What do you call a place where, in a span of four days, you can see sets by Bruce Springsteen, Built to Spill, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Wedding Present, Dinosaur Jr., Thee Oh Sees, the reunited dB’s and, oh yeah, YouTube sensation Complete?
South by Southwest.
Sounds like a Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven on Earth, right? Wrong. Now I’m not saying that The Lone Star State’s lone spring week as the epicenter of the music world — dimensions big and small — isn’t totally awesome. I’m just saying that whatever the eardrum’s equivalent of the thousand-yard stare is, I now have it. Right now my vestibular nerves are totally rejecting and chucking up any and all music I try to shovel into my external auditory canals. Still, my burgundy earwax isn’t anywhere near as uninteresting as most of the regurgitated audio vomit I had the misfortune of unavoidably suffering while en route to and from the great many kickass killer shows to killer kickass parties I caught last week.
If war is hell, SXSW is a first-world purgatory between a jaw-dropping glut of great shows to see and an exhausting, chaotic clusterfuck of long lines for free drinks, big, bank account-draining bar tabs, ubiquitous freeloaders, food trucks, photo booths and glorified buskers scurrying back and forth across a gridlocked city that’s barely able to contain the critical mass of musicians. Like everything else in life, SXSW’s heavenly pleasures are asterisked with harsh realities and hellish hangovers.
One friend perhaps put it best when he called the festival/conference the Indie-Rock Mardi Gras. That perfectly describes the deluge of hipsters and culturally masochistic fashion victims that, badge or no badge, flood the streets of Downtown Austin in search of good tunes, great times, liberally distributed hor d’oeuvres and gratis libations, chasing a rising riptide of free drinks like organ donors paddling out to the Banzai Pipeline.
Let’s say you’re a relatively if not completely unknown band that descends upon Austin with the rest of the country’s touring artists in hopes of making waves, making fans, making connections and showcasing for press and industry bigwigs. What do you really think is really going to happen? Bands don’t thrust themselves out of obscurity at SXSW. I can’t think of a place an unknown band could possibly feel more obscure. Yeah, the entire industry and the bulk of the international music press is right there, but they’re there to see artists they work with or already have a curiosity about — bands that already have some kind of industry momentum behind them. It’s merely incidental if they happen to see and pay attention to a band they’ve never heard of.
If you’re playing a showcase or party that you have to beg, plead and hustle to get people out to, you’re not playing a show that most SXSWers want to attend. This is a festival for entitled insiders preoccupied with business and/or reveling in access to exclusive events at venues that hold one-third the capacity of the line that wraps around them.
Texas. It’s the only state that ever actually elected Ron Paul to any kind of office. So it’s fitting the state plays host to SXSW, which is kind of a microcosm of laissez-faire, Libertarian ideals in that its governing body is dwarfed by its population and its infrastructure minuscule in comparison to the incalculable independent events that go on around the festival. Most of the March madness that transpires in Austin isn’t even officially sanctioned by SXSW. This year marked the festival’s 25th anniversary. It started with a handful of venues and a curated selection of artists. The inmates have long since overtaken the asylum, turning the event into an unwieldy behemoth of shit that’s, just, happening anywhere and everywhere.
This was my third consecutive stab at “covering” South By, and as in years past (which you can read about here and here), I felt like, instead of having fun, I was going to have a fucking panic attack upon arriving in downtown Austin. And it wasn’t just from the sheer shock and sensory overload of trying to choose a direction and destination in a boundlessly dense maze of events and venues — it was because I arrived at the oppressively big, bright and boxy Austin Convention Center to discover that some sort of clerical mix up had seemingly purged my credentials from the conference’s database. Ugh. I was then sent to another window where a fresh-faced representative (probably an unpaid intern) told me I owed an outstanding balance of $750. Long story short, after some swift re-registration and smooth talking I managed to get the seven and the five 86ed from that balance and walked into the city streets, badge in hand, for a whopping $0 fee.
And where did I go? Duh, I went to the IODA day party at Red Eye Fly to decompress my day-one stress to the sounds of Thee Oh Sees and The Wedding Present. Unfortunately (albeit predictably), the line to get in was such that I mostly only heard the sounds of Thee Oh Sees from outside the building, catching only the final song in full.
