One good (and potentially bad) thing about SXSW is that it is different. Choosing a music path through several days of thousands of bands at hundreds of venues virtually ensures (or insures) that one person’s experience will not be like anyone else’s and that one year’s experience will not be like another year’s. A key difference this year related to venues both good and bad.
First, there were many more day parties and events that were open to the general public. Because of all the day parties, it was much harder to decide where to go, and I was less likely to go to randomly wander and come across something cool by accident. The best thing about the day parties is that it makes the whole event more egalitarian. Anyone, whether buying a badge, wristband or nothing could get into shows by many great bands. I think 20% of the bands I saw this year were at shows like this. So, if you don’t feel like paying $350 (badge) (and, as Sally Timms said, she was not sure that “she had gotten her $350 of fun yet”)or $200 (wristband) don’t think that SXSW is not for you.
One of the GREAT new venues was the Austin City Limits studio. KEXP-FM of Seattle (why can’t Chicago have a music-based public radio station?) had live broadcasts of some of the top bands from the pristeen studio where Austin City Limits is filmed. What a total treat it was to sit in that studio and watch and listen to The Ponys and The Stooges. Ironically, these were pretty easy for non-badge holders to get into.
On the negative side was that some of the traditional places where you can get free beer or free food (the Yarddog Gallery in particular) were totally mobbed so that it was very difficult to see/hear some of the bands. In fact, the Yarddog had some police trouble because of the crowds, which delayed or even threatened to cancel the parties. This year the Austin Music Hall was under construction so, for the first time SXSW turned the conference facility into a night music venue. Two venues (or big room) was for Direct TV live broadcasts—it had great bands, but the sound was poor and it had an obnoxious “host” who kept trying to keep the crowd cheering. One venue was the “replacement” for the Austin Music Hall and was a bit better, as long as you were right in front of the stage and listening mostly off of the monitors.
Here, in no particular order are some of the high points.
Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (Spiro’s Showcase- Elysium)
This was a very intense three piece band from Mainland China. The band leader, the lead singer and lead guitarist (all one person) refused to face the audience, instead choosing to look at the bass player, chanting and engaging in call and response vocals reminiscent of the B-52s a la Planet Claire on a couple of songs or Pylon. But this band clearly is not a novelty and has a very hard edge with choruses like “hang the police.” Of course the Chinese have shown themselves to be extremely capable of reproducing the world’s products, so it should be not too surprising that they can replicate quality music. However, it is, in my view, difficult imitate emotion and this band really felt it. At the end of the set, the band did an ironic, but awesome cover of the Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods- which took the house down. One major critic questioned the choice of songs (why should a band from China cover the Gang of Four?). Well far be it from me to say, but end of set or encore covers have always been a way for bands to pay homage to groups they admire. The Celibate Rifles’ cover of “Walking Barefoot” and Patti Smith’s cover of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” are particularly memorable concert moments to me (I wrote a paper in college about covers and how they can confirm or reject the content and/or context of a song so don’t get me started). While I have not been to China, I think the choice of song could relate to the commoditization of sex in the current, “modern” Chinese culture, some ironic twist on the name of the band, or the band just loves the song period. This band should have an album out in May and the promo version is pretty darn good. As far as performances go, I am not sure whether I caught them on a good night or they caught me on a good night, but theirs was a strong, surprising and satisfying performance.
The Asteroid #4
This melodic droning guitar army from Philadelphia was the better of the two similar bands (see Black Angels below). They have an extremely thick sound (if that is physically possible). The layering of very few chords creates a powerful harmony sound that carries you away with, dare I say it, dream-like psychedelic soundscapes. They have a great sense of humor, too. At the end of their set, the lead singer announced “Thank You, we’re the Black Angels”—which was one of the four funniest things I heard in SXSW. The other two were this guy at the Australian music party and barbecue who clearly had crashed in order to get the free food, saying that the band/song (The Hoodoo Gurus) sounded like
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking by The Beatles (was I at a music festival)? The third was by Michelle Shocked sitting at a couch waiting for her showcase to start saying to the person next to her “Are you from Texas, I grew up in East Texas,” and shortly thereafter Sally Timms, when faced with her band not showing up, saying “I haven’t had my $350 of fun yet.” Another digression, sorry.
