Check out the slideshows for more photos.
After four consecutive days of walking, drinking, walking, mowing down pizza slices while walking, walking, popping pills, walking, walking, walking, drinking coffee, walking, watching overhyped bands, walking, watching underhyped bands, walking, not sleeping and more walking, I'm finally sitting safe in the comfort of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport airport: the one place in Austin, Texas, safe from the horrors of live music.
Do you remember that Chappelle Show sketch depicting the Internet as a real place? Well, if an iPod shuffle were a place you could go to, it'd be called South by Southwest. As you traverse the buskers, squatters bumming cigarettes, people giving you flyers you'll never even look at, disgustingly excited cheerleaders ramming promo items down your throat with jackboots and a host of hipster garabe caricatures sporting scrotum-squeezing white jeans and shockingly asymmetrical haircuts, live music blares at you, morning, noon and night, from every conceivable piece of commercial real estate the city has to offer.
Some of it is a good, some of it is even great, a lot of it is bad and the vast majority of it is as about as memorable as an early morning piss. Most of it you hear in slivers, and you'll judge it more swiftly than usual -- at least I will. Even when you're checking out the things you're interested in, there is the constant pull of knowing about the overwhelming variety of music that awaits you in any given direction. After braving 96 hours, dozens of miles and, like, 30 bands desperate for my attention, here is a round up of shows worthy of my word count.
Things started strong on my first full day of the festival: Walking down Congress St. looking for a place to buy a stick of deodorant, I heard the sounds of New Zealand kiwi pop quartet Surf City -- one of the few bands on my short-list of wanna-sees -- emanating from behind Homeslice Pizza. I stumbled into the day party to find that The Love Language -- the band I was most curious to see -- would be taking the same stage within an hour. Hot damn -- moments after setting foot on the city streets, I was in the thick of live music. Of course, I still hadn't prevailed in my search for a deodorant stick, but the fact that I could stumble upon a band I like from New Zealand before a general store was a good sign of what would lay ahead in the weekend to come.
At Homeslice, the mood on the patio was laid back while people soaked in the dry heat, drank beer and watched bands on two stages. In a practice I witnessed only at this venue, but would've been nice elsewhere, bands wore "Hello, My Name Is ..." stickers with their band names on them. Like those stickers, Surf City's rousing frill-free jangle pop was simple, smart and effective. On the smaller stage local Austin trio Brazos played short sets of literate melody-driven pop that, janky and memorable, came as a pleasant surprise.
For the last three months I've become increasing obsessed with the self-titled debut by North Carolina's The Love Language. The brainchild of singer-songwriter Stu McLamb, the record is a 29-minute treasure trove of bedroom-pop symphonies that should be mandatory listening for fans of Guided by Voices and Dr. Dog. There isn't a song on the record that's anything short of brilliant, and since I rarely fall this zealously in love with a new band, I was heavily anticipating seeing them at SXSW. On the record, McLamb plays all the instruments, so was I curious as to how the full band he put together would adapt his songs to the stage. Luckily they were fucking great. McLamb was as captivating an onstage personality as he is a four-track whiz, and the live band brought a sense of urgency, aggressiveness and group spirit to the already stellar set of tunes. I dug it so much that I'd trek back across town later that same night to see the band do it all again.
Despite the wonderland of musical merriment, I left the Homeslice Pizza patio and made my way downtown to claim my press credentials and swag bag. By the way, I've gotta say: What's up with the swag bags at this thing? Serious disappointment here. Some condoms, a package of keychain rings, and the newest issue of Bass Player magazine don't make me feel special, they just give me another satchel of bullshit to lug around. If I wanted free copies of American Songwriter and a first aid kit, I'd just check in to a Nashville hotel. Next time stick in an iPad or someting. Anyway, I digress.
The first thing I noticed upon making my way into the downtown convention center was a line of people waiting to get their picture taken with a wax statue of Smokey Robinson. I then noticed that the statue was moving. "That's amazing," I thought to myself, "Is it animatronic?" Then I noticed the sign: "Signed portrait with Smokey Robinson $125." I guess they just embalmed him to cover the tracks of his tears or something. Good for him. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to the Austin Music Hall, where he played on a bill with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Raphael Saadiq on Friday night, but I'm willing to bet it was one of the best shows of the festival.
