Apparently, there were more than 14,000 registrants as SXSW and 92 official venues this year. the number of attendees at shows had to be 10 time that much. There were over 20,000 for the Strokes (who I did not see) which resulted in people crashing the barricades, and luckily no significant injuries. A fence was trampled and spectators tasered at the Death From Above reunion show (who I did not see). As Austin increasingly has become a spring break destination, 6th street had police out in force to keep the chaos to a non-violent one and make people walk their bikes. The number of venues are probably well over 200 .
Lines seemed to be forming everywhere. I saw a line at least ¾ of a mile long at 6:00 on Saturday for people hoping to get in see Kanye (no I did not see him either). The MTV garage, Fader Fort and many other parties had formidable multi-block, seemingly multi-hour lines. Sometimes there were even block long lines at the pizza and best wurst carts. In fact, on Saturday night, while heading for my last show, I passed a line and I was not sure what was going on so I took a closer look and checked to see if there was a separate badge line only to find out it was an ATM. Soon SXSW will be like Disney, where there will be pre-shows while you are waiting on line. Think of the ambush marketing opportunities!
Somehow—some combinations, maybe my music taste, willingness to walk long distances, aversion for lines and effective use of my badge were sufficient to keep me from waiting more than 15 minutes for anything.
Willingness to go to a different location can definitely make a difference for venues. Seriously, you could hear some of the best new music—for free, with free beer, free tote bags and absolutely no crowds—exactly what SXSW is all about (or what it was more about a few years ago), as long as you were willing to travel a mere 1.5 miles from the chaos of 6th Street to–get this–the back lot of the Urban Outfitters at the University of Texas. Who’d have thought that might have been the calmest and perhaps the best venue to see great bands. It was strange to be one of about 50-100 people to see Wild Flag, Cloud Nothings and Times New Viking. I would bet you that if you listened to the 27 bands that played at UO http://austinisburning.blogspot.com/2011/03/urban-outfitters-x-sxsw-2011.html. there will be at least 5 that you like (I think I like 11 or so) and you will get a good sampling of what is going on in indie rock today.
Who did I see if I skipped the aforementioned big names as well as Duran Duran and the Foo Fighters? What was different about SXSW (or me) this year than last? Somehow I encountered more 80’s style music, from artists that were there and those influenced by some who were.
Again here are some of the more memorable performances I encountered.
1. Wild Flag. Since I saw this band in November in their 3rd and 4th shows ever as a band, it has become clear that this group of 4 extremely talented and creative musicians have become a stronger, extremely tight band that continues to put on an absolutely incredible live show with high energy, enthusiasm, rage and joy. The combination of Carrie Brownstein’s torrid/jagged and Mary Timony’s harmonic guitars continues to mesh–literally and figuratively. Carrie’s kicks (Carrie kicked out her guitar cord once–Janet says that was the first time she did that in 10 years), slashes and windmills show off both talent and style and her interaction with Mary shows that there is a huge level of confidence developed between the two, giving each reign to improvise. Both their lead vocals are strong, Carrie with particular fury in performing their single Future Crimes (if you’re gonna be a restless soul, then you’re going to be so so tired), hard rockin Racehorse (“you bet wrong!”) or punky Patti Smith’s Ask the Angels and Mary a bit more ethereal. Janet Weiss continues to be one of the best rock and roll drummers, whether supporting or pushing the beat or jamming with Carrie, and Rebecca Cole provides musical and literal bounce, harmony with her keyboards, and particularly her background vocals with Janet, with a energy to the mix. While I have no doubt that their forthcoming album will be strong–they are not to be missed live. You can get some idea of how good they are on the KEXP or NPR web sites where two of their 8 SXSW shows (I admit it. I saw 6 out of the 8 shows–they were all pretty amazing–note to band–I am not a stalker, it just happened that we ran into each other in the Hilton elevator!) reside.
2. Thee Oh Sees. After 12 hours watching music, it takes a lot to get me jumping and thrashing. This ramshackle runaway train of a band veers somewhere between the Gun Club and The Cramps, traveling quickly in short, sharp songs (except for their one swirly psych rave-up song) but while threatening to go out of control never leaves the rails or wrecks. They also pass the Mike Miller test. If I see Mike (who loves garage, punk and other great things) at a show I know the band is good. The lead singer, and guitar player John Dwyer plays 12 and 6 string guitar, holding it so high, kind of like a mandolin player or a Civil War infantryman. With catchy “la la la la” choruses and simple riffs, the songs lull you in before whipping you into a frenzy. Part of the final frenzy was Miss Alex White of White Mystery (10 below) crowd surfing.
