South by Southwest Music 2005: A Field Journal
Saturday, March 19 -- From the overhyped beats of Bloc Party and M.I.A. to the Southwestern pleasures of Calexico and Los Super Seven and back to the unjustly unheralded Hot Young Priest, our crew covers the highs and lows of SXSW 2005.
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MUSIC: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4
FILM: Day 1 | Days 2 & 3 | Days 4 & 5 | Day 6
Saturday, March 19 - Day 4
Panel: Dissecting the Buzz � 3.00pm, Austin Convention Center
I wasn't expecting a panel with this title to be about publicity, but I really shouldn't be surprised. Who's more likely than a bunch of publicists to spin something? Many people don't realize it, but music journalists don't make their decisions about what to cover in a vacuum -� they don't simply wake up in the morning and say, "Oh, I think I'll write about that band today." There's a powerful network of publicists, both independent publicists and those working for the labels, who help set the agenda for these writers by strongly suggesting to them who and what they should cover. Publicity's a funny business. A journalist can usually pretty safely ignore or reject a publicist's request. Really, the publicist has very little recourse, aside from denying the journalist access to another artist on his or her roster, one the journalist does want to cover. At the same time, journalists often do listen to the guidance of successful publicists, who routinely build close, even personal, relationships with the people they pitch. Many useful tips for up-and-coming artists were discussed at this session: 1. Be wary of any publicist who guarantees you specific results; 2. Letterman is unlikely to book a local band �- in other words, be realistic about which outlets will be interested in covering you; 3. Hire a local or regional publicist if you're not yet popular enough to get national press; 4. Find an appropriate independent publicist by asking labels, similar artists, and journalists for referrals; 5. Make sure your press release tells an interesting story -� it's not enough to just say that your record is great; 6. Target the exact coverage you want �- it's better to tell a journalist exactly where in their magazine you want to be and ask them how to get there than to just ask them if they got your record, listened to it, and liked it.
THE FRAMES � 5.00pm, Red Eyed Fly
"This is our last show of the American tour. We're letting ourselves off the hook. Fuck it." So said Frames frontman Glen Hansard about halfway through their set, and suddenly it all made sense. Up until that point, the Irish band's show did seem a bit the stitch-up. I mean, they played "Where Is My Mind?" That was the sixth time this year I've seen that song performed, and by six different bands (had I caught Nada Surf's set, I might've been treated to a seventh). Other than that, the rest of the set was thoroughly enjoyable if not a little strange at times. Hansard seemed to enjoy putting the audience through embarrassing participation, which included a difficult falsetto sing-along, a whisper-along using a German accent (you had to be there), and a snap-along to an a cappella version of Daniel Johnston's "Devil Town". Nicolai Dunger, who gets the SXSW Drunken Cameo Award (he stumbled along with Calexico the night before), jumped on stage and performed a fairly rousing improv on Van Morrison's "Caravan". Unfortunately, when he got up on stage a second time, he butchered a different Moondance classic, "Into the Mystic", which he clearly didn't know. Believe it or not, the Frames did actually find time to play some of their own songs, and during these moments, I felt instant regret for not catching their official showcase the night before. With three guitarists, The Frames yield a hefty dose of UK guitar rock in every tune, but the rhythms and hooks are less Britpop and more indie rock. For added flavor, they throw in an electric violin that wonderfully complements the already full sound. The results are diverse and edgy but almost always ear-pleasing, priming them for widespread acceptance in the States if only given the proper opportunity.
Los Super Seven
LOS SUPER SEVEN � 6.00pm, Las Manitas
Early this evening I grabbed a taco and some refried beans and settled in for Los Super Seven. I had never heard a lick of their music, but the word-of-mouth on them as well as the advertised guest performers drew me in. The band had a variety of people making appearances, including the members of Calexico, Charlie Sexton, Ruben Ramos, and Rick Trevino. Picture the scene as your ideal country & western bar band, but now make them into the best musicians you've ever heard, make sure you emphasize the Southwestern feel, and pretend you really enjoy border rock. If you didn't already, Los Super Seven would have convinced you. The group appeared carefree during the show, but was as tight as any act I've seen this week. The members of the group and the guests exchanged solos and enjoyed each other's performances. With strong horn lines and great three-part guitar work (highlighted today by Sexton's solos), the band put themselves on my map tonight, and I hope they continue to creep northward and eastward.
BUCK 65 � 9.00pm, Emo's Main Room
Buck 65 takes the stage like someone who deserves adoration. Of course, that attitude comes from his self-conscious sense of performance. When he pulls glitter out of a pocket and throws it, he explains that it's "razzle dazzle". He strikes endless poses while rhyming, including the classic stare blankly while scratching the record endlessly (yeah, he DJs for himself, too). His rhymes are unique and ludicrous (consider his Centaur ode) and make for a compelling listen live. While he doesn't have a great flow, he makes sure he stays engaging through his words, his body movement, and his ability to attract attention. One more note: white pants are awesome.