Unremarkably, the most triumphant performance I'd see while in Austin came not at the hands of some musicians, but at the pistol-like calves of a Pedicab rider name Philip. My original lodging scenario saw me staying at a house that was miles away from downtown and had but a single bed to accommodate the six of us staying there. After a fitful night of sleep, and two-mile morning walk to downtown, I quickly decided to forge a new path for myself. Luckily, I managed to finagle a bed in a centrally-located hotel, free of charge. With my lodging sitch squared a way, all I had to do was go back to the house on the outskirts and pick up my bags.
I don't know if this is always the case in Austin, but during SXSW, downtown Austin teams with pedicabs: three-seater rickshaws, that are pulled by a cyclist. After a futile 20-minute wait for a regular cab, Philip pulled up on his pedicab and asked me where I needed to go. I told him that it would be too far, and added that the trek was mainly uphill. Sensing a challenge, the rider offered to take me for $20. He then began selling me on his willingness and ability to challenge himself to the ride that he described as both "extreme" and perhaps the "furthest he or any other rider in the city has done." I then told him that I had to go round trip. We agreed on a fair price and then got on our way.
Once I reconciled myself with the ostentatiously bourgeois means behind my mobility, I sat back, kicked up my feet and locked palms behind my head as I took in a gorgeous Texas sunset like a king, while rolling across the bridge to the south side of Austin. Heads started turning all along Congress Ave. as Philip began to let out endorphin fueled cries of exhaustion and victory midway through the uphill climb. After witnessing Philip the pedi-cabbie's gold medal-worthy feat, it was gonna take a lot for mere rock band to impress me. But quite a few did.
After crisscrossing the epicenter of the happenings -- 6th Street and Red River -- and catching small slivers of sets by bands too boring or outright shitty to even mention, I made it over to the Galaxy Room to see The Dutchess and the Duke, another act on my short list of bands playing the festival that I actively give a shit about. The Dutchess and the Duke are a moody and depressing acoustic Seattle duo who sing intimate post-traumatic meditations on heartbreak and the human condition. I love their 2009 release She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke for its brilliant lyrics and chilling aesthetic, but I should have known better than to think they wouldn't be the winners of my Jazz Odyssey award, which I give out to things the don't work in front of a "festival crowd." I really like listening to this band while aimlessly surfing Wikipedia, stoned at 3 a.m., but watching it performed out of tune in a well-lit club that looked like an under-construction sports bar, wasn't enough to keep me from heading across to the Cedar St. Courtyard to catch The Love Language again.
The venue had just emptied out after playing host to M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel's celebrity gawk-fest She & Him, leaving only a hundred or so stragglers left to watch lo-fi legend Lou Barlow. I'd forgotten he was even on this bill, but I've also been in the show going game long enough to know that -- between tenures with Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion -- seeing Lou Barlow at a music festival is about as surprising as seeing chips and dip at a Super Bowl party. Nevertheless, I was happy to have him and his band treat me to a shabby set of anthems for the sexually-frustrated slacker, that I assume were off his 2009 release, Goodnight Unknown, before having my face melted off a second time by The Love Language.
Despite all the new and exciting things to see at SXSW, I really went down to Austin with one mission in mind: to see Superchunk. One of my favorite bands of all time, 'Chunk are to me one of a handful of bands who can still move me to abandon my pretension, and with their scarce activity in the last decade, it'd been more than 10 years since I'd seen them live. So, first thing Friday morning I hoofed it down to La Zona Rosa, where the band were to play a day party hosted by the Scene's former corporate overlords Village Voice. After 30 or 40 minutes spent lecturing a vast mass of 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, I finally made it inside the rather large ballroom.
OK, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are a band who should be horsewhipped for their fucking name alone, but let's get to their music. Honestly, the hooks were good enough that I didn't totally hate it, and accepted it as the soundtrack to an hour of day drinking and waiting for a real rock band to play. But yeah, The Pains really just sound like that old emo band The Anniversary, but with the half-time beats traded out for dancey '80s grooves and precious synth lines ripped straight off the OST to any given John Hughes movie. The singer actually did a decent Bernard Sumner impression, but at the end of this day, watching them open for Superchunk felt like eating a cupcake at a steak house, and speaking their name makes me want to stab out my own tongue.
