WEDNESDAY, MARCH 14
How in the hell can you prepare for the overwhelming sensory overload that is South By Southwest? The first year I came to Austin for SXSW (2002), I pretty much winged it, looking at the music schedule each day and deciding who to see that night. I was only dimly aware of all the day parties offering up additional chances to see all of those bands. Eventually, I realized advance research was necessary. You see a lot of people down here carrying around folded sheets of paper with their spreadsheets and charts listing possible musical acts to see each hour of each day.
I threw my own list together rather hastily and only noticed belatedly some of the major names playing at SXSW. Donovan played earlier tonight?!? Oops! A couple of weeks before my trip to Austin, I downloaded the SXSW Web site’s bit torrent of 700-some songs by musicians playing at the festival. And with just a couple of days to spare, I managed to listen to at least some of each song and assign a star rating in iTunes. I ended up with about 200 four-star or five-star songs. Mind you, most of these are bands or singers I know little or nothing about. So I’ve got my list of when those bands are playing, plus the more famous ones. Plus the uncertainties about who’s playing at day parties and which conference events will be worth attending. And then, it doesn’t hurt to listen to the buzz or read the Austin papers each morning to see what they recommend for that night’s shows.
The bottom line is that hundreds of bands are playing every hour, so whatever you end up seeing, you are missing a cornucopia of other music, much of it good to great.
Can you hear my head exploding?
My advice for SXSW-goers: Just don’t get too hung up on the fact that you won’t see everything. You’ll see SOMEthing, and it will be cool.
Compared to the grungy environment at most SXSW day parties, the “Day Stage” in the Austin Convention Center is positively antiseptic and generic. It lacks character, but it’s actually a nice little spot to sit down and hear some good music away from all the craziness. I started out my day here, catching the first three bands.
SATURDAY LOOKS GOOD TO ME, a Michigan band on Champaign’s Polyvinyl label (identified in the SXSW booklet as a Portland, Ore., band for some reason – have they moved?), kicked things off with some pretty good indie pop. Writing this a couple of days after the fact, Saturday’s sound hasn’t really stuck in my head, but I liked it. The lead singer had a nicely casual air in his singer and his stage banter, introducing one song: “This song is about people.” www.slgtm.com
THE GRAY KID’s hip-hop leaned toward soul and R&B. This kid performed his set with the typical rapper’s moves, prowling around the stage with a handheld mike. He jumped out onto a chair in the audience, and he looked at the sedate crowd with an imploring expression that said, “What’s the matter? Why won’t you dance?” At one point, he leaned down and looked at the string of lights at the front of the stage shaped like little bluebirds and tried to pick one of them up, saying, “Pretty little bird.” There was something raw about the Gray Kid that I liked. He really poured everything into his vocals. He isn’t a great singer, just a good one, but he was so unafraid of making a fool of himself that he came off as a fairly appealing figure. Now, if he just had a backup band instead of prerecorded tracks. graykid.com
SAY HI TO YOUR MOM’s songs did not leave a big impression on me, but their sound was strong – melodic, bright keyboard lines on top of crunchy guitar chords and a steady, propulsive drumbeat. www.sayhitoyourmom.com
I left the Convention Center for my first day party of the day, one of my most anticipated bands this year, THE DAGONS. Apparently, I was one of the few people anticipating them because virtually no one showed up for the Dagons’ show at Creekside Lounge (a little bar, not to be confused with Creekside Lounge EMC at the Hilton Gardens Hotel). I was one of about six people watching, including the band’s manager, as this duo played. It was a very good set, well worth catching, and I hope the Dagons got a bigger crowd for their evening showcase. It’s strong, punk-influenced pop rock, with female vocals, a guitar-drums duo that reminds me at times of Sleater-Kinney (though the Dagons don’t play with a tenth of Sleater-Kinney’s sense of abandon). It doesn’t hurt that singer-guitarist Karie Jacobson is a beautiful woman, and she was elegantly attired in a black dress for this performance, smiling often as I circled around her with my camera. www.dagons.net – PHOTOS OF THE DAGONS.
It’s cool to run into musicians I’ve interviewed at some point, giving me an excuse to say hi. Back at the Convention Center, I encountered Sally Timms, Josh Caterer of the Smoking Popes and Megan of the Last Town Chorus, all within about five minutes.
LIONS IN THE STREET, one of the bands I liked on mp3, was playing at the Canadian barbecue across the street, where the food was free. Lions sound an awful lot like Exile-era Stones, maybe too much so, with a little bit of Allman Brothers in their guitar solos. They’re a fun band, and I predict they’ll do well with the Americana and classic-rock crowds. www.lionsinthestreet.com – PHOTOS OF LIONS IN THE STREET.
