SXSW 2011 Report 1: The Words

 

 

In which the harried writer clears
the fog from his brain and tries to… remember. Meanwhile, feel free to jog YOUR
memory via our collection of photo galleries, which you can access starting
right here.

 

By Fred
Mills / Photos by Scott Dudelson

 

The
gridlock arrived early in Austin
this year.

 

As
impossible-to-pin-down as the annual South By Southwest music festival and
conference has become – reaching its 25th anniversary, it certainly
doesn’t resemble its early Americana-titling self; staunch rockers scratch
their heads over the steadily-rising presence of dance music and hip-hop (Kanye
West at 4am? Really? The dude’s a big
deal, but c’mon… he’s about as Texas as my pet cockatoo.); and all those “event
happenings” like the Rachael Ray and Perez Hilton parties, though featuring
bands, are really just amped-up trash ‘n’ tabloid gatherings for folks
desperate to say they got in – it’s
perversely satisfying that the one thing you can still count on is the annual Austin clusterfuck. And not only
downtown, too, where the SXSW human tentacles spread outward in all directions
from 6th Street, but also the outlying areas from where more than a
few weary bodies can be seen limping back to the hotel in the wee, wee hours of
the morning because there just ain’t enough cabs to go around anymore.

 

Just the
same, even longtime SXSW vets such as yours truly were heard expressing shock
that as early as 2pm on Wednesday afternoon, traffic within a 4-block radius of
SXSW Ground Zero (aka the Austin
Convention Center) was
already at a standstill, and nearby 6th Street itself already looked like a battle zone.
Wednesday, it seems, is the new Friday for SXSW – which is why more than a few
prescient attendees arrived on Monday, making Monday the new Wednesday, duh, thereby
overlapping with the SXSW Film and Interactive festivals and therefore
compounding the whole clusterfuck shebang… you can see where this is going.
Speaking of Interactive, one SXSW regular quipped to me, “I’ve never seen so many
tech geeks before in my life – and Austin’s
already a wired town.” My prediction: Interactive is where the buzz and the
money will be for the near future. Not that Music is spent, of course, not by a
long shot…

 

The BLURT
crew parachuted directly into this mess from all points on the map on Wednesday
– publisher and CEO (and owner of Second Motion Records) Stephen Judge wisely
arrived a day early just so he could have a chance to take a deep breath – and
proceeded to, er, do what we always do in Austin. Survive. And have some fun. Elsewhere on our website you can read
Senior Editor Randy Harward’s top picks, along with some cool video clips. Here
are some highlights I glommed onto. Guarantee:
selective memory now in operative mode.

 

***

 

First and
foremost: The BLURT/Second Motion
Official SXSW Showcase,
which was held Thursday night at the venerable
Continental Club. First up were Finland’s Latebirds (pictured at the top, and currently profiled in the new issue of our magazine,
copies of which were in abundance for all attendees) who absolutely killed with
their hi-nrg but deeply tuneful powerpop-tilting Americana – think a younger
version of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, particularly when frontman and
chief songwriter Markus Nordenstreng strapped on his Roger McGuinn-signature
12-string Rickenbacker (check the brooding jangler “Fearless” from the latest
album Last of the Good Ol’ Days to
hear what I mean; it will be released in the States shortly via Second Motion).
The 5-piece is naturally charismatic, but self-aware, and they clearly have a
great time together onstage and are infectious to watch. A nice bonus was the
closing tune, a piano-powered cover of the Steve Goodman classic “City of New Orleans.” Next came K’s Choice, in what was the beloved
Belgian band’s first American show since 2004, and founding member siblings
Sarah and Gert Bettens did not disappoint with their current ensemble. The
venue rapidly hit capacity for the group’s set, with obviously rabid, longtime
fans crowding down front, swooning at Sarah’s every move and inflection while
singing along with practically every song. Speaking of fans: at one point Tegan
& Sara slipped in the back door of the venue and they watched most of the
performance from the side of the stage.

