SXSW 2011 kicks off today. I’ll be diving into the music portion of the festival with abandon next week and reporting on it for Bitch. For those interested looking for suggestions on what to check out, here’s my rundown.
But before we get started, let’s check some things off our list.
1. Are you wearing comfortable, close-toed shoes that can weather days of walking and standing?
2. Do you have earplugs? Some shows are really loud. You don’t want to be yelling at people during polite conversation days later.
3. Are you staying hydrated? Sure, Lone Star flows freely (and is marked up, though Brooklynites don’t notice), but make sure you’re drinking lots of water.
4. Have you checked the weather before going out?
5. If you’re especially susceptible to cedar fever and the like, did you take any allergy medication?
6. Do you have a schedule? More importantly, do you have several options for each time slot? A lot of us want to see Raphael Saadiq, which means many of us won’t. It’s nice to have contingency plans.
7. Do you have a little bit of sunscreen handy for the day shows? Remember what Darlene Conner learned from her grandmother. Skin is a gift!
Also, some industrious folks can pull a Hilah and make potables to nosh on and barter. I will not be one of them, though, as I’ll most likely be macking on Kebabalicious. For a guide to vegan-friendly fare, check in with Vegan Smurf.
Oh, and musicians. Please don’t spend your set futzing with tunings. You aren’t playing an evening at the Paramount. Yes, I realize that SXSW is a bit of a grind and no doubt showcases feel dehumanizing come Saturday. But if you’re really great, we’ll see you again in an actual concert where you can dazzle us for two hours. For now, you have maybe 50 minutes. Make it count.
Okay. So here is who I’m excited to see.
First, there are the acts that I already know I like. Folks like Thao Nguyen, Jean Grae, Invincible, TOKiMONSTA, Dessa, Glasser, Screaming Females, Julianna Barwick, Grass Widow, tUnE-yArDs, Nite Jewel, Smoosh, Andreya Triana, Indian Jewelry, Sharon Van Etten, and Schmillion.
Then there are legendary types. Did you see that Hazel Dickens is playing? What? Yes, I’ll try to see her. Thanks, “Hot Topic,” for nudging me toward all kinds of important women and/or queer artists.
For better or worse, hype is a big part of what drives SXSW. Hell, it’s what drives the music industry writ large. In addition to all the people lining up to see James Blake, Gold Panda, Weekend, Dum Dum Girls, Tennis, and maybe Fang Island, I’m sure folks are going to try and catch Cults, Yuck, the Joy Formidable, and Ear Pwr. I hope Butts catches some of that buzz. At first, I firmly classified this duo as a novelty act. But their 20-second songs about things like running out of toilet paper are pretty catchy and basically the kind of music I’d want to make with my friend Curran. Also, this band came together after some drinking. The B-52s formed while getting drunk at a Chinese restaurant, and if you call their first two albums “novel,” I’ll fight you.
I’m not sure where Big Freedia and Esben and the Witch are in their careers at this point. I feel like they might be waning a bit. I thought Freedia’s performance at the Kool Keith show was underwhelming and Esben’s debut record was poorly received. Yet I’m still interested in seeing if Freedia will pull out a great show. Also, I heard that Esben gave a great performance at the Matador anniversary weekend in Las Vegas, so I’m still interested.
There are also acts I’d like to see get more attention. Big Freedia’s celebrity has somewhat eclipsed Katey Red, another artist associated with bounce who I actually like more. Wye Oak is a longtime favorite and have steadily built a sizeable following. Their new record is also making me itch to do a comparative analysis between them and Beach House. White Mystery have gotten some good reviews and were a festival highlight for me last year, so I’m going to check in with them again. I haven’t seen the Shondes, but I’m so excited to see them that I encouraged readers to donate money to replace their van so they could play here.
I also like to find a few acts I think have a shot at universal appeal. Folks like Thao Nguyen make accessible, interesting music that I think most everyone I know would like. Maybe you can think of it as “the NPR vote.” Some contenders this year are Carla Morrison, Quadron, Wonfu, Gold Motel, Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Khaïra Arby, and Frazey Ford. I’m also interested in seeing Japanese funk group Zukunasisters.
Supergroups are important too. It’s nice to see awesome musicians come together on a new project. Wild Flag is getting much attention, and “Glass Tambourine” is a rad song. However, please note that Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda, that dog.’s Petra Haden, and Shimmy Shimizu of Cornelius have a promising act called If By Yes. Their songs are breezy and refreshing, like a glass of lemonade with a shot of Tabasco.
Alongside Glasser and Barwick, some ladies are tending toward the dreamy and the mystical. I’ll refrain from comparing any of them to Kate Bush because that’s lazy. However, I’m planning to check out Braids, Grimes, Phantogram, Tamaryn, and Austra. I’m especially interested in artists who do interesting, unsettling things with atmosphere. Lookin’ at you, EMA, Lower Dens, Las Robertas, Blank Realm, No Joy, Christian Mistress, and the White Eyes.
