Thanks giant marlin! Second year in a row at SXSW in Austin; last year being with the SXWI delegation that included the Altos, Pioneer and All Tiny Creatures. This time around, the delegation coming down from Madison was much smaller since SXWI took a break. I made the trek over from my current base in Paris, landed outside of Madison, and quickly joined up with long missed friends at 91.7 FM WSUM, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s college radio station that were going to cover the gigantic festival of festivals.
Thursday opened up SXSW from previous days, giving a much needed taste of music in the afternoon at Edison Auto. The venue was a bit peculiar, entering at the side of the building, walking through trees and brush before it opens up to an outdoor stage with rap, indoor with a room of various burgeoning companies and the other holding He’s My Brother She’s My Sister. Unique locale for sure, where you had hip-hop artists walking through the room only to stop and watch the folk group with the tap dancer on percussion. You could tell everyone was impressed, and frankly I was too especially after hearing Tracy wax poetic about their live performance for months before. “How’m I Gonna Get Back Home” had new life to it, that invigorating push you get after days of performing just before and hitting the sweet spot. Much better than their EP, the band was just vigorous with their swinging blend of folk and country.
The rest of Thursday was spent getting orientated, hopping up to the Google/YouTube party on a parking garage to meet up with friends intermixed with stumbling upon street performers and break dancers in front of the convention center. One of whom had to be revived with the music died.
A little later in the day, a few of us managed to run into some Exports who lost their Archie just before the Driskill Hotel. After a year, missing Love Inks by 20 minutes, by visa delays, and by exams keeping me from traveling, I finally made good and caught the Austin dream pop band that stuck in my head all of 2011. Just before their performance, Kevin of the trio recounted how it’s the most haunted spot in the city with a ghost seen nearly daily. Apparently one of the stories entails a girl visiting, playing with a ball near the staircase. The ball took a fateful misguided bounce down the stairs, and there tumbled to her demise the little girl. Since then, she haunts the hotel. … I instantly loved the place more than any others due to its history. “Rock On” helped close the wavy set, once again perfect for the Austin heat, that gave resolution to this restless music soul in finally hearing “Wave Goodbye” and Sherri’s echoing, delicate voice behind “Skeleton Key.” New songs also graced this hallowed haunt that evening, leaving 2012 with some exciting hopeful news from Love Inks.
Aside from chance encounters with bands new and old, the rest of Thursday ended up relaxing at Lustre Pearl waiting on Miike Snow. The last time I caught them was way back in 2009 when they first hit America. It’s been nearly three years and finally Happy to You was released. Many people definitely looked bored and didn’t appreciate how long the preparation and set-up time took (it felt like an hour plus of waiting, which is very out of the ordinary for SXSW when turnaround times take 15 minutes max). But all was forgotten when “The Wave” started off the set. Memorable, and it proved Miike Snow has some staying power. (Just reminded me Passion Pit needs to get something new going.) Everyone also forgave the lack of emphasis on their debut in preference for the new tracks, especially when they went with “Bavarian #1 (Say You Will)” and “Devil’s Work” leaving imprints of dance in the memories of those who stuck around.
Friday was embraced whole heartily, filling that Midwest gap at the First Avenue, Etix, Gimme Noise & 89.3 The Current showcase at Swan Dive. Night Moves is going places, recent signees to an excellent label by the name of Domino, and presented more than just the few songs that the Internet embraced (“Horses” and “Headlights”). Psychedelic indie rock at its best, mixing the laid-back vibes of the 80s with 70s experimentation over superb vocals. “Headlights” is the pick of the litter and held up tremendously live, losing a bit of the drudge on the low end of the recorded version but nonetheless fitting the lazy, gorgeous weather vibe you get from the Austin sunshine. It’s the kind of music you want to bring your record player outdoors, close your eyes and lose yourself to the breezes.
Brother Ali came up just after while members of Doomtree filtered in and out (they were coming up after, but I ended up missing their plethora of performances). Yes, so many hip-hop acts are embracing live bands-but very few have a voice that was MADE for these set-ups. Ali, joined with trombone, trumpet and sax, works the crowd even more benevolently than before with brass and woodwind backing. “Shine On” got the rework treatment, minus Nikki Jean, but that didn’t matter too much thanks to his superb storytelling music video filling in the gaps there in Swan Dive. People ate up the new set-up. He upped his game with the new group adding so much more room for improvisation and musical breathing room. I can’t wait for his return to Paris this May.
That giant Canadian flag at 6th and Trinity? Yep. You bet there be music in there, and I managed to make it to see Juno nominees Cuff the Duke‘s own catchy alt-country music. Wayne Petti has a nasally voice that kind of reminds me of Rivers Cuomo’s pop-ness stripped of anything snide, and played out of a pickup on the cusp of rusting at the edges. The songs from the Ontario group stick in your head, so much so that it felt like a welcome home party during SXSW upon hearing “Drag Me Down” or the excellent “You Don’t Know What It’s Like.” The Canadian party was a bit thin, but the talent they have is so exceptional to the point I’m surprised we don’t have many more of our neighbor’s bands touring around.
St. David’s Bethell Hall came up next, reuniting our group past its labyrinthian hallways, with We Were Evergreen performing one of their many, many shows during the Parisian/London trio’s first stint at South By Southwest. Indie pop with random interjections of electro-dance and ukelele brought me to catch them, and word I heard during the entire festival was nothing but surprise and an excellent reception from everyone. Super quiet venue, being a church, nevertheless the sound quality was excellent even when they took to the nearby piano for a unique song that touched the lucky people who made it. They have one previous album out and an EP on iTunes. Stay tuned, especially for those who liked that UK pop invasion between 2008-2010. They’re more catchy than most.
