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SXSW: Sorry We Missed Your Band

March 20, 2008
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| Image by joshsisk.com

In principle, the South by Southwest festival is as much a trade show as New York’s massive CMJ Music Marathon, which sort of made us throw up in our mouths a little last fall. The difference is that SXSW is cloaked in the best/biggest party any lover of music, Tex-Mex food, or free domestic beer could possibly hope for. The scope of it–somewhere around 2,000 performers over four nights and most of them playing multiple shows–is enough to make your brain start bleeding.

As Mike McGonigal pointed out in his Good/Bad list, one of the assholes of the festival is the persistent feeling of missing something, somewhere. And, boy, if you happen to be one of the g-d knows how many music journalists at the festival, this is like 10 times worse–because, you know, we’re working, too.

So, let’s get it out of the way: We missed the excellent Baltimore acts Ponytail, Lexie Mountain Boys, and Wye Oak. At least. Why? Well, looking back through the fog, it’s hard to say which minutes of wasted time are to blame. Wandering around a dark neighborhood looking for a rave that was actually on East Sixth Street, not West? Drowning in pitchers of margaritas, a little too thrilled by the 80 degree weather? Watching Blitzen Trapper? In line somewhere? Whatever the case: all apologies.

But, we did see plenty of good music, some bad music, and even some music from Baltimore.

Thursday Early morning flights are good for nothing. I envy the person that can fall asleep knowing he has to catch a train to the airport at 4 a.m. I am not that person, and, subsequently, tonight was experienced through the delirium of no sleep and the resonant anxiety of being on an airplane, which is not cool if you’re afraid of heights, tight spaces, and technology–which is why tonight’s list of bands seen is so pathetically short: We copped out somewhere around midnight.

This is inexcusable, but when someone tells you, “Man, you look fucked,” and you’ve had all of two beers, it might be time to call it a night. So I saw two bands at the “Fader Fort,” which is one of the many, many RSVP-only hipster parties that dot Austin continuously throughout the week of SXSW. It’s basically a big, old warehouse-type building with a bunch of tiny rooms taken over by various sponsors and a big backyard for bands to play in and people to ignore them and lavish their love all over free bottles of good beer and brightly colored drinks made with Southern Comfort. The two bands in question will go unnamed–only in part because we don’t remember–but one sounded like Franz Ferdinand and the other was so young, hip, and attractive we got embarrassed and left.

Then we went to see the Cool Kids at the Daystage, which is a room inside the Austin Convention Center that looks exactly like a room in a convention center should–lots of gray, Formica, and fake walls–so seeing the Kids do their throwback party-hop in there just hurt. On the plus side, it did nothing to harm White Williams, who put on its best show we’ve seen it do. The band works much better with a live drummer–and when Joe Williams shows actual personality. And all it took was playing a show in a room with absolutely no personality.

After some rest, we made it to the roof of a parking garage for No Age and free Keystone Light. That’s right, free Keystone Light. There was also a bunch of weird games and shit scattered around the roof: shuffleboard, video games, and maybe pinball. Contrary to the whole SXSW steez, whoever was throwing the party apparently wanted you to stay at that party for the night. That’s missing the point.

No Age is a fantastic band, a standout among a growing field of noisy lo-fi punk groups. The duo’s thing is basically setting up various scenarios in which it teases you with pleasant enough indie rock, like riff-heavy Pavement-y rock, and then not-so-systematically wrecks it with punk fuzz. We liked it in a sweaty, crowded Depot last fall better, but against the Austin’s modern redeveloped skyline, we had to appreciate the irony.

And then we ate deep-fried avocado tacos and slept like the dead.

Friday The blur starts at Beerland with Eat Skull and tall boys of High Life. Eat Skull–a descendant of the fantastic disaster no-fi/no-wave outfit Hospitals–absolutely kills, a garage-punk, fuck-your-face-with-distortion mess led by a woke-up-drunk dude who swerves and snarls like a proper totem of impeding anarchy. And that’s a rarity here, where everyone, however connected they are to the freak world, appears to be auditioning for something in the straight world. The beer wasn’t free, but we couldn’t care less.

