SWSW Day 1; Fucked Up, Tobacco, Blind Shake, The Silos, Besnard Lakes, Pomegranates, Mynabirds, St. Motel, She Wants Revenge, Camper Van Beethoven…
As I type this at 1:30 a.m., the lid continues to boil off the stewpot called 6th St. And I would still be there, too, except my feet and my back just can’t take anymore. And I only started at 6 p.m. SXSW is an endurance test; a sick, unhealthy “music challenge” drenched in beer and hot-link sausages and ear-splitting noise. It is pavement and dirt. It is the constant stank of bad ditchweed and cigarette smoke, stale beer and urinal cakes, and plenty of hippy-style BO. It is 10,000 people walking in the wrong direction, looking for something that they just can’t seem to find. I make it sound like agony, not a vacation (which, for me, is what it really is). In fact, for indie music fans it is the ultimate kid-in-a-candy-store daydream, a chance to stand in the glass-box money machine, grabbing at air to catch dollar bills, but dropping more than you can snatch. SXSW is all around you; SXSW is everywhere. And if you don’t know what’s going on, you will miss something that you shouldn’t have – that you couldn’t have found anyway.
Within moments after stepping foot once again on 6th St., the whole thing came rushing back as if I was there yesterday instead of a year ago. Nothing has changed except for the names of the bars and the name of the bands (though they’re all beginning to sound the same).
Brief housekeeping note for those who have been here before: Badge/check-in was quick and easy. The shuttle service to and from my hotel also was efficient. The machine continues to evolve. SXSW has an army of volunteers, maybe thousands of people in matching staff T-shirts and laminate chains.
OK, so what about the music? Band number one was Matador Records act Fucked Up, which played to around 50 people on the Beerland “Patio” — most of those people, however, were standing in the street (see photo).The band’s frontman is a fat, bearded screamer who spent the set balanced on a railing that divided the “patio” from the mob, his pants falling halfway down his ass. Not sexy. Soundwise, the whole thing was overdriven, and you really couldn’t hear anything except the roar of guitar noise and fat-guy’s distorted rants. But I guess that was the point. People kept walking up and asking “Who are these guys?” Why, it’s Fucked Up. “Awesome!” I lasted about three songs. Not that I don’t like the band. I listen to their new CD, Couple Tracks, all the time. But the fact is, live, it’s a mess, and their point comes across without extended suffering.
I pushed through the crowd and headed south to a venue listed on my iPhone as “Big Parking Lot” to see a couple former Lincolnites in These Are Powers. After stumbling around the glass-walled lower bowels of Austin there it was — a big parking lot sandwiched between buildings with hand-written signs that said “Escapes” — only a slightly better name than Big Parking Lot. Imagine Dario’s Days next to the Blue Line in Benson but four times the size and you’re getting close. Hidden in the crowd performing was Tobacco — the frontman of Black Moth Super Rainbow — with a chick on synth and a guy on PowerBook wearing a mask. It was fuzz-kill thick-beat synths with blown-out, distorted vocals and an electric guitar. Unbelievably funky and fun, with deep psychedelic overtones. This is drug music for a millennial hippie nation — in fact, a guy stood right next to me and smoked a spliff, right there in broad daylight! Gag. A lot of people also were smoking tobacco watching Tobacco, and in retrospect, they were the best discovery of day one (see photo). But that’s not saying much because most of the rest of the day’s bands were familiar faces. Most of them.
Brief housekeeping note No. 2: Unlike last year, where the schedules ran like a precision Swiss timepiece, every band was running late at least a half-hour. Because of this, I never saw These Are Powers. Instead, I walked up to a venue called “Jaime’s” in hopes of catching Wizard Sleeve…. instead I caught 15 minutes of Minneapolis band The Blind Shake (see photo). The punk trio played loud and tight in a room that was half the size of O’Leaver’s, but their music didn’t grab me. Again, with things running late, I’d have to catch Wizard Sleeve later.
So I trekked east under the freeway to see The Silos at the Uncorked Tasting Room and Wine shop — a gorgeous outdoor venue up on the hill that overlooked downtown Austin, and at 7 p.m., was the perfect place to see a golden setting sun. Watching The Silos was like taking a break — their flavor of alt-country/folk influenced a lot of bands in the ’80s and ’90s, and though they’ve gone gray, the band hasn’t lost a thing since their heyday. Good stuff (See photo). If you like Uncle Tupelo or any of its derivatives, check out The Silos.
That Silos’ set was probably the longest that I sat in front of one band yesterday. It takes some work to get to Uncorked, which, along with its vistas, encouraged me to hang out longer than usual. SXSW invites a sort of ADD behavior because all the bars on 6th St. are so close together (for the most part). Their close proximity encourages impatience. Like sitting in your office with a stack of demo CDs, plucking through the tracks and discarding them one at a time in less than a minute, SXSW allows you to easily cast aside a band’s live performance after only three songs rather than to stick it out for the whole set. Especially if there’s nothing to hold your attention.
Thus was the case with Canadian band Besnard Lakes, who were playing at Stubbs at the same time that I was dying to get something to eat (This turned out to be a monumental mistake, as Stubbs’ “pork sandwich” was premade mush in a bun, for $5). Stubbs is one of SXSW prime showcase venues and is always packed — at least it was last year when PJ Harvey played there. Last night there was only a few hundred people inside — but still, that’s a lot for a band like Besnard Lakes. When did they get so big? I found out later that the crowd was merely early arrivers for Band of Horses and Broken Social Scene. Besnard was loud, boring, plodding rock that left nothing to the imagination. After knocking down a Shiner, it was off to Maggie Mae’s for Pomegranates.
