It was 80 degrees and I was lakeside sipping $5 margaritas in the warm glow of a sunny Austin afternoon when I received a photo of the terrible weather back home in Boston. Deep in the heart and soul of Texas, I was on location, on assignment and pretty much on vacation for the Lone Star State’s yearly festival of musical madness, South by Southwest.
SXSW started early this year, but despite the extra day and even more venues, the growing number of bands and fans were already overwhelming Austin, providing an increasingly difficult itinerary. Press passes aren’t what they used to be and it is quite easy to get stuck in line long enough to miss a few hours and a few acts. It’s important to have a few backup plans, and not to be discouraged when your first choices fall through. After all, the festival is supposed to be about discovering new talent.
The freaks and the fashionable parade the streets from noon until the early morning hours, making people-watching alone worth the price of the plane ticket. I joined the masses on Tuesday looking for something new, and I quickly found it. Making my way to the Paste Magazine/Newport Folk Festival’s showcase, I arrived just in time to see the start of Hooray for Riff Raff’s set. They were news to me and the female duo (sometimes more members) from New Orleans played a riveting stripped down set of country-tinged blues combining cover songs by Billie Holiday and Fred Neil as well as a slew of originals. Alternating between acoustic guitar and banjo, backed by a fiddle and the occasional toy piano, their set seemed perfectly at home on the front patio of the rickety old house now known as the Blackheart Bar. Not only will Hooray for Riff Raff make their debut at the Newport Folk Festival, but they found out just hours before their set they will be the opening act for the Alabama Shakes upcoming tour.
From there it was on to Viceland to catch the Skaters’ Austin debut. The buzz around them, combined with sharing a bill with Wavves and Japandroids created a line of about 2000 people snaked around the block. It would be my first letdown… but not my last.
After watching a few songs from the street, I decided to make better use of my time and headed over to the Mohawk to hear the Danish band, Indians. A three-piece consisting of more keyboards than people, the band combined layers of loops, Moogs and a brain-rattling drum pad to create dreamy, slightly dancey music while Enya-like atmospherics and the Copenhagen croon of lead singer Soren Juul filled in the empty spaces.
Looking to for some more traditional rock n roll, I drifted off to The North Door to catch Vietnam. After taking the past 5 years off, Michael Gerner is back with a new six-piece lineup and a new record, but their sound remains the same. Dark, lengthy and often druggy narratives are delivered without traditional verse/chorus structure and set against a heavy shimmer of blues guitar riffs.
After seeing the line for Jim James a couple blocks from the entrance. I decided to go back to my hotel and rest up for Wednesday. It was going to be a long week.
The first thing you learn at the festival is of the numerous unpublicized daytime shows that go on throughout the week. Whether planned, secret or last minute, there are hundreds of shows that go on throughout the week at SXSW with the sun still up. They provide you with a chance to catch those acts that you might otherwise miss– not to mention the fact that these gigs are often accompanied by free food and drink. This makes the days extra long, and the unforgiving Texas sun does not help.
Waking early, I headed straight to Club de Ville, one of my favorite old haunts, as the Austin band Feathers took stage. A five-piece comprised of four women and a male drummer manning an electronic drum kit, Feathers wore tall heels and looked like the Runaways years later and sounded like a gothic Pat Benatar.
Heading to Main and Jr., previously the staple venue known as Emo’s, I was surprised to catch Indians, again. It would be show #2 of their 8 shows of the week. Back in the day, bands usually had only one official nighttime showcase and played as many daytime shows as they could. Back then three shows was a lot, now bands play as many as ten shows in a week and it’s not out of the ordinary to catch a band several times on your sonic quests.
From there it was off the too Austin Convention Center. A multi block, 4-floor maze filled with just about every facet of the music industry at any given time, every day, talks and trade shows are hosted as part of the festival. While they might not be the most popular or promoted events of the week, I decided to take on two in a row. The first was “Drunk Comedy at SXSW”. The internet sensation that became popular on Funny or Die, will now be a new series on Comedy Central. On hand were the hilarious Kyle Kinane and creator Derek Waters. With tallboys in coozies, they were in character as they talked about the conception of the show, confessing that it was originally only supposed to be one video short until Jack Black asked if he could be Ben Franklin. The rest is history… drunk history.
