People always ask me, What is sxsw really like?. Well, I usually reply, its quite difficult to explain , and the conversation moves on. This year, I thought Id try to put down in words a feeble attempt to capture what the festival actually is like for one punter. I hope it is interesting.
I never have problems sleeping, except on one day each year. That is the day when I travel to Austin for South By South West. The route is Southampton Manchester Chicago Austin, and the flight is very early in the morning. I have booked a taxi and set the alarm, so that should be sufficient, but no. What if the alarm fails to go off? What if the taxi drivers alarm doesnt go off and he fails to turn up? Best not to risk going to sleep then, but in this case its immaterial, because I have such a savage cough that sleep is out of the question anyway.
That cough. For days, Ive been worrying on behalf of whatever poor person will have to sit next to me on the eight hour transatlantic flight. Now I am sure I have the answer. I have bought a bottle of cough mixture and cleverly decanted most of it so that less than 30 ml is left. Unfortunately that cuts no ice with the officials at Southampton Airport, who insist it is thrown away. They assure me, though I dont believe it, that cough mixture is on sale in the departure lounge.
Astonishingly, I am wrong, and purchase a replacement bottle which enables me to spare my germs from the businessmen who make up the entire passenger list of the commuter flight to Manchester. I look around and confirm that I am the only person present who is not wearing a pinstripe suit. I feel rather proud that my next few days are not going to be as dull as theirs will be.
Transferring to the next flight makes you feel good, as you are fast-tracked to the front of the queue. To my relief, the security gentleman doesnt make me throw away the cough mixture again, and I board the plane. This time last year, it was a huge jumbo which allowed me to stretch out across three seats, just behind Jarvis Cocker, who was doing the same. This plane, however is much smaller and inevitably I am squashed next to someone of enormous girth who spills over on to my seat. Boarding is an hour late because get this the incoming flight has had to be diverted round Iceland because of an erupting volcano. Then, we sit for a further hour and a half while engineers try to supply the plane with water, not for the radiator as I naively assumed (I suppose jet planes dont have radiators), but for the loos and the tea. In the event, the tea tastes as if the water came from the loo anyway. My handy pocket book of crosswords comes in useful in passing the time, in contrast to two truly terrible Ricky Gervais Hollywood films which are played back to back on the neckache-inducing screens. I find myself star struck when I find that my vegetarian lunch is labelled Rachel Unthank. I wonder if she is just as thrilled to find hers is labelled Oliver Gray. Im sure hers tasted just as crap as mine did.
The lateness means a quick stopover in Chicago and before I know it Im in Austin, where my friend Paul collects me from the airport. By way of explanation, Paul is my best mate, even though he now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We became pals back in the early eighties when both he and I were managing bands in Hampshire. He emigrated a decade ago and our annual treat is a visit to sxsw, where I write articles and search for new bands, he takes photos and we generally drink and laugh ourselves into oblivion for a glorious four days of musical overdosing (much like everyone else there). So from now on, most references to we and us will be shorthand for me and Paul.
It dawns warm and sunny, and my cough is in full retreat as we stroll from our conveniently-situated Super 8 Motel along Red River and towards the Convention Center, where our badges are to be collected. This used to be a tedious and slow experience but technology has helped enormously and now it is sorted in a flash, with the customary American welcoming politeness which is a hallmark of the entire event. They give you a huge bag of merchandise which weighs a ton and demands to be jettisoned immediately, so its straight back to the hotel with that before anything else can be undertaken. The hotel is pretty basic but has the merit of being affordable even though it is central. It does triple its prices during sxsw week, and its complimentary breakfast consists of donuts, muffins and coco pops and thus youre not missing much when you sleep till midday, which is of course inevitable after each late night.
My request for the afternoon was to re-visit a place I went to with my wife when we first visited Austin ten years ago. The Oasis is an extraordinary restaurant built into a series of decks overlooking Lake Travis. It recently burned down and is in the process of being rebuilt as something much more posh. We chomped burgers and revelled in the sunshine. I couldnt believe Id forgotten the sunscreen.
That was it for the car. From now on, beer was going to be a major part of our diet, so the car remained behind and it was down to feet and the very occasional taxi in time of need. Just for the record, I am suffering from a very painful foot. This kicked in more or less immediately and remained agonizing throughout the four days, so anything I describe as walking should actually read hobbling. This is significant, as any visit to sxsw entails many, many miles on foot. Im going to attempt to describe the scene.
