When the overwhelming hype of the festival begins turning up underwhelming leads, it's important to get a little perspective from some of the city's fringe events.
I want to begin with an apology to Say Hi to Your Mom. I forget how cranky I get at SXSW. The opportunity to see bands from all over the world at any time of the day can actually turn you into a little brat, screaming for a pony in the exact color you asked for. When you factor in that most bands get a cursory soundcheck to play a cut-off set in venues where you can frequently hear another band playing right on top of them, I should know enough to have more critical empathy. I think my criticisms got buried under a self-infatuated layer of over-the-top invective. Although I stand by hating the performance, it's not like Say Hi to Your Mom makes the kind of music that deserves to be eviscerated. They're sincere at what they do even if I remain unmoved. That's not the writer I want to be, though sadly, it's the writer I often am. I promise to avoid future transference and keep the cage latched on my inner Cujo.
SXSW has officially begun. I realized that last night when walking down the sidewalk was like trying to run in a swimming pool. Even the fundamentalist Christians came out, flushed into the streets by scent of fun to ruin, with their warnings about Sodom and Gommorah, which I gather was the site of the first ever music festival. God, it seems, wasn't a fan. It's funny to me that they know the rhythms of SXSW enough to know that the LA and NYC contingents usually skip the first day as their form of fashionable lateness. I guess Wednesday night's souls weren't worth saving. Even berating heathens at SXSW operates on a caste system.
I have to laugh when I overhear people talking about the main drag of SXSW as if it is Austin. For the most part, if you're a music lover who lives here, you never go to Sixth Street, which is primarily for frat boys, tourists, and the people who try to make or beg money off them. That's fine, of course, every city tries to build a money-making tourist attraction, but it's not like you'd be able to say much about New York City if all you did was mingle and chit chat in the line to see the Statue of Liberty.
SXSW began as an Austin festival, a way to showcase Austin music and guests who hadn't yet gotten a record deal. I talked to one publicist I like quite a bit who basically shrugged and said that Austin had been officially "Sundanced". If I understand that term correctly, it means that while Austin and unsigned bands originally stood at the center of the festival, they are now the equivalent of waitstaff. Just go ahead and try to get in the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah showcase. Because if there's one thing SXSW does well it's taking over-hyped bands and cementing their ubiquity.
It's worth noting that SXSW has spawned a flood of counter festivals and free day shows as a directly defiant means of redistributing the creative wealth. So many, in fact, that you can be similarly deluged with choices even if you haven't forked out hundreds of dollars to spend the night out in your home town. Though we still haven't figured out how to undo the damage caused by The Real World Austin. This year, Fuck by Fuck You, SXS&M, the Texas Rock Fest, and countless other responses have cropped up so that the locals don't have to beg for crumbs. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to get your hair cut, have a burger, or even walk down any street with a shop on it that doesn't have some band jamming in the corner, on the sidewalk, or outside on the patio. In the interests of capturing an actual unsigned band at SXSW, I broke away from the showcases at the end of my second night. That, and some guy who looked like Ric Ocasek exhaled his ciggie into my face while talking his cell when we were in line together. When I looked at him, he shrugged, exhausted that I had forced him to acknowledge his naturally nonchalant discourtesy. Why don't these people end up on milk cartons? It's bad enough that we have psychopaths; it's worse that they refuse to do us favors. I said nothing, but did get out of line and finish my night elsewhere.
Hometown: Stockholm SWEDEN
Wednesday, March 15 -- 8:00 p.m. The Parish -- (214B E 6th St)
I actually forgot to mention this band from yesterday, an oversight concession to deadlines that I'm happy to remedy today. Envelopes have such a playful hodgepodge of discordantly cute influences that it can be difficult to find a descriptive way around them. The two vocalists, dueling male/female leads, both deploy that post-punk vocal style that eschews singing for a very stilted delivery that sounds like constantly slammed brakes. They howl, shout, make nonsense noises and switch in and out of what seems to be Swedish as they turn the vocals into an almost anti-rhythmic element of the songs. But instead of sharpening that jolting edge, they surround it with new wave synths and guitar that wouldn't be out of place behind Lene Lovich or Nina Hagen.
I had fun watching them perform in all their seizuring energy, but I'm still frankly undecided about the sound. I've been hearing a lot of bands that use synthesizers in this very openly kitschy way that reminds me of the pathological nostalgia of marathon '80s days on VH-1. Granted, these kids seem way too young to be using irony in that way, but I'm not sure I've ever heard irony deployed in instrumentation that doesn't automatically halve the shelf-life of a band. The Darkness anyone?