 

In short
succession after that: Ian Moore,
whose trio was totally “on” from the start, blasting out soul-drenched rock ‘n’
roll like their lives depended on it; David
Garza
, who veered between quirky, poetic pop and dark, dub-inflected
psychedelic jams (his overhauled version of ‘90s hit “Disco Ball World” even
featured his female keyboardist spinning a flashing-lights hula hoop to great
visual effect); Jon Langford & Skull
Orchard
, laying down crazed, hilarious drunken shanties and blazing punk
rock (abetted towards the end of the set by a mandolinist) from his assorted
albums and closing with a riotous version of Langford’s 3 Johns nugget “Death
of the European”; and Scott H. Biram,
a one-man mojo dirt blooze punk rock machine, who much to the delight of the
still-packed house extended his set all the way to the 2am point. At which time
the BLURT crew wandered into the street to hail a cab back to the hotel, only
to witness a 2:30am street scene seemingly lifted from some zombie apocalypse
flick, our cabbie dodging drunken revelers while doing his best to inch along
the boulevard. See note above re: clusterfuck. Austin
was already looking like Woodstock
’94 – the only thing missing were the blazing pyres.

 

Secondly,
of course, was the three-day party at the Gingerman Pub, cosponsored by BLURT
and the good folks at Dogfish Head Music. Gallons and gallons of ale were
consumed, and many copies of the new magazine were handed out as well-wishers
and more than a few celebrities dropped by to catch the action. (Actually, it
was more than just a day party, as the sets simply kept going after the sun
went down and ran until 1am.) On Thursday we had Marques Toliver, Lydia Loveless, Eatliz, Jon
Langford & Skull Orchard
followed by the Waco Brothers (which made for a nice big Langford sandwich), Ha Ha Tonka, Hoots and Hellmouth, Kingsley
Flood, Ryan Schmidt, Cliff Hillis, Mean Creak, McAlister Drive
and Andy Friedman. The next day was a big
‘un that saw the venue fill to capacity early in the afternoon by the time the Fleshtones hit the stage. That was followed
by rousing sets from both Steve Wynn
& the Miracle 3
and The Baseball
Project
(featuring R.E.M.’s Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck plus Wynn and
his M3 drummer Linda Pitmon – the latter two were aiming for a SXSW record of
greatest number of events played at a single SXSW and did, if memory serves, 13
shows over the course of the four days). When Mike Watt showed up for his set the line was out the Gingerman door
and stretching a full block down the street. Also on the bill for Friday: The Bell
Rays, Richard Barone, LITE, The Bluebonnets, Supercluster, Casper and the Cookies
and Flash To Bang Time. Saturday brought an
encore performance from The Latebirds (who, like many bands, were doing multiple shows during the week) and a particularly
twisted one from Eddie Spaghetti of
The Supersuckers, as well as Gram
Rabbit, Locksley, Evaline, Jimmy Gnecco, Blackbells, Colourslide, David Wax
Museum, Girls Guns and Glory, Parallax Project
and
The Wandas. A big ol’ BLURT thanks
to the bands for taking part in the Gingerman parties, and a special thanks to
the pub and Dogfish Head for partnering with us for the week.

 

And let
us not forget our buddies at Bloodshot
Records
, who invited us along as a cosponsor of their annual SXSW Yard Dog
Party (held at, as usual, the Yard Dog gallery, also on Friday). It was a
fan-packed, beer-swilling, pie-eating bash, with a who’s-who of Bloodshot
artists getting their mojos working until early evening: Carolyn Mark, Maggie Bjorklund w/Cobirds Unite,
Lydia Loveless, Exene
Cervenka, Whitey Morgan & the 78s, Freakwater, Eddie Spaghetti, Ha Ha Tonka
and the Waco Brothers. The morning after we wandered down to South Congress to grab some
breakfast and ran into Jon Langford at the Yard Dog – he has his artwork on
display at the gallery – and found him in decidedly upbeat spirits, happy about
the response both Skull Orchard and the Wacos had been getting this year at
SXSW. “The first day, on Wednesday, just about fookin’ killed me, though,” he
noted. “Had to make it back and forth across town to three separate gigs!”

