South by Southwest Film 2005: A Field Journal
Brit Hype and Latin Rockers -- Our intrepid crew enjoys media darling of the moment, M.I.A., the stellar Doves and hot rock from south of the border.
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MUSIC: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4
FILM: Day 1 | Days 2 & 3 | Days 4 & 5 | Day 6
Thursday, March 17 - Day 2
Looking at the official schedule and other preparatory materials for SXSW, there are a bunch of things I didn't really know, having never been to the festival before. 1. The area in which this festival takes place actually is quite small, so a car isn't necessary. In fact, renting a car is a really bad idea, considering how hard it is to park and the 28 percent tax Austin imposes on car rentals. 2. Though the event ostensibly continues through Sunday, nothing really happens on that day. There are maybe a dozen bands playing Sunday night, none of them terribly significant, and the conference concludes on Saturday. 3. Many people don't even attend the conference during the day, going instead to any of a number of parties thrown by labels and magazines. Some of these parties are invite-only and require special laminates, others let in anyone with a badge, and still others are open to the public. 4. Though SXSW sells cheap wristbands to locals that ostensibly can get the people wearing them into any show, you really need to have a badge to have any reasonable assurance of getting into what you really want to see, particularly if what you want to see is the same as what almost everyone else wants to see too (example: the BBC Radio 1 showcase on Thursday night). 5. Even if you do have a badge, you could spend hours waiting in line to get into a hot show if you don't show up early enough (example: the BBC Radio 1 showcase on Thursday night).
THE WRENS � 1.30pm, Emo's Outside Stage
Any avid reader of pretty much any 'zine covering indie rock has probably been inundated with the heaps and heaps of love bestowed upon the Wrens. Get ready for more, folks! As this was my first time to see the band, I feel it's my duty to give you some more reasons why they rock. It's in the way they captivated an audience of movers and shakers in the quiet moments and got them bouncing during the loud ones. It's in the way they kind of look like average, middle-aged salary guys playing in a cover band on the weekends to blow off steam -- that is, until the first lick gets played. It's in the way they crawl in the rafters and jump off the kick drum. It's in the harmonies. It's in the sincere humbleness. It's for hitting the all the right chords and pulling all the right strings, literally and metaphorically. This definitely goes down as a SXSW highlight.
STARS � 2.15pm, Emo's Outside Stage
And again, Canada brings us another group with lots of members, diverse instrumentation, and richly crafted songs. Not quite as melodramatic as the Arcade Fire or as experimental as the closely-related Broken Social Scene, Stars walk a pretty accessible line while still adding a touch of the grandiose. The stand-out component is the bass, which handles most of the riffing while the guitar rides the rhythm. As for the sound on this particular day, I guess you could say that Stars sounded... good. Almost too good. Their songs are well-written and the performance was almost flawless save for some occasional feedback. But maybe it wasn't loud enough. Or perhaps it was an off day. Whatever the cause, the it that makes a good band transcend goodness on stage wasn't happening. There were moments that came close. Amy Millian certainly upped the sexual ante with her vocals on "One More Night", and closer "He Lied About Death" carried the intensity that I wish had been there throughout the short set. Nevertheless, I thought the set was fairly enjoyable. I had just hoped for more from a band that in its finer moments is probably more capable of commanding an audience.
The first half of Thursday I learned a lesson in inefficiency. In an attempt to see Stars, I went to the wrong venue (right club, wrong stage) and wasted 15 minutes trying to figure out when Stars had become an all-male hard rock band. Finally, I tracked them down, and they lived up to my expectations. Frontman Torq Campbell certainly provides the band's centerpiece, not only as primary songwriter, but also as energy source. Whether singing or playing or jumping, he steals the show.
Next, I was off to the trade show, which mostly just distracted me long enough to miss 80% of Clem Snide's set. What I heard was good, but it wasn't enough. Then I had to quickly hustle of to see Murder By Death -- a band I had never heard of until a few days ago. They were exciting, and the first band I've seen who used an electric cello in music this heavy. The guitarist/vocalist said he wanted to "play a guitar solo that would black out the sun". He felt the band's dark songs about "hell" and "fuck-ups" lost a little atmosphere in the bright Texas sun. He might have been right, but it was easy enough to see they rock. The only downside to the performance was that the singer tended to be a little "pitchy", as Randy Jackson would say. If he tightens up some, they could be a very exciting band to keep an eye on.