Eat Skull didn’t set us up well for caring about Billy Bragg, who played to a handful of people at a small, hip bar a few blocks away. He speechified for a bit in the vein of illegal downloading equals bad–painfully missing the point of SXSW, the biggest celebration of live music going–and played a few numbers that made the faithful in the crowd absolutely crap themselves. The beer was free. So were the sandwiches.

Then SXSW got awesome–fully and completely awesome. I’m not sure where else you can get the Black Ghosts, Cut Copy, Blaq Starr, Simian Mobile Disco, Matt and Kim, Amanda Blank (with Spank Rock), Diplo, Switch, and Drop the Lime all together in the same city, let along the same rooftop, but Mad Decent and iheartcomix made it happen for their showcase, and good g-d, was it like the best show ever. Spank Rock rapping “shake it till my dick turns racist” is one thing, but Spank Rock rapping “shake it till my dick turns racist” from a rooftop in Texas made us beyond giddy. As did Blaq Starr clubbing out “We Are Your Friends,” and later telling us all what, exactly, he was going to do to our pussies.

Somewhere in between all of this, we made it up to the pool-deck “VIP” area. A great deal of SXSW involves sneaking into or schmoozing your way into places you’re technically not cool enough to be. To wit: We got loaned a Staff badge and found ourselves in the land of free food, free (and freely accessibly) whiskey, people far hotter than ourselves, and (a lot of) people on cocaine.

Scottie B played this thing, but it wasn’t really a dance setup: too quiet, and the layout had people thinned out around the edges of the pools or at the bar or in the bathroom snorting cocaine. The Death Set followed Scottie and attracted a 10 or so person crew of hoppers and not-quite-moshers. After some three shows already at SXSW, Johnny Sierra sounded like his throat was an open wound but didn’t hold anything back in making it even bloodier–or climbing some seriously sketchily stacked amplifiers or hanging, sketchily, from the support cables of the stage-covering tent.

Sometime close to dawn we bullshitted our way into a giant Red Bull party/circus, and we–now a strange and obliterated crew of old editor friends from Seattle and new friends from Baltimore–drank ourselves into tremors on vodka and Red Bulls. Whoever the hell booked a honky-tonk band to play rave hours should be fired at once.

(Oh yeah, somewhere today is Blitzen Trapper, who played to a surprisingly thin crowd at a place on Sixth Street.)

And then we ate IHOP and went to sleep.

Saturday Weather on planet Earth doesn’t get better than 80 degrees, clear skies, and a cool breeze. Hence, we can’t be blamed for spending the latter part of the afternoon on the patio of a Mexican restaurant with pitchers of margaritas and plates full of grease, cheese, and beans.

Sometime after dark, we caught No Age again in a packed backyard, which we only ended up at because we gave our cab bad directions. A lot of shit at SXSW happens in backyards, but this was the first one that felt like a backyard. Like, you could just walk in and hang out without waiting in line and getting your name checked off a list. It does something for the vibe (good), and it was probably more appropriate than the roof insofar as people were actually getting excited and paying attention (read: crowd surfing and bouncing). The songs didn’t come through the mass so well, but it’s not something you need to hear perfectly again and again. Someone here gave me a pickle.

White Rainbow played one of the best sets I’ve seen Adam Forkner play in a really long time. Touring with Atlas Sound, he’s getting some actual, well-deserved recognition, and it comes through in his songs. Rather than the Eno mind trips he’s been playing for the past couple of years–and which made up last fall’s Prism of Eternal Now album–he went into something heavy and polyrhythmic, cutting and fading guitars and electronics in and out into some seventh-dimensional, cathartic tribalisms. Eyes crossed and heads swayed. We forgot about where we were supposed to be and who we were supposed to be listening to (Sightings, our original destination). Then we ate grilled cheese and went to sleep.

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