3. Edwyn Collins—An incredible story as well as an incredible performance. The former leader of the revered band Orange Juice and an established solo performer, Edwyn suffered a double brain hemorrhage in 2005, which left him with right side weakness and the inability to say only 4 words. On a beautiful afternoon on the lawn at the French Legation Museum—with some assistance—Edwyn was led to a monitor where he sat for most of his performance. His right hand in a tight fist and unable to use his right arm. But it was his performance and excellent band that played a cool set of searing brit-mod soul and New Wave that could put a lulling sway into the audiences hips and a smile on their faces.
4. Kurt Vile and The Violators–. This singer songwriter from Philadelphia was extremely impressive While reviewers characterize his music as lo-fi, live he brought out a three guitar-sometimes twangy, sometimes droning, sometimes chiming army that at times reminded me of Dan Stuart of Green on Red as lead singer for The Warlocks, Green on Red, Crazy Horse and/or Deer Hunter or combinations thereof. The providing slow building, repetitive melodies that were really powerful when carried through the air in an outdoor venue. He had had his effects peddles stolen the night before, so he could not do some of the things he wanted, and maybe that was better.
5. Diamond Rings–This solo performer (John O’Regan) from Toronto has 80’s synth pop dance music down hot. Seeing him perform is like going to see the Human League or ABC. I mean he out OMD’d OMD in the dance department when he plays keyboards over a backing track. When he moves to guitar over a backing track he is a little bit more entertaining and a little less danceable, but still high energy and a lot of fun. I saw him in the afternoon, outdoors and he still got the crowd going–I can only imagine how good he will be at night in a club.
6. Cloud Nothings–I saw a lot of really good (and some eh) power pop or punky pop music, I think this Cleveland band was the best of the bunch. The lead singer Dylan Baldi has a kind of wry tone to his voice which is reminiscent of one of John Linnell from They Might Be Giants (this is meant to be a compliment, think “Ana Ng”). but they present punky pop that reminded me of the Stiff Little Fingers ‘Go For It’ album.
7. Veronica Falls. The best of the Brit-Pop bands I heard. This is a three piece–two guitars and drums, featuring great harmonic vocals and jangly buzzsurf guitars. The female lead singer has a sharp British voice, a la Lesley Woods of the Au Pairs and she often alternatingly trades and shares vocals with the drummer and other guitarist.
8. Off. Punk/hardcore band fronted by Keith Morris, the first lead singer of Black Flag and the founder of The Circle Jerks. He said he re-connected with his bass player Steve McDonald of Redd Kross at the Church of Hermosa Beach–no not praying, but their bands were practicing there. You can’t miss Keith’s distinctive vocals—loud, sharp and a bit caustic and questioning at the same time as any Black Flag fan will remember-. For me, the music was a little too hard core and not necessarily that strong or memorable, however to hear Keith’s comments between songs was particularly meaningful, especially when he told a long story about hanging out at The Hong Kong in LA with the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club.
9. Beach Fossils–a sort of dream pop band from Brooklyn. They sometimes sound like a muted REM, with a little bit of hypnotic rhythms thrown in. Very fun.
10. White Mystery. This gut-wrenching raunchy, rhythm and bluesy garage guitar and drum band from Chicago features a brother and sister combo who go all out. Playing in one of the smallest and weirdest official venues—Headhunters, which is like a two story loft condo with tiki statues all around, the band started slow, but I could see from the heads nodding of the 20-30 other people on the floor that they were connecting with the crowd, who eventually danced with total abandon around and with the band.
11. Times New Viking. Probably the best live show I have seen from this trio from Columbus, Ohio. They play decidedly and intentionally distorted which can sometimes make their live shows mushier then they and an audience member might want it to be. But somehow the co-vocals of drummer, drummer Adam Elliott (who wanted to know the score of the Ohio State and Xavier games), and keyboard player Beth Murphy mesh so well with the slashing riffs of guitarist Jared Phillips hort noisy songs like Teenage Lust. They, like Wild Flag, will have new records on Merge (and who knows, they make a great pair to tour together) this year.