SXSW is a festival that prioritizes rock music. Unfortunately, dance acts and hip hop artists tend to get the shaft. There’s a shocking dearth of hip hop this year beyond what I already listed, though I strongly recommend you follow Scratched Vinyl‘s coverage (founder/editor/personal friend Chi Chi Thalken will be giving a rundown on KOOP’s “Hip Hop Hooray” this Sunday at 2 p.m., so tune in). However, while I don’t want rock to be the festival’s default genre, I do upon occasion enjoy a cold beer and an electric guitar. For folks looking to rock out, might I suggest Heavy Cream, Fever Fever, Puffyshoes, Those Darlins, and Le Butcherettes?
Austin is a thriving music community in its own right, so check out some of our local talent. Christeene‘s an international superstar, but she’s ours. Schmillion are opening for the Bangles, so they’re due to break huge any day now. Agent Ribbons and Soft Healer spin a moody, beautiful tune that befits our vast landscape. Most everyone can get down to Akina Adderley and the Vintage Playboys‘ retro soul.
Likewise, there are some great showcases being put on by locals. I already mentioned GayBiGayGay, which will nurse you through your Sunday hangover. Mess With Texas has become a big-tent tradition. Girls Rock Camp Austin is partnering with Bitch for their day show and is holding a benefit where attendees can receive a guitar signed by Susanna Hoffs. Veronica Ortuño is holding her third annual Night of Rage. KVRX and Party Ends are putting on some good shows as well. And even though Terrorbird Media isn’t a local promotion company, it’s run by some very nice people with good taste. Also, apparently the good people at Karaoke Underground are doing their thing at Dive on Saturday, the 19th. Belt your favorite indie rock tunes, regardless of whether you have a voice left.
I attempted to be comprehensive here, but I’m sure I forgot some important people. Feel free to leave endorsements in the comments section and I’ll see you on the fairground.
Last week, I did a quick round-up of some new releases I’ve enjoyed. In that post, I mentioned that upon occasion friends and acquaintances familiar with my blog will ask what I’m listening to. When they ask this question, the tacit assumption I make is that they want to discuss current recording artists. There’s always a few up-and-comers I champion, but any time someone asks “who are you listening to” it’s usually an older act I’m investigating. This year, if you asked “what are you listening to” my answer is “the Cocteau Twins.”
At this point, it’s hardly incendiary to proclaim oneself a fan of the long-defunct Scottish dream pop act. For one, there’s not much to hate. It seems detractors profess indifference rather than contempt, deeming their music pleasant but inconsequential. The worst insult I’ve heard was that there’s little difference between their sound and the pan-global efforts of 4AD labelmates Dead Can Dance and new age artists like Enya and Enigma. These artists sound good as background noise at a bougie dinner party. Pass the quinoa.
Though their releases always clutter discount bins — no doubt jewels from the reject piles of former high school goth kids’ CD collections — contemporary acts like M83, Warpaint, Phantogram, School of Seven Bells, Sleep Over, and even Linkin Park cite their influence. While folks like Madonna and David Lynch noted their interest in the band early on, it’s only recently become “fashionable” to like them. In 2005, there was unsubstantiated talk of a reunion at Coachella. In 2008, the band received a Q Award for their contributions to popular music, a rare accolade Fraser noted for an otherwise undecorated band.
In the past few years, I’ve entered into more conversations with people who like them, along with the work band members vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist-producer Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde did with This Mortal Coil, especially Fraser and Guthrie’s contributions on It’ll End in Tears. Like M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, a lot of us are in are 20s and too young to directly experience the group’s 80s heyday. So I’m going to guess many of us came to our fandom through other portals, perhaps exploring the reference Patton Oswalt makes in his bit about KFC bowls in Werewolves in Lollipops or listening to the haunting score Guthrie and composer Harold Budd created for Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.
I first remember hearing Cocteau Twins on the radio in 1994. The song I heard was “Bluebeard,” the lead single to their penultimate album Four Calendar Café. I liked it fine and noticed they already enjoyed a long career. I suspected Sarah McLachlan might be a fan based on songs like “Fear” and “Vox,” the latter of which was originally released on her 1988 debut Touch but received some airplay following the success of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I seem to recall that she opened for the band at some point during this time, but can’t confirm this.
In 1998, I remember hearing Fraser on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which may be where many fans in my peer group first heard her. The song is still mesmerizing to me and continues to appeal to others. House incorporated the song as its theme, though regrettably without Fraser’s vocals. Friday Night Lights used José González’s cover this season to underscore a heartbreaking scene where Matt Saracen learns of an unexpected death in his family. I later found out that Fraser was recording the song when she heard that her one-time confidant Jeff Buckley drowned. Fraser considered the song as something of a tribute.
During graduate school, I read Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s nebulous The Sex Revolts, wherein Fraser’s opaque vocals were linked the womb and the abject. As with much of that book, I wished the authors limited their focus to something less amoebic than gender fuckery in popular music and didn’t crutch so heavily on Gilles Deleuze to support their claims.