From there it was up a few floors to see Devendra Banhart. Pretty and polished he sat and played a handful of songs with his signature falsetto warble and intriguingly absurd banter like wishing everyone a Happy Halloween or commenting on how Audrey Hepburn “emotes”. A strange and large business meeting room show, this was a very strange place to witness such an avant-folk-weirdo.
Even with a press pass, sometimes you need to jump through hoops to get into certain shows. And Nick Cave was one of them. I had won a raffle of tickets for definite entry, the only stipulation being that I had to arrive before 7:45. After regrouping at my hotel, I was on the shuttle bus back to town, and all was well until the British dude in front of me complained that the driver had missed his stop. Heading back uptown in a detour, the shuttle rolled into town at 7:40. After a short sprint to the venue, I made it, shall we say, in the “nick” of time. Mr. Cave and the Bad Seeds were scheduled to take the stage at Stubbs Amphitheater while the sun was still up—a strange and rare occurrence. But, as expected, he stalled until the darkness fell and opened with a few tracks from their new record as the smell of BBQ lingered in the air. Almost possessed, he brought life to the quiet new tracks on the band’s recent release and followed them up by an epic run through his some of his best work. “From Her to Eternity” was followed by “Red Right Hand”, “Jack the Ripper”, “Deanna” and “Stagger Lee”. While much of the band is new, the Bad Seeds complimented Nick’s stage presence with tense reserve, all except violinist Warren Ellis who has, in time, become Cave’s maniacal right-hand man. I knew going into the show that Nick Cave was too big to report on, but it turned out to be one of the best shows of the week.
Next up was the Love Inks, an Austin band whose single, “Black Eye” has been in constant rotation in my headphones for the past year. A modern day girl-group with fuzzy reverb, the band backed up the sound on their record with remarkable poise.
For the remainder of the night I decided to post up at the pop up venue, Hype Hotel for what should have been an excellent lineup. The Orwells kicked things off and after noticing the X’s on their hands, I learned that everyone in the band is a teenager. They didn’t look it, and they didn’t sound like it. Sure, the lead singer had a bit of Jim Morrison’s snotty angst, but the band played well… until they were told it was their last song. The guitarist told the soundguy that they had been lied to about their set time provoking the lead singer to swing his microphone around smashing it into the cymbals before sending it into the crowd. After a physical altercation with the soundman, they left the stage for good. It was a rock n roll moment that you don’t see very often anymore… for better or worse. It almost seemed like a media ploy, but that might just be the cynic in me.
Whether it was the Orwells’ fault or not, the sound would not be same for much of the show. Cords were busted, sets were delayed and the sound went southward. The anticipated Phosphorescent shined despite the ordeal. Seven members deep and with two keyboardists, their sound was fleshed out roots rock with an expressive backwoods voice. Making it through most of the set without complaints, they also threw their mic after their last song. What in the world was happening here?
Things would only get worse as the well-recorded Foxygen landed up playing an awful set with the leadsinger sounding like an out-of-tune and out-of-work showtune crooner. The sound and showmanship would only return as Jim James closed out the night with a shortened set. Fun, energetic and far from his My Morning Jacket sets, James and his band brought the audience a great set with some amazing surprises. Leave it to that man to always give it his all. It was a night that combined the crass with the class.
Today a HUGE show was scheduled at Willie Nelson’s Ranch, 30 miles from town, and every year, Willie takes the time to hold a charity event, drawing people from SXSW to his farm, but drawing people away from the music at hand. And usually Willie isn’t there. I wasn’t allowed to go, but all day I longed to see the extravaganza. What could be more Texas than being on Willie’s ranch?!
It was Day Three at SXSW, and everything on my itinerary was louder, harder and heavier than the days before. For anyone seeking solace in cerebral modern day psychedelia, this was surely the place to be.
