Normally, at out-of-town festivals, I don't go out of my way to see bands that I can catch on almost any given weekend, but in Austin, Nashville was ubiquitous, and I found myself seeing familiar faces onstage at shows I would've likely found myself at anyway with impressive regularity. And I didn't hear any other city's name get dropped as much as ours.
This was apparent in my first five minutes in the city, minutes I spent listening to PUJOL close out what sounded like a killer set while I was waiting in line to get into a Tuesday night pre-party, where I took in sets by revved-up Oakland garage-rock trio Bare Wires — who play The End Sunday, FYI — and their fellow Bay Area big beaters Thee Oh Sees — who I'd end up checking out two more times by festival's end.
Now might be a good time to talk about how great a band Thee Oh Sees are. If you recall from my report covering SXSW 2010, last year I was only able to take in the tail end of one of the band's sets, which is a goddamn shame considering how much fun their infectious, warped take on underground '60s sounds, psychedelics and aesthetics is to hear, let alone watch.
Replete with high-pitched shrieks that interrupt vocals so drenched in reverb they sound like they're emanating from an underwater old-time radio, hypnotic rhythms and washed out 12-string jangle courtesy of lanky-ass front man John Dwyer — who wears his guitar higher than Charlie Sheen in the middle of a tweet — the band look and sound like they were headlining a killer beach party in hell. By the time I saw them tear the Vice party a new asshole at 2 a.m., Saturday night, I was feverishly twisting out my own adaptations of '60s dance-fad moves at breakneck tempos. Perhaps that's why I was rudely ejected from the premises. More on that later. For now, check out this Oh Sees clip:
Another great band are Nashville's own The Clutters. In magic moments they sound to me like a cross between Cameo and Queens of the Stone Age covering "Crimson and Clover," and that's fucking awesome. They're awesome. While I know most of you are already well aware of that, it never hurts to be reminded, as I most definitely was while watching them at the Chicken Ranch Records showcase at Elysium on Wednesday afternoon. While a goth club — the spooky darkness of which was compromised by eye-gouging shards of sunlight that poured through its doors, accentuating a lifetime's worth of smoked cigarettes, tears and broken dreams — wouldn't top my list of ideal venues to see the band, I'll take what I can get. Plus, the place had cheap tequila shots. Those came in handy when it came to reclaiming that mellow of mine that was heavily harshed by braving a day-one sidewalk stroll out of the Austin Convention Center that had me feeling Robert Stack battling inner-terminal solicitors in Airplane! given the amount of people bombarding me with fliers for mixers, wine tastings, showcases and the like.
After watching The Clutters, I, along with D. Patty Cakes, spent the afternoon hobnobbing with the other Nashvillians over at the American Songwriter party. You already heard about our discovery of future pop sensation MC Dominique Young Unique, and how locals Caitlin Rose, Jason Isbell and The Civil Wars — who even inspired an audience-wide quarter-note clap-along — knocked the masses dead over there, while a few free drinks (and a few hits of something slightly more nefarious) nearly knocked me dead in reality.
You also already heard about how Tristen killed it over at the KCRW showcase later that evening. And you heard about how Smith and Westerns kept the crowd's attention with their love for both T. Rex and half-time grooves as a precursor to Raphael Saadiq's stellar showmanship; which was a precursor to Duran Duran's display of notoriety over at Stubb's. But what you didn't hear was me describe Duran Duran as sounding how lotion smells — smooth, ripe and soothing … in small doses. As D.P. ARRRRRR — that's what pirates call him — noted days ago, Simon Le Bon was nailing his notes, a feat I like to credit to his having locked eyes with me while en route to the stage. Those saucy Duran gents sure as hell are lucky any counterweights on any camera booms were anchored tight when they walked by them. Can you imagine what would've happened if a few hundred pounds came crashing down on John Taylor? The place would've come undone, and the world would've had to learn to live without his killer porno bass lines. Truth be told, while Duran Duran sound dated as fuck, they sounded awesome as hell. Still, I decided to bounce after they played "Hungry Like the Wolf." It wasn't gonna get better than that.
