South by Southwest is kind of like the Twitter of music festivals. It’s peppy, popular, easy to mock, highly corporate and desperate to hide that fact with little stabs at techy subversiveness. The scene on the ground is as though social networking itself was suddenly given life by a trickster god, as musicians of every flavour and every level of grunginess mingle with industry suits and club kids on spring break. Iffy metaphors aside, the festival deserves its widespread reputation as a hipster-heavy network-a-thon that saturates Austin from downtown to the sticks with more man-hours of music than could possibly be experienced in a standard human year. It’s fun.
I arrive in Austin before the official beginning of the music festival, while the interactive tech and film expos are still in full swing, and before you can say “Wes Anderson” I’m comfortably installed on a patio, chatting with a group of Portlanders about different brands of free-range chicken. I’m off to a comfortable head start on all my stereotypes.
The main drag on Sixth Street is already fairly happening, though it’ll get exponentially more clogged as the week goes on. I spy a familiar face through the open window of the Bat Bar: it’s icon of awkwardness Michael Cera, playing bass with his supergroup-of-a-sort Mister Heavenly. The band is rounded by members of the Unicorns, Man Man, and Modest Mouse, but it’s pretty clear who the gaggle of college girls are crowding around to see, cell phones straining upwards for photos like a curious herd of electric giraffes.
To my pleasant surprise the next band is Trampled By Turtles. The crowd thins out accordingly. They describe themselves as “progressive bluegrass”, which seems to mean a pretty traditional five-piece bluegrass ensemble (guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, fiddle, and as many voices as there are microphones) with a little punk flavouring. They’re from rural Minnesota, and do they ever look the part. The mandolin player in particular is a large, friendly-looking man with hands half the size of his whole instrument. He looks good enough in overalls that I worry he’ll inspire a trend. Trampled By Turtles are highly gifted players, so their jams can reach a speed that’s dazzling and frankly a little excessive. I mean, there’s a limit to how fast I can get down. ‘Wait So Long’ in particular, the lead track on their excellent Palomino, is played at such a ridiculous rate that it strains the bounds of human perceptual ability to hear the beat. It’s beautiful music most of the time though, and those overalls really are quite fetching.
Wednesday, March 16
Austin has a complicated relationship with SxSW. The city swells with an estimated 200,000 visitors (compare to a civilian population of just under 800K), and every business in town from the Radisson to the shittiest pizza stand feels the heat. Despite the financial windfall for the city, many locals are inclined to close ranks and assert their independence from coastal cool. Tip jars overflow but tempers get short. “Go Back to Williamsburg,” says a popular T-shirt – one charming design features an automatic rifle in silhouette for some extra Texas flair. For the most part the city is overwhelmingly friendly. Plenty of native Austinites flock to events to populate the venues and stages, though few spring for a paid wristband. Most prefer to scavenge for free events and items. But there is a bit of an immune response here, pushing back against the SxSW infection, visible particularly on the faces of the job-having, non-Converse-wearing straphangers on the bus. You know: grownups.
Wristband acquired, it’s off to the very first event on our docket: an outdoor barbecue hosted by CBC Radio 3, which promptly turns out to be badge-only, thank you very much. Fortunately, the man working the gate has a good soul. When I’ve explained myself and the nature of our website, and asked very very nicely, he fixes me with a righteous stare, the kind of look you’d usually reserve for vowing revenge unto a certain number of generations, and tells me I can enter if and only if I will promise to pay it forward, three times over. I worry a bit about whether he has anything specific in mind, but the promise is made, he nods curtly, and we’re in.
The barbecue is our chance to catch Diamond Rings and PS I Love You, two of the buzzier Canadian bands of the moment. Some of you regular readers of Ca Va Cool (and certain contributors) will be happy to note that PS I Love You gets a way more enthusiastic reception. Diamond Rings sounds decent, but he’s blatantly disinterested and uncomfortable playing his new-new-wave one-man synth show in the sun for a crowd full of chili. PS I Love You, on the other hand, revels in the anonymity and brings exactly the right amount of energy to get the crowd inching closer, curious, toward the stage.
A gaggle of Dallas folks points us toward one of their hometown bands, a hip-hop collective called Sore Losers, which turns out to be the best discovery of the day. As one of their followers explains to us, “They do hip-hop, but they don’t work with I’mma fuck you up, bitches.” That sums it up fairly well. It’s not progressive political activist hip-hop, either. The band’s press kit enthuses that they meld hip-hop with alternative rock, though the backing tracks don’t really sound much different from standard to my untrained ear. At any rate, it’s a good set and I hope to hear more from these guys someday.
We head to Planet Québec for the rest of the night, which will become one of our cherished home bases on account of its liberal drink ticket policies. (In fact I still seem to have a couple in my notebook.) Polaris Prize winners Karkwa were there, showcasing their heartfelt alt-rock à la Coldplay. Most of the material was familiar stuff drawn from their Polaris Prize-winning album Les Chemins du Verre. I have a few words after the set with the lead singer, who was more interested than anything else in talking about how thrilled to be out of the Quebec version of March weather and into the Texas one. So how does he feel about singing in French to Americans who probably don’t know more than a few words? “It doesn’t really matter,” he replies. “The music speaks for itself. Besides, even at home, nobody understands it outside Quebec anyway.” Fair point.