Starting at the Thrasher/Converse Party at the Scoot Inn early in the day, I was happy to find I was one of the only members of the press at the party. Yes, the show was somewhat of a secret, but with such an eclectic mix of some of the festival’s most sought after acts, I figured word would have gotten out.
With skateboarders grinding on a half-pipe next to a relatively small open-air venue, this daytime party provided some of the best acts under the hot Austin sun. Bleached took the stage around 2pm and rocked the crowd with a hard and tough bubblegum take on pop-punk girl group music.
King Tuff followed an hour later, and with a full band in tow, he superceded the sensitive sounds of his recent record with a more aggressive, more intense and heavier psychedelic set that put his recent release in a new perspective.
Chelsea Light Moving was up next. The new band fronted by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth with Sunburned Hand of the Man’s John Maloney on drums, their recent debut came out last week on Matador and is most reminiscent of Moore’s 1995 record, Psychic Hearts. Thurston arrived fashionably early in a laidback style, entering the venue on a bicycle and riding it through the audience just before taking the stage for soundcheck. Combining his alternate tunings and surrounded by Marshall stacks, Moore and company combined Sonic Youth’s pastoral and intricate riffs with heavy drowned out pedal stomps and intensive guitar solos. Proving he’s one of the greatest guitarists of all-time, Moore’s combination of sensitivity juxtaposed with harsh, high-decibel 6-string serenades provided the perfect dynamic to coincide with his poetic meanderings.
After giving into the elements, I returned back to town around 9pm. Snoop Dogg (aka Snoop Lion), Stevie Nicks and Dave Grohl were all scheduled to perform tonight—not together of course. With the long lines and my general lack of interest, I skipped the “hot ticket” shows and headed to East Austin for some more psychedelia. Once considered the wrong side of the tracks and a home to artists looking for cheap studios, I was surprised to find East Austin as a hotbed of cool. It’s a tale as old as time, but I never expected it could happen so quickly in Austin. This week East Austin would prove to be worth its weight in heavy metal.
Just a few blocks beyond this newfound center for up-and-coming greatness and unfortunate gentrification, I found my way to Hotel Vegas. With a retro neon sign lighting the landscape, I headed inside to catch some of music’s greatest and heaviest sonic surprises. With four stages, I bounced back and forth, catching a sampling of sounds. The Go, a longtime Detroit-based garage band, has only gotten better and heavier since former and future famous member Jack White left the band. MMOSS, a New Hampshire bred/Boston-based band combined acoustic guitars and ethereal drones, often summon the sounds of early Floyd on record. But more notably their live show has brought the flute back to the forefront of the rock n roll frontier.
Running to the Mohawk, I was finally going to catch SKATERS. Sounding like that guitar driven magic of the first Strokes record, the band gave you something to move to, but also something to think about. Combining angst and disaffection but also channeling driving guitar rhythms and rocking fun, SKATERS continued to make a name for themselves.
Though I had just missed Philadelphia’s Bleeding Rainbow at Hotel Vegas earlier in the evening, I was able to catch them a few hours later at their second showcase of the night. Combining an awesome name with spaced out male and female vocals against a bed of deep driving guitars, and chugging rhythms, they evoked a speedier and grittier My Bloody Valentine.
Seeing just how many shows I could catch within the hour, I continued on to Maggie Mae’s where the Seattle band Kinski was still spacing out. I’ve been bearing witness to Kinski’s heavy and heady rumblings for almost a decade now, and they always deliver. Combining searing and soaring guitars with spacey solos, the band played songs from their recent release on Kill Rock Stars and brought a slight darkness to the overlit and well-stocked cocktail venue.
Finishing the night at Red Eyed Fly, I caught the Generationals who have continued to grow in sound and popularity. Recording as a duo and performing this tour as a four-piece, the band combined rock and electronics to produce a sound that combines the old with new
Growing weary of the constant lines and the lack of sleep that came with noon til 2am non-stop music, I rolled into town, still in search of the greatest thing I hadn’t heard. And I think I found it. Making my way to Sonos Studios, I waited in a long line for about an hour, crossing the threshold just in time to catch Wildcat!Wildcat!. After the first few minutes of their set, I knew I had found a new musical sensation to write home about.