Completely opposite on the spectrum, in East Austin, we ran into our WSUM group recovering outside of ND. I personally was hitting the infamous SXSW wall, just wanting to pass out and sleep, when familiar guitar riffs caused that second wind to come rushing and draw us all unexpectedly running into the venue to catch Cloud Nothings. Did not expect to see them-at all. The “let’s bring everyone back to high school and the days when you were discovering punk music” group, which literally does that, performed nearly everything off of Attack On Memory, and gave the most memorable performance of SXSW. You see countless concerts can eventually drag on, but the ones where the band is having stuff thrown towards them on stage to the point the bassist picks up a water bottle and throws it into the crowd is something that reinvigorates why you love music in the first place. Circle pit, everything. See this band when they come to town. They were tight as hell, even as they went into a slightly extended “Wasted Days” and its nine minute epic journey. Just see them. I can’t say enough.
Saturday. Last day of SXSW before the 3 AM “Let’s get the hell out of here and beat the inevitable horrid early Sunday traffic jam” wake-up call. After a quick run to catch the Shine TV day party on the East side of Austin, the Thirsty Nickel came a-calling to reunite Ricardo Zapata (you may remember him from his interview with P.O.S. and now his GRIME qtrly magazine) with his charger over the Seattle stylings of Grieves & Budo. Jammed to the gills, Thirsty Nickel had a crowd with eyes locked on the stage as Grieves bounced around the stage to “Bloody Poetry” and Budo brought out his guitar throughout the set. Hip-hop everyone put their hands up to with great piano and jazzy punches coming from Grieves, who always raps about things more maturely and with more wisdom than you would expect.
Things have since changed for the next artist, who did 10 shows in Austin, capping them off with the McNally Smith showcase over at The Liberty. Quickening on over to East Austin and arriving a song or two into Astronautalis‘ set, nothing there could have given you the foresight that as of last week, he’s now part of an unnamed band with Ryan Olson and Justin Vernon talked and mused over via Instagram. Everyone was hooked to him, every single word as his live band followed his footsteps, especially on “Lift the Curse” of his excellent This Is Our Science. The freestyle, however, was the most perfect way you could ever sum up SXSW…thank god someone captured it.
We made it back into the main end of SXSW to end this edition, but not before a rest stop at one of the best food trailer park stops you could wish for, including Lucky J’s and their immaculately conceived waffle chicken with hot sauce and maple syrup. The kimchi fries from the day before pale in comparison to the culinary ecstasy of fried chicken encased in a waffle taco.
Back on the other side of things, a return to Swan Dive and a new stop at Maggie Mae’s brought back capping the evening off with a duo of Portland bands, Lost Lander and Y La Bamba. Dressed entirely in white, Lost Lander took to the stage going through their debut album DRRT. Live, they effectively managed to recreate many of the interesting, more complex sonic landscapes they recorded. Surprisingly, “Belly of the Bird / Valentina” left the biggest impression, which previously didn’t. The frantic tempo fit so well, particularly just with the lateness of the evening. “Dig (How It Feels to Lay in the Soft Light)” introduced the evening with its empowering Black Keys-esque guitar roils. “Your Name is a Fire” likewise kept toes a tapping with Sarah Fennell backing up Matt Sheehy’s vocals. And obviously, one of my SXSW 2012 missions became accomplished in hearing “Cold Feet” live for the first time. The echoing, airy track first enraptured the attention due to just how the recording hugged your senses, and on stage, Lost Lander pulls it off extremely well, ending the evening with it.
Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room was one of those moments when having a badge is great, and not having a badge can be a bummer. I knew of this before in advance, so whenever I invited someone to come hang and I seriously wanted them to join us or see the band, I’d gladly spring the entry for that person (did it for We Were Evergreen too). It doesn’t so much matter to me when most of the concerts are free if you think about the paying vs free concert ratio going on. We ran into Julien Pras of Mars Red Sky just before. Mars Red Sky is a heavy, heavy French band that plays some extremely good, intricate rock evoking the classics of the 70s. They also recorded their album in the middle of the Spanish desert (interview). We compared who we caught during the week, and surprisingly he brought up one artist I saw last year that really surprised me under a bridge-Dana Falconberry. I loved these little connections.
I was happy to see him stick around for a bit of the next and final set of SXSW, along with a couple good European friends who had not yet heard of Y La Bamba. Despite an unfortunate fuzz problem with a microphone, the Portland folk group delivered one of the most passionate performances as if grabbing and tightening those strings of artistry out of thin air with their harmonies from everyone including Scott Magee and Ben Meyercord, guitar pluckings and Luz Mendoza’s claps with “Squawk”. “Bendito” was as tremendous as imagined with its walking tempo collapsing into the wrenching and gaping canyon in the middle of the song. The final performance of SXSW proved that Court The Storm brought a much more cohesive group that will endure what the future holds.
SXSW 2012 didn’t really end just when the stage lights turn off or the army of volunteers disperse across downtown to collect and clean up the remnants of the 10 day festival. For us, it continued till 2AM the next morning when we finally made it into Madison by car. Mixtapes and discoveries, interviews and encounters typically follow and float. Lee Fields, Alabama Shakes, country music, Cloud Nothings, indie hip-hop lessons, pre-1930s vintage music accompanied the long journey back through Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois and back into Wisconsin.
See you next year Austin.