The Stooges (KEXP and Stubbs)
I was really in my Missouri mode for the Stooges, all ready to diss them as a waste of time. But Iggy and his guys proved it to me. They are not an oldies act , but a powerful rock and roll force. While perhaps trite to say, Iggy Pop convinced me that he is one of the most dynamic lead singers-shaking his booty as well as Shakira, trollin’ the stage and chanting his simple back alley vocals like himself and all with the gleeful smile that he is putting something over on the world, the smile that Jon Lydon borrowed from him. It was really a treat to see him up close and personal at the KEXP studio, and then see the band at full throttle at Stubbs.
Contrary to what was reported by many critics, there was not a huge line for The Stooges at Stubbs—if you timed it right. True, it was probably the best attended show of SXSW, but I think we got there a little more than an hour before and still watched half of Spoon’s set (who I still don’t understand why they are so popular, they are a very mellow, pop band and saw but was not impressed with them last year, too).
Ponys (KEXP live broadcast and Mohawk party).
The Ponys again proved that they are one of the best live bands today, not just the best Chicago band. Showing that they could deliver noisy garage rock in the pristine environment of the Austin City Limits studio audience sitting soberly on cushy chairs and in the concrete outdoor Spring break afternoon chaos of the patio of Mohawk. The fervent, yet melodic and jagged guitar interplay of Jared and Brian can be downright Televison-esque at times, yet they stay on track with their strong rhythm section. Sometimes they remind me of a slightly more poppy Sonic Youth, and their new album even seems to have a little bit of Fleshtones, Jesus and Mary Chain, Psychedelic Furs, Wedding Present (every band this year seemed to sound like the Wedding Present for one song—it must be me) and even a portion of a riff from The Guess Who’s “NoTime” thrown in—all pretty good references in my book. At Mohawk they were able to rock out with more feedback than on the radio. They were so loud that a friend of mine listened from a block away and thought they were great—and he saved the $3 cover. They will be touring a lot this year, because, as Brian said on the radio “we’re broke” so go see them.
Paul Collins Beat. (Habana Calle Patio)
This guy had a band called The Nerves (with Peter Case) in 1977 and the Beat shortly thereafter. The Beat delivered one of the power pop classic albums in 1979 which is worth having in your collection, although his best known “work” is probably “Hangin on the Telephone” which Blondie covered, and next-best known for forcing England’s Beat to change its name to The English Beat. He had fallen from obscurity to marginal non-entity status (although, somehow, my brother struck up communication with him over the Internet, buying old product from him—so he was still “in the business”), living and recording in Spain but has somehow re-emerged if only for SXSW. Paul said he had not performed live (maybe in the U.S.) in about 7 years. Joined by a group of pretty young Spanish musicians who did real credible jobs on his songs. This balding late middle aged man (him, not me) was the epitome of post punk power (as opposed to progressive) pop. Like custard for the ears, happiness reigned outside the Cuban restaurant by the river as the crowd danced to simple guitar-driven jangly songs like “Rock and Roll Girl” and “Don’t Wait Up for Me”. The crowd was so into it that they he Black Angels are slow, repetitive, droning and dark, all of which makes for a great wwfought extremely hard and received an encore-unusual for SXSW.
The Hush Sound (Emo’s)
While on the subject of pop, another band that can instantly give you a sugar rush is this fairly new band from Chicago. My daughter loves this band, and despite the fact that they were discovered by Panic at the Disco and Fall Out Boy I really like them. With chiming lead loungey (think The Rain, The Park and Other Things) or honky tonk electric piano and true harmonic vocals, leading a lush, shiny, sometimes folky, sometimes semi-psychedelic guitars, it is impossible not to bob your head and smile. A great band to start off SXSW with at 2:30 on Wednesday afternoon. And if you like them already, check out The Salteens.