ELECTROCUTE � 8.00pm, Elysium
The evening started with Electrocute, who was a little too much of both halves of their name. Dressed like a discoslut and Swiss Miss fantasy find, the duo performed choreographed routines with a nod to glam. Perhaps because the initially catchy tunes soon became repetitive, the duo could pull of the ironic (non- or otherwise) sexiness they were going for. The weak lyrics -- like the bubblegum euphemism for oral sex -- couldn't support them either, although bringing on stage a representative figure for their ode to chubby boys was a nice moment.
KATHY MCCARTY � 8.00pm, Cactus Cafe
For me, this was THE show -- the one that got me misty-eyed with anticipation. In the '80s, Kathy McCarty shared vocal duties with Brian Beattie in the best indie rock band you've never heard of, the awesome Glass Eye. They were so ahead of their time back then that the music still sounds fresh today. But that was the '80s.
When the band broke up, Beattie moved on to producing, co-helming the beloved Dead Milkmen record Beezlebubba. McCarty went solo, recording Dead Dog's Eyeball, a collection of Daniel Johnston tunes that's infinitely more cohesive than the recently released Discovered, Covered comp. For a sample, check out the credits to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise; a lovely track called "Living Life" runs throughout. But that was the '90s. Then she disappeared.
This comeback performance of sorts, to promote her long awaited second full-length Another Day in the Sun, reunited her with Beattie on bass as well as a couple of other talented musicians. Decked out in her trademark '50s bun hair-do and horned-rimmed glasses, Kathy played as if she never left. The set list was a roller coaster, ranging from beautiful ballads to funky Glass Eye-style rock to danceable pop. The glue that holds it all together, of course, is McCarty's voice, which is bold, low, and loud -- catchy yet unconventional. On this night, she rocked the cozy, acoustic venue like an arena, and judging by the standing ovation she received after the all-too-brief set, she succeeded in doing what only the best arena bands are capable of. She left the audience wanting more.
Z-TRIP � 9.00pm, Elysium
Z-Trip followed, and he totally brought it, throwing on everything from classic prog to Janis Joplin to Ray Charles, and at one point remixing the entirety of "Baba O'Riley". A late highlight came when he brought out guest MC Busdriver to do a track in support of Z-Trip's new album. He even surprised himself with how good it was. Key moment: dropping Snoop like he was hot over AC/DC.
SXSW FAILURES (PART 2) � 9.00pm
Here's something you don't often hear about when reading about SXSW coverage -- the means of admission. When you're reading synopses of SXSW showcases in Spin or Rolling Stone or Blender, you're reading reviews written by critics who held coveted badges. Badges cost Joe Average like you and me around 500 bucks and thus get top priority when the venues start to fill up. The casual music fan generally resorts to buying a wristband, which will run you anywhere from $110 to $150, depending on when you buy it. A wristband guarantees no cover, but it will not guarantee you admission. Or, you can arrive very early and pay cover, which could be $10 to $30. This third option means that you're pretty much stuck wherever you go first, which is typically looked at by festival attendees as the least appealing option.
I am now inclined to think otherwise. As has become painfully obvious to me this year, in order to see any first-tier acts, it's imperative that wristband holders also get to the venue three, maybe even four, hours early. And even then, you may get screwed.
For instance, anyone looking for this reporter at the M.I.A. show on Thursday may have noticed that I too was missing in action�or inaction, as it were. I was outside, near the front of the line, where I had been for two hours. To be fair, the staff working this particular club never lied to us. They told every wristband holder from the get-go that we had no chance of getting in. I didn't believe them. I thought surely this was a means of thinning out the line. Surely they were going to let one wristband in for every five or six badges. Surely they weren't going to cow-tow to the industry rubberneckers who were only there to satisfy the curiosity stirred up by the hype surrounding M.I.A. Surely they wouldn't completely deny the actual fans of the music access.