Thursday, March 17
The first order of the day is sitting in on an interview with Colorado singer-songwriter Lincoln Durham. He does straight-up roadhouse blues which in its more interesting moments recalls Townes van Zandt. It’s illuminating to talk to a local musician. Like most locals, he doesn’t have a wristband. Durham is a quiet, confident young guy who seems to capture a lot of the spirit of the city, and he teaches us the invaluable lesson that calling the festival anything other than the short form “South By” will instantly mark you as an outlander.
This being St. Patrick’s day we head to Boston to Austin, a showcase for Boston-based bands who have made it to SxSW, where we are met with an agreeable handful of drink tickets and a more than agreeable listening experience in Kingsley Flood. A distinctly Boston-sounding rock group with bits of surf rock, country, and Irish-Americana, they can wander even farther afield, everywhere from ’70s garage rock to the borders of ska. One particularly ear-catching song, a hat-tip to the Boston transit system called ‘Cul de Sac’, remains stuck in my head for a few hours. Like many events at SxSW this one is sponsored by Converse shoes, but at least the event hosts don’t actually toss them into the crowd as they will later on at a Canada House gig.
We install ourselves at Canada House for a little while, listening to a jangly alt-rock group in the U2 mold called In Flight Safety. They’re good at what they do, which is inoffensive and friendly, like the Barenaked Ladies with less cutesiness. Their act works a lot better in the laid-back, sun-soaked atmosphere of the Canada House balcony than as an opening act at a minor arena, where you’d expect to hear their kind of sound. ‘Actors’ in particular is a strong song.
Evening comes, and with it the lamentable end of free drink tickets. We’re tempted to see Simon Says No! exclusively based on the band name, but sober second thought prevails (same with Ringo Deathstarr). So it’s off to an enthusiastically filthy dive called Antone’s to see bluegrass queen Abigail Washburn displaying her mad skills. Her voice is noticeably more grating than on her recordings, but the overall effect is legitimacy and authenticity, which the majority of alt-country and folk acts here could only dream of approaching. *Romantic sigh*
I convince a small but impressively loud group of college kids that it would be worth trekking across town to see Owen Pallett next (the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy). My posse and I have actually spent a fair amount of time earlier in the day pitching this show to anyone who would listen, with the stereotypical pride of Canadians in a strange land, but I admit I’ve had a few private butterflies on the subject. Pallett is a temperamental performer and can get rattled easily – you can talk to our writer Sabrina Diemert about that. And 1:00 AM at an outdoor venue several days into an epic festival seems like a pretty legitimate time for something to go wrong.
Pallett really and truly kills it, though, coaxing intense mid-song cheers and even moments of actual dancing out of the head-hanging, pocket-thumbing crowd. His newest material is his strongest here, although a version of ‘The CN Tower Belongs to the Dead’ from back in the Has a Good Home days is killer too. Part of the reaction, I think, comes from the novelty of so much sound coming out of one slightly built man and his violin. The precision of his looping, the care with which each layer is added, how frantic and out of control the product appears to become as Pallett maintains his methodical bearings. Standing among concertgoers who’d never heard of the guy before, rather than jaded Torontonians generally oversaturated with CanCon, is a real pleasure, helping me experience one of Toronto’s true gems with fresh and grateful ears. “Is he single?” asks a girl next to me, enraptured. I tell her he’s gay. “Canadians,” she grumbles.
Friday, March 18
SxSW spawns an entire counterindustry of programming designed to thumb its nose at the corporatism and overwhelming popularity of SxSW itself. This includes South by San Jose, a tidy village of tents a couple miles south of the main festival outside the historic San Jose Hotel on South Congress. The bands aren’t headliners, and nothing particularly strikes our fancy as we wander among the stalls, but it’s a welcome change to experience some of the SxSW magic with access to crafty little shops and without wading through sweaty crowds.
The highlight of the afternoon is our interview with the Rural Alberta Advantage and their subsequent set. Headliners for the afternoon at Home Slice Pizza, they unfortunately fall victim to one of the indie band’s most feared natural predators: the noise complaint. To their immense credit the RAA manage to put together a solid 20-minute acoustic set with only a few minutes’ warning. You can practically see the urge to break free and rock out on their faces, but they push methodically and at a reasonable volume through pieces including their inspiring folk adaptation of ‘Eye of the Tiger’, a great backbeat-heavy version of ‘Muscle Relaxants’, and a gallant attempt at acousticizing their current single ‘Stamp’ that doesn’t quite come together. But the gods of music are fickle, and it is announced that the band will be allowed one encore in full rock-out mode, so they gleefully tear back into ‘Stamp’ with an energy that thoroughly vindicates the set. The pizza is good too.
