by Don Bartlett and Jay Gentile
Anyone on a direct flight to Austin on the first day of the annual South By Southwest Music Festival ought to know that they’re in for five days in a slightly different reality. There’s nary a soul on board that isn’t related to the music industry in one way or another, and everyone’s trying to figure out who’s who. I didn’t have to work too hard at that game, as Wilco guitarist Nels Cline was sitting directly across the aisle from me.
The Chicago Innerview corporate jet didn’t even touch Texas soil until 9:30 p.m., and by the time we checked in to our luxury suite and picked up our badges it was midnight. Which, blissfully, meant the big action was just about to heat up. While we regrettably missed a surprise set by The Flaming Lips (the one major screw-up of the week), we caught up with the lovely Stacey Dugan of UR Chicago magazine at the Of Montreal show at Emo’s, then went up the block to see Mogwai at Stubb’s, the main venue for the festival. For a band that I was fundamentally unaware of until a month ago, these guys blew my mind with their dark, hypnotic soundscapes…definitely a highlight. At 2 a.m., we hopped a cab to an afterparty thrown by our friends at The Austinist webzine in time to catch an impressive set by Forward Russia! while exploiting the free vodka.
After blowing off most of the next morning’s scheduled Lollapalooza press conference on sheer principle (8:30 a.m.???? Perry, get back on the drugs, man…), I woke up to erstwhile Chicago Innerview Editor/Publisher Jay Gentile mumbling nervously and asking “Is Scottie Pippen here?” As best I can tell, the guy was perfectly serious, which quite frankly freaked me out. As he slowly woke up he feigned that he was “kidding”, but it was clear that the guy was vibin’ good ol’ Pip in a majorly subconscious way. That was enough to send me running for the door, so I high-tailed it over to the Yard Dog Gallery for the Schubas day party. I arrived right as local up-and-comers Office took the stage and stuck around for this year’s buzz-band-du-jour Tapes ‘n Tapes, followed by a side trip to catch Ireland’s lovely singer/songwriter Gemma Hayes, who I’m pretty sure is into me. After a quick drop at the hotel where we met up with Subterranean’s Bob Gomez, we were back at it post haste, downing 99 cent margaritas at El Arroyo before getting word of a surprise set by The Beastie Boys at Stubb’s. When Mixmaster Mike intro’d the band with a mash-up of Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, I knew things were about to get heavy. I wasn’t sure how heavy until I noticed that Ad-Roc was wearing a Scottie Pippen shirt. From that point on, I recognized Jay as a prophet and ceased asking questions. As for the boys, they all looked and acted like they were still 20 years old, with the glaring exception of MCA, who looked like he should be renamed “Uncle Morty”.
Thursday night was a bit of a blur, but at some point there was definitely a band called Hurra Tornado that destroyed seven washers, dryers and ovens with a giant sledgehammer while covering “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. Nuff said on that one, eh? Following a rockin’ set by the promising and under-rated Rogers Sisters at the Beggars/Matador party at Club Deville, we caught the late-night crazed electronics and drums spectacle of Brooklyn’s Parts & Labor, which was arguably one of the best live shows I can recall. (Note the open-ended qualifier.)
The Friday day party lineup was led by the sweet, lush sounds of Jose Gonzalez acoustic at the Pitchfork party at Austin mainstay Emo’s Annex, where London’s electronic heroes Hot Chip and Baltimore’s dirty hip hoppers Spank Rock rocked a nice and mellow crowd, topped off by a rollicking set from those sarcastic bastards of Art Brut. After dropping by for the Bottle Rockets at the Bloodshot party, we headed over to the Merge/Sub Pop party to catch Essex Green and a too-brief set by Spoon’s Britt Daniel. Kicking off the evening at Spiro’s, Silversun Pickups pumped out a set of moody, aggressive rock that was one of the highlights of the festival. Then it was on to one of Austin’s larger venues, La Zona Rosa, for everyone’s favorite hype-sters Arctic Monkeys. This show seems to be evolving into one of the great loved it/hated it debates of the festival…and I was prepared to hate it for the sole reason that I was tired of hearing about them. Lo and behold, I was pretty goddamn impressed…the band was more aggressive, fun, and charismatic than I would have anticipated. While noticeably tired on stage, they managed to pull off something that gets lost in all the critical hand-wringing down there — they put on a show that was fun as hell, and I’m not going to apologize for enjoying the hell out of it.
When the set ended we set out for one of the best parties of the weekend, an afterhours throwdown put on by Sound Team out at their studios in East Austin. East Austin is the antithesis to the chaos of 6th Street where most of the venues are located…dimly lit dirt roads with crudely constructed fences and potholes the size of Manhattan. Sound Team, Voxtrot, Dirty on Purpose and Dr. Dog were all playing inside the studio, but most people were inclined, as we were, to hang in the relaxed confines of the outdoor courtyard and suck down the free beer. It was one of those odd scenes where you find out 15 minutes into the conversation that your new friends Vince and Alex are, oh yeah, from the stellar Canadian electro-rock collective We Are Wolves, and Britt Daniel wanders over to fill up off the keg.
I wasn’t really sure that anyone was going to make it out of bed Saturday. My ears were ringing and I think I had more Lone Star lager in my body than blood. The day party schedule stared me down from my bedside, though, and before long we pushed out into the dreary drizzle towards Jovita’s to see Two Cow Garage — who, despite their absurdly bad name, flat out rock. It’s a bit of a cross between The Replacements and Son Volt, with the energy level coming in well above either. After being denied the chance to see Ted Leo at Emo’s due to a ridiculous line around the block, we pulled into the Filter magazine party at Cedar St. Courtyard — a spacious, brick patio which was not entirely overrun with people. We got there just in time to hear a fun set by The Subways, and stuck around for Nine Black Alps and a “surprise” acoustic set by Snow Patrol.
In the evening we started out with Morningwood, who came off as a bit juvenile, but then again, I’m not exactly their target audience. The Stills were The Stills, pulling off a solid set of songs that aren’t going to change the world anytime soon. We got to Antone’s just in time to catch a rare set by indie icons Superchunk and catch up with our favorite Merge Records friend/publicist Christina Rentz. A quick walk/jog up to 7th Street brought us to one of the coolest parties of the week…the URB magazine party, featuring the legendary Gang of Four playing on the roof of a 5-story parking garage following a tight DJ set by DJ Steve Aoki of Dim Mak Records. Bonus fun: Free margaritas. The odd stage had the band walled in like an igloo, but the sound was intense and anyone lucky enough to get in was grinning ear to ear. These old timers put more passion into their high-energy sweat-filled performance than any band we had seen at the festival, and made Jay’s pick as his hands-down favorite of the festival. Late night we somehow ended up at a place called Habana Calle 6, where a Brooklyn band called The Dirty Projectors blew our already blown minds one final time. Damn. They lean towards the instrumental/experimental side, but at one point I could swear they busted out a Fela Kuti cover. Of course, I had been drinking since about 3 p.m…
Only in Austin. And only at South By Southwest. Make your plans for next year now, as there is a reason this once small festival has morphed into the giant must-attend industry event of the year. There’s simply nothing else like it. Now in its 20th year, I found SXSW to be easy, well run, informative and an alarming amount of fun. I can’t imagine how they will improve things for next year but, then again, I couldn’t have imagined Gang of Four frontman Jon King beating the hell out of a microwave on stage with a stick either. Some things have to be experienced to be believed, and SXSW is certainly one of them.
CI Special Report #008