I highlight these points to emphasize that the Cocteau Twins were in my periphery for some time, but only recently a band I claimed for my own. I knew of them, but felt their catalog and devoted fan base to be rather intimidating. I started actively listening to them in winter 2008, primarily because Bat for Lashes, Gang Gang Dance, and M83’s “80s album” garnered comparisons. I liked what I heard (I went with 1984’s Treasure as a starting point), but then went about my business. But earlier this year, I reinvigorated a long-dormant obsession with Jeff Buckley. Out of feminist disdain for having a male musician occupy my mind, I turned toward the female musicians in his life. I listened a bit to Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser’s work, but the Cocteau Twins left a more immediate impression. I dove back into Treasure and went deeper into Blue Bell Knoll, Head Over Heels, Aikea-Guinea, Love’s Easy Tears, Victorialand, and Heaven or Las Vegas. I’m still “in it” and see no reason why you shouldn’t be plunging the leagues with me.
Like many, I was taken by Fraser’s voice. A lover of Björk, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie Sioux, who Fraser recalls in her lower register, I champion beautifully strange female voices. Fraser’s dramatic style is often dialogued with her lyrics, which are usually inscrutable and laced with references to obscure words, gibberish, and slang endemic to the band’s origins (i.e.: “aikea-guinea” is a Scottish term for “seashell”). Though seemingly nonsensical, many fans embue meaning in their attempts to decode what Fraser is singing. But I concur with Jason Ankeny that what makes Fraser’s mouth music resonate with listeners is her emphasis on “the subjective sounds and textures of verbalized emotions.”
This speaks to Fraser’s ability to subvert language, project strength, and demonstrate control, qualities for which I don’t think she gets enough credit. Critics pay particular attention toward her voice’s beauty. Indeed, Fraser possesses an opera singer’s virtuosity, chewing on words’ dexterity, skipping through complex rhythms, and leaping octaves and strange intervals. But her work tends to be described as “ephemeral,” “ethereal”, or “gossamer” to ultimately argue its frillery as being conventionally feminine. But I think there’s something to be said for a woman who writes indeciferable lyrics to songs with names like “Cico Buff,” “Sugar Hiccup,” and “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and taps wells of emotion using these words. It could be profoundly embarrassing for both the singer and the listener, but Fraser finds the pith surrounding emotions’ ultimate intangibility.
But as this year for me is also defined by picking up a guitar, Guthrie’s contributions cannot be overstated. Fraser created a vocal style a host of UK female artists would come to emulate. Similarly, Guthrie rivals few beyond The Smiths’ Johnny Marr in the cultivation of a distinct guitar sound for its time that many would later attempt to replicate. This is evident in how younger artists on 4AD like Lush called upon Guthrie to produce their albums, no doubt aware of and indebted to the Twins’ involvement in forging a distinct pop sensibility for the label. I think it’s also noticable in Kevin Shields’ work. While some like to suggest My Bloody Valentine’s blissful, feedback-laden guitar drone and androgynous vocals were created in a vacuum, I suspect the band took notes on the Twins composing and recording processes.
Guthrie’s guitar sound also speaks to me directly. As a guitar player, I have little interest in the monster riff foolwangery many nurture when they pick up a Fender Stratocaster in the hopes of becoming Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead, I like how the guitar can be used to conjure atmosphere and mood, however fleeting or mutable. Like Guthrie, I’m also a fan of seventh chords, which destabilize the triad and create a sense of irresolution. Thus this music tends to shift expectations of how it’s supposed to sound, requiring listeners to pay attention in order to process superficially beautiful but compositionally complex music. I suppose this sense of mastery ultimately puts Guthrie in the position of guitar god, though his indifference toward conventional melody and reliance on Fraser’s voice, Raymonde’s sleepy bass, and an omnipresent Roland 808 potentially shift expectations of the band’s sound and his role in helping create it.
We could dwell on Fraser and Guthrie’s former relationship, the daughter they share, his former dependence on heroin and alcohol, the couple’s estrangement, and the band’s disintegration. I’m not especially interested in it, however. But like many UK post-punk acts, I am fascinated in how the band developed such a dreamy sound out of their surroundings. In the documentary Made in Sheffield, Human League frontman Phil Oakey talked about his band’s desire to break away from the tedium of work with the hope of maybe making it onto the Top of the Pops.
I’ve never been to Grangemouth, but I’d anticipate its distinction of housing a large petrochemical plant speaks to post-war industrialism and the assumption that its citizenry would work at the factories and refineries. A trio of spotty kids opting to spin gorgeous, incoherent post-punk inside a basement with their eyes toward heaven? I think it’s worth remembering.
So, after recovering from the pleasurebomb that was SXSW 2k10, I’m finally able to recap the rest of the week. Tonight, I’ll post my thoughts on Thursday and Friday. Tomorrow, I will summarize Saturday’s festivities and highlight a few of the events I attended on Sunday.
With that, Thursday.
Left work around 4. I had a staff meeting earlier that morning and very much did not want to galivant around in biz-caj attire. I went home to change and of course, by 4:30, traffic was at a stand-still. Parking was harder to come by, so I ended up leaving my car on east 12th in front of my friends’ house. Got to Club Deville around 5.