On the other hand, Superchunk are as exhilarating to me now as they were when I was 16, and seeing them again was both transcendent and nostalgic. Judging by the crowd, I wasn't alone in my sentiments. This was the one set I saw that truly felt like a rock concert. There wasn't conversation buzzing in the background or people texting friends 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 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 my favorite drummers of all time. I still haven't gotten over my teenage crush on bassist Laura Ballance, and her Merge records co-founder -- vocalist Mac McCaughan -- still sounds like the singing bush from The Three Amigos. With their classic brand of big guitars and even bigger hooks, that has lost none of its illustrious luster, the band touch the newcomers I met in line a thing or two about indie-rock's glory days. For me, getting to rock it out to it in the flesh, for the first time in 10 years, nearly brought tears to my eyes. No kidding. I dorked out so hard, I even wrote down their career-spanning setlist. (See below.)
After 40 minutes spent having Superchunk remind me how much I love music, I was swiftly brought back down to earth with the come down sounds of The xx. D. Piddy already told you of their over-hyped performance of "shoegaze-informed, often mopey, dreamy and hazy...music you want to put on when you realize you've just run out of cocaine." So I'll spare you my description, except to say that if Terri Shiavo were a band she'd have been The xx. I left midway through their set to escape falling into a persistent vegetative state.
The xx might be a band who, in my eyes, struggles to justify their hype, but New York "Pitchfork-cribbers," as D. Piddy previously described, Cymbals Eat Guitars easily won my "What's the BFD?" award for SXSW 2010. Seriously, this band just sounds like Cursive, were they to jettison the emo and shroud it in a predictable melange of indie-rock touchstones. This kind of thing may have blown my mind back in 2001, but in 2010 I'm older, wiser and not as forgiving of singers who step in front of a microphone equipped with only the ability to vacillate between strained wailing and wimpy screaming.
Cymbals Eat Guitar ear-assaulting sonic quagmire motivated me to head across the street to Emo's where a room of festival goers were gettin' their freak on to the world beat of L.A. imperialist collective Fool's Gold. Basically this band are a more acceptable, and infinitely less annoying, version of Vampire Weekend. They do the hiptsters-do-Paul-Simon thing, but with a hell of a lot more dignity and sincerity. Their songs are better, their lyrics aren't about drinking horchata and they don't wear Phish T-shirts. Simply put, this band actually makes me wanna dance instead of kill myself.
After getting drunk and watching D. Piddy go into ecstatic pacifier mode over Miike Snow, I prevailed in my quest to end the night with the ever-reliable Les Savy Fav. The fact that this band can draw crowds in the thousands with their terrifying math rock is as heartwarming as the Betty White resurgence. Of course, it doesn't hurt that singer Tim Harrington is a showman who blurs the line between rock 'n' roll frontman and performance artist. His antics on this night included snatching a couple festival goers' glowsticks, biting into them and drooling their toxic contents all over his bare chest before running to each side of the outdoor stage and turning off all the lights.
The combination of constant walking and alcohol consumption had my feet convincing me I'm in for a case of gout. Mercifully this would be the final day of the festivities. Mercilessly it was cold as fuck. Like, below 40 degrees cold. Having hastily packed on my way out the door when leaving Nashville, and now stuck in touristy downtown Austin, where the only clothing I could find to buy was Texas Longhorns garb, I was forced to simply layer every T-shirt I had under my thin sweater. This would put a damper on my day.
Destination number one was the Brooklyn Vegan/M is for Montreal day party over at The Galaxy Room, where one stage would feature a host of innocuous indie rock bands in the warm of of the inside, while a frigid outdoor stage played host to a solid rawk block. Despite the adversity of my lacking wardrobe, I decided to go outside and brave the cold, which was a fitting environment in which to catch Canada's most legendary metal band this side of Anvil: Voivod, as introduced by famed Canadian rock historian Nardwuar The Human Serviette.
Unfortunately, a guitar amp blew two songs into Voivod's set. Since I didn't feel like standing around in the cold with a bunch of middle-aged heshers while the problem was sorted out, I headed inside to watch the markedly less intense Canadian indie outfit Plants and Animals. This band had no bass player, yet there was an empty spot onstage with a live mic in place for one. It looked sort like the empty spot families save for dearly departed relatives. So did the bass player in this band pass away? Their self-described "post-classic rock" was pleasant enough, but after four songs of noncommittal head-bobbing I decided to make way back into the cold outdoors, where Andrew WK was about to take the stage.