Next up on the stage was one of my old favorites and a SXSW perennial, who introduced himself: “Hello, I’m ROBYN HITCHCOCK, and I’m from the ’60s.” After explaining why he was inserting his cable into the “orifice” of his guitar, he said, “The first song anyone played in the 1960s was this,” by way of introducing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Hitchcock then brought legendary producer JOE BOYD up onto the stage and turned his set into a quasi-interview, asking Boyd to read bits of his book, with Hitchock playing songs referred to in the text. Boyd read his recollection of the famous Dylan performance at the Newport Folk Festival. It’s interesting to note that after Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax sent Boyd to the sound board to turn down Dylan’s volume, it was Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary who insisted on keeping the music loud. The message Yarrow sent back to his fellow folkies via Boyd was a raised middle finger. Anyway, Dylan’s acoustic encore that day was “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” so Hitchcock followed up Boyd’s story by playing the latter song. After a story from Boyd about producing the Incredible String Band, Hitchcock played “Chinese White.” Recalling his own 1960s, Hitchcock said, “I was just 14, working out how to levitate.” He noted that his own initial experiences with drugs in the late 1960s were more than just the pursuit of a high. “To me,” Hitchcock said, “it seemed like more of a sacramental thing … It was a religious experience. It wasn’t just trying to get loaded.” www.robynhitchcock.com – PHOTOS OF ROBYN HITCHCOCK with JOE BOYD.
Over at the Emo’s day party, I caught two Chicago bands, CATFISH HAVEN and THE SMOKING POPES. Now, I would argue against seeing any Chicago bands while I’m in Austin, just because I can see those bands just about anytime in my hometown. But part of my justification for coming to SXSW is writing about the conference for Chicago-area newspapers, including Pioneer Press, the Daily Southtown and the Elgin Courier News, and for those papers, a big part of the story is what local bands are at SXSW. So I do make an effort to see at least a few of the Chicago bands vying for attention at SXSW. I’ve seen Catfish Haven several times as a trio, and I always thought they needed to expand their sound a little, so it was nice to see them playing down here with an additional guitarist and two backup singers. (They’ve been playing with similar expanded lineups at other recent concerts, including last year’s Lollapalooza, but I missed those shows.) It helped the soulful sound come alive, and people at the front of the crowd were dancing wildly. – PHOTOS OF CATFISH HAVEN.
The Smoking Popes are a band I missed out on the first time around, but now that they’re reunited, I can see what the fuss was all about. Their straightforward pop-punk sounded sturdy and tuneful at this gig. www.smokingpopes.net – PHOTOS OF THE SMOKING POPES.
I couldn’t stick around for the whole Popes set, because it was time for…
PETE TOWNSHEND interview at the Hilton – It was fascinating to see Townshend answering questions, even if he did occasionally wander off-topic and his scheme for a Web site called “The Method” was just baffling. The site is supposedly going to create pieces of music individually suited to each person who types in his or her key data… sounds to me like a vague utopian concept. “It could be terrible,” Townshend acknowledged.
And is it revisionist history for Townshend to say that the 1960s generation in England wasn’t actually angry – that they just wanted more information about what was happening in the post-war world? “It was not anger,” he said. “It looked like anger, but it was frustration and a demand for honest answers.” Townshend said he doesn’t think angry guitar-smashing is “valid anymore.”
Like every SXSW keynote speaker in recent years, Townshend had something to say about the sorry state of the music industry. He said an exec with a major label recently summed up the industry’s situation by telling him, “Rome is burning.” Townshend advised younger musicians to work outside the old corporate system. “If you’re a new band today, don’t fuck with it, don’t bother,” he said. – PHOTOS OF PETE TOWNSHEND
BAT FOR LASHES at Dirty Dog – I was the one and only critic who voted for Bat For Lashes in the Pazz & Jop poll fort last year’s album. The fact that her/its album was available only as a U.K. import might explain that. Bat For Lashes is the stage name of Natasha Khan, an Englishwoman of Pakistani descent, though she had a full band at SXSW – an all-female, all-face-painted band. Bat For Lashes’ moody, enchanting music reminds me of P.J. Harvey and My Brightest Diamond. It was several songs before I noticed that she was performing without any drums; the tunes were so rhythmically on that drums were largely unnecessary. Khan jingled chimes for atmospheric effect and pounded a large pole on the stage for the beat of one song. She played an unexpected cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” and made it sound like her own. This was a mesmerizing performance (perhaps more mesmerizing for me than others since I was already familiar with the music), and I have high expectations for Bat For Lashes’ future. www.batforlashes.co.uk – PHOTOS OF BAT FOR LASHES