Liars – If you’ve seen them before, you’d imagine how this went down. Loud, intense, sweaty, and their new album, Sisterworld, sounds good. Not as awesome as when I saw them at the Pitchfork Festival back in 2006 when they were supporting Drum’s Not Dead, but that was one of the best, most exhausting performances I’ve ever seen. Plus, there was some cigarette and pot smoke billowing around the tent outside the venue, but not enough to compare with what was floating around on that muggy Chicago summer day nearly four years ago.
After that, my partner and I ate some Hoboken Pie on the curb out front and plotted out our itinerary. We went to the Ghost Room to catch General Elektrik at 8 p.m., running into our friend Jacqueline along the way. When we got there some pseudo-house band called Scorpio Rising came on. Ugh. The obvious wah-wah bass was surpassed by the outfit’s hippie feel-goodisms. We promptly went to the porch and I read Tracy Morgan’s interview with BUST, his first magazine cover. The upcoming issue also has a feature on sissy bounce, which is a queer hip hop movement based out of New Orleans. Check it out when it hits newsstands.
General Elektriks – White boy French funk outfit. Good energy. Reminded me a little bit of Mellow and Beck circa Midnite Vultures, an era I wouldn’t mind if he returned to at some point.
Mountain Man – Heard about this almost exclusively a capella Vermont-based trio thanks to my friend Will. These women sang in three part harmony only occassionally accompanied by an acoustic guitar, which members Molly Erin Sarle and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig shared at various points during their set at Buffalo Billiards. They’re still new and a bit green, as evidenced when member Amelia Meath intimated that they had never sung with microphones before. Sometimes they weren’t completely together as a group. But when they were, which they were for much of the time, they emphasized the power unaccompanied vocal ensembles have in creating symphonies of sound. I also liked the Sapphic subtext to many of their songs, one of which was about living on a female commune, and the support they gave one another. A lot of hand-holding and hugging on that stage. They’re on my radar.
Explode Into Colors – Their show at Wave was on my must-see list, especially since I missed them at the festival last year. This Portland trio were really great. As I already wrote about them, I’ll say two more things: 1) More bands should have multiple drummers and 2) if you can’t get down with a bassless ESG scoring a post-apocalyptic Western, I can’t help you like things.
After this, we kind of hit a low point. We went to Aces Lounge to check out Jean Grae and Talib Kweli, who were amazing. Unfortunately, 88-Keys and Strong Arm Steady opened for them and they were derivative and making the bill run behind schedule. 88-Keys has worked with Kanye and I could see becoming a bit of a draw, particularly on the college tour circuits like 40 Acres Fest. Unfortunately, he’s also the type of rapper to dedicate songs about his sexual prowess to the laydees and say “no homo” when introducing songs about men (specifically one-minute men, which he assured us he wasn’t). Strong Arm Steady were a West Coast crew who worked with Madlib but were not themselves particularly remarkable and actually pretty messy in terms of delivery. The only highlight of their set was when Fashawn spat a couple verses on some song whose title I didn’t catch. I was getting super-annoyed, but then . . .
Jean Grae – Ya’ll, she’s the king as far as I’m concerned. Smart, challenging, confrontational, ingenuous, and the possessor of a killer flow, she’s one of the best in the game. And I don’t mean “good for a girl.” I mean on equal footing with or better than Mr. Lif, El-P, Brother Ali, Busdriver, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Jay-Z in his prime. She’s my favorite, and a grown-ass woman to boot. And I hadn’t actually seen her in concert since she did the Okay Player tour with The Roots back in 2004. So when she sashayed down a spiral staircase to Nancy Sinatra’s version of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in a flared cocktail dress and cardigan (somewhat atypical for her to me, as I’ve usually seen her in jeans and t-shirts), I got amped. And when she demanded that the audience “act right” and participate by dancing and singing along, I obviously complied. She’s Jean fucking Grae.
Talib Kweli – Obviously amazing and great, as well as the reason for the showcase, as he is the owner of Blacksmith Records. He and Jean also had a lot of rapport, cracking each other up as they performed together.
After that, I snuck a peak at Phantogram at Red 7 and saw The Very Best begin to play Beauty Bar‘s backyard, where our friend Barrett was working security and had met JD Samson of MEN a few hours earlier. Then home, because Friday was going to be hella busy.
I took Friday off from work so I could help out at the GRCA day show at the relocating Cafe Mundi. Totally worth it. OMG, are there ever so many women and girls ruling it out there. After set-up, Kristen at Act Your Age and I got to watch Charlie Bell and Darling New Neighbors perform. After that, we interviewed several acts who were on the bill, including some long-time heroines of mine. I’m happy to report that Exene Cervenka, Jessica Hopper, and Viv Albertine are very nice in person. Hopefully all of the footage (much of which was shot by Kristen as well as Zoe from Schmillion and I’m the Fox) will be up on the Web in the immediate future. We got a lot of interesting opinions from these ladies.
Jessica Hopper – Did a reading from her book, The Girl’s Guide to Rocking, which she also signed for people.
Exene Cervenka – Still great, still political, still rockin’ a spare set-up with acoustic guitar and back-up singer. I also appreciated that she mentioned during her set how important it is to have spaces like GRC for girls’ self-empowerment.
Akina Adderly & the Vintage Playboys – Straight-ahead funk with great vocals, fronted by GRCA vocal coach Adderly.