The Bravery (La Zona Rosa)
I don’t know why I went to see them, but I’m glad I did. When they played Lollapalooza two years ago, they were a buzz band and I was not that impressed (both the Killers and Kaiser Chiefs kicked their butts). But an outdoor venue is clearly not the place for this new wave band that looks like The Strokes and sounds like the Cure, the Alarm and/or U2. Their music has a pulsing, sometimes disco/sometimes marching dance-beat that is pretty infectious despite some pretty inane lyrics and pretension. At the Village Voice media party they played a full set including their new and old albums—one advantage of paid/sponsored shows, rather than showcases, sometimes it takes more time to establish a rhythm. The new music seems to be the slower, more hypnotic variety that I like more, but the older songs are good, dance club hits I might have listened to in 1979, except back then they might have used a electronic drum machine and a Casio.
Black Angels (Red Eyed Fly)
These guys are a really great, droning psychedelic, repetitive Led Zeppelin-ish (think Houses of the Holy) band with extremely dark lyrics. So why should you like them? Well, their repetitive slow, layered powerful chords drag you into their grips and hold you and rock you for five minutes or so, kind of like the slightly drunk buzz that you wish could be extended by an espresso martini or vodka and Red Bull. Even at 5:00 in the afternoon you could feel the haze if not see it.
Reykjavik! (Uncle Flitty’s)
One of the best things about SXSW is the ability to see bands from foreign countries that you may not otherwise see. Such shows are hit and miss, and I was very lucky to have hit with the rollicking collective band from Iceland. Playing with a pulsing beat and speedy guitars, and one of the three best frontman I saw, that is not bad. They did a pretty good cover of Bowie’s changes, but I think the performance was better than the music, with all the members of the band coming into the small crown, jumping on and off of the monitors and fighting with each other. As fun to watch as to listen to.
Buick McKane (“Austin Music Hall” Ballroom in Convention Center”)
One of the guaranteed highlights of going to Austin is seeing Alejandro Escovedo, perform. But, since I saw him and Chuck Prophet right before heading south, I really was not as enthused about seeing him so much. And, for the last couple of years, he has been around enough that I sometimes take him for granted. Luckily we chose to see Buick McKane, a Alejandro-rock and roll “legendary, Austin” side project he had not played with for a while which was featured Thursday night as part of an “Alejandro and friends” night. Despite the huge hall which was not even 10% filled it was really exciting to just see him have fun, just letting loose on his guitar. Their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” was nice too. As a side note, any person I have ever introduced to Alejandro Escovedo loves his music in a different way, so see him live.
Buzzcocks—(Snocap party). I guess I leave the Buzzcocks for last because I knew they were a sure thing. But, how can you resist free barbeque from The Ironworks, free beer and The Buzzcocks. With songs clocking in at 2 minutes, the Buzzcocks can almost play their full set at a showcase. Pete Shelly wore a white polkadot shirt in the afternoon in a tent and smiled the whole time, playing virtually their entire greatest hits collection of power pop punks, pulling out all of the stops in their 45 minute set. Anyone into punk aerobics have got to love this band. ,
Moments of Pleasure
Running from place to place means you have to miss parts of sets, it’s a half full/half empty kind of thing where you need not to get too bummed if you miss something good, but be thankful you saw/heard what you did. The same song, played twice in different ways, were highlights. A drunk Jon Langford, combining the members of two different bands he plays with, did a searing version of his song “Sentimental Marching Song” closing the Wednesday party at Yarddog, while his comrade in arms did a very ethereal almost a cappella version of the same song near the beginning of her showcase when Langford and band did not show up on time. The Finnish singer Marit Bergman sounded like Diana Ross and had a great band—her set was marred by cross over noise from downstairs, but anyone liking Motown should check her out. The Woggles delivered a totally rockin 60’s set at side yard at Champs bar. The River City Tanlines from Memphis played great bare bones rock and punk. The Japanese bands’ showcase was too crowded to stay in this year, but it was a great gimmick to see the bands in between sets marching up and down 6th Street with banners promoting their show!
Luckily, not many—but I was pretty bummed when Donovan opened his mouth to sing. He played at an incredible church, with awesome sound, but, though I am not Mr. tone sensitive I am afraid to say that he seemed to have lost his voice. He played every one of his classic songs, yet I could not bear to stay. Marnie Stern was hyped by the New York Times, and I was hopeful, when she showed up with her iPod to back her, that she might be this year’s KT Tunstall. But her music was not exciting and her guitar play was not complex as represented. Not bad, just not to exciting.