 

***

 

The Austin Convention Center – aka the SXSW nerve center –
wasn’t totally immune from clusterfuck syndrome this year either, as virtually
every square inch of space on the first floor seemed to be occupied by kiosks,
booths, stages, bulletin boards and, of course, foot traffic. For yours truly,
though, it’s always been the various panels and workshops upstairs that have
held the greatest appeal – it’s called a music conference, after all. And from erstwhile Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof’s remarkably enlightened
keynote address this year, in which he zeroed in on the core qualities of rock
‘n’ roll (“the rhetoric and instrument of change”) while lamenting the ubiquity
of ones and zeroes (“When I see people queuing for an iPad, I despair – it’s a
fucking piece of metal!”), all the down to a series of panel discussions about
music and the law (in particular, the one called “The Impact of Recent Big Music Cases,” which featured
entertainment industry lawyers talking about several significant lawsuits that
involved Sugarland, Eminem and Survivor), there was plenty of mental floss to
go around.

 

Unfortunately,
the bulk of the panels appeared to be relatively poorly attended, and as they
all took place roughly between noon and 6pm, the only logical culprit can be
the day parties – official SXSW events and unofficial parties alike – that
contribute to the artery-clogging of Austin and draw attendees away from the
ConCenter. That’s a real shame, too, because people deserve to find out about,
say, influential late session pianist Nicky Hopkins, whose life and times was
outlined at the “And On Piano… Nicky Hopkins” panel. Or to
get the story on legendary soul label Philadelphia International Records
straight from the horses’ mouths via a video feed hookup from Austin to Philly
where the equally legendary songwriting and producing team of Gamble & Huff spoke to panelists
and attendees (“TSOP: Celebrating
Gamble, Huff and Philadelphia International Records”
– I literally counted
only 30 heads in the entire auditorium). Or one bearing the provocative title “I’m Not Old, Your Music Does Suck” wherein a brace of self-styled curmudgeon rock critics laid out the whats and
wherefores of trying to keep track with all the musical bric-a-brac in an
overcrowded, diminishing-returns contemporary milieu (particularly fun:
old-timer Ed Ward ripping into Paste for
closing up shop and stiffing writers in the process; and potty-mouthed Paige
Maguire, who proved there’s always something sexy about a gal cursing like a
surly 14-year old schoolboy). And speaking of critics (and fun): “Critics vs. Publicists: Why Must Things Be
Contentious
was a must-attend
for any of you writerly geeks and label
or independent music public relations folks who’ve ever locked horns with one
another but still forced to make nice at the end of the day. Representing the
critics: Bill Holdship of Creem/Metro
Times
fame and Kyle Ryan of The Onion and A.V. Club. For the flacks: indie
publicists Traci Thomas and Heather West, plus industry vet (and former critic
himself) Bill Bentley, from Warner Bros. and Neil Young. Everything from the
p.r. world’s latest gulag (i.e. digital promo servicing) to some notable
roc-crit gaffes over the years (like the guy who would hang on to artists’ phone
numbers after doing interviews and subsequently call them up to chat) was
covered, and pretty much everyone in the room was seen nodding their heads and
smiling in recognition. For 2012, let’s have an encore edition of this panel,
please.

 

***

 

On to a few musical highlights… don’t worry. We know that writers’
laundry lists of who they saw, where they went, who they ran into, and how
trashed they got are dead boring to everyone except the hack who scribbles it.
So here’s just a few, offered with the intention of countering the stuff way
back in the first paragraph. Gridlock or no gridlock – and make no mistake,
nighttime in Austin during SXSW really has taken on the look of an epic sequence
from Lord of the Rings or something;
it’s not for people who don’t dig crowds, that’s for sure – you can ALWAYS find
some cool stuff to take in. That’s true particularly if you stay away from the
giant “event” and celebrity-branded shows and attempt to ferret out the
lesser-knowns in the less-crowded venues. (Hint: those are the ones that don’t
have a line extending down the street and have a lot of anxious-looking
hipsters shifting nonstop from foot to foot.) Oh, and by the way: this year’s
official SXSW buzzword is shoegaze,
as it seemed that every hour or so I encountered a band – from America, from
overseas, no matter – who must have grown up on a diet of 4AD and Creation
records.