Like every other day of my life, day two started late. Which sucked, because if I'd gotten to that Pitchfork #Offline party over at the drive-in (no, not the band) then I would've seen my favorite band of the San Francisco scene, The Fresh & Onlys, tear it up for more than three songs. Nevertheless, what I did manage to get in was great. If you happened to wisely take my recommendation of the band's lo-fi pop fetish I made last year and liked what you heard, then do yourself another favor and pick up their latest, Play It Strange. It rules. Luckily I managed to catch the band playing a full set — or at least as full a set as a band can play at SXSW — when I saw them over at the Mess With Texas shindig at the same venue two days later. Here's a clip from the first show. My fellow Scene staffers will appreciate singer Tim Cohen's resemblance to former Scene reporter P.J. Tobia, who Steve talked a bit about in his coverage:
As far as the next two bands on this bill were concerned, I'm gonna through a big fat ditto over D. Piddy's way and concur with him that The Dodos were percussive ticklers when it comes to psychs of fancy, and that Times New Viking's performance was neither worth my time, new, or much in the way of brute strength, although I, too, like some of their songs.
Like we did with the Thee Oh Sees, let's talk about another band I saw three times in as many days: OFF! This was the band of the festival. Seriously, I found it near impossible to go anywhere last week without hearing Keith Morris & Co.'s praises: "Have you seen them yet?!" You know who I can't wait to see?" And so on. Given that I'm the most hardcore dude you can think of (right?) it was beyond refreshing to see a band of elder statesmen — Morris is 55 — tear through a dozen or so minute-long sonic assaults on the senses with more reckless abandon and passion than a thousand bands on Sixth Street combined — inspiring festival goers and drunk journos to think about stage-diving for the first time in 20 years in the process. That's what I call entertainment value. But here's what really proved OFF!'s on-ness: They didn't need to play any old songs. At all. After decades building discographies, these guys can come together and dominate South-by solely with new music alone. Henry Rollins sure as shit can't say that. Really, who can?
Certainly not J. Mascis. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy. I even love his new record, which I recently reviewed quite favorably for American Songwriter. But a 45 year-old warlock sitting solo on a stool, straining to get his guitar in tune, in front of a festival crowd, was very Neil Yawn. Especially when I was coming off seeing OFF! Still, he did play "Little Fury Things," so, you know?
As you can tell — that is, assuming you're an intuitive reader — there's a bit of overlap between me and my fellow Creamers' Austin coverage. Hell, D. Patrick Rodgers is, like, my de facto biographer by now. Well, it's really fucking hard to make decisions at South-by. At any given moment of the festival, morning, noon or night, there is something of note to see, and looking at schedule is like having magnets draw and quarter you from different directions. So it's sometimes easier to opt for safety in numbers.
Although, as previously reported by Team Rodge-Ruch, I — having a greater threshold for huddled masses — went rogue Thursday night and stuck it out through the clusterfuck of glowstick-tards and gate crashers to see The Strokes. Despite what was widely reported, there was no riot at the band's massive outdoor free concert at Auditorium Shores. At least I wouldn't call what I saw a riot, but more a momentary charge of gate-crashers who managed to take out a sizable enough chunk of the surrounding chain-link fence and overwhelm unwitting security and police — if only the band had opened with "New York City Cops" — that were guarding it. It was hilariously chaotic, but not enough to ever make me think twice about putting down my cigarette, walking any faster, or even changing my facial expression, but then again, like I said before, I am the most hardcore guy you can think of, so … here's a video of the "riot." I report. You decide:
Deciding I wanted to wait out the ruckus in comfort, I wandered around to the side of Auditorium Shores and caught a pretty decent sight line to the stage — as set against the backdrop of the city lights sparkling off the river as the sun set in the distance — just as 2001's saviors of rock 'n' LOL ripped into an opening "What Ever Happened?" — one of the best songs off one of the most underrated records of the last decade — 2003's Room on Fire. Three songs into the band's 17-song set, I returned to the gates to find that the crowd had dispersed and the melee was over, allowing me to breeze into the venue and eventually secure myself a spot pretty close to the stage with ease. Save for five of the selections off the band's fourth release, Angles — which dropped yesterday, BTW — the band mainly stuck to staples from their first two records, turning in a set much like the one I saw them play back in August at Lollapalooza: Short, to the point, and great.