The band took the stage with two keyboards, bass, live drums and 4 mics. A live band with an electronic sound, the four-part vocal harmonies that fluctuated from falsetto to natural voice created an added warmth to already summery sound. This band was having fun; they were humble, and they were hardworking. They would eventually play 10 shows in their 5 days in town. Each time I saw them they carried the same graciousness and modesty that they had the time before—pleasing the ears of new audience members each time. Upon investigation, I saw that although the band has played music together before and known each other forever, the Wildcat!Wildcat! project was created only in the last year, and with only a 7” to their name, this was surely the band to watch, and the band that will go on to make it.
Running to the shit show that is 6th street, I hurried to catch another Indians’ show at Peckerheads. Playing the same great set in perhaps their most grimy, unheralded show, I was happy to interview the band on the street corner a few minutes after their last note. Sharing smokes, I spoke to Søren Løkke Juul about his unexpected signing to a label and the fact that he had only written two or three songs before being signed. Surely a genuine and kind musician, he was on show 6 of 8 and surely overworked. I thanked him for his time and know I’ll see him in the near future.
After trying to take in a few shows in the early hours of the nighttime showcases and being shut out by impenetrable lines, I joined up with my famous and favorite writer friend and mentor, Luke O’Neil. Also bummed about the current claustrophobic state of SXSW, we took to the city’s few cocktail bars and got some rich foods and expensive mescal at Peche. If there’s one thing we knew as much about as music, it was the craft of cocktails. And they did it right. Luke even taught the bartenders how to make his new and favorite creation.
To give you a sense of the strange state of affairs at SXSW’s move from up-and-coming bands to bands of all rank and file, we passed a crowd of people on the streets that even reached and crowded each level in the multi-deck parking garage across the way to see… Third Eye Blind! It was perplexing. But to be fair, after giving it a quick laugh we immediately started talking about how we actually found a good deal of goodness in the band. Still it was strange that they were here… now.
After splitting up, I ran over to Club de Ville to catch the last few songs of Youth Lagoon. Yeah, you know them, and so did I. But I figured it’d be a good way to end the night.
My day started at the Filter Party at the Cedar Street Courtyard, and besides brief taco truck trips, this was the place to start and stay… all day. I never saw that “Free BBQ” that they advertised, but I did see a great set by San Cisco, a decent performance by K.I.D.S., and excellent shows by Wildcat!Wildacat! (again), and Surfer Blood who ended the weeklong daytime shows at the venue.
When the sun went down I decided to make it a point to see some foreign showcases and headed to the two floors of Maggie Mae’s for the Austrialian BBQ Showcase. There was no BBQ here either!?– and after the huge lines to get in got through the door, the crowd hardly filled either of the venues spaces. The opening bands were hard to get into, and after a few minutes by the band The Beards, it was obvious that this was a novelty act. They wore beards, of course, but their songs were ONLY about beards. The laughs were only possible for about a song and a half. I have no idea how this act made it all the way to Austin from Australia for that.
It seemed best that I head back to Hotel Vegas. Their 4 venues would again play home to the best in strange and psych and was promoted by Burger Records who manned a makeshift record shop under the tent. I don’t know if I had a sign on my back saying to walk into me or if people were honestly that tanked, but it was an arduous experience.
Many of the bands all week at Hotel Vegas were repeats, and welcomed ones at that, but I tried my best through confidence and consequence to see the bands I hadn’t seen before. Teenage Burritos were great, but that name cannot be taken seriously. In fact, it was the amazing set by Pangea that proved to be the best surprise of the evening. Talk about surprises, the band wasn’t even published in the printed or online schedules. Nevertheless, word must have gotten out because it would go down as the wildest show I’d seen all week. This was not for the weak of heart, but that was the point. Switching speeds between punk and heavy rock, they were always loud and very energetic. And the fans gave as much back as they were getting. Fists in the air, slamdancing, moshing, crowdsurfing and throwing beers in the air, this tiny space became filled with a contained and maintained brief party riot. At one point a speaker even started swaying about to fall. This is what rock was and should be about. I bought a record. It was the best I could do.