12. The Fleshtones. Though the band is a bit more campy than they used to be, it is really hard to keep still or keep a smile off of your face while they are playing their form of power garage rock. For almost have of their show one or more members of the band were in the audience, Peter Zeremba singing, shimmeying and playing his harmonica, Peter Streng doing his power stances and power chords, and every body doing push-ups while members of the audience played their instruments. It is hard to believe that 30 years ago I was promoting these guys doing and in store promo in Champaign, Illinois, and there still are not many bands that are more fun.
13. Reading Rainbow. This husband and wife guitar and drums combo from Philadelphia have immaculate harmonies–matching each others words, and have catchy songs combining simple drum beats with buzzsaw guitar. I highly recommend their Prism Eyes record as one of the best of 2010. While the harmonies were so beautiful they brought a chill down my spine and tears of joy in my eyes, ultimately, I think their sound was a bit too precious for the big loud room at Antones. Maybe a smaller room would be better for them, or adding an additional member of the band to help take the musical burden.
14. Alejandro Escovedo and His Orchestra. The best thing about seeing Alejandro in Austin is that he is able to put together huge bands that showcase different aspects of his work than he can accomplish with smaller groupings. This time he had 11 pieces, with violin, cello, sax and trombone. He played a chilling version of his Chelsea with a great chorus “It makes no sense, it makes perfect sense” and several songs from his most recent album “Street Songs of Love” deep and anthemic rock.
More Tried and True
Jon Langford and the Skull Orchard. I walked past Jon when he was “commuting” from Jovita’s to the Yard Dog. A 5 minute walk that I do at least once annually. And, I guess he does too. He did a great set–better, I think than his “going away” set at the Hideout–with an absolutely searing version of Sentimental Marching Song.
Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three. It was great to have Steve Wynn return to SXSW. I am pretty sure the Miracle Three was the first band I ever saw at a day party. Another great performance from a great guitarist songwriter and his extremely tight band. I love their driving version of Amphetamine.
Black Angels. As headliners of SXSJ (South By San Jose Hotel) they were not bound by time restraints. Though it is kind of funny, after seeing 3 1/2 days of 30 minute sets, your body really gets used to short sets! Fortunately, this psychedelic band has the power to make you suspend time and yield to their loud repetitive grooves.
Tweet Reviews of Bands I Would Definitely See Again
The Obits. Hard driving straight ahead punkish band from Brooklyn.
Fresh & Onlys. Complex anthemic pop from this San Francisco band. Did they do an Editors cover or just sound like them for a moment.
Heavy Cream–Straight ahead Ramones-style punk from three girls and a guy from Nashville.
Trash Talk– hardcore punk—old school interaction with and confronting the audience; threw people over his back,
Dax Riggs–Awesome down home guttural rockin’ rhythm and blues–what the Black Keys used to sound like.
OMD—Nice to see synth pop legends and hear Enola Gay, but Diamond Rings ate their lunch. The ubiquitous Moby played 2 songs on bass.
DOM—Garagey, jangly Jesus and Mary Chainish band from Boston. Their Little Red Corvette claims second best cover.
Disappointing buzz bands. The Vaccines acted like they should rule the world, but two things bothered me. First, after a massive sound check lasting more than a half hour, the band played only 15 minutes. I even gave them a second chance and then they played about 18 minutes. A very slick pop band, probably too slick, but they could . The Smith Westerns seemed like they could not care less, very uninspiring folkified pop performed sans emotion. Maybe they play better at night.
Closing Random Notes
Most noticeably common t-shirt in the crowds—variations of the Unknown Pleasures cover, particularly foreign language version.
Band t-shirts worn by other bands:
Diamond Rings—New Order Substance 1987
Cloud Nothings- X
Keith from Off—No Age
I really hope those ink stamps are not harmful. I was probably stamped 30 times, my favorites were a Ghost (Ghost Room), Penguin (Windish house) and Envy (Emo’s).
If you had the opportunity to witness the coolest experience of your life, I bet at least 2 things will come immediately come to mind. 1) Take a picture to remember the moment (or to text or post to others) and show you were there; 2) text or post to family, friends or strangers to tell them about the moment you are witnessing and let you know you were there. Please. I know it is difficult, but resist the urge and experience the moment. You can always blog about it later, and you know you were there.