Chatmonchy – All-female Japanese rock band that aren’t as well-known in the states but are royalty overseas.
BO-PEEP – In my opinion, the best show of the day. Loud, theatrical, high-energy all-female punk band from Japan. They were also very nice when I interviewed them, particularly since I couldn’t speak any Japanese and they weren’t proficient with English. However, I did discover that they love The Smashing Pumpkins and that they design and make all of their costumes. If they’re playing near you, go see them.
White Mystery – A close second to BO-PEEP for best set. A brother-sister guitar-drum duo from Chicago, currently on up-and-comer indie label HoZac. Please don’t dismiss them as the next iteration of The White Stripes and please don’t reduce them to their big red manes. These kids ruled it classic rock style. Also, the Whites are super-nice people. In our interview, we discovered that their mother makes a lot of their wearable goods (including underwear), singer-guitarist Alex runs merchandise workshops for Chicago’s chapter of GRC, drummer Francis was born on Keith Moon’s birthday, and so much about gear and the importance of bands running their merch booths.
Girl in a Coma – Really excited to see this San Antonio-based power trio, who I’ve somehow missed for the past year despite the fact that members are themselves involved with GRCA. Their songs were great and they really got the crowd rockin’ with their timely cover of The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.”
Viv Albertine – A cheeky, stylish lady with a dry sense of humor and a romanceless attitude toward love. Really enjoyed her new material and got to chat with her a little bit about acts she’s into, like Talk Normal and Grass Widow. Also has the coolest business card I’ve ever seen, though hopefully I convinced her to make them scratch and sniff.
Rosie Flores – Legendary punkabilly. Didn’t get to interview her, but enjoyed her set.
And with that, Kristen made her way home and my partner and I met up with our friend George at TerrorBird and some really nice deejays from Berkeley’s KALX. Frank was closed for a private party, so we decided to head over to El Chilito to catch our second wind.
Zs – Something tells me these guys are familiar with Big Black, Glenn Branca, and The Flying Luttenbachers. Profoundly loud, crushing, guitar-based free jazz. I can dig it. They were playing at Beauty Bar’s backyard at one of Panache’s many showcases. I hung out there for a few other bands.
The Carrots – Hadn’t seen this local indie pop outfit since SXSW 2006 and they’ve only gotten tighter. Cute, fun, and coordinated — this is the band you want playing your prom. Also, a nice sonic contrast to frontwoman Veronica Ortuño’s other band, Finally Punk.
Julianna Barwick – Man, I really like her music. Some people might find a girl singing into a loop station boring, but fuck them. Barwick’s approach to song formation is to improvise parts and feed them through her loop station until she’s built an entire choir out of her own voice. I was riveted.
Met back up with my partner, who tried to catch She & Him and John Doe to no avail. Caught the last few songs of Uffie’s set at Mohawk, which were whatever. Some people are excited about her, and I’m not sure why. Sure, she’s young and French and there’s the connection with Justice. But she endorses this “I’m young and bratty and materialistic” ethos that I wish certain feminists weren’t so quick to champion (see also the Married to the Mob clothing line, though I do want MTTM’s Lady Kier t-shirt). I think we’re better than that. And I think this shit is boring, and I bet it gets hella played at American Apparel.
Fashawn – I think this Fresno kid has star quality. Put him on your mix tapes, boys and girls.
The Entrance Band – I’m not so into psychedelic hard rock, but they’re fucking great. Caught them at Red 7, the third time I’ve seen them in as many SXSWs. Nothing really to say other than bassist Paz Lenchantin rules the planet. Melissa Auf Der Maur, who was two people to my left during their set, seems to think so too.
After that, there were a few shut-outs. I couldn’t get back in to the Mohawk to see Grass Widow, perhaps because all the people with badges were watching Mayer Hawthorne and the County. We couldn’t find the Independent to see Anti-Pop Consortium. The xx show at Central Presbyterian Church was badges only. So we ended things with Dengue Fever at Encore. Fun retro pop outfit from Los Angeles and Cambodia.
Phew! That’s enough for now. I’ll wrap up my thoughts tomorrow. Thanks for reading.
First off, the official launch of the music festival was laced with sadness. It was reported yesterday that Alex Chilton of Big Star and The Box Tops died of a heart attack in New Orleans. That Big Star was going to be playing this Saturday is not to be overlooked. And on a personal note, we just got my partner’s dad to start listening to Big Star last week, as he missed them the first time around.
While Big Star is still somewhat obscure, their influence can’t be denied. While some may have never heard of the band, their music has seeped into the pop lexicon. Cheap Trick’s cover of “In the Street” was the theme to That 70s Show. “Thirteen” has been covered by just about everyone, Elliott Smith’s version a highlight in what I found to be an otherwise disappointing Thumbsucker.
My personal favorite is a brief moment in Adventureland when James and Em have an exchange about her copy of Radio City (dig that iconic cover, then recognize that photographer William Eggleston is responsible for awesome album art).