Thee Oh Sees being one of my favorite contemporary bands (garage-psych or otherwise) and coincidentally one of the best goddamn bands in the world, I would describe my morale upon such an auditory cock tease as “less than stoked.” Comforted by the fact that I saw the San Frantastic ensemble multiple times both at SXSW last year and on The Bruise Cruise last month and that, as singer John Dwyer put it, “We’re playing a hundred more shows,” I realized I was shedding my salty tears in an act of melodramatic hyperbole and decided to stop crying over spilled rock. Also, sorrows drown quickly at events that liberally serve up free Lone Stars two at a time from a bottomless trough of tallboys. And then I remembered, Hot damn! I’m totally about to see The Wedding Present.
I was especially excited to learn that this was the band’s first U.S. appearance in four years. And it was happening in a cramped space the looked like the utility closet of a Tex-Mex restaurant adorned with the T-shirts of bands like L.A. Guns.
Since this is a country that never properly appreciated The Prez (they’re still worshiped liked the C-86, speed-addled, indie-pop Gods they are across the pond), a primer might be in order for some of you younger readers out there in Blogland. Here goes: The Wedding Present is basically The Smiths without all the annoying parts. That is, if The Smiths had jettisoned the boner-killing preciousness and rocked hard, fast and loud. In other words, if Morrissey ate meat and played guitar (and kept his band name going despite boasting no original band members), he’d have stones like WP singer David Gedge. The Prez still has the hooks, the jangle and all the dandy melodrama to cloak heartbreak in a unisex Slanket of gallows humor and dry Brit-wit, but they’re not too tender to crank up the distortion and pin the pedal to the metal when it comes to the tempos. I say all that and I actually fucking love The Smiths (I’m a music critic, duh), just not like I love the fucking Wedding Present.
Love aside, though, I’m ashamed to admit that before SXSW I didn’t even know The Prez had a new record. They do! It’s called Valentina and it drops this week. So, perplexed, I actually thought they were playing a bunch of deep cuts that had somehow slipped through the cracks of my record collection when I was actually, unknowingly hearing new songs. One of them was called “The Thing I like Best About Him Is His Girlfriend.” Awesome, right?
It was also awesome when the band played fan faves like “Dalliance” and “Kennedy.” Really, the only thing that wasn’t awesome about this set was how short it was. Thirty minutes that goes by like 30 seconds when you’ve just gotten speed-drunk simply isn’t long enough for a band that has so many great songs. I tried to catch The WP again a couple days later but regrettably arrived too late. And then I was sad like Morrissey at a snake feeding. Wahhh.
While it probably goes without saying that there were a lot of, well, elder, un-laid music geeks vigorously rocking out to the sounds of these semi-legends, I did find myself stepping over little kids playing video games on iPhones. Sure, I suppose that’s cooler than taking the kids to church on a Wednesday (which in Texas could mean a Rick Perry-promoted stadium worship or a mega-church morning with Joel Osteen), but who really thinks their preteen tikes are ready, willing and eager to grasp the hallucinatory highs and mopey lows of love sometimes mirthfully and other times existentially dreadfully expressed in the lyrics, vocal strains and literal, interpretive hand gestures of David Gedge? (See below.)
Killer gig. Although I still have no idea what IODA is. I just know that their slogan is “digital done right.” Mmm’kay.
This year I was determined not to return from SXSW was a case of gout. For that reason I, like my colleague D. Patrick Rodgers, decided to spend night one parked at one show with an overall bill that ruled — the Panache Booking showcase at Beauty Bar. Actually, the gig went down on a tented stage in the alley behind Beauty Bar. A mere 12 hours had passed since leaving Nashville and I was already homesick — perhaps that explains why I went to such a Music City-centric show that featured sets from Natural Child, Turbo Fruits and PUJOL.
As such, this gig felt almost like an extension of The Freakin’ Weekend, both in terms of the lineup and the number of Nashvillians dominating the crowd. Sure, I used that line or one like it to describe last year’s Panache showcase, but it still applies as much as these bands still rule.
Here’s what ruled about Turbo Fruits: They played a bunch of new songs that were each righteously dank like California kush. One of them even reminded me of The Jam’s “Away From the Numbers.” The Fruits always have bore the biggest British streak of their local garage and punk contemporaries. So psyched for their forthcoming LP Butter. Still, the excellence of the new jams didn’t take away from hearing old chestnuts like “Mama’s Mad 'Cos I Fried My Brain” and “Volcano.” And as always, the psychedelic powerhouse’s stage show was an intoxicating onslaught of rock splits, octopus-armed drum fills and pure volume.
