terrace, they even made their self-described disco hits sound great.  The newer material is definitely not as good, and inserting pieces of Roadhouse Blues and Walk on the Wild Side detracted a bit from the show.  Also, Ian refused to play “Do It Clean,” so you know they are trying to clean up their act.  But their songs are the ones that are still ringing in my head after a week.

Pony’s  (Yard Dog) – They played a great set at the Schuba’s party (another general public one), yelping vocals, great guitar interplay.  They sounded much stronger than opening for Sleater-Kinney last year.  Definitely a great rock and roll/ garage band to make Chicago proud.  Another free show.

Billy Bragg (Cedar Street Courtyard):  It was great to see Billy up close and personal on St. Patrick’s Day and without a backing band, playing a hit packed music set.  He had spouted politics on stage at the conference for an hour and a half earlier in the day and would not waste too much time on commentary, though he did provide his optimistic spin on the present state of America, and that he knew that the real America was not running the country, reminding us that his country made a few mistakes when it once was a super power.   After closing with New England, he encored by bringing on the Klezmatics to back him and playing a Woody Guthrie song—still fighting fascism with everyone putting fists in the air[1]!

Tier Two

Serena-Manesh (Victory Grill) –  A very strange band from Norway.  Lots of noise and feedback with ethereal vocals.  I saw them around 1:00 pm and wished I would have seen them at If you like Sigur Ros, I think you will like them even though this band is a bit different, and in my mind may be better.  I think their album comes out in May.   Set ended with both guitarists playing their guitars against their monitors

KT Tunstall (Guerrero Produce) – She is a really great “girl with guitar” performer.  Adding to her guitar is a tape loop machine.  Before many of her songs she creates a beat on her guitar, claps or sings something and it becomes the backing track for her performance—neat.  But above all that she provides a great deal of warmth and energy and a little danceability.

Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Army (Some Cathedral) – .   Eight guitarists driving out the same repetitive, pulsing chords and sometimes trading off each other, backed by strong bass and drums.   This was not Philip Glass, and not for the squeamish.  Chatham started a while ago, and Glenn Branca, another avant garde composer who writes music for a guitar army/orchestra is one of his disciples. The band had some star value with Thurston Moore joining the group for one of the songs (ahem, I mean pieces), but the feeling came from the unit and not one member.  The wave of sound had a hypnotic, meditative quality.  Again, not for everybody, but I liked the performance.

Jon Langford/Waco Brothers  (Opal Divine/Bourbon Rocks) –  One of the hardest working musicians in Austin (along with Steve Wynn and Steve Goulding), played three gigs in the course of 7 hours.   His Langford/Ships and Pilots set was very strong, and his songwriting and guitar playing both clear and caustic, but not quite as raucous as I would have liked. His Waco Brother set was raucous to the max (and featured the third time Beatle Bob was at a gig I was at, so I must have been in some of the right places), but they still are just a wee bit country for me. Their Harder They Come cover with Garland Jeffreys, was a great ending to Saturday night at the conference.

Arctic Monkeys (La Zona Rosa) – They were pretty good-not worth all the hype, but pretty good. Alex Turner, the lead singer very clearly is feeling the pressure and/or his liquor. He kicked all the press away, and leered around the stage wearing a hooded sweatshirt—like a combination of Rocky and Jon Lydon.   The rest of the band was fairly mundane.  I liked the fact that they played their hit, early with no fanfare and have the attitude that they can do better.   At the same time, the band could just crash and burn.

Peel  (Behind some stores) – At the bottom end of the food chain, this strange group with no record and only “a piece of paper” of a mailing list, played some very quirky keyboard laced pop in the backyard of a clothing store showcase for Waterloo records, where the free beer was one keg.  The lead guitarist smacked his head on the tent post and kept playing, the drummer really had to go to the bathroom, and zoomed after the set, but their music mixed keyboards and guitars really nicely, creating some good vibes, reminiscent of a combination of Stereolab and Granddaddy.  Maybe they will release a record sometime.

Art Brut (Victory Grill)– Camp act, which if it gets more material could ultimately be very good.  Their “We Formed a Band” song is kind of cute, and the lead singer has Mark Edward Smith’s ranting down pretty well, albeit a little more coherent, but the novelty gets kind of  tiresome after a while, as if The Fall did “I Know What Boys Like.”  If and when this band has more material and has something to say in the future, they will be worth a longer listen.

Honorable Mention

Deadboy & Elephantman (Stubbs)– One good surprise while waiting for the Noisettes, who were disappointing.  This is another two piece guitar band, a la White Stripes and Black Keys, except they do not use a color in their name.     They seemed a bit more progressive and jumpy than either of the duos, but had some power.

Ellegarden – Elysium and Outdoor Japan showcase-  Another good surprise.  The cool thing about this band is that they were 4 Japanese power pop punks who sounded great, and are about to release an English-speaking album.  I heard them as I was exiting a cab to go to my hotel and they drew me to go to their showcase.   After the song was over, the lead singer apologized for being nervous because it was the first song they had played in the U.S. They have sold over 700,000 cds in Japan, and it is easy to tell why—they sound a little like Green Day (meant to be a compliment).

Horn of Happiness (End of an Ear Record Store) and Persephone’s Bees  These are two keyboard featured bands.   Horn of Happiness is from Bloomington, Indiana and has some very catchy, funky riffs, and is danceable even without a guitar.  The Bees are almost like a cabaret act with a Russian female vocalist and some well-placed fuzz guitar.

Effigies – Chicago’s finest punk outfit still going at it full tilt in their 40s and 50s.  Makes  a smile on your face and gets your elbows sharp and swinging.  My only regret is I left before they did Mob Clash –one of the best 78-82 punk songs.


Luckily, not many—but one was a double whammy.  The Dirty Pretty Things were hyped but sounded like an amped skiffle band.  What made it even worse was the line to wait in was the longest faced  because of an unannounced Flaming Lips show.  While I was initially intrigued by the opportunity, after  I  heard a few Flaming Lips’ songs (although I hesitate to call them songs), I still can’t understand what people, especially critics, see in them.  I asked two critics I met what they liked about the Lips, and they said the group was different, kind of campy and a novelty.   Well, I can deal with campy, novelty acts (see Art Brut, above).  Also, I used to see They Might Be Giants in the late 80s when they were doing a Wednesday residency at the Knitting Factory, and loved them—but the Lips were totally intolerable, and now that I have seen them, I have the right to criticize them a little.  Luckily, I was able to quickly run into a nearby bar and have the experience sonicly erased.

[1] Among many ironies is that just two days before I was speaking at the Forbes (the self-proclaimed “Capitalist Tool”) Corporate Security Conference—talk about burning the candle at both ends, politically that is.

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