 

The Hobart Bros. & L’il Sis
Hobart

Wednesday afternoon, at the annual Guitartown/Conqueroo SXSW Kickoff day party
@ The Dogwood: this was a thinly-disguised Susan Cowsill, Jon Dee Graham and
Freedy Johnston, plus rhythm section, knocking out some sweet ol’ twang ‘n’
strum from their forthcoming album. Their in-between banter was the stuff of
high hokum, but squint your eyes and open your ears and it was easy to believe
they were, in fact, siblings. The musical kind.

 

Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires – Wednesday
afternoon, at the American Songwriters day party @ Swan Dive: acoustic guitar
and fiddle, respectively, from the duo, as they showcased a number of tracks
from Isbell’s upcoming album Here We Rest,
notably standout tracks “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine” but also a number of old
Isbell faves such as “Outfit.”

 

Chico Mann – Wednesday night, Wax Poetics
showcase, at Scoot Inn: the occasional vocalist for Antibalas Afrobeat
Orchestra served up computer- and effects-powered material from his recent
album Analog Drift, for an extremely
unique DJ performance falling in between hip-hop and funk/soul sets.

 

 

Khaira Arby, Wild Flag & Joy
Formidable

Thursday, NPR Day Party @ The Parish: once again, as in years previous, NPR
presented one of the best musical lineups of the entire SXSW, and once again at
the upstairs steam bath known as The Parish. Malian vocalist Arby was riveting,
singing in her native language and beating a hand drum while her band swirled
assorted highlife and Afrobeat sounds behind her – it was mesmerizing, and
joyful. Wild Flag, of course, was the highly anticipated supergroup of Carrie
Brownstein, Janet Weiss, Mary Timony and Rebecca Cole. They did not disappoint,
with a set equal parts punk-fueled powerpop and distaff glam. Lots of jumping
around, and anthemic as hell; this band will be one of the most celebrated by
years-end, mark my words. And speaking of anthems, Joy Formidable (profiled in
the new issue of BLURT) had a massive sound, U2 worthy, full of shoegazey, echo-drenched
guitar frissons and charismatic vocals marked by the singer’s 1000-yard stare
and eagerness to engage the audience, who willingly followed her.

 

 

Polock & Depedro – Friday night, Sounds From Spain
showcase @ Red Eye Fly: In a room crammed equally with Latinos and Caucasians,
the former crafted a uniquely Brooklyn-esque brand of jangly indiepop, with the
only difference being the lyrics sung in Spanish. The latter (aka Jairo Zavala)
was equally compelling, nicely textured and deeply emotional, with elements of
folk, pop and traditional sounds all coalescing.

 

Future Clouds and Radar – Friday Night @ Easy Tiger: Despite
the indoor room’s horrible, brick-lined acoustics, this longtime Austin-based
fave of mine was “on”, with frontman Robert Harrison spieling his complex pop
tunes in uncommonly high-energy fashion.

 

Lanterns On The Lake
Friday Night,
Bella Union/Zeitgeist showcase @ Central Presbyterian Church: Shoegaze alert! Billing
themselves as “cinematic indie” is pretty apt; the British 5-piece crafted
synapse-tingling sounds from the ground up, building from a hushed drone into a
grandly crashing, Mogwai-esque roar via guitars and strings. The reverberation
off the church sanctuary walls seemed to have an otherworldly presence all its
own.

 

 

 

Wye Oak – Friday Night, Merge showcase @
The Parish: How the hell can two people make such a huge sound? Jenn Wasner is
a force of nature unto herself, but what was gorgeous pop on album became a
soul-shearing set of psychedelia in concert.