Here’s what ruled about PUJOL: I’d reached euphoria-inducing seven-beer-and-four-shot sweet spot of bliss right as they took the stage, which I soon found myself standing at the foot of, and pounding with my fist as I shouted along to “Reverse Vampire” and “Black Rabbit.”
This bill wasn’t exclusively Nashville, though. LA’s Bleached not only looked the part of The Go-Go’s, they played it, too. One of my new discoveries of SXSW this year, the band played peppy, sugar-toothed California pop with nervy punk veneer and a riff or two cribbed from mod-era Who. Pretty rockin’. I probably would have bought their record had I had something to carry it in.
Football (who were regrettably not introduced to the stage by Bocephus) were a competent, although fairly unmemorable, by-the-numbers retro garage-rock troupe that sounded like Thee Oh Sees sans the interesting parts.
A point made all the more clear when Thee Oh Sees took the stage to close out the night with yet another mind-melting set of their deranged wall of lopsided riffs, crazy rhythms and reverb-filtered, high-pitched vocal yelps and melodies repeating like the shouted mantras of a catatonic lunatic. As frontman John Dwyer & Co. would break down their songs into hypnotic jams only to explode back into a screaming freak-out of careening riffage, the collectively blitzed crowd would coalesce in a dog pile that swayed around the stage. Our over-protective, inner au pair thought that we were about to witness a spinal injury at sight of Oh Sees auxiliary drummer and part-time guitarist Lars Finberg shimmying up the flimsy poles that held the up the stage canopy to finish the set’s closing musical money shot “Dead Energy” while hanging upside down by his shuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-knees. Did I mention yet that this is one of my favorite bands?
Nothing kills a hangover quite like an email confirming that you’ve won the ticket lottery for a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band SXSW showcase. Really. It happened. So, for a dedicated, die-hard tramp like myself, Day Two started out feeling like Christmas morning.
Compounding my excitement was catching an early-afternoon appearance from The Boss himself, who — arriving 20 or 30 minutes late to a podium in one of the Convention Center’s large exhibition halls with a groggy, early-morning gaze — delivered SXSW’s keynote speech before a crowd of a couple thousand.
The speech — which Springsteen had scribed on the stack of papers he held in hand — was an honest-to-God, inspiring, side-splitter-riddled, foul-mouthed hour-plus account of his life as a rock ’n’ roll, R&B, country, hip-hop, punk and folk fan. Like a motivational speaker and musical evangelist, Springsteen told of how his hero worship at the alter of every badass from Woody Guthrie to Eric Burden, The Sex Pistols and Public Enemy had shaped the evolution of his own songwriting — singing and strumming examples in snippet form on an acoustic guitar he’d hold up to the microphone. He also addressed the conference/festival’s thousands upon thousands of “youngster” musicians who perform in a “post-authentic world,” telling them that they’ve gotta walk tall, believing that they’re the biggest badass on any given stage while simultaneously having the humility to know that they also suck in the face of their peers and their own potential. It’s that kind of mental duality — like knowing that you have to “bring the noise night after night like it’s all you have” but “remember that it’s only rock ’n’ roll” — that he credits for a career of creative fulfillment and commercial success. Click here to watch the whole damn thing (after you finish reading this report, of course.)
Thursday afternoon I rolled up to The Stage on Sixth (which is exactly like Nashville’s The Stage on Broadway) to see the greatest seminal “indie”-rock band to ever spend a decade-and-a-half on a major label — Built to Spill.
Luckily, at SXSW BTS opted to strike the balance between both, serving up a mix of top-shelf favorites like “Traces,” “Distopian Dream Girl” and “Time Trap” before going Crazy Horse on our asses and ending with an elongated-but-inspired “Broken Chairs.” The performance itself was almost as fun to watch as seeing my cohort D. Patrick Rodgers get wide-eyed and giddy over finally checking the BTS live experience off his bucket list.
Like with The Wedding Present show the previous day, my only complaint about the show was that it was just too short. And I could’ve happily stood there all day and watched Doug Martsch shred like a motherfucker over the band’s best pop songs if I didn’t have a Springsteen show to get to.