Brief housekeeping note No. 3: This plays into what Chris Aponik is writing — I think I used my all-access $750 SXSW Music badge three times yesterday. Almost all the shows are free anymore, with the exception of Stubbs and Emo’s. Sometimes you can get in without a badge, but you can’t get into the main stage area — badges and wristbands only! Regardless, it’s safe to say you don’t need to spend cash on a badge to have a good time at SXSW. Not anymore.
Pomegranates are a cute band from the Midwest that plays that style of modern power pop that you’ll recognize from bands like Tokyo Police Club, Vampire Weekend, etc. You know — big back beat, jump-dance stuff. I spent most of the set trying to figure out if the bass player, who had a terrific voice, was a girl or not — certainly sounded like a girl. Wasn’t. Their new music, much of which they unveiled last night, is very promising. I like this band (see photo).
Maggie Mae’s was the home of this year’s Saddle Creek Records showcase with UUVVWWZ and The Mynabirds, among others. Laura Burhenn and her band (see photo), which includes Dan McCarthy, played a swinging set in front of around 75 people — not crowded at all, which was something of a surprise — it’s Saddle Creek, after all. But what did I expect? This year’s acts are part of Creek’s “third wave” of bands since the label started, and most of them remain unknown compared to the originals (Oberst/Kasher/Baechle), etc. Time will tell if they’ll ever reach that level of popularity, or if any Creek band ever will again.
By around 10, my cell phone gave up the ghost — the battery died completely, which meant the end of photos. I was dying quickly, too. I walked over to Emo’s and got in, but couldn’t get inside their big-stage area where Rogue Wave was going to play. I didn’t want to see them, anyway. Instead, I wandered up the street to The Rusty Spur for She Wants Revenge, a dance-flavored, rather dramatic band that was hot a few years ago and that I thought might be interesting live. I was wrong.
But before they came on stage, I was forced to watch the last half of a set by Saint Motel — an LA band that sounded like they came from LA, or the stereotype of El Lay. Flat, one-dimensional pop rock with zero depth and a blond headed frontman. Next.
It took too long for She Wants Revenge to get set up, and people around me were whining — “Goddamn it, let’s go” someone yelled. The guy next to me said, “If they don’t get their shit together, I’m leaving.” After 10 minutes, frontman Justin Warfield finally got the ball rolling, and the band kicked into its set of dancy, darkwave post-punk. Great throbbing beat, nice chopping rhythm guitar, but rather thin vocals. Justin sounds better on record, as does this band, which was trying to get the crowd into it, and failing.
Finally, it was over to the Encore Patio for Camper Van Beethoven. Why not? Look, I was never a fan, but I figured I’d never get a chance to see these guys again, and it was right down the street. The place was a crush mob. Again, the set up was horrifically long, and in the end, Camper didn’t keep me “camping,” at least not there. I was dying for a hot-link with onions and a warm bed, and knew I wasn’t going to stick around for “Take the Skinheads Bowling.”
So, my night ended at 1 a.m. Not bad for night one. But as I said at the beginning, the party was still going strong while I was munching that hot dog headed for the van to take me back to my hotel. By 1 a.m., the noise on 6th St. was like a post-apocalyptic rumble, a constant dissonance with an undercurrent of dreadful throbbing and the chaos of the crowd, who look like the rabble of Babel, drunk with joy/anger, their eyes focused on this one moment in their lives, and nothing else.
If felt like someone stuck a knife in my eye socket when I work up this morning. Nothing a handful of over-the-counter pain medication could dampen. Or maybe some late-morning Shiners. Today — day parties. Sounds like this will be the last nice weather we’re going to see in Austin on this trip, as tomorrow a cold front moves in…
Now, here’s Aponik’s report. I point to Chris’ youth and that he doesn’t drink (I’ve never seen him drink) for his ability to stay out until 3 a.m. It won’t last forever, Chris…
* * *
Day Two of my Badgeless at SXSW Odyssey saw my first trip to an actual showcase, many of which are open to the general public if they pay the cover. Thankfully the $10 cover I paid to see a few bands at Red 7 yielded sweet rewards. Bad Sports won me over with its power pop/garage rock sound, as they blazed a fun path through the Ramones’ discography.
The main event ended up being recent Matador signees Harlem, a band that has a blinding bright future. What they do is fairly simple but I’m still not sure how to classify their loose but fun indie rock. One friend dismissed them as similar to the Black Lips, but I saw glimpses of Guided By Voices and early Sloan in Harlem’s supercharged sound.
Before heading to Red 7, I spent another afternoon at Beerland, where Digital Leather played. That showcase culminated with Alicia Trout’s Memphis rock band River City Tanlines. The Tanlines channeled Sleater-Kinney through a Mid-South rock vibe that leavened punk moves with no-frills rock. Cheap Time kept the Memphis train rolling with a white-knuckle garage power-pop that cribs from early New York punk.
The night ended late over the Colorado River, as Thee Oh Sees and Home Blitz played on a pedestrian bridge adjacent to Lamar St. The gas-generator-powered wildcat show kicked off after 2 a.m. These bridge shows can help cement punk rock status, which happened for Fucked Up two years ago when thousands surrounded them for a performance with Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris. This bridge show was a humbler affair with a few hundred arriving – just enough bodies to deter any police hasty dispersion. — Chris Aponik
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