But the impact they had on other artists is astounding. Smith, R.E.M., Yo La Tengo, Garbage, Wilco — basically what became alternative rock was directly influenced by this Memphis outfit. I found out about Big Star via Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Kanga Roo,” which was often his set closer. As a result, I knew who The Replacements were singing about in “Alex Chilton” and where The Bangles got “September Gurls” from.
In short Chilton will be missed, but at least we have his beautiful music.
Now, onto the festivities.
So I got to the TerrorBird showcase a little after 4:30, in time to see a student I work with at GRCA walk out of Red 7. Pretty sure when I got there, Toro Y Moi pack up. Apparently, according to my friends, Chaz Bundick was pretty boring. I was afraid of this. As much of this chillwave is “just” some dude plinking on instruments and playing samples in his bedroom, I’d imagine that it’s hard to make this music presentational. I might try to check him out again at the festival or later. I really like Causers of This.
Real Estate – Last show I saw of the TerrorBird showcase. I’ll be candid – I thought this band was really boring on record. I was like “yeah, so the slow, dreamy parts of Daydream Nation. I kinda like member Matt Mondanile’s solo project Ducktails okay . . . next.” So I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked their set. I really got a sense of how the band interacted and an appreciation for their sound. I will point out, though, that if the musical contributions of the ‘teens will be something of a 90s revival, Real Estate indicate how influential jam bands were to indie touchstones like Pavement.
I wasn’t really into seeing A Sunny Day in Glasgow and The Rural Alberta Advantage. You know, I’m a working lady who walked down to the Red River scene from work and had an empty belly. Went to Frank and packed away the Smoked Andouille. Goin’ in for a repeat on Friday.
Denitia Odigie – Trekked over to the Garden Inn Hilton to some dining area. Eh, her set was aight. I heard a song of her’s and was interested. My partner’s assessment of the music was that it was perfect for a contemplative moment on Friends and I think that’s accurate (I’m specifically thinking of one of the many scenes where Ross or Rachel are looking out of a rainy window). She’d be an ideal candidate for the VH1 artist to watch series. It’s not that it’s bad, so much as pleasant but forgettable. There was one song she did about waiting for a lover to show on Saturday night that I thought was good and had an interesting guitar line. Maybe she just needs more snarl in her sound.
The Strange Boys – Couldn’t get in to Emo’s because for some reason there was a crazy long line, possibly for Basia Bulat. There wasn’t anyone we were dying to see, so we decided to idle over at Palm Door before Wanda Jackson’s set.
The Low Lows – Remember how I recommended earlier that festival goers welcome surprises? Here’s an example. Didn’t know about this group at all. Didn’t even know they were local. But dude, so good. This band would make a hell of an opening act for Castanets or Calexico. Spare melodies on guitar, keys, and I believe I saw a mellotron, with the volume and reverb ramped to eleven. Haunting high harmonies. A brass quartet. Sold.
Wanda Jackson and the Green Corn Revival – Kind of a no-brainer, especially since I’ve lived in Austin for so long but never made it out for any of her birthday concerts. Unfortunately the show will also be remembered as the moment where some dude behind me at The Village Voice confirmed for my friends that Alex Chilton had died, which he discovered via his iPhone. Fortunately the show will also be remembered as the time we met back up with our friend Allison, who we previously saw at the TerrorBird showcase. Jackson’s band, a ringer from Jackson’s home state of Oklahoma, had some issues. I also think Jackson’s Daisy Rock guitar gave her some sound and tuning problems. But she’s a legend and her hellcat voice is still in fine form. Plus I like Southern women who wear red fringe pantsuits. I hope we carry these traditions on to future generations of grand dames, especially ones who cover Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” While I always feel a little like heritage artists are at the risk of pandering when they cover contemporary music (i.e., Johnny Cash’s version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”), they also remind you of their artistry and originality in these moments. Without Jackson’s legacy, Winehouse couldn’t be a rock n’ roll bad girl. And for those of you who wanted to hear “Fujiyama Mama,” last night, here you go.
Afterward, we went to Best Wurst. Ya’ll, I’m sad to say that I’ve never eaten a dog from the downtown staple. Had a few bites from Allison, and will thus impart how you should order yours: beef dog with grilled onions, sauerkraut, and curry ketchup. You won’t be disappointed.
Dâm-Funk – I’m gonna try checking him out again. The showcase at Speakeasy was promising, as is any bill that features him, Peanut Butter Wolf, Egon, and Madlib. And the set-up was actually pretty interesting, as all of the artists were deejaying round robin-style. The song selection also suggested to me that the 90s revival is going to involve revisiting and reclaiming cheesy, quiet storm R&B, which I’m fine with (RJD2 anticipated this in 2003 with his overlooked Lobster and Scrimp mix, as well as certain cuts on 2007’s The Third Hand). Good set, and saw a mutual friend on the KOOP softball team. My only problem was the venue. The Speakeasy is a bit labyrinthine. There’s actually three different stages within the club that I know of. Went to the roof, then downstairs before stumbling upon the showcase in the mezzanine. And the space was cramped and had poor air ventilation. No good.