Margot and the Nuclear So and So's
Hometown: Indianapolis IN
Thursday, March 16 -- 8:00 p.m. -- Nuno's Upstairs (422 E 6th St)
I've got to give this band credit for trying to have this much going on with their sound. I think I lost count of the number of people on stage. If being in a band is like keeping a marriage together, these guys are from Utah. Which is interesting, since at their core they seem like a very singer-songwriterly band, the kind of thing you could just as easily scale back to a guitar and a tambourine. That's no insult, it's just my way of saying that I think they have very solid cores with a dense instrumental overlay. In the end, it comes out vaguely country, Whiskeytown with far more energy and a more elaborately perfumed sense of beauty. What I saw made me definitely want to check out the record even if I had reservations about the role of everyone on the stage. It takes quite a bit of intense creative chemistry to get that many people together and not have everyone end up playing simultaneously. I think it takes time and practice to give each musician their due or at least discover a way to create spaces for varying degrees of prominence. In the end, it was just a pretty wash of a sound to me, a flat blast of orchestral energy with no room for subtlety.
Hometown: London UK
Thursday, March 16 -- 8:00 p.m. -- Eternal (418 E 6th St)
Someone will probably want to kill me for this, but I kept thinking the Guillemots would be what Billy Joel would sound like if he took correspondence courses from Stuart Murdoch. I've heard the band by way of the MP3 blogosphere which has sadly degenerated into breaking bands out of habit and because, in the blogosphere, one day without a post is seven dog years. Lead singer Fyfe Dangerfield can definitely manage his way around a melody, but I frankly can't see all the fuss.
Whenever I see a "buzz" band that turns out so deflating in person, I can't help but wonder what cues create the hysterical rush to anoint in the first place. If the Guillemots were Americans wearing baseball caps and they didn't bring out toy instruments to play on for a few songs, what would critics have to say? I have a feeling they would find that drenching emotionalism of every single track a bit much (like, say, Emo for people older than 19), particularly in the way that they all tend to crescendo in the same way, with the same triumphal white noise ending. I'm over bands producing music with toys. While I used to find it a refreshing nod to innocence, it's now rote, a kind of hollow trick of a gesture. I'd rather see magic.
Hometown: Los Angeles CA
Thursday, March 16 -- 9:00 p.m. -- Maggie Mae's (323 E 6th St)
Deb Talan gets me right in my Joni Mitchell soft spot. There's no pretension here, no artifice, no beats by Fisher Price, and absolutely nothing hip. They won't make you look cool to your extended MySpace network, but there's absolutely nothing guilty in the pleasure of listening to them. Of course, as luck would have it, it was nearly impossible to hear them above the music playing in some other part of the same club, but I still stayed for the rest of their set. The way Talan and Steven Tannen harmonize makes me feel totally comforted and warm, and frequently, for some reason, on the verge of tears. It's like the Mamas and Papas shorn of all the San Francisco free love and the lousy cracks about Mama Cass's fat ass.
Still, as I concentrated closely, blocking out the polluting noise, it was the only time I've actually felt my positive emotions at SXSW. I've been satisfied, pleased with a performance or deeply impressed, but only analytically. When I hear a band like the Weepies, I remember that there's a reason I wanted to write about music in the first place, that I was moved to capture my amazement at what human beings could do with their mouths and hands and try to pass it along to others. When I interviewed the lead singer of I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House and we were talking about SXSW, he said "You know, just gotta get past all this industry machine shit and remember that we all got into this because we're a bunch of nerds. Sure, there's a couple guys that look like the Strokes, but most of us are just nerds." With all the hype and hierarchies, it's nice to catch a band impervious to posing.
The Gray Kid
Hometown: New York NY
Thursday, March 16 -- 9:15 p.m. -- Zero Degrees (405 E 7th St)
Here's where that empathy I mentioned in the first paragraph is going to come in handy. I already knew that Gray Kid wasn't the world's greatest emcee, but I liked him anyways. Sure, he often picked the rhyme that would be the first in anyone's mind, but the record I've been listening to cut an interesting cross section in the different kinds of club music and hip-hop floating around. It was essentially a pop record in the vein of Beck's "Where It's At" that I thought would help me to raise my energy. SXSW can be a particularly American kind of fun. Which is to say, if you like live music, then surely you'll love four days of seeing it all day and all night, with interviews, parties, and networking thrown into the mix. I was starting to settle into a constant state of exhaustion. Fun: everyone's second full time job.