The biggest moment of the set, and easily the grandest of the festival, came when a fall-of-Saigon-worthy fireworks show shot off from a barge behind the stage as the band closed with their seminal hit "Last Nite" to the tune of 30,000-plus people singing along. I think I may have even shed a tear over that. Did I mention I was drunk? Well, I was. In fact, I don't think there was a moment in which I watched any live music sober. That's SXSW for you. And you might also recall the mention I made of how distracted The Strokes were when they saw Lady Gaga's pyrotechnic finale from a mile away a Lollapalooza. Good to see they're taking their cues from the right places.
After lying down in the wax paper and stomped-beer-can littered field to take a breather and await The Strokes' crowd's mass exodus, I tried to regain my bearings before slowly lumbering two miles across town in a daze, hoping to catch flagship Atlanta rousers of rock 'n' roll rabble, The Black Lips, over at Club de Ville.
I made it, but I couldn't feel my legs, and since I couldn't feel my legs, I couldn't stand, and since I couldn't stand, I couldn't fight — as I learned from watching The Karate Kid — I also couldn't peer over the heads of all the tall fucks who like this band, to see if they were setting shit on a fire or not. They sounded pretty fuckin' savage, though, like they're supposed to, and once I saw perennial festival fixture, documentary pundit and Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke walking on two feet in earshot of Keith Morris — who you'll remember is 55 years old and cooler than you or I could ever hope to be, despite my being the most hardcore dude you can think of — I decided to man up and keep on keepin'. I'd like to think it was The Black Lips that got me back on my feet, but I'm pretty it was the reintroduction of booze to my bloodstream. Anyway, at night's end I found myself over at Emo's watching The Greenhornes rep both their native Buckeye State and our little Music City somethin' fierce. In case no one's ever noticed, this band has perhaps the most fluid rhythm section in contemporary rock. (Hint: I think people have noticed. I mean, I can think of at least one guy who's noticed.) They also have some pretty kick-ass songs and a singer who finishes every line by grimacing like he just heard the worst joke in the world, or maybe just one of my jokes.
Moving on. The first thing of note I checked out on day three was a set from self-described "punk rock band from Atlanta" Deerhunter, who were getting their Krautrock-infused post-meets-pop rock on over at the Rhapsody party at Club de Ville. Best thing about this party: endless amounts of complimentary Guinness Draught. Worst thing about this party: endless amounts of Guinness Draught. That at least allowed me save a couple bills on lunch. As always, singer Bradford Cox's voice was mesmerizing and, despite their cerebral tendencies, the band managed to make for a good soundtrack to hobnobbing and day drinking.
After continuing the freeloading over at the Noisey party — which, given the egregious volume of the emo-core show going on next door, was really fucking noisy — I pedi-cabbed it across town to catch a brief set by Milwaukee psych-rock trio Jaill (yes, with two Ls) over at Red 7. There really is something special about zipping through town on a rickshaw and hearing the clash of sirens, white noise, cymbals and snare-drums that echoes through the city as you hear a thousand bands play at once. Shit is out. Anyway, I enjoyed Jaill's frenetic set of fast-paced, hook-laden power-pop stompers and woozy, weed-laced ditties as much live as I do when hearing them on their excellent pair of 2010 full-lengths — That's How We Burn and There's No Sky (Oh My My). Peep a clip from the show below:
D. Trick-Rodge and Steve H. already told you about JEFF the Brotherhood's epic set at Saturday night's Panache showcase, but neither one of them had the fortune of seeing the band dominate the Noisey showcase the night before like I did. While Saturday's show was indeed good — as JEFF shows always are — it was nothing compared to Friday's, which I can say was, having seen the band dozens of times, hands down the best show I've ever seen them play. Better even than their Next Big Nashville takeover of Third Man's Blue Room back in October.
Any loyal local rock fan knows that seeing JEFF play into the deepest desires of their hometown crowd is a sight to behold, but the band is even better in front of a cold audience. The Kiss & Fly — where earlier in the evening I joined my cohorts in mooching free food and beverages at that Noisey pre-party — is about as unlikely a venue as I could ever imagine seeing JEFF. It's a dance club ... or something. Either way, throughout the show Jake Orrall — like The Jesus Lizard's David Yow, but with a guitar — seemed to spend more time surfing atop the hands of the crowd than he did onstage. Really, there's no other band — with maybe the exception of OFF! — who I saw galvanize a crowd and sell themselves and what they do as handily as JEFF did that night.
