An all you can eat buffet. You probably know how that is. Say, for example, at one of those Brazilian steakhouses. You are tempted by the huge salad bar–it is sooooo inviting, the salad, pasta, cheese—all of it is great, exceptional even, but you know that by eating some of that great food you will end up having to skip something else—perhaps even some of the steak you have been craving for.—that is music at SXSW. With over 1,600 official bands and over 81 official venues, plus hundreds of unofficial venues, with music from around 11:00 am to 4:00 am there is simply too much music for one person to consume. So no matter what you do, there will be scheduling conflicts–and you know that when you choose to see one band at a particular time and place, you are giving up on the opportunity to do hundreds of other things. But-as my friend Miguel reported John Doe as saying when Direct TV asked X to replay a song–you “just have to roll with it.”
That is why it is actually exhilarating and humbling to make daily choices which often times are not followed, or change depending on whether you can get in, how crowded the place is, whether the band is good and whether everything is on schedule—among other things. Even the band members understand the difficulties. John Doe of X, at one of the most anticipated shows of the festival, thanked the crowd for coming, saying that “we know you have the chance to see many other bands, so we appreciate your choosing to spend your time with us. Chuck Prophet said essentially the same thing that afternoon during one of his 4 unofficial shows on Saturday (most bands play multiple shows, and some bands, like the Raveonettes, played 12 shows in 4 days). And, despite the fact that there are 12,000 registered badgeholders and 12,500 or so wristband bearers swarming around Austin, the music is amazingly accessible and egalitarian at times.
Yes, a badge can save you a 20-30 minute wait, and sometimes you can’t get in without one, and sometimes you need an invite AND a badge (thanks to a friend I got into the Playboy party this yearbut there were tremendous day parties where the same top notch talent plays for free, and sometimes there is even free beer to boot. Industrious people review web sites, check the newspapers and keep their eyes and ears open to put together a great music schedule without having to invest big money. This year more than half of my favorite shows were at locations where no badge was required.
But there is also the fun and challenge of taking an hour or two and just randomly walking down Sixth Street, listening to bands through the windows or doors, or just walking into a venue and giving a band a song or two to show its stuff. One night I went into about 6 venues in rapid fire, and saw a good straight ahead rock band from Boston, a jangly vaguely Neil Youngish band, some hip hop and a punk/emo/electronic band from England called The Reason, who played two punk songs, then switched to electronica—at which time the entire band ran into the audience for some geeky Beavis and Butthead-type slam dancing—not my thing, but cool to experience, and I seemed to have more “experiences” this year than in others.
I saw shows in two of the most unusual places. The first was at a house party with a keg in the back. Kind of like a college party, except that you have a national act as your entertainment. Imagine, for example, the White Stripes in a living room. Well Dax Riggs is not Jack White, but he is close. He sells out 400-500 seat clubs in NY, plays with Modest Mouse’s drummer and they are a two instrument raw blues-rock onslaught. Here, he was in the living room of a mansion with 20-30 people watching—but a great show is not defined by the location or the number of people who show up.
Imagine, for example, seeing the Pretenders in the back lot of a restaurant that is under construction and isn’t even open yet. . Well, the Beangrowers who are a band from Malta I first saw at SXSW 3 years ago, played in the vacant backyard of a restaurant/gallery that had not yet opened yet on a street that even a cab driver could not find.. There was a freshly built stage in the back, a couple of lanterns thrown over the branches of a large tree and 10-20 chairs. I grabbed a beer from someone’s cooler—hoping that it was ok. Hearing melodic pulsing pop as the moon shined overhead, the band played its first gig in the U.S. in a while before a couple of dozen friends of the bands that were playing that night. The quality of music is not defined by the notoriety of a location or the size of a crowd.
OK so I should stop with the experiences what was so great this year (not in order of preference)
1. Sons and Daughters—This is a band from Scotland that combines garage rock and punk into a powerful, fun sound. During a day show they played pulsing droning beats and slow dance numbers, while at night they turned it up to a more danceable speed. Adele Bethel the lead singer wore a powder blue Patti Smith t-shirt dress and glammy make-up, while Scott Peterson features a rockabilly “do” which shows some of their varied influences. It is always hard to describe music without reference to other bands, but it often does the bands on both sides of the comparisons disservice—but think jagged guitars, primal drums and Siouxsee and the Banshees (in their better, poppier songs) or X Ray Spex rocking howl or even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs but a little bit faster.
2. British Sea Power—This is a band that plays thick, layered (violin over guitar and keyboards), melodic power pop. Almost every song is a rave up, and almost every song is danceable, listenable and strong. I guess I would put them in the Echo & the Bunnymen (after the first album)-genre—but not quite as poppy and lush as let’s say Duran Duran.