 

Vidulgi OoyoO – Saturday afternoon, Seoulsonic
showcase @ Easy Tiger patio: The leather-jacketed Korean band (the name translates
as “Pigeon’s Milk”) was part a collective of Seoul-based indie rock combos. And
man, oh man, did their stuff rock: any band who can simultaneously AND
effectively channel Spacemen 3, Loop, My Blood Valentine, the MC5 and the
Velvet Underground deserves consideration beyond mere “shoegaze” labeling. Their
whammy-bar powered jet-engine roar, rife in dynamics and boasting some sweet
three-guitar harnessing of feedback, hit me like the proverbial lightning bolt
and I found myself being sucked closer and closer to the stage just so I could
feel the sonic gale blow through me. Absolutely thrilling, and quite possibly
the best surprise I’ve had in 10 years of attending SXSW.

 

Laura Stevenson & the Cans – Saturday night, Bridge City
Industries @ Barbarella: With her Cat Power bangs and pixieish voice, the Brooklyn singer-songwriter stands a good chance of being
the next buzz-babe when her album on Don Giovanni arrives next month. She was
backed by a bevy of bearded boys, which set up all manner of cliches in the
mind (one of them also wielded the hipster instrument of choice, a trumpet),
but in her sweet, affecting, indiepop-cum-folk-cum-shoegaze resides a sound that
is pure and soulful.

 

Pujol – Saturday night, Panache showcase @
Mohawk Patio: Nashville
cat with some degree of Jack White-approved fame (he issued a single on White’s
Third Man label), Pujol was equal parts Southern swampy twang and sloppy,
revved-up garage punk. Good for clearing out the ears and making the feet
twitch.

 

 

 

 

Bobby Rush – Saturday night,  True South showcase @18th Floor Hilton
Garden: Wow. Richard
Pryor reincarnated as a guitar-wielding bluesman. Songs about friggin’ your
woman and missin’ your woman, with equal emphasis, all done with a minimalist
twang and a low-down dirty ‘tude. The Louisiana-born, Mississippi-based
songwriter specializes in swampy folk-funk, but that description can’t possibly
prepare one for the actual live show by this raunchy raconteur. Memo to
parents: if you are thinking of exposing your child to the blues, better start
elsewhere. Everybody else: let’s rock!

 

Dennis Coffey – Saturday night @ Beauty Bar/Palm
Door: Looking Lonnie Mack-worthy dapper in a sleek suit and fedora, the
Motown-era guitarist/producer and all-around Detroit legend tore through a set
that was equal parts funk/soul and psych-tinged hard rock – in fact, at times
you could hear the simultaneous strains of such Motor City sonic iconography as
MC5, Edwin Starr and the Temptations. Cool as ice and never breaking a sweat,
he simply let rip with the riffs while his band brewed up some funky chaos in
his wake. Quite a teaser for his upcoming, self-titled album on the Strut
label.

 

Dom Mariani 3 & The Cynics – Saturday night, Get Hip Records
showcase @ Easy Tiger patio: Australian legend Mariani brought his other band,
The Stems, over to the States for the Get Hip showcase a couple of years ago,
but this time it was his trio, and a fine trawl through the powerpop maven’s
back catalog ensued, including tracks by DM3, Stems and the Someloves. Oh – and
two Big Star songs in tribute to the late Alex Chilton, delivered so spot-on
that some attendees were seen with tears streaming down their faces. Garage/pop
kings The Cynics closed the evening out with a slew of tracks from their
forthcoming album, and it’s safe to say that the boys from Pittsburgh aren’t missing a beat these days
despite three decades in the biz. When you’ve got no less a living legend than
Fleshtones frontman Peter Zaremba dancing arm in arm with a line of punters
right down front at your gig, you’ve got some serious bragging rights. Who
needs to stay up until 4am worrying about trying to find a silly Kanye West
afterhours party when you can close out SXSW in high style with the Cynics?

 

Boy
howdy. See you next March.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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