By show's end, men were dancing in suspended cages as Orrall slowly crept across the dance floor, parting the crowd with the intensity of his dueling stare as he made his way back to the stage without missing a beat. Incredible. The performance was so shockingly show-stopping it cost the two bands that followed on this bill — jangly indie darlings Yuck and So Cal noise rock critic's choice Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti — who had a hard time distracting me from the crippling soreness in my bum knees that came at the expense of miles and miles trekked on concrete.
Yuck were actually really great. They do a guitar-driven Wedding Present/Dinosaur Jr., '90s thing. They're not the first to do it, obviously, but they're good at it and, frankly, I'm a sucker for that shit. Ariel Pink, on the other hand, totally fucking sucked. Which is a shame because I really, really like his records. But what I saw Friday was a boring display of sloppily performed, janky yacht rock that didn't capture any of the off-kilter atmosphere that makes those records such compelling listens. Plus, dude just stands there — or sometimes crouches — itching himself, wearing sunglasses (if I remember correctly), and looking like Kurt Cobain going through withdrawals. What a disappointment.
But my disappointment was nothing when compared to the four poor souls who missed out on seeing Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (aka O.M.D.) at Stubb's because a 350-pound camera boom conked them on their dome-pieces. For a minute it was a serious, scary buzzkill — even for a hardcore guy like me. Luckily I managed to see each injured festival-goer move arms and legs and signal that they were cognitive. And my crystal ball tells me they're gonna have some serious settlement money in their futures. Had I been hit and rushed to the emergency room I'd probably try and sue on the grounds of pain and suffering for the incident having forced me to miss a vigorous and exuberant O.M.D. performance that, once concert-staffers rinsed the blood from the gravel and moved the barricades back in place, went ahead without a hitch.
The set may have been truncated due to curfew restrictions — whittled down to seven songs — but when that sum includes "Tesla Girls" and three-card-punch of "If You Leave" — which the band described as their "Hollywood moment" — synth-pop's greatest song, "Enola Gay," and "Electricity" played in rapid succession, it almost makes you glad that they were left with no choice but to give you 25 minutes of all-killer that, in that short a space, redeemed my high school prom for sucking so badly. Almost. And that wasn't even the best part of watching the band. No, the best part of O.M.D.'s stage show is watching frontman Andy McCluskey ham it up to 11 with his victory-laden, interpretive dance moves, which, given his age of 51, truly must be seen to be believed:
Oh what it must be like to be so free. And since I posted that, I might as well go ahead and post the clip below. Look closely and you might even catch a glimpse of backs of Team Cream's heads as we popped, pogoed, locked, pumped fists and sang-along during moments of joy that went unrivaled for the rest of the festival.
For day four, the last hurrah, I parked myself over at the aforementioned Mess With Texas party for the day-into-evening festivities, which, for me, got started with a solo performance by Ted Leo. Granted, I found it hard to pay attention to. Partly because the beer lines were longer than Schindler's List and it was hot — almost literally — as Texas asphalt outside. But mainly because it was boring, though he did throw in a humorous cover of The Misfits' "Angelfuck," which seemed pretty acceptable until OFF! came onstage again and nearly erased it from my memory.
Once again, OFF! were ON! And this time they had a crowd of stage-drivers on hand, a trend that continued all the way through the Dead Milkmen set that followed. It was great getting to hear the band rant about racial politics, hipster garabe and play songs like the classic "Punk Rock Girl" and their cover of Gary Numan's "Cars," but with the crowd seemingly growing by the thousands in anticipation of LA hip-hop collective Odd Future, the Milkmen become increasingly hard to actually see.