Rock's most unique motivation personality had been lighting the festival on fire all week with his air-punching full-band power-rock, but such would not be the case at this show, where he appeared solo with piano. He put on an a improvised set that showcased his classical chops, over which he sang impromptu arena ballads about geese and small dogs. The result was a strange and awkward recital that sounded like Bob Seger singing over an English tea party. I stuck around long enough to hear him bust into the excellent title track from his 2001 debut I Get Wet -- which I still regard as a classic of the last decade.
Back inside, another crop of Los Angeles African-music apers, Local Natives, were busy doing their thing, which is that whole world music thing I touched on before with Fool's Gold. This current trend in the indie buzz band world is markedly better than the whole electro-clash thing of 2004, but it isn't nearly as good as having badass songs. I usually find it a bad sign when I have to struggle to hear a band's songs over their style. To my ears, this band, with their tapestry of African rhythms and harmonies, and anthemic Western rock influences just sounded like The Arcade Fire on safari, or something. Unfortunately, the only one of their Talking Heads covers that stuck with me was the one that was actually a legitimate Talking Heads cover: "Warning Sign," which they basically just tried to make sound as if it had appeared on Remain in Light, as opposed to More Songs About Buildings and Food.
I headed back into the braying cold outside where what had seemingly promised to be the day's highlight confounded me: Austin psych-rock legend Roky Erickson as backed by Austin's very own Okkervil River. Despite seeing Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke nodding along in approval beside me -- a cue to rave about this pairing -- I didn't see how the former 13th Floor Elevators singer as backed by a generic plodding rock band made any sense, or was anything to write home about. After three or four songs, I retreated back to the cozy comfort of my hotel room to prepare for a last hurrah.
Initially, I headed out to Mohawk with the intention of mixing some Nashville bands into my coverage, but the line outside the club prevented me from making it inside in time to catch JEFF the Brotherhood or Turbo Fruits. The line also forced me to miss more than half of San Francisco garage-psyche outfit Thee Oh Sees -- another band on my shortlist. Luckily, what I did manage to catch was great. Especially the dynamic hypnotic dirge of reverb, spastic bursts of feedback, and pulsating rhythms that constituted the show-stopping psychedelic freak-out that closed their set.
Next up were a band you couldn't got anywhere in Austin all week without hearing mentioned: Surfer Blood. Having given their record a few spins, I was eager to have the band seal the deal with their live show, which they did, albeit just barely. Their sprightly guitar-pop-with-balls showed them to be one of the only bands of the festival not afraid to take advantage of their distortion pedals, which was a relief, even if all their riffs are ones you've heard recycled time and time again. It was a decent showing, but, despite the lead guitar player using both his teeth and drumsticks for his solos, I could sense that after playing eight or nine shows at SXSW -- this one being in frigid temperatures -- they were a little tired.
As Surfer Blood were bringing their set to a close, I headed down the way to my final destination of the festival: Red 7. I came in just in time to catch pensive indie quartet Real Estate. The band's 2009 self-titled debut was one of the stand-out records of 2009, but often this variety of bittersweet midtempo mood-music isn't the most exciting thing to watch live. That wasn't the case with Real Estate, who bopped about the stage, and delivered their set with enough energy to capture the attention of a crowd who've just spent days getting barraged with live music. Real Estate are also probably the last band you'd expect to see yield a crowd surfer, but indeed there was one. The moment came when the band invited tour-mates Woods out for a jokingly ramshackle cover of Blind Melon's "No Rain," which triggered a spirited sing-along from the crowd.
If there's one thing I learned at SXSW, it's where my threshold for constant live music ends. By this point I had reached it, but I still had one more band on my list: The Fresh and Onlys. Lately, I've been listening to this band quite a bit, and I wasn't gonna let myself leave Austin without catching them, even if they are playing in Nashville in less than two weeks. Despite my being at a point where I could barely muster the energy to keep standing, this San Francisco noise-pop troupe managed to keep me on my feet and watching intently, as they plowed through a set of savage psyche-tinged pop gems with enough reckless abandon to drown out the sounds of Canadian punks Fucked Up, who were literally playing in the alley out back.
Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything?
Learning to Surf
Detroit Has a Skyline
Digging for Something (new song)
Punch Me Harder
Like a Fool
Everything at Once
The First Part