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Aside from being under the gun and under scrutiny, one often overlooks the extent to which artists are highly competitive and, in some instances, can easily recall perceived slights. In this clip, the Dum Dum Girls surprise the audience by introducing the song as a wicked response to the SXSW organizers, who denied the band’s application to play the conference several years ago. Curiously given the band’s widespread success, they have largely steered clear of playing a formal showcase. The set here is drawn from a day party at the 2011 Pitchfork Offline Festival. At the same event, Smith and Westerns lead singer Cullen Omori—perhaps reacting to expectations and a steady back-to-back schedule of showcases—lashes out at a fan for throwing something on stage, only to realize that the offending missile was lingerie thrown up by a female fan.
In recent years, the day parties seemed to be a source of tension for SXSW organizers, who silently chafe at major publications and promoters drafting off the success of the festival to stage competing showcases that tap into the critical mass of artists and fans assembled. Whether the preponderance of opportunities to catch artists at day parties and unofficial events has resulted in a decline in badge or wristband sales is debatable. The net effect seems to be to increase traffic and sprawl, resulting in a high concentration of events in East Austin, including the Fader Fort, the French Legation Museum, and wherever Pitchfork decides to pitch its competing outdoor Offline Festival. The inclusion of day party information on the SXSW website seems to indicate that the conference is at peace with the natural growth and evolution of the unofficial events. If only the Dum Dum Girls would be so forgiving!
Live performances call for spontaneity, particularly when artists encounter technical problems. In this humorous exchange, the Austin heat melts down one of the band’s laptops. Glasser initially resorts to a false ending, a reflex action to shut the song down. She follows this with a self-deprecating comment, quickly demonstrating a self-awareness of comparisons fans, critics, and industry observers are prone to make between Glasser and Bjork. After making light of the situation, she resorts to her natural gift, singing a beautiful acapella version of “I Only Have Eyes for You”. Glasser’s strength lies in the intricacy of her arrangements, which have been sampled by the likes of “cloud rap” artist Main Attrakionz. But it may be her grace under pressure that may ultimately be the main attraction.
While SXSW has typically involved thematic showcases curated by a record label, like-minded artists, or a national music council, a relatively recent development has been the work of celebrity fans hosting parties which, depending upon who you ask, are either exercises in vanity or represent a way for the music lover to use his or her clout to call attention to artists worthy of support. Two years ago, Celebrity gossip columnist Perez Hilton’s party featured Snoop Dogg and a emotional and resonant performance by Courtney Love, on the heels of her headline slot at the Spin magazine party (which was derided by many in attendance). With her back seemingly against the wall, Love drew support from the fact that she had Hilton solidly in her corner, and delivered a transcendent performance which took the audience back nearly 15 years. With that track record, expectations were high that Hilton would pull a surprise at last year’s party, held at the swanky theater that is home to the Austin City Limits Live broadcasts. This clip depicts the festive environment of Hilton’s event, summarized by the team of Mia Moretti and her collaborator electric violinist Caitlin Moe, who provides string accompaniment to the DJ.
Surprise appearances take many forms at SXSW. The most compelling surprises included being tipped off on a truly spectacular event, the appearance of an unlisted “Special Guest” to headline a showcase sponsored by the Guitar Hero. game. And then experiencing the thrill of reaching establishing position in the front row, stage right of Stubbs shortly before Metallica walks on stage, James Hetfield setting up shop a few feet away attending a house party on the East Side of Austin, and seeing the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach in the midst of a nearly hour-long jam session in the living room. Stronger still was knowing that an artist was scheduled to appear at the Conference as a keynote speaker. P. Diddy showed up to give props to the prolific hip hop artist Lil Jon (going through a bit of a crisis, leading to an extended venting to a supportive audience) and stuck around long enough to lay down some rhymes.
Bon Iver made a surprise appearance under the guise of DeYarmond Edison, which diehard fans would recognize as the name of the former band of leader Justin Vernon. In the same category, Jack White showed up in an Austin parking lot and proceeded to play a few songs to promote his mobile record store and recording studio, Third Man Records. Another star turn was Michael Cera, playing bass with indie supergroup Mr. Heavenly. Cera, feeling reined in on the small stage on the East side of town, decides to jump off and play on the side of the stage, where he continues to thrash about to maintain a range of motion free of spectators. One particular celebrity surprise highlight was seeing Moby play bass on Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Enola Gay”.
Things had been going swimmingly for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The duo of Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys were highlights of the Spin day party, one of SXSW’s most exclusive events. OMD embraced positive vibes, much like TV on the Radio (also on the bill), but a marked contrast to the Kills, who—typically one of the most dynamic and intense live acts—seemed surprisingly out of sorts. The evening showcases kicks off with one brilliant performance after another: City & Colour and the Airborne Toxic Event plumb emotional depths, while the Belgian choir Scala & Kolacny Brothers perform a harrowing version of Radiohead’s “Creep”, the track that formed the center of David Fincher’s The Social Network. OMD seems ready to kick off its set, when the unthinkable happens: a cherry picker camera boom which had been bobbing up and down throughout much of the evening suddenly comes crashing down, landing a few feet away from our group. In its wake, about a dozen fans appear to be sprawled on the ground. A fan next to us notes with relief the close call, then in a delayed reaction, suddenly mentions that he feels ill and proceeds to pass out. For the next half-hour, emergency and event staff clear a path and attend to the injured.
Thankfully, no one is seriously hurt. However, as McCluskey reemerges and gingerly approaches the audience, the show seems to be in doubt. After much deliberation and a quick scuttling of the band’s set, the group relays the good news: it will play, but only a truncated set. Off OMD goes, dashing through “Electricity”, “Tesla Girls”, “Forever Live and Die”, and “If You Leave”, barely pausing for a break between songs. McCluskey seems winded, but charged up by the audience reaction to the rapid fire collection of hits. “Ten minutes to go”, bellows McClusky to the audience and his bandmates, and with that they charge through their signature single, “Enola Gay”. Running up against curfew, the band plows through, making do with a shell of the original setlist. The audience leaves, rejuvenated.