At least, that's been my experience in the past. But alas, it was not to be as badge holder after badge holder, many of whom had been in line for only half and hour, walked past me. As the happy elite strolled out of view, so did my chances to see great bands like the Nein and the Deathray Davies, who were playing less crowded venues nearby. Apparently, I should've arrived at 5, which begs the question: What's the point of buying a wristband? Apparently, there isn't one, unless you're one of the lucky few who has absolutely no interest in the buzz bands of the fest. And even then, you're probably better off paying the $12 cover at those venues. You'll probably come out ahead in the end.
On another note, after conceding defeat, I headed over to the Stubb's inside bar, and who should I see standing next to me but one-time hobbit Elijah Wood. Being in a right pissy mood, I had to resist the urge to get in his face and say, "Hey Frodo! Why don't you buy me a beer, rich guy?" For the second night in a row, though, I decided it was better to avoid a jail cell. I now think that if I'm going to accost anyone, it will be a cast member of the Real World, which has currently invaded Austin. That way, I'll have a little memento of the occasion when it airs later this year.
VHS or Beta
VHS OR BETA � 10.00pm, Stubb's
When the timewarp vortex to the 80s opened sometime last year, the members of Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, the Killers, and Interpol among countless others jumped through it and made it back unscathed. Can we shut this sucker down now, please? Even the name VHS or Beta is a wink-wink nostalgia baiter that's a little bit too clever for my tastes. Will I deny that VHS or Beta's set was chock full of catchy and well-performed tunes? Certainly not, but don't presume to tell me that anything that this band wrote required the slightest hint of imagination or originality. Perhaps I would've been more forgiving had I not been shut out of a much more creative artist's showcase just minutes before. Oh, and this penchant of American frontmen for affecting English accents has really got to stop. You're from Kentucky, for Christ's sake!
M.I.A. � 11.00pm, Elysium
M.I.A. really rocked and clearly has the stage presence and performance sense to back up the hype around her debut. Oddly, she and her other vocalist kept making references to having just gotten off the plane and being jet-lagged and so on. We couldn't tell it, so it's odd they kept talking about it; it seems as if M.I.A. hasn't settled in to being the buzz act she is yet. I don't know who the other vocalist is, but she's a great addition to the live show -- she's gorgeous and overflowing with energy. Diplo DJ'ed the set, and I think he's having as much fun right now as anyone, which really showed when he forced the vocalists to come back for an encore with "Dummy".
PLASTILINA MOSH � 11.00pm, Mambo Kings
Latin alternative music veterans, Plastilina Mosh, didn't have much to prove at SXSW. They have a strong cross cultural following of Anglo and Latino music fans to feel any of that SXSW newbie jitters. They've been at the festival before, as Latin alternative newcomers in 1996, and last year, sharing the bill with Ozomatli at the now infamous 6th Street fiasco. At Mambo Kings, the electronic duo, toned down the drum machine and assembled a rock band, to enhance a live-band sound from 1997's Aquamosh, 2000's Juan Manuel, and 2004's Hola Chicuelos. Alejandro Rosso decked out in space-man sunglasses and a Barry Manilow shirt, and Jonaz in his usual cut-off shirt and faded jeans, display an appealing combination of Spanglish electronica, hip-hop, and garage rock that's lathered with such pop quirkiness that it's hard not to like these guys.
THE FUTUREHEADS � 11.00pm, La Zona Rosa
One of the better-known bands on the new, "angular" Art-Rock scene, the Futureheads turned in a mostly satisfying set here. Their sound: jerky, mechanistic, but danceable rhythms executed with stop-on-a-dime timing. From a compositional standpoint, the songs could have been a little more robust, but the Futureheads put out a fun, upbeat vibe and did an excellent job of encouraging audience participation.