That said, the Gray Kid most certainly didn't deliver on the promise of the record. He had absolutely no one on stage with him, something that few seasoned emcees could pull off. He had to press a CD player to start his backing tracks and pause it between songs (sometimes prematurely) in order to engage in banter recited to a crowd that was steadily backing away. I felt for him. He never found a groove, tripping up his own flow in lyrics that began wavering with nervous exposure. Of course, the house lights didn't help. When something goes this sour, it'd nice to have the covering shield of a shadow to slink into. Even the white suit he wears in press photos would have added a level of stylish distraction that the white t-shirt and jeans. This was an easy and amateurish misstep, but one that burned badly in this context. If I saw someone pull this off on the tailgate of their truck in a spontaneous street performance, it would be brilliant. In a club, during one of the biggest music festivals in the world, it was karaoke.
I knew he could feel how badly his performance was going and it was making him die inside. No one even pretended to listen or care so his groping efforts at generating enthusiasm dropped were met with palpable hostility. I used to do stand-up (very badly) and I know how easy it is for mistakes, blowing it up until they simply eat you alive in front of everyone. I couldn't stick around for this. I stand by original assessment of the album, and wish him the best for translating it to the stage. He's young; there will be a chance to shine another day.
Hometown: Philadelphia PA
Thursday, March 16 -- 10:00 p.m. -- Buffalo Billiards (201 E 6th St)
I don't believe anyone who tells me that they can see band after band and maintain a reasonably level of critical intensity. On another day, I might have a wholly different reaction to Mazarin's live set. On CD, Mazarin sounds intricately pretty to me, like a mathy take on the Byrds. This night, all the detail seemed crushed into muffled chords and vocals that Quentin Stoltzfus seemed to drop on the floor. It was rock music with no force, reclining back on the stage and barely making it into the audience.
It's just as likely that I structured my evening poorly, creating indie rock overkill. If you're going to see five or six bands in an evening, it's fairly crucial that the lines be stark enough between them that you can still see them. It's easy if you skip around genres, but when you see a bunch of bands that probably have a common ancestor, you find yourself suddenly needing surgically precise adjectives on half a night's sleep.
The Hot As Shits
I ended my night in the blue collar leather bear bar when I spend many a night anyway. Their new management has decided that it's a perfect place to have rock shows; consequently it's become a live music scene in its own right, this year offering up SXS&M in response to SXSW.
I'm so glad I got away for a palette cleanser, particularly entering into a night where the bands were so loud, brash, and confrontational. All woman three-piece the Hot As Shits bring the best of Peaches and Bikini Kill in music that's fierce, funny, and filthy. They fling out jagged riffs that spray like sliced veins and drums that could snap bone. They pound out quaking rhythms with huge footprints. How can you not have fun when the lead singer of a band, in her tight black dress, smiles at the crowd and announces, "This is a song I wrote about my pussy".
Brian Rowland is one of those people I've seen around town years before I actually found out he was a performer. My friend and I used to call him "scary eyes" because his eyes are to the color blue what anti-freeze is to the color green. He's one of those people who seem to treat everyday life like an art project, bold and defiant, yet pristinely artistic and premeditated in his personality. I always think he seems more New York than Austin. Every single time I see him out, it's like catching Leigh Bowery on the prowl; his outfits come embedded with weird statements and inversions of code. He'll dress like a baseball player after a dirty, sweaty game and come out to the gay bar to stand alone dancing as this sort of angry placard of anti-fashion fashion. I like that he takes the gay male obsession with "straight acting" and mocks it with sinister glee.
When I found out he had a band, I decided it was definitely worth breaking away from SXSW to catch him. I knew enough not to stand in the front row, because I had a feeling he would be one of those performers who absolutely refuses the boundaries of the stage and the niceties of presenting music served under glass. He dressed like a Third World dictator complete with pants made to look like jodhpurs, Burt Reynolds sunglasses, and a riding crops which he used to discipline the audience. I had so much pent-up aggression from SXSW that it was a total catharsis to see what amounted to an old school punk detonation with all the snide rage of Richard Hell or the Dead Boys.
It was a demented performance, feral and perverse, chaotic and controlled, and well, clearly toying quite a bit with music's underbelly of dominance and submission. It's punk rock sped right off the rails, chords and notes so tight, frenzied, and angry that you're afraid your teeth might fall out. His stage show mixes feminine poses with masculine threat in jarring juxtaposition as he sings in a very pointed, reined assault. I couldn't help but nearly die laughing when he ended his set by asking for his "dog" to come to the stage at which point this country club, Republican-looking guy in a polo came up, took off his clothes off to reveal bondage gear, and then got on his knees to hold the microphone up in a worshipful pose. I miss the impolitic theatricality of punk rock and wish more bands had dangerous agendas and fewer had images. I talked to him afterwards and he was both curiously quiet and unfailingly polite, noting that someone had said he looked like Hitler, which truly bothered him. "I'm not racist," he said almost sheepishly. He's a wildly beautiful animal and one of the most frighteningly exhilarating performers I've ever seen. I wish I could have brought the Clear Channel folks with me.