From there it was on to see the Royal Baths. Friends and former members of Ty Segall, I was first intrigued by the band based on their nearly perfect name of their record, “Better Luck Next Life”. I had bought this a year ago based on the name alone, and for some reason was a bit discouraged to see their live act as sparse and unaffecting as their record.
Not knowing what to do now, I ran over to see Kid Congo. A former member of Gun Club and the Bad Seeds, his band’s uniforms proved more interesting than the music. Was it back to see Warlocks? Pharcyde? George Clinton? No, I headed to the most beautiful hotel in town to catch Boston’s own David Wax Museum play their roots blues in one of their most cushy settings.
Instead of looking for the best way to end my night, I decided getting in the hotel shuttlebus line might be the best bet of all. On the way to the queue, I saw Smashing Pumpkins play from a closed down street with everyone else who didn’t get in. It made me wonder, has it gone too far? Sure seeing a few old school Pumpkins songs was great, but most people couldn’t even get in. They even made the gate JUST high enough that you couldn’t really see them. Plus, Prince had played a show earlier, with special privileges given to people with Samsung Galaxy phones who also had to do an intricate scavenger hunt.
Have big names and big business made SXSW something better? Or as many bands and fans continue to question– has SXSW become a distraction and unnecessary next step for a festival built on showcasing the new and the worthy? There are more #hashtag big and small business options per square foot than I’ve ever seen in my life. Long gone are the days of walking the streets of Austin with a printed schedule and a highlighter. In an atmosphere that is already all about sensory overload, technology ruled SXSW this year. Parties were announced via Twitter, there was an app for schedules and oftentimes when you got to the shows, most of the audience members had their heads down to text or tweet. Smart phones made people dumb. Business was business as usual, maybe ten-fold, but fans would also become a product of the biz. Even if no one cared, the texts, the tweets, the FB posts seem to seep into the same social fabric that made SXSW what created its true value. Now, technology has become so self-indulgent and pointless that the fans have gone the way of the industry—bored, disillusioned and self-important without a true value outside of themselves and what they think is important to others. I watched industry people sit at their own showcases, bashing the bands that thousands came out to see. I was asked by a management company if I played that night. When I said “no”, they responded, “Good!, I represent all these bands on this showcase and it would have been awkward otherwise.” Well, that’s awkward enough for me to know people aren’t doing their jobs. And I’d hate for that person to be my manager.
One thing is for sure, despite the long lines and overpopulation of a relatively small town, the city of Austin has adapted to the yearly influx incredibly. What began as an event with less than 1000 attendees in 1987, now claims upwards of 20,000. Streets are blocked off, there’s a general order and a surplus of information. Much has changed since my last trip to SXSW. Pedicabs flood the streets, bars have changed their names, temporary venues spring up and business is thriving. There are food truck trailer parks and makeshift marketplaces, and even a whole string of bars on Rainey Street that until recently was completely residential. Austin may be the coolest town in all of America, but while it may seem like it’s whole existence leads up to this week of international influx, I think that Austin is fine on its own. I think if I lived in this fine city, I might seek refuge elsewhere in the month of March. I love this town. I love it. SXSW may have brought it to the rest of the world’s attention, but that doesn’t mean the city appreciates the rest of us. Regardless, this cool town seems cooler to the rest of the world for SXSW, and there’s no denying it’s importance. But won’t it be better to be here on an off month?!
Despite limited shows on Sunday, Saturday was essentially SXSW’s grand finale. By Sunday morning, all of the people flooding the streets would either be in cabs or already at the airport. I always try to stick around a little longer to enjoy the town for what it is, a first class city—and perhaps the coolest town in America.
As for me, I decided to stay a couple days and recover from the over-expenditure of serotonin that had begun messing with my emotional stability. It had been a week full of Lone Star beer and Shiner Bock. A week of BBQ, taco trucks and huevos rancheros. A week of northern eyes focused on the southern dress codes. I had witnessed so much and yet I had still missed so much. And I’ll probably do it all over again next year.