Some staging confusion allowed me and The Tennessean's Dave Paulson an opportunity to actually get relatively close to the stage for the uber-hyped Odd Future performance. What started out as your garden variety dudes-getting-out-of-breath-while-rapping-over-each-other-to-backing-tracks-and-a-DJ didn't take long to turn into a rather riotous affair with band and audience members alike climbing the scaffolding of the large outdoor stage and plummeting themselves into the crowd. Seriously, I saw more crowd-surfing and stage-diving this past week than I have since Kurt Cobain died. At least people are getting into it again. Still, in my not-so-humble opinion, Odd Future have a ways to go in terms of making their show sound like something exciting, as opposed to just looking like something exciting. That didn't stop the rest of the masses from getting caught up in the moment and raising the roof to the chants of "Wolf! Gang! Wolf! Gang!" and "Motherfuck the paux-lease" like they actually meant something, though.
Also, was it me, or did I catch a "Heil Hitler!" shout from the stage, complete with a saluting gesture? If so, could someone catch me up and please explain the context for it? I'd like to think that there was something considered behind that, and that it wasn't purely for shock value.
As night fell, I found myself over at Mohawk, where the Panache booking showcase felt more like a continuation of the Freakin' Weekend than it did part of SXSW, which is fucking great! Also great, as always, were sets I saw from The Strange Boys — who are a new discovery for me, JEFF, Turbo Fruits — who blow my mind every time I see them — and Ty Segall. To be at a Saturday SXSW and have it feel like The End was just transformed into another dimension, taking over one of the hottest spots on the Red River strip was, again, proof in the pudding for how vital a scene THIS town has.
But the celebration wasn't over yet. After dispersing from the Mohawk, I interloped my way into the super-exclusive Vice Magazine party. Super-exclusive meaning there was a moderately long line of people trying in vain to get into a massive venue that appeared more than half-empty. The place looked like one of the unfinished floors of the Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, but with velvet ropes that appeared to serve no particular function besides announcing to people that they were standing safe amidst velvet ropes. Still, there were porta-pottiesl. Free vodka drinks and Sapporo tall boys were given out in great quantities and, once again, I found myself treated to sets by Thee Oh Sees, OFF! (!!!!) and Odd Future — the first two of which were, naturally, phenomenal — in between which I caught spin-tastic sets by DJs Jonathan Toubin and Third Man Records' MC Ben Swank.
As the clock struck, oh, 4:30 a.m. I decided to take a leak and then make my exit, but not before a muscle-bound, meatheaded, ear-piece donning, crooked crew-cut sporting Neanderthal of a bouncer, with no visible neck to speak of, walked up to me out of the darkness, wrestled my beer — furnished to me as a guest of the party — from my warm, living hand and randomly man-handled me out of the club for no apparent reason other than maybe my chronic disregard for engaging a fashion sense. When I asked, politely, why I was being arbitrarily ejected from the happening shindig I was so graciously ushered into hours earlier, I was told it was because I was drunk. Puzzled, I glanced over at the 90-pound, heroin-chic fly girls who were grinding to bass bumping at 120,000 decibels atop their Interpol stand-in and Fred Durst look-a-like suitors, smack-dab between tables stocked with comped drinks and Vice propaganda, and then looked back at the Lurch-like bouncer while giving him a look like I'd just smelled his fart (which I had). With a stern stare the bouncer did a face point and said "Hey, I don't have to explain myself. This is not a democracy."
I know, right?
Realizing I had indeed neglected to poll attending party-goers as to whether or not I was fit to serve as Random-Innocuous-Dude-Not-Drawing-Attention-to-Himself-or-Doing-Anything-Besides-Engaging-in-Casual-Conversation-with-Acquaintances Elect, I politely informed the bouncer — now posed in a buffalo stance —that I wasn't terribly confident that the word "democracy" was one he actually knew the correct definition of, or that perhaps he may have been searching for a more apt dictional alternative — and that he was being a dick — when explaining his modus operandi to me, to which his eyes rolled back in his head for a split second and his face froze before consciousness returned to his body, snapping him back into the moment, after which he started telling me that if corrected him again, or said anything about him to his co-workers, we were going to have a problem. When I, now standing square on public property, asked if he was threatening me, he scanned the street — taking notice of other confused party patrons who, too, had seemingly found themselves injudiciously manhandled — and decided to turn and walk away in shame. It all worked out though. While walking around the corner I noticed the back, open entrance to the party was unmanned, so I waltzed back in, took the piss I was on my way to taking in the first place and then walked out the door unnoticed.
What a way to end a killer South-by!