By all informed accounts, South by Southwest used to be about serious industry insiders coming down to witness rising bands as they rode the wave of growing buzz. As a spectator, it probably hasn't changed much — selection-wise, it's probably gotten much better, in fact. But for bands, it's now kind of an obligatory type of scenario. If you don't make a showing in Austin, you have no "buzz capital." But we were playing the part of spectator, so off we went.
First thing Friday, we hoofed it down to La Zona Rosa, where the legendary Superchunk were to play a day party hosted by our former corporate overlords. After 30 or 40 minutes of lecturing uneducated kids — who were in line to see The Pains of Being Pure at Heart — about how indie-rock is the house that Superchunk built, we finally made it inside.
The Chunk are as exhilarating now as ever, and seeing them again was both transcendent and nostalgic. Judging by the crowd, we weren't alone in our sentiments. This was the one set we saw that truly felt like a rock concert: There wasn't conversation buzzing in the background or people texting all across the city to look for somewhere better to be. At the front of the stage it was all fist-pumps, feverish shout-alongs, and even a mosh pit to accompany the rock 'n' roll overdose that was the set-closing one-two punch of "Precision Auto" into the indelible "Slack Motherfucker." In addition to being the funniest man in rock, Jon Wurster is still one of our favorite drummers of all time. Superchunk's classic brand of big guitars and even bigger hooks has lost none of its illustrious luster, teaching the newcomers we met in line a thing or two about indie-rock's glory days.
We got to talking about the '90s resurgence that appears to be occurring as of late, and how it beats the hell out of the misappropriated '80s-referencing that took place last decade. And, as if to say, "Not so fast," Cymbals Eat Guitars kicked off their set. From their sound-nerd reference of a name to the screaming-instead-of-high-notes vocal delivery, they're kinda just Pitchfork-cribbers. So we popped in across the street at Emo's to see one song (the ever-infectious "Nadine") from Fool's Gold. But we'd be goddamned if we were going to miss Miike Snow, so we headed up to The Mohawk just before midnight.
Now, we feel like thoroughly enjoying Miike Snow is about the closest we'll ever come to being a full-on, pacifier-toting club kids. Miike Snow features Bloodshy and Avant, the Swedish production duo behind Britney Spears' "Toxic," and they're also the two dudes in the band who look like a successful Swedish production duo — even when they were all sporting Phantom of the Opera masks. We were actually kind of stunned that their throbbing electro-pop translated so well with a full band. They were tight and clean, and frontman Andrew Wyatt's vocals were spot-on ... but we won't lie: The "party cigarette" we got in exchange for some whiskey certainly didn't hurt.
Later on, we caught The xx. Bless their hearts, they're most certainly as over-hyped as they come. It definitely isn't bad music; it's shoegaze-informed, often mopey, dreamy and hazy. It's the sort of music you want to put on when you realize you've just run out of cocaine. But damn! These three black-clad, sulky young Brits make sexy music in the most unsexy way possible, and for some reason 17-year-olds like it.
We assumed our day was headed in the wrong direction until we stumbled most serendipitously across an epic crowd of bystanders trying to sneak a peek at whatever was transpiring down in Cedar Street Courtyard. Turns out it was Dr. Dog, and the crowd was entirely composed of badge-less looky-loos. We slipped in to see the Dog playing the tightest set we've ever seen from them. (Note: This was our seventh time seeing them.) New drummer, new tunes, characteristically vivacious performance. Day: saved.
Monday we were greeted at the top of the Mercy Lounge stairs by a two-thirds-full room and an unusually diverse assortment of Nashville's show-going tribes — from fedora'd dudes in nut-huggers to a small gang of gothy-looking dudes to a pair of ridiculously tall blond people who kept ending up right in front of us talking in some ridiculous colonial accent. Soon enough, Road to Bonnaroo Round Two was under way.
The Kicks were up first, sounding like a band that would have opened a show for Stillwater in Almost Famous, plus that Kings-of-Leonine way of singing that sounds like your cheeks are stuffed with, uh, cotton or something. Their introduction, courtesy of Mercy manager Drew Mischke, included the words "Thin Lizzy," ".38 Special," "Buckcherry" and "abortion," and a lyric of theirs mentioned "someone who gives a damn about my bullshit!"
In the wake of such dude-rockin', Tristen took the stage with a considerably less bombastic set of songs. Her band was quieter than The Kicks, which we thought might hurt the presentation some, this being a winner-takes-all bloodfest and all. It didn't. Her mix of folky songwriting, country shuffle and rock grit was spot-on, if a bit subdued by comparison. (As the voting would go, good enough for third place.) Modoc were up next, and they sounded like a band that could open for Stillwater in — uh, time to check our notebook. OK, looks like it says, "If this band was a character in a movie, it'd be played by Seann William Scott." They definitely had a lot of energy!
Just as a guy at the back bar started talking about how he hoped Hillbilly Casino would win, the band started up their set of spastic, swamp-ass rockabilly, which included a song about PBR and pregnancy, a song about a hole and a song about PBR in Tennessee. It was pretty cool when the bass player twirled his upright around like a giant turkey leg. They finished second — turns out the gothy guys were there to see them!
Brenn probably played the most Clear Channel-ready set of the night, with polished, torchy pop songs that sounded kind of like they might be the result of some event, maybe even an airborne event that was somewhat toxic in nature. They were followed by How I Became the Bomb, who wore space suits and glowing eyeglasses and showed light cycle clips from Tron on the projection screen. They opened with a cover (sneaky!) from every Neil Young fan's favorite album, Trans, before uncorking their own brand of synth-pop. Jon Burr, Nashville's best local rock dandy, stalked the stage and sang about machine guns and shit, which was more than enough to carry his squad to victory and, come June, Manchester.
If Tesla Rossa were a character in a movie, they'd be played by Seann — shit, back to the notes! It's hard to read the scribbles, but these guys were either "Semi-Semi-Semisonic" or, "Listening to this band is like being in the same room with a guy who keeps rubbing oil on his abs and saying, 'Dude, check out my awesome rock-hard abs!' " Shoot the Mountain had the misfortune of trying to hold the very last of our attention after a long night and, to their credit, they did. They closed the proceedings with a song about shooting your woman down at a gas station, and on that note, we dropped our ballot and got the hell out of there.
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