The line for the Head and the Heart is formidable back at Antone’s, the cesspit of fun. I hadn’t heard a single note of their music – I’d decided to see them based on a passionate and vivid and possibly substance-enhanced recommendation by a crowdmember at Abigail Washburn. It turns out to be worth the lineup. It’s not terribly complicated music, but heartfelt and pleasant folk with a bit of energy, like Midlake after it shakes off some of the Quaaludes. Their minor-key stomp ‘Ghosts’ really bites into the crowd, as does ‘Sounds Like Hallelujah’ despite some tuning issues, and I would later be enthusiastically clicking through their material once back in front of a computer.
The tsunami in Japan is even fresher on everyone’s mind as this is all happening, and the week’s Japan Nite is hastily reconfigured around that fact. The night’s slew of carefully curated oddball acts from the Land of the Rising Sun all take the time to dedicate music, musings, and money to the cause. We pop in to see an act called Lolita No. 18 that looks like a screencap from Kill Bill: Vol. 1 – two backup singers in taxicab-patterned jumpsuits flanking an androgynous frontlady with fire-engine red hair a foot tall. (More accurately, Kill Bill is like a snapshot of this band in action, since they formed in 1989.) The punky frontlady spits water over the crowd as she sings in incomprehensible English syllables. How I would love to stick around for the even more mysteriously titled Hystoic Vein, but alas, time is short.
I always expect something different from the raucous, straight-up rock that Mother Mother plays as a live act. It feels like they should be more glam, more intricately staged, especially considering that their most recent album added way more synths into their dark adult pop, seeming to push them further toward being some sort of dance band. But at SxSW they’re still the same slapdash act as ever. Synths barely make an appearance on stage, and for the most part their Eureka material is rendered back down into dirty garage rock. Their unavoidable single ‘The Stand’ plays way better live than on the record – the awkward conversation comes alive with winks to the audience, while the cloying “everyone’s fucked and they don’t even know” mantra is cut down. It’s a real pleasure to see the curiosity and satisfaction in the crowd as we hear ‘Polynesia’ led off with a chaotic guitar riff. The band is definitely starting to pick up some American momentum. Far more people here seem to have heard of them than the Tragically Hip, for instance. Watch out.
Saturday, March 19
Wandering in a blissful food coma through the March sunlight after a breakfast of fried chicken donuts – oh yes, they exist – we hit A. Tom Collins, our consensus prize winner for Best Combined Quality of Music and Band Name. They don’t seem to be in a hurry on their way to the top. Only a single recording is up on their site, and it doesn’t do justice to their riotous live act. So if you want a really underground artist to take under your wing, this is your guy. Collins (his actual name, conveniently, is Alan Thomas Collins) plays a spectacular old Yamaha CB-70 stage piano, accompanied by a cartoonish cabaret ensemble of bass, surf-rock guitar, and a revolving door set of horn players, all dressed in clothing of sincere rattiness and missing various numbers of teeth. The best performances here at SxSW seem to be by bands from small or isolated areas, feeding off the attention of enthusiastic crowds as well as the refreshing anonymity of performing for people who haven’t seen you a million times already.
Time for a couple of grand finales. We fight our way into the Riverside Amphitheater to see Bright Eyes, the emo/country crossover phenomenon. Conor Oberst does have a great stage presence for this genre. He interlaces his set, mostly taken from new release The People’s Key but sprinkled with eye-moistening campfire favourites like ‘Old Soul Song’, with passionate comments on politics and Libya and Japan. It’s a good set, but it’s not what we came to Austin for. We came to hear bands nobody’s ever heard of.
And now to expend every last joule of energy remaining to us with a good solid closer. Luckily for us, Rich Aucoin is playing Canada House with his unique video installation/one-man electro show. It’s hard to do justice to this act in words. His songs are all written to accompany a video installation, which Aucoin disrupts and interacts with by casting strategic shadows with his hands and body. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is involved. He hands out 3D glasses – the old-school ones, with red and blue lenses the way God intended. This is stuff that clearly belongs at a rave, Aucoin’s equipment and fingers all wrapped and entangled with fluorescent colourful strands as he whips back and forth between his keyboard stand and the projection screen.
I can’t speak to past years, or to the much debated meaning and heritage of the festival, but to me, dancing like an idiot and stepping on many a toe in the midnight Texas breeze, this is what it’s all about. Forget those couple headlining acts (the Strokes, Bright Eyes, Janelle Monaé, who filled in for an injured or otherwise disinclined Cee-Lo Green). SxSW is for small, comfortable crowds in small, comfortable spaces, with both the bands and concertgoers relieved of much of the pressure involved in your typical outdoor fest beset by mosquitos and $5 bottles of water. It feels less like attending a festival and more like a vacation destination: South by Southwest, TX, eternal magical city of music and plaid.
Tags: A. Tom Collins, Abigail Washburn, Bright Eyes, Diamond Rings, Final Fantasy, In Flight Safety, Karkwa, Kingsley Flood, Lincoln Durham, Mister Heavenly, Mother Mother, Owen Pallett, PS I Love You, Rich Aucoin, Sore Losers, South by Southwest, The Head and the Heart, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Trampled By Turtles