3. Magic Christian—A “supergroup” made up of old musicians, including Cyril Jordan the lead guitarist of The Flamin’ Groovies—from San Francisco, Eddie Munoz of The Plimsouls and Clem Burke of Blondie. Playing an extremely small club, with the stage in the window, these old pros put on a supercharged psychedelic rhythm and blues rave-up. It sounded like I was listening to the Nuggets compilation, with The Count Five’s Psychotic Reaction ringing through. They did one of the best covers— Dave Clark Five’s “Anyway You Want It” as a tribute to Mike Smith, the lead singer who recently passed away just days before joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Flamin’ Groovies’ hit “Shake Some Action.” There was literally, “magic” in the air as no one, including me, or the band, wanted to leave at the end of the show—everyone wanted to try and soak up and maintain the energy in that room. I was lucky to just happen to walk by where they were playing while I was doing a random walk in and out of venues for an hour and a half journey.
4. The Raveonettes—The music business has changed a lot, so I don’t know if there are any “break-out” bands anymore, but if there were-it would be this band from Norway with their smoky-feedback laden Jesus and Mary chain-pop sound. Their technique and live performances have much improved over the last couple of years Originally, they performed as a two piece with a drum/bass machine. Finally, they added a drummer to their live show, which allows the lead pair to focus on their chiming guitars and they also have seemed to add surf guitar to their retro repertoire.
5. Times New Viking—A band from Columbus that is seemingly named after a font with a twist—and they play that way-twisting genres with extremely short, sharp, punkish songs—one minute or so each—which are all riff and no chorus. High energy, high efficiency, never boring and perfect for 30-40 minute showcases!
6. X—This was a major re-formation band of the festival—31 years after they formed to become the leading light of the Los Angeles punk scene. The thrashing rockabilly-tinged speed guitar of Billy Zoom (smiling the entire time) got everyone moving so that it got a bit rough in the mosh pit, and Exene Cervenka’s and John Doe’s howling harmonies Going past the typical SXSW 40 minute showcase, X did a full hour show with a 3 song encore including their vicious sped up cover of The Doors Soul Kitchen—definitely the sweatiest show I went to, and not too bad at all for a bunch of 50-somethingish punks.
7. The Donnas- Sure rock and roll can be serious art, but The Donnas are one of the most fun bands around, and after being the rock and roll business for over 10 years, their talent has getting up there with their attitude and style. But for the most part The Donnas are about in your face rock and roll with the guitarist and durmmer shaking their bleached blond hair in time with the music. Their cover of Paul Collins’ Don’ Wait Up for Me was .
8. Shout Out Out Outs (I think that is all the “outs”-but there may be more—This Punk/techno duo from Edmonton, Alberta Canada would be a good choice for any party you might be having-I saw them at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and they sounded as good or better than anything I heard Moby spin at the Playboy party at 2:00 in the morning. Put them totally on your next dance mix.
9. The Stems— Another band that sounds like they came straight from The Nuggets Collection—this time from Australia, this time sounding like the Standells’ Dirty Water or the early Rolling Stones.
10. Paul Collins Beat—One of my highlights from last year, and I could probably say the exact same thing he did last year, except last year he had not played in the states in 7 years, and this year it was clear that he had a bit more time working with his band from Spain. Power high energy pop, from this singer songwriter. In the ironic cover version department, he did a great version of Hangin on the Telephone—which is actually a song he wrote that Blondie recorded, and The Donnas covered his song “Don’t Wait Up.”
11. The Beangrowers—Another highlight from SXSW a few years ago, this is a band from Malta that sounds like it could come from Ohio. You may have heard the key riff from one of their songs in a Ban deodorant commercial. Strong, simple catchy new wavish sound with ethereal guitars and vocals. Their new album and first in the U.S. should be out very soon and has a couple of catchy songs, including “Love Can Do You No Harm”.
Strangest band—The Monotonix are a band from Israel that views performance as far beyond music. The band set up their drum kit and instruments on the grass in front of the Vice stage, and then the lead singer mimed everyone to come forward and sit right next to the band. Then he went up to one of the several police officers at the stage and gave him a big hug. Then the band started and all hell broke lose. He grabbed beers and water and poured them on himself, then on members of the audience and ran crazed through the crowd while yelping along to his bandmates’ pretty basic metal music. During their short set, he had beers poured on him, dumped a canful of garbage on the drummer, who did not miss a beat. The coolest thing they did was separate the bass drum from the drum set move it into the middle of the audience (after threatening to throw it around), and then the guitar player played it. The most fun though was watching the bemused looks of the police officers surrounding the show and the most fear was that the show would end in blood and/or arrests (which luckily did not happen).
Disappointmennts– The Wedding Present showed up with no drummer ( a bad sign). Syd Straw, on the eve of releasing her first new album in over a decade after withdrawing to Vermont to, among other things, take care of ailing family, played with a band she admitted to putting together on the spur of the moment and not rehearsing and no drummer (definitely a bad sign). Yo La Tengo played in the Austin Music Hall, which remarkably was recently built has terrible, cavernous sound.