The Magic Numbers
THE MAGIC NUMBERS � 10.00pm, La Zona Rosa
After three nights of (mostly) great shows, I struck out on Saturday. Looking at the SXSW schedule in advance, I was surprised by Saturday's lineup. While Wednesday had some good choices, and the next two days were filled with an embarrassment of riches, Saturday was almost totally barren. Being an Anglophile, I took my chances with the MTV2 "This is UK Country" showcase, and I dropped by Erykah Badu's Control Freaq Records party as well. Compared to what I'd seen on previous nights, everything I saw on Saturday seemed purely amateur. I guess I should've gone to see MF Doom instead.
I was excited to hear that The Magic Numbers resembles The Who, but that turned out to be completely untrue. In fact, they're more American cheese than fish 'n' chips. I expected stinging, ringing guitars and got a mouth organ and two xylophones instead. Their spare, country rock sound and clear, harmonious vocals were pleasant enough but not really my taste. It's a shame, because they seemed to be such sweet, gracious people, and I could tell they really believed in their music and enjoyed playing it.
Say Hi to Your Mom
SAY HI TO YOUR MOM � 10.00pm, Copa
Brooklyn's Say Hi to Your Mom may not have been one of the major draws at this year's SXSW Music Festival, but their earnest mixture of indie-pop, thrashing guitars and disparate electronics landed them a cushy slot at the Ghostly International Saturday night showcase. The band, a sincere trio led by singer-songwriter and guitarist, Eric Elbogen, seemed surprised to have met a full-crowd of fans singing along to tracks off of 2002's Discosadness and last year's Numbers & Mumbles. "Thanks for choosing to spend your Saturday night with us," Eric told the crowd, before jumping into "Pop Music of the Future", "Let's Talk About Spaceships, and "Your Brain vs. My Tractorbeam." Indeed, a delightful set of guitar pop aimed at all Say Hi fans and the uninitiated.
SAUL WILLIAMS � 10.00pm, Emo's Main Room
When Saul Williams quickly slipped from rapper into political treatist, I was worried. The beat disappeared and Williams began to lecture in something just barely rhythmic. I shouldn't have doubted, though, because once he got going, he kept it up. Williams dance around stage and kept the energy up throughout his show, using his conscious lyrics to pull in the crowd when the beat was low, but without ever fearing to let himself go with the rock either. By the end of the set, his spoken-word moments seemed less preachy and more poetic. Williams occasionally sounds like the descendant of Gil Scott-Herron, and almost always sounds hot.
Hot Young Priest
HOT YOUNG PRIEST � 11.00pm, Blender Bar Balcony at the Ritz
Last night, a hot young priest saved my life. Well, perhaps more accurately, the trio that comprises Atlanta's Hot Young Priest salvaged my Saturday and raised my somewhat low opinion of this year's SXSW experience. In the years past, I've always come away from this festival having been floored by at least one artist I had never heard before. This year, there was very little in the way of revelation; the great performances were given by bands who I expected to give great performances. Quite a surprise that the festival's "new discovery" would come from a no frills trio; I'd almost forgotten what music sounded like detached from hype, fashion or comparison. Hot Young Priest gets it right with just guitar, bass, drums, and an arsenal of power chords. It's been a long time since we've heard a woman fronting a non-cheesy, full-throttle rock band, and Mary Byrne's voice is easily as sexy, seductive and catchy as any influential female rock singer who came before. Perhaps the real draw to Hot Young Priest, however, is the musicality. To use a technical drumming term, Hot Young Priest knows how to fuck the beat (look it up). This entails taking your standard 4/4 rhythm and twisting it a little. Before you think math rock, I'm not talking calculus here -- just the simple addition or subtraction of the occasional beat, or going with the snare when you're expecting the kick. It still grooves, but with a new flavor -- proof that rock doesn't need a revolution or a 20-year redux. Just a little enhancement is often the bigger step.
SKELETONS � 11.00pm, Copa
Matt Mehlan and his band, Skeletons, paraded the tiny SXSW stage in erratic fashion recalling both Captain Beefheart and the Polyphonic Spree on a whim of a Mehlan's wispy voice to the bang and clatter of drum machine beats and trumpets. Skeleton's performance was often enthralling, but the band's musical experimentation lacked any melody or rather interesting or unpredictable musical patterns to remain remotely entertaining for anyone without a couple of drinks in their system.