ANDREA ECHEVERRI � 12.00am, Mambo Kings
A Latin American musician of Andrea Echeverri's caliber doesn't set foot on American soil very often. So the fact, that the line to get into Mambo Kings was extending far beyond the venue's block, is a testament of her (and her rock band, Aterciopelados) talent, musicianship, and loyalty by rock fans. Echeverri was at SXSW, promoting her first self-titled solo record, but on stage she was backed by her fellow Aterciopelados' band members, more importantly the sonic mastermind, Hector Buitrago. As the lead singer of Aterciopelados, Andrea Echeverri, has been the heart and soul (consider Hector Buitrago as the musical aura) of the band, driving their divergent musical sensibility that ranges from ska-punk to rock to trip hop into millions of Latin American and some American audiences since 1990. As a songwriter, Echeverri's often surpasses the riveting storytelling of Lucinda Williams and the poetry of Patti Smith. "This record," Echeverri said, extending her arms as if embracing the audience, "is dedicated to becoming a mother." At Mambo Kings, Echeverri performed songs from her self-titled, such as "Amortiguador" and "A-Eme-O", which showcase Andrea Echeverri's mature side, the result of the recent birth of her first child. Echeverri and her band mates revamped old Aterciopelados classics by replacing the electronic break beats from "Maligno" and "Rompecabezas" with tablas and harmonicas and converting the punk rock, "Florecita Rockera", to a disco-infused dance song. Who would have thought becoming a rock and roll mother was as enduring and fun as this.
HOT HOT HEAT � 12.00am, La Zona Rosa
To me, this Canadian band seemed totally derivative of the Strokes. Same visual style, same vocal style, similar instrumental style, but nowhere near as talented or charismatic. While I found myself up front at the beginning of their set, I wandered around, bored, as it dragged on. Only highlight: their last song, a catchy single that the BBC has been pumping for months.
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM � 1.00am, Elysium
The wait for LCD Soundsystem, which included trying to listen to neither the preceding live act nor the conversation next to me in which this dude couldn't stop talking about his sexcapades, during which he misused his power as editor of a college paper. A few songs into LCD Soundsystem's set, I became convinced I should have left an hour ago. Murphy was half-drunk and boorish, talking for way to long and way too fussily to the sound man. The band took too long between each song, and when the audience grew bored, Murphy lashed out, saying, "We're a real fucking band -- we need a minute. You all paid zero dollars for this show and you want your money's worth."
Then something changed. The music flowed better and both Murphy and the crowd got into. Murphy screamed, spazzed, banged his mic stand until it bent, beat a tambourine off his head and generally went nuts, all the while playing with his relationship to rock stardom. The group managed to turn "Losing My Edge" into a heavy, heavy song, with headbanging nearly requisite. He announced in no uncertain terms that there would be no encore, which is always good news, and then the band launched into "Yeah" (live version). Those closing minutes of the show were about as good as concerts get: Murphy's mic gave out forcing him to switch without missing a beat connection, and then he grabbed some drum sticks and hammered out rhythms out the kit, building on the drummer already positioned there. The show ended, and the crowd as a bit staggered and mostly grinning. After Murphy's initial abrasiveness left (or at least changed), LCD Soundsytem proved that it's not just an act about craft -- it's a real fucking band.
DOVES � 1.00am, La Zona Rosa
A week ago, a friend whose taste I trust tried to convince me to buy scalped tickets to see this band in New York, saying it's his new favorite group. Then, another musically-astute friend told me to do anything I had to do -� beg, borrow, steal, cheat, or lie �- to get into this show. I waited for two hours to get in, and it was well worth it. Doves are the real deal, the latest in a long lineage of legends like The Smiths, New Order, and The Stone Roses. Though Doves have a sound of their own, they bring to mind aspects of a number of other great bands: the expansive, soaring psychedelia of The Flaming Lips, the achingly beautiful melodicism of Radiohead, and the droning, hypnotic sounds of the Hacienda and Shoegazer bands. Lead singer and bassist Jimi Goodwin is charmingly magnetic, in a laid-back kind of way. He admitted having a cold and thanked the audience for putting up with him. If this show is the kind he puts on when he's not feeling well, I'm frightened to imagine how great he sounds when he is. Lyrically, Goodwin expresses a wealth of feelings, and the tasteful, restrained musicianship of guitarist Jez Williams and the trio's touring keyboardist spoke volumes. Though they're huge stars in Britain and sell out their shows here in America, it remains to be seen whether Doves will break the U.S. wide open. Hopefully, they'll follow in Radiohead's footsteps in that respect, though seeing how the U.S. has mostly ignored the genius of a number of great Brit bands, I wonder if Doves are a bit too deep for American tastes.