I’d love to be able to say I technically saw Built to Spill open for Bruce Springsteen. But — contrary to Springsteen’s standard practice of appearing sans support act — DPR and I arrived at The W Hotel’s 2,700-capacity Moody Theater (which feels just like you expect a concert hall at a W Hotel to feel like with its antiseptic spotlessness and classed-out décor) to discover that The Low Anthem and Austin luminary Alejandro Escovedo would warm up the crowd, meaning this would be a five-hour-plus endeavor.
I’m not complaining, though. To call getting a golden ticket to see The Boss bring it in a theater that’s 10 times the size of the bars most bands are playing at SXSW but a tenth of the size of the stadiums and arenas that are Springsteen’s natural habitat unique is an understatement. It was also a welcome break from the action and ceaseless, overwhelming chaos of the festival, as this really felt like making a departure to a bona-fide rock concert, not a 30-minute showcase at what’s veritably a live music trade show.
The Low Anthem’s earnest indie-cana was fine, but shit, there’s a reason Springsteen doesn’t have opening acts — it makes the wait seem interminable, making me feel like a Star Wars geek sitting through an hour-long trailer reel at the premier of The Phantom Menace.
After sneaking backstage to hang with Bruce and the band we spent the entirety of Alejandro Escovedo’s opening set getting advice from Bruce on how to re-assemble a catalytic converter and railed Texas-sized lines of the dirty with Max Weinberg while he railed on angrily about his loathing for Jay Leno. OK, not really, but would you really be that surprised? Bruce Springsteen makes you believe in a world where anything is possible if you’ve got a whole lotta heart and a helluva work ethic, but that success is a privilege, not a right, and struggle is life’s only guarantee. That is the driving theme behind The Boss’ latest effort Wrecking Ball, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard days before this intimate performance that — SXSW-showcase style — centered around its songs.
That came as little surprise considering how this, South By’s most sought-after ticket, essentially functioned as a “test run” for Bruce and the band’s Wrecking Ball Tour, which kicked off Sunday in Atlanta. Thus meaning that we were treated to Springsteen’s legendary marathon spectacle of preacher routines forays into the audience and wide-stanced Telecaster windmills and giant gestures towards the rafters.
Despite the focused, impassioned performance Springsteen and his now-augmented-to-16-piece (which featured the late, great Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake Clemons standing in on sax) E Street Band delivered of the new songs, they were far from the show’s highlights. Same even goes for old, ever-rousing warhorses like “Badlands” and “Thunder Road.” No, it was the only-in-a-Ben Stiller Show “Legends of Springsteen”-worthy encore set that featured surprised guest appearances from Jimmy Cliff (who the E Streeters backed through sky-reaching renditions of “The Harder They Come,” “Time Will Tell” and a stirring “Many Rivers to Cross”) and Eric Burdon (who took to the mic and delivered a brilliantly spiteful “We Gotta Get out of This Place”). The pinch-self emotional moments reached their apex during a penultimate “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” midway through which a moment-of-musical-silence tribute to Clemons caused the audience to erupt in deafening, heavens-reaching howls of applause cued by the famous “… and The Big Man joined the band” line. The night’s final holy-shit highlight came when Springsteen called up Escovedo, Joe Ely, Tom Morello, Garland Jeffreys, The Low Anthem and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne to join the band in a stadium-sized campfire sing-along of “This Land Is Your Land” in honor of what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. It will please alt-rock enthusiasts to learn that this was Morello’s fourth guest appearance in the show, including a rocked-out, stunt-guitar-laden take on “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
Like just about all in attendance, I raised my hands, pumped my fists, sang along and, yeah, even shed a tear or two. … I also imbibed a lot of booze. Teetering on the brink of black-out drunk I ungracefully ambled down the swanky steps of hotel, managing to meet and we think somehow offend, or at least annoy, Joe Ely (If only I could remember what I said!) and executed a successful one-eyed stumble up to The Belmont to catch The Jesus and Mary Chain’s one and only appearance at the festival.
It was the band’s first live appearance since the Bush era, and the sidewalk outside the club was mobbed with eager wristband- and badge-holders that tragically had about as good a chance at getting in to see the show as passengers on The Titanic living to see 1913. Luckily for me I was too drunk to notice the building-besieging queue and obliviously walked up to the conveniently short VIP line. Like my moments-earlier Ely encounter, I can’t really remember what specific song and dance I gave to the distracted gatekeeper, but before I knew it I was ushered into the venue, finding myself with a sick view of the stage by the end of the third song. That said, I could still barely see the band from beneath the glare of neon lights and haze of rock fog that engulfed them, not to mention my own blurred vision.