NINE BLACK ALPS � 11.00pm, La Zona Rosa
They looked hip �- a bunch of thin, pretty British boys, including an American-looking one with a beard and a trucker hat -� but they didn't have much else going for them. 9 Black Alps sounded more like cookie-cutter grunge to me than anything else. Nothing new here, just paint-by-numbers, straight-ahead rock.
DEFINITIVE JUX CREW (ROB SONIC, HANGAR 18, C-RAYZ WALZ, PERCEPTIONISTS, AESOP ROCK) � 11.30pm, Emo's Main Room
The Def Jux show took awhile to get started. Rob Sonic opened, but he had a hard time maintaining excitement, due to his between-song ramblings and his seeming unfamiliarity with his DJ. He also struggled to work his vocals with the beat, almost as if he was flowing at the same tempo as the music, but not to it. Hangar 18 stepped up, though, with a solid performance. Only a few audience members claimed to own the new CD, but one of the vocalists worked the crowd for some sales after their set. C-Rayz Walz came on next, and he did little more than lay down some standard party rap. He was a more aggressive performer than the earlier acts, but not an overly exciting one, and when he had musical problems at the end of the show, he spat out a hopefully forgettable freestyle.
Then the Perceptionists came on and showed everyone how to energize a crowd. MCs Mr. Lif and Akrobatik and DJ Fakts One have smart lyrics and big hooks and they work the audience closely, even pausing to mock one audience member for standing in "a b-boy stance", arms crossed to cool to dance (kind of like me, only foolish enough to be closer to the stage). The vocal duo directed the lighting and made sure the fans knew when they weren't loud enough. This act was the only one of the night to keep drawing people closer to the stage. The venue was crowded all night, but the Perceptionists were the ones who got people focused to the front.
Afterward came Aesop Rock. He's got the goods, but not the same energy level as the Perceptionists. The crowd responded quite well; many of them were there primarily to see him perform. He was smooth enough, but just didn't stand up to his predecessors. The night was wearing on, so maybe I was wearing out, but it looks more like Aesop's going to have some work to do to stay at the top of the Def Jux heap.
The Good Looks
THE GOOD LOOKS � 12.00am, Blender Bar Balcony at the Ritz
They told everyone in the place to come down and dance, so I obliged. The next thing I know, guitarist Christian Glakas is ripping the beer out of my hand and chugging it. If there's one thing you can say about the Good Looks; they're ballsy. Other things you could say: They're loud. And fast. And so full of energy that I don't know how they could've sustained it for 15 minutes, much less the duration of the entire 40-minute set. Musically, they take the fastest, sleaziest '70s guitar rock song you've ever heard and hit it over and over again. It's beyond over-the-top, and it works because these guys sweat confidence. I think it was impossible for anyone in the room not to be won over by their rock star swagger. It was simply too much fun, which is what I'm looking for when I'm feeling retroactive.
IDLEWILD � 12.00am, La Zona Rosa
Yet another group that's from the UK -- in this case Scotland � but sounds American. Listening to Idlewild, the Gin Blossoms and other pop takeoffs of mid-'90s American alternative come to mind. The lead singer is charming, but his voice is quite flat. I walked out after a few minutes in search of something more interesting.
JAY ELECTRONICA � 12.30am, Austin Music Hall
I walked into a highly uncomfortable scene at Erykah Badu's Control Freeq Records launch. Though Badu was supposed to be onstage at 12:30, the show was running late. The crowd was pretty sparse for a star of her magnitude, and yet the people who were there were plenty angry that she hadn't performed yet. Worst of all were her protégés, who had to fill the time and went over like lead balloons. It was painful to see these marginally talented folks squirm as the crowd refused to acknowledge them. They vacillated between praising the audience in an attempt to rev it up and criticizing it for not being vocal enough. When I arrived, a highly unoriginal, all-black thrash metal band was onstage, fronted by an orange-haired woman. Next up was an MC who found success motivating the crowd only by giving out free T-shirts. Finally, the first artist on Badu's new label, Jay Electronica from New Orleans, hit the stage. The old-school sound of the live band backing him definitely appealed to me -� especially the Barry White piano line in the second song �- but Jay's lyrics were simply pedestrian, the same old stuff about how hard and ghetto he is. I decided not to wait for Badu, fearing I'd be further disappointed.
THE MUSIC � 1.00am, La Zona Rosa
Looking at these guys, I immediately thought they must be from the suburbs, and I turned out to be right. More than anything, they seemed to me like a high school metal band. They wore casual clothes and had little sense of visual flair. Musically, with their bludgeoning beats, incessant, driving riffs, and high-pitched vocals, they sounded like a mix between Zeppelin and Jane's Addiction, but without the nuanced musicianship and accomplished songwriting. The more monotonous aspects of Pearl Jam came to mind as well. Before long, I was much more interested in talking to the cute Australian concert promoter standing next to me than in listening to The Music.