[14 March 2012]
This week, industry professionals, artists, and the media gather in Austin, Texas for the 26th annual South by Southwest Music Conference. What started out as a meeting of the minds and a dog-and-pony-show for new and emerging artists has grown to become a popular destination for music fans. Consequently, SXSW increasingly attracts a broad range of entities with ties to the music industry, including participants, partners, platforms, and consumers of music. The convergence of entertainment media has brought the three SXSW conferences—music, film, and interactive technology—closer together. What was once considered anathema to artists (using rock and pop music to sell products, convey an image, or establish a brand) has become so common that the notion of “selling out”, once a label that could imperil an artist’s ability to maintain their integrity, has become quaint. In what has become a virtuous feedback loop, music helps sell movies and products, while movies and products help merchandise music. Music appears anywhere and everywhere, embedded in devices, advertisements, and film and television scores, no longer just existing as standalone works of art. Consequently, SXSW has grown from a glorified trade conference into a pop culture juggernaut.
To fully appreciate the ubiquity of music in our lives, and SXSW’s emergence as a major commercial force beyond its importance as a taste-maker and trendsetter, we take a look at a list of ten memorable performances from last year’s conference. If these moments trigger a sense of familiarity in the embedded SXSW experience, you’re probably the industry insider, hipster, local, or combined hip-local-industry-insider who refers to the conference as “South By”. If you are new to the SXSW experience, view this list as a crash course in what to expect from the conference.
One of 2011’s breakout groups, the Joy Formidable are representative of the type of buzz band that attendees hope to catch, and the critical mass an artist expects to pick up with a knowledgeable and potentially influential audience. Whereas SxSW (along with the annual College Music Journal Marathon) used to assume a potential kingmaker role, the current state of the DIY world of indie music is such that no one showcase is in itself a make-or-break opportunity. Growth opportunities for bands are generally more gradual and driven by other factors, such as an online download of a single, or a prominent film placement. In contrast, bands such as the Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party were able to achieve instantaneous acclaim on the basis of a few impressions “Whirring”, the Joy Formidable’s signature hit, demonstrates the ensemble’s extremes. Lead singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan displays a wide range of emotions, undergoing a Jeckyll-and-Hyde transformation from plucky, earnest, and deadpan humor, to a bundle of intensity and heavy metal guitar shredding, joined by the tight rhythm section of bassist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matt Thomas. Like many new and emerging groups, this performance is indicative of what a new band can expect playing its first SXSW: a series of short sets, anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, wedged into hour-time slots designed to allow conference attendees and music fans to bouce around from venue to venue.
A year ago, the Civil Wars were playing a full schedule of day parties, including this event curated by Paste magazine. Johnny Depp doppelganger John Paul White at one point asked audience members for a show of hands to see who had heard of the duo before the show. Only a fraction went up. John Paul and his partner Joy Williams engaged in a series of duets, often heart-felt and breathless exchanges that left the audience exultant over this new discovery. How far of a bump can a band receive from playing SXSW? In an example of the leaps and bounds that a new act can have with a series of breakout performances, the Civil Wars have been lauded as cross-over artists spanning folk, country, and bluegrass, and then were awarded a performance slot on the Grammy Awards telecast. While this is an extraordinary rise, it also is testament to the viral nature with which bands achieve notoriety in a buzz cycle increasingly measured in months and even weeks.
Each year, visitors to SXSW are often so caught up in their world of meetings and official parties that they miss the opportunity to catch Austin artists or experience much of the city’s character, unless they have the good fortune or foresight to catch a showcase at a historic venue. SXSW veterans and fans of Americana music recognize the Continental Club’s draw, which dates back to 1955, where it served as a supper club and one of the old Texas swing clubs, drawing the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn MIller, and Houston’s Mascots (featuring future Hogan’s Hero, Larry Hovis). The Continental Club is located in the older, eclectic section of Austin that contains a range of unique boutiques, galleries, and restaurants. Alejandro Escovedo is a regular fixture at the Continental Club and his annual Sunday night—which he emcees—features a consistent cast of characters, including close Alejandro collaborators such as Chuck Prophet, Lenny Kaye, and Jesse Maylin, as well as younger artists that he curates and recommends. Escovedo’s showcase is a way of paying it forward to other members of the tight knit Austin music community. The large ensemble on stage for Escovedo’s harrowing song about the Chelsea Hotel, (drawn from his experience as a punk rocker who hung out in Chelsea and the Lower East Side) is representative of the energy of his live show. This year, the schedule has been expanded to 15 artists over a whopping 12 hours, including sets by ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson and guest appearances by members of R.E.M.
SXSW encourages intimacy between performers and audience in a number of unique settings. One of the most arresting encounters was seeing indie rock idol Lou Barlow (Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr.) gleefully playing an acoustic cover of Ratt’s “Round and Round” in the food court of the Austin Convention center. Isolate a performer from his bandmates and strip away arrangements, pedal effects, and other devices, and what you have within every musician is a troubadour, singing for his supper. Such is the joy of catching Ted Leo—who whether performing a solo acoustic set or an electric set with his bandmates the Pharmacists—summons up passion, angst, and wit into his delivery, in some cases in the same phrase. Leo’s deadpan humor and self-effacing charm is on display in his cover here of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues”, a Celtic-tinged track which Leo decided to play in commemoration of St. Patrick’s Day. The event, a day party at one of the more unique alternative venues in Austin, is the French Legation Museum, a mix between a historic site, arboretum and museum. Other performers included breakout singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, another performer who combines grace, humor and passion into her songwriting, and Lia Ices, an experimental singer/songwriter also part of the highly impressive Jagjaguwar label.
One of the exciting challenges of catching any artist live is the spontaneity and unpredictability of witnessing the artist in an unguarded moment or having to react to an unexpected situation. In a day and age when many live performances are canned, bands often minimize risk by carefully crafting setlists and arrangements, which can result in performances that often seem to be on autopilot. Throw artists into the gauntlet of playing SXSW, where they are expected to play multiple shows over a fixed set of days—and often multiple sets in a day with little or no opportunity to do a sound check—and they are are subject to the vagaries of equipment and sound issues. So what happens when the situation occurs not to a new act, but a veteran band? The Bangles were the penultimate artist on an inspired bill that featured predominantly female groups. The benefit for Girls Rock Camp included the Sounds and Smoosh (which made its debut at SXSW several years ago when the girls were in their teens—think the American Girl equivalent to Hanson). So what happens when a band is faced with sound-induced challenges that—given the tight way in which artists are packed into showcase schedules—shortens its window to play? Being the professionals that they are, the Bangles adapted, crossing several songs of their setlist and then rapidly playing through the set to the best of their ability, adding a sense of urgency to the harmonies and shifting vocals.
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.