The Spin 

There were over 1,700 bands playing official showcases at this year’s SXSW—that’s a whole lot of skinny jeans.

South by Uh-huhThere were over 1,700 bands playing official showcases at this year’s SXSW—that’s a whole lot of skinny jeans. And you can’t see them all—hell, you can’t even see five percent of ’em—but if you’re lucky, you’ll manage to catch a few transcendent performances, discover at least one unexpected surprise and drink a whole lot of free beer.

Our Austin adventure began Wednesday afternoon with a stroll down Sixth St., downtown’s main nightlife drag—think Lower Broad meets Elliston Place meets Demonbreun meets Five Points—and a trip into Emo’s to see The Blow. Khaela Maricich is a songwriter who sings over pre-recorded quirky, infectious electro beats. She came armed with “bingo cards” of images representing different states of emotional being that she passed into the crowd. She cracked jokes, she danced, she mimed the words—and thoroughly charmed. Next up was a stop in at local label Theory 8’s showcase, where we caught Nudie suit-clad De Novo Dahl. Eventually, night began to fall in Texas. After catching Nashville adopted sons Wax Fang, we managed to slip into R.E.M. for about 15 minutes—and what a 15 minutes it was: We got to hear “Fall on Me” and “Electrolite.” Before we knew it, it was 2 a.m. and everything began to shut down. Ah, Thursday at SXSW 2008: We miraculously gained entry to the NPR Day Party at The Parish. On the bill were quite a few of the festival’s must-sees: Shout Out Louds, Jens Lekman, A.A. Bondy, Yeasayer, Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend. All the artists were wonderful, the sound was great and there was free beer. But what really made this day special was the fact that we fell in love. The soft-spoken Swedish Lekman was impossibly charming. His between-song banter was so careful and droll that it was almost as transfixing as his smooth, vintage voice. (We’ve re-listened to the performance twice on npr.com since we got back to Nashville.) As for Vampire Weekend, they were energetic and jaunty—a really good band, but not exactly the second coming.

We also caught Bodies of Water and Islands, made fun of a lot of ridiculous-looking hipsters—when they’re getting dressed, do they just asked themselves, “What’s the stupidest thing I can wear?” or, if they’re a female, “What’s the least flattering thing I can wear?”—and stepped in for a healthy chunk of American Bang’s set at Chuggin’ Monkey. After a couple days of non-stop bands, this local foursome still impressed. They have fun, they put on a show and don’t take themselves too seriously. Oh, and it was loud as fuck. We closed out Thursday with a 1 a.m. performance by Old 97’s at Stubbs. Frontman and unabashed pretty boy Rhett Miller was in top form—windmill strumming his guitar and wailing on all the big notes. Their set was relatively career-spanning, and by the time they ripped into “Time Bomb” the crowd was at a healthy froth.

Friday was as hot as Nashville in August, but still offered up some great excuses to trek around in the heat: The Next Big Nashville Biscuits & Beer Party, the Village Voice Media shindig featuring The Black Keys and a roof-top Nylon party. The evening offered a host of exciting official showcase activities. We managed to drop in on Fuck Buttons at Prague (who will be opening for Caribou at Mercy Lounge in April), Aloha and David Dondero at Habana Calle and White Rabbit at Club De Ville. We closed out our night with a deliciously tight set by Nada Surf. After seeing so many different types of bands experimenting with all sorts of disparate sounds, it was refreshing to see an act that just writes great pop songs. It also solidified the SXSW distinction between those up-and-coming hustlers whose appeal relies heavily on enthusiasm and ideas and the bands we saw that were straight-up pros.

Saturday we were tired. Really tired. But we combed out hair, put band-aids on our blisters and were out of the hotel before noon to track down Autovaughn at the infamous Rachael Ray day party. Unfortunately, the line was beyond long. It was impossible long. We’re-never-getting-in long. So, we had to abandon our dreams of a free meal consisting of more than mediocre Tex Mex. So we stopped by the Filter day party, where we watched Sea Wolf and “surprise guest” Kate Nash, and later ate a huge plate of barbecue—mmmm…brisket! That evening, as the whole kit and caboodle was winding to a close, we had one of those magical SXSW experiences. We were in line at the ATM—surprise, another line!—and met a pair of young men from Spain who work for the government promoting Spanish music abroad. Apparently we still had a chance to catch one of their bands, if we liked guitar-driven dance pop. Um, yeah. So, the final band we saw at SXSW was Basque Country’s We Are Standard. They were loud, they were dancey, they were oh so European—and we lapped it up. By the end of their set the whole place was moving, on tired, swollen feet.

Magic time?One of the few older songs Van Morrison slid into his March 12 set at the Ryman was 1999’s obscure “Precious Time.” The title summed up the evening in several ways: The audience treated every note as precious, and, in return, the singer made clear that he considers his time quite precious, too. Knowing how rare it is to hear Morrison live—his 2008 U.S. tour consists of three shows—the crowd remained reverent even as the Irish veteran focused on songs they hadn’t heard yet. He performed all 11 songs from his upcoming Keep It Simple album, only rarely injecting older songs like “Magic Time” or a slow, uninspired “Gloria,” which closed the show. Morrison was in fine voice all night, and the undulating groove of the 11-piece band gave the new songs a vivid presence they lack on record. But when the band started the more familiar melody of “Bright Side of the Road,” the crowd erupted. They yearned to be set free with songs they love and know, but Morrison preferred to keep the lid on all night.

In the end, the concert provided a warm showcase for Morrison’s new tunes. But considering the tickets cost from $175 to $250, the crowd deserved more than the idolized singer was willing to give.

We’re too tired to read all those emails we know you’re going to send to thespin@nashvillescene.com.

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