FERNANDO at Room 710 – The music I’ve heard by Fernando was indie rock with a full band, but he was playing solo acoustic at SXSW, including some Spanish songs as well as new tunes that will be on his next record. I found it fairly pleasant, but I wasn’t that familiar with the material. www.fernandoviciconte.com – PHOTOS OF FERNANDO
THE PANDA BAND at Red 7 – One of four bands at this year’s SXSW with the word “panda” in their names, these Aussies played a decent set of typical indie rock, but it didn’t really grab me. www.thepandaband.com – PHOTOS OF THE PANDA BAND
LONEY, DEAR at Emo’s IV – The Swedish singer-songwriter who goes by the unwieldy and frequently misspelled name Loney, Dear seemed to be everywhere at SXSW this year, playing a bunch of parties. His art-folk is mellow yet epic, and his album Loney, Noir is quickly becoming one of my 2007 favorites. The songs sounded great in concert, making this one of my SXSW highlights. loneydear.com – PHOTOS OF LONEY, DEAR
THE 1900s at Habana Calle 6 – I’ve seen the 1900s often enough in Chicago, so I might have skipped this show if I weren’t writing about it for The Daily Southtown, but I won’t complain – it’s always a kick to see these folks. Guitarist-singer Edward Anderson looked a little nervous as the group started playing, but soon enough he was letting loose on some fierce guitar solos. Singers Jeanine O’Toole and Caroline Donovan swayed and shook to the group’s ‘60s-style pop. As the 1900s finished playing, one member of the enthusiastic audience yelled, “You guys rock!” The 1900s have just finished recording their first full-length album, and they’re contemplating whether to stay on the Champaign label Polyvinyl or seek a bigger deal, O’Toole told me in a recent interview, adding that she’d be happy to stay with Polyvinyl, a small label with artistic integrity. “It sounds like a record,” O’Toole said of the new album. “It’s not just a collection of songs. I like listening to records that have that feeling. It’s still pop music, with some psychedelic rock feeling to it.” www.the-1900s.com – PHOTOS OF THE 1900s
MOTHERCOAT at Latitude 30 – This was one of those great SXSW moments when you walk into a club, not knowing what to expect. Mothercoat was on my list of potential bands to see based on the mp3 I’d heard, but I couldn’t remember what it sounded like and I didn’t even know where the band was from. Walking into Latitude 30 mid-set, I saw this Japanese band going nuts on the stage – especially the lead singer/guitarist, who contorted his face as he leaned down into his mike, leapt out into the audience, ran over to the bar, got up onto the stage and watched a little TV with a maniacal expression. Mothercoat combined the odd intensity of Japanese avant-garde groups like Boredoms with a more melodic pop sensibility. While I was watching Mothercoat, they reminded me a little bit of Garbage. Now that I’ve heard more of their recordings, I’d say there’s a Radiohead influence. The crowd loved Mothercoat, and there was a rush for the merch table as soon as the band finished playing. I gave the lead singer my business card and he stared at it as if it were some alien object. www.mothercoat.com – PHOTOS OF MOTHERCOAT
DAYLIGHT FOR THE BIRDS at Latitude 30 – These guys played energetic indie rock, but they had a tough act to follow. After Mothercoat, they seemed a little bland. – PHOTOS OF DAYLIGHT FOR THE BIRDS
THE WOMBATS at Friends – After Daylight ended its set fairly early, there was enough time to cram one more concert into the 1-2 a.m. hour, and I managed to catch a good 30 or more minutes by the Wombats. Like so many bands from England these days, the Wombats draw on 1980s new wave for their inspiration. Midway through their set, I realized they sounded a bit like the dancier side of The Cure; they also played a song with lyrics about listening to Joy Division. They were a very likeable bunch of lads, and their music was pretty catchy, so I won’t be surprised if they do well. I noticed an older couple in the middle of the crowd singing along to the lyrics, which seemed a little odd. It turned out to be the drummer’s parents, who had made the trip from Liverpool. Just one instance at this year’s SXSW of parents watching their indie-rock kids.
THE WOMBATS at Friends – After Daylight ended its set fairly early, there was enough time to cram one more concert into the 1-2 a.m. hour, and I managed to catch a good 30 or more minutes by the Wombats. Like so many bands from England these days, the Wombats draw on 1980s new wave for their inspiration. Midway through their set, I realized they sounded a bit like the dancier side of The Cure; they also played a song with lyrics about listening to Joy Division. They were a very likeable bunch of lads, and their music was pretty catchy, so I won’t be surprised if they do well. I noticed an older couple in the middle of the crowd singing along to the lyrics, which seemed a little odd. It turned out to be the drummer’s parents, who had made the trip from Liverpool. Just one instance at this year’s SXSW of parents watching their indie-rock kids. www.thewombats.co.uk – PHOTOS OF THE WOMBATS
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