Also, The JAMC is so not a band to see while drunk. “Head On,” “Sidewalking,” “Snake Driver,” “Just Like Honey” — the band note-perfectly played one great song after another, but in my state it all sounded too fast and looked too slow. Also, my lucky-but-tardy entrance meant that, instead of having an opportunity to get up front and pogo along with the legitimate fans, I was stuck in the back with all the chatty, fratty Hollywood types who seemed as though they were there simply because it was the place to be. And truth be told, the only reason I stuck it out before sleepwalking back to the hotel was to say I went the distance with it.
My memory picks up at around 3 p.m., when I was cheering wildly for Tristen at the Filter Mag party at Cedar St. Courtyard. I later trekked back up to The Stage in hopes of catching The Wedding Present again but, alas, I was too late. And now having invested no time in waiting in lines, it was impossible to get into anything I actually wanted to see. The rest of my afternoon was outright fucked. So, I listlessly wandered the streets, eventually ending up in the only venue on Red River that didn’t have a line — Mohawk, where a Windish Booking Agency party was still in progress.
There I happened upon a set by Canadian electro-pop troupe Dragonette, whose excruciatingly long line check was more interesting than their actual show. Why was it so long? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m guessing it had something to do with the drummer rocking a VDrum kit. Anyway, the band sounded like a cross between Aqua, bad Daft Punk and good Rick Springfield. Or maybe just an electro-clash Starship. So 2004. I hated it. And I hated that it had so many douches in attendance, dancing like douches, as douches tend to do. Seriously, I was just trying to find a quite place to sit and check my email and this was what I got.
Luckily I’d put a little more effort into planning out my nighttime schedule. I was pleasantly surprised when, before heading down to Austin, I learned that reunited left-of-the-dial North Carolina jangle-poppers The dB’s were appearing at South By. And I was laughing with joy when I later soon discovered that YouTube sensation and Worst Band of All Time Complete were Austin-bound as well. So imagine my delight at learning the two bands would share the same bill — and at an Irish Pub, B.D. Riley’s, to boot.
The new songs were actually very good, they sounded like the old songs. But the only outright classics I recall them playing were “Love Is for Lovers,” “Neverland,” “If and When” and “Big Brown Eyes.” Not a bad handful of hits (relatively speaking), and it’s understandable that the band would want to showcase new material, but a drawn-out cover of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a total waste of set-list real estate when a room full of aging rock geeks were so obviously sonically salivating to hear curiously absent classics like “Amplifier,” “Black and White” and “Bad Reputation.” Also, Stamey appeared to be watching March Madness basketball that was broadcasting across above-bar flatscreens during the band’s set.
Aware that there were some fans in attendance, the band did close the set with its biggest “hit,” “Hoogie Boogie Land,” albeit a version that bore little resemblance to the original. Check out the before and after (below) for purposes of comparison.
"Hoogie Boogie Land" circa 1996:
"Hoogie Boogie Land" circa 2012:
With that musically morbid curiosity satisfied, Dabbs, Scene photog Eric England and I made a trek across town to Bar 96, where Dinosaur Jr. would close out the night at Fender-sponsored party in classic SXSW style. Across the street at Lustre Pearl Built to Spill was midway through yet another showcase. With the band’s “Strange” wafting through the night air we made our way into the fenced-off outdoor area at the Fender bash, only to hear a different Built to Spill song playing over the house PA, creating a strange mashup of actual BTS and recorded BTS … and at a fucking Dinosaur Jr. show. Weird.
After kickin’ it Murfreesboro-style in the crowd with Bingham Barnes and the rest of the Glossary clan, I was delighted to see J Mascis, Murph and Lou fuckin’ Barlow hit the stage to rid whatever was left of our hearing.
As I stepped out of the venue to snag a slice of pizza and head back to the hotel, I heard the band return to the stage and encore with their legendary cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” In the distance I could see The Doritos Stage looming tall over the horizon. Rock on, Austin.
And that was enough SXSW for me. After Diamond Rugs I stuck around to hear most of a pretty dire sounding set by Dead Confederate and then stepped over to the Deli party next door to catch locals Heypenny playing a couple songs before hailing a cab to the airport. I had a plane to Atlanta to catch and another Springsteen show to see.