We tried to catch the end of Sharon Jones’ set for NPR at Stubb’s with the intent of sticking around for Broken Bells. Impossible. Line around the block. Who knew this supergroup had such a hold on people? Perhaps people have heard of this band Spoon who were next on the bill as well? Kept walking over to Club Deville, where we ran into a friend from KVRX and my partner’s high school bestie and his girlfriend.
Bowerbirds – Okay, these kids harshed my mellow. Granted, I was already tired at this point and am currently in denial about a cold I hope I don’t catch. This band is great on record. And I hope they get to open for The Swell Season or maybe even lead singer Phil Moore’s idol Joanna Newsom. But the band committed a cardinal sin at SXSW: worrying too much about set-up. The band incorporates instruments like the accordion, mandolin, and violin with acoustic guitar and drums, and they wasted far too much time futzing with their mics. If you can’t get the mandolin miked just right, leave it aside for now. This is SXSW and some loud rock band is drowning you out. And complaining about the sound and your performance detracts what was otherwise a lovely selection of songs that beautifully highlighted Moore’s clear tenor and Beth Tacular’s airy harmonies. Save it for a proper concert. They were so behind that they ate into a half hour of Califone’s set. We were tired, so we went home. Didn’t even try and sneak into Warpaint’s set at Emo’s Jr. or venture to The Phoenix to see if Flying Lotus translates in a live setting. What did I miss?
I anticipate today being a bigger event. Explode Into Colors, Phantogram, and Jean Grae are to be seen, along with Drawlings, The Besnard Lakes, Mountain Man, Wye Oak, and many others. May also try to sneak in and see a bit of Golden Triangle’s set and the Liars’ day show. And of course, as Kristen at Act Your Age also mentioned, the GRCA day show is on Friday at Cafe Mundi. I’ll be there and I see no reason why you shouldn’t be too.
Wristbands for SXSW went on sale today. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the music festival is my favorite time of the year. I get no sleep, somehow go to work during the day, my feet hurt real bad, I smell like garbage soup come Sunday morning, and I usually end my nights with deliciously greasy food to soak up the beer. Absolute best. But since I know the proceedings can be a little overwhelming, I thought I’d offer some tips.
First, some petty bullshit.
-Calling it “South By” sounds like you’re trying to break into the industry. If you keep going, you’ll find that “South West” rolls right off the tongue. Okay, you can call it “South By.” Especially if we’re friends. I won’t correct you or make a face. But I will call it “South By South West.”
Now, some practical information regarding comfort.
-Relaxed dress code, ya’ll. Many follow the impulse to get styled out. And hey, power to you if you’re young and like playing with clothes. And if you decide that leather jodhpurs look great with your aunt’s vintage blue sequined tube top and later discover that you’re horribly wrong, Vice or Look At This Fucking Hipster might still take your picture and you can tell/text/Tweet your friends. I’m more casual, however. Hence why you haven’t seen me. The best you could hope for from me is being the brown-haired girl in a red hooded sweatshirt standing almost out of frame smirking at the girl wearing a tube top and jodhpurs.
-Keep in mind that you’ll be on your feet 98% of the time. You’ll be standing in lines or in front of bands or walking to places where you’ll be standing in lines or in front of bands. Some of these places will be outdoors where you’ll kick up dirt. It could rain. Some asshole might drop a full beer bottle or step on your toes. This is not the time to break out those pointy flats, gladiator sandals, platform pumps, peep-toe booties, jellies, or whatever fashionable shoe begs an audience. Think sneakers or, if you must be cool, flat-heeled boots. Also, since the 90s are back, maybe you still have a pair of floral print Doc Martens. If you have them in a size 5 and don’t want them anymore, give them to me.
-Free beer is great. If candy be dandy, then liquor be quicker. But you’re gonna need to drink lots of water. Dehydration is not the move.
-Remember that deliciously greasy late-night food I was talking about? Might I recommend Star Seeds or the vegan-friendly Kebabalicious for your cravings? Can’t go wrong with a treat from Mrs. Johnson’s either, especially since you can get a fresh glazed donut for free. I haven’t been to the 24 Diner yet, but it might be worth pursuing. If you wanna go the drive-thru route, What-A-Burger is Texas’s gift to tourists. I’m not so into Kerbey Lane or Magnolia Café, but they get it done. These are just some after-hours options. Entertaining the idea of what restaurant to eat at in Austin is a decision to step into a larger world. We’ve got good food locked down. If you’re looking for vegan fare, Lazy Smurf was good enough to provide a comprehensive list of restaurants. Happy eating!
-Sunscreen is a buddy. Earplugs are buddies too. But I always forget to bring them.
And now, the music.
-If you wanna gadabout and maybe see some shows, there’s lots of options. The festival offers tons of free, all-ages stuff put together by good people like Todd P. They’re even nice enough to offer those listings in neat little indexes you can fold in your back pocket. But if you want to see specific acts, particularly buzz artists covered by The Onion, Pitchfork, NPR, or others, you’re most likely gonna need a wristband. This is an international festival. Venues fill to capacity. If you can’t make this happen but you’re a student on spring break or can take off work, day shows and after-hours parties are your buddies. You can see a lot of up-and-coming acts that will be playing in the evening for little to no cover.
-Even if you can make it happen, take some time to enjoy the day shows. KVRX always delivers. TerrorbirdMedia put together great showcases. Yard Dog is for sweethearts. NPR is a buddy. GRCA is putting together a great day show.
-If you are coming in from out of town, please make sure you check out our local talent. Austin’s touted as the live music capital for a reason, as the city is lousy with awesome bands. One only needs to check out Matador’s Casual Victim Pile compilation for recent evidence (note: the title is an anagram for “live music capital” — har har). As a local, I tend not to see so many local bands during the evening because they’re around and I have to prioritize. But if I didn’t, I’d see as many Austin bands as I could. You should too.
-If you like an act, check to see what label they’re on. Chances are you might like another band on the roster. If you do, it’s probably worth checking out the label’s showcase. Some record labels I follow: Merge, DFA/Astralwerks, Warp, Kill Rock Stars, K, Stones Throw, anticon., XL, 4AD, Carpark, Kranky, and Sub Pop. They usually put on day shows as well, sometimes with other labels.
-If you feel like exploring new sounds or are intrigued by an act because of its name, do a little investigating. Might I suggest checking in with that thing called MySpace as a starting point? It has to be good for something.
-Don’t be afraid of bands you don’t know. Trust your friends and their tastes if you have evidence of compatibility, because you might discover something really special. In 2005, I remember going to the Church of the Friendly Ghost (RIP) to see a band because someone I knew thought I’d really like them. They were a British dance band and I don’t believe they had a deal in the states yet. They were a polite, brainy bunch who put on a great show and had lots of energy. They even did a charming cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Miracles.” Their name is Hot Chip and I haven’t been able to catch them since.
-Build a schedule. You can do it through SXSW’s Web site. Print it out or plug it into your phone. You’ll want it with you at all times.
-Stay connected. I posted this today, but acts will be added up to the last possible minute. Check SXSW’s Web site, Twitter, Facebook, listservs, various e-mags, etc. I will also update this post as more acts I like are announced.
-Finally, I’ll offer up lists of bands I’m planning to see so that setting a schedule can be a bit more manageable. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather my list. I’m not interested in being a tastemaker. I’ve taken the liberty of putting my selections in tiers. Tier 1 are acts you can only see during SXSW (last year’s example was Flower Travellin’ Band, a 60s-era Japanese psych-noise band). Tier 2 are the acts I’m really hoping to see. Tier 3 are the acts that have a lot of hype around them or staying power to them and are worth seeing. The Texas section is self-explanatory, and is all-killer, no filler. It’s a hierarchy, but it keeps things tidy. Also, I provided links to every artist so you can check ‘em out.
Aa, Julianna Barwick, The Besnard Lakes, Best Coast, Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra, Black Milk, Bomba Estéreo, Breakestra, Califone, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Exene Cervenka, Daedelus, Kimya Dawson, Dengue Fever, Dosh, Damaged Good$, Dam Funk, The Entrance Band, Explode Into Colors, Fashawn, Flying Lotus, GZA, Invincible, Jean Grae, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Les Savy Fav, Liars, Lyrics Born, Madlib, Major Lazer (their debut album didn’t meet my lofty expectations, but they should be fun in a live setting), Mayer Hawthorne and the County, Memory Tapes, MEN, Mountain Man, Murs, 9th Wonder, Peanut Butter Wolf, Jemina Pearl, People Under the Stairs, Phantogram, Pharoahe Monch, Psalm One, Smoosh, Themselves, Tobacco, Toro Y Moi, Total Abuse, Viv Albertine, The Walkmen, Wye Oak, The xx, YACHT.
Matias Aguayo, Andrew WK, Blue Scholars, BO-PEEP, Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, Bowerbirds, Kría Brekkan, Broken Bells, Broken Social Scene, Buckshot, !!!, Class Actress, Cocktail Slippers, Crystal Antlers, Drawlings, The Ettes, 4th Pyramid, The Fresh & Onlys, General Elektriks, Golden Triangle, Ha Ha Tonka, Hole (if it happens), Horse Feathers, Hunx and his Punx, jj, Kid Sister, KIT, Solange Knowles, Sondre Lerche, Thurston Moore, Neon Indian, Nappy Roots, No Age, Denitia Odigie, Peelander-Z, Pocahaunted, Pomegranates, Ra Ra Riot, The Raveonettes, Rhymefest, The Ruby Suns, Rye Rye, School Of Seven Bells, She & Him, Slum Village, Surfer Blood, Thee Oh Sees, Titus Andronicus, Tyvek, Uffie, The Very Best, Visqueen, Washed Out, Wale, Warpaint, The Watson Twins, Yip-Yip, Jonneine Zapata, Zs.
Balmorhea, Best Fwends, Scott H. Biram, The Carrots, Dikes of Holland, Daniel Francis Doyle, Follow That Bird, Girl in a Coma, Paradise Titty, Pink Nasty, RATKING, Spoon (sorta local, though a big-tent act; they get a pass because Transference is my favorite album of 2010 thus far), The Strange Boys, T Bird and the Breaks, Ume, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, Wine and Revolution, Woven Bones, White Ghost Shivers, YellowFever.
Have fun! See you around town!