At first glance, everything seems reasonably reachable. There is a slew of venues on Sixth Street, and on thoroughfares like Red River, which cross it. There is nothing to stop you just staying in this temporarily pedestrianised area, the most crowded, but youd miss out on an awful lot if you did. Some bigger venues, such as the open air one at Town Lake, and also La Zona Rosa and the Austin Music Hall are quite a serious hike away. Here is where big names are likely to appear (examples this year being Smokey Robinson and Ray Davies), but we have bitter experience of long journeys followed by fruitless hours standing in queues, and now ignore these events. Some of the best shows are in venues such as Opal Divines or the Continental Club, both of which are a long way from the main action. A few places, such as the improvised venues on South Congress (Home Slice Pizza, Yard Dog Gallery), the Mean Eyed Cat (home of Mojo magazine) and the Hole in The Wall (out by the university) are actually quite a hefty taxi ride, but normally worth the effort. One or two bars (very few indeed) actually choose to opt out of sxsw altogether:
That badge thing: Most people have badges, which dont actually guarantee you entry to anything. There are also wristbands, which put you in a different and slower queue. Some people try to get by without paying at all. This is pretty hopeless in the evenings, when the official showcases are taking place, but during the day parties, you can go almost anywhere you like and, with patience, will get to see virtually any band, because they all play several shows, some managing as many as ten or more over the four days. The main difficulty is finding out who is playing where and when. I am embarrassed to say that it took us two years to discover that the daytime scene exists at all, since the officially documented events only run from 8pm to 1 am. This is, of course, the teeniest tip of the iceberg.
Sometimes you will find out whats what because you are on a particular bands mailing list. Sometimes there are posters which give you clues. Word of mouth is very active, plus nowadays there are all sorts of social networking devices which I dont comprehend. Sometimes you can strike lucky by spotting a long queue and attaching yourself to it (a couple of years ago, I got to see the Flaming Lips in a tiny club by doing this). One thing which it is honestly worth ignoring is when word gets out that a big, unbilled band is playing in a small place (this year, it was Muse at Stubbs). You are in severe danger of standing in the queue for five or six hours, missing a load of other good stuff, and still not getting in.
Its not really like Glastonbury at all (for a start, most of sxsw is indoors), but one thing the two do have in common is the problem of awful clashes. With nearly 1500 on the bill, when you search the schedules, you sometimes find a certain time when there is absolutely no one you want to see, followed an hour later by five or more acts you are desperate to see, all playing at the same time in different places. Or, in a variation on the theme, someone at six oclock followed by someone else at seven oclock but unfortunately five miles away. If youre not careful (and Im not careful) you catch the first few songs of Act A (you know, the unfamiliar ones from their new album), miss the rousing climax and arrive at Act B just in time to catch the immortal words Thank you, good night. You then listen to the crowd discussing what an incredible set it has been.
I started sxsw 2010 in the same way as usual, the Canadian Blast, which takes place in a tent in Brush Park outside the Convention Center. Canadian music is government supported and usually this event is great, but this year I was unfortunate enough to encounter a series of rather nondescript bands, with the exception of You Say Party! We Say Die!, who were actually quite good, but I couldnt take them seriously because their singer reminded me too much of Miss Jones from Rising Damp.
It was time to head for Lamberts, a far-flung upstairs venue which is actually a smart restaurant in normal life. Here you can find the most expensive beer of any sxsw venue, but it is very good beer. By contrast, the toilet was one of the very worst (and theres lots of competition). The seat was broken and the floor awash with urine.
Mark Mallman, from Minneapolis, is one of my very favourite US artists, his melodies presented in a wild and eccentric stage act which comes across as a mixture of Elton John and Alice Cooper. On this occasion, he was performing with his other band, bouncy electro-poppers Ruby Isle. I wanted to talk to Mark about a possible UK tour with Chuck Prophet, but the news was bad. The proposed fee would mean a big deficit for Mark, and he doesnt have record company support. Despite that disappointment, the show was great (how many bands feature a step ladder?) and Mark is always ideal for a good photo opportunity.
Opal Divines is a long way from Lamberts but I had promised to visit Welsh singer songwriter Christopher Rees, who was excited to be playing with the South Austin Horns. It was a flying by the seat of the pants show, but a nervous Christopher came across really well with a soulful performance, quite different from his normal more country stylings. The only problems were the lugubrious concentration of the sidemen and the almost complete lack of an audience. I had to set off before the end on a hike to see someone who, no offence, beat the horns hands down in the beauty stakes.
Asteroids Galaxy Tour is a Danish band we stumbled upon by chance at last years sxsw. Their claim to fame is having their tune Around The Bend used in a TV commercial, but they are fantastic fun, with the stunning Mette backed by what amounts to a soul band, complete with horn section. In truth, they havent moved on for a year. They are still great entertainment but you wonder what the future holds for them. Its a miracle that industry types havent tried to transform Mette into a Gaga-style electro-Diva, but she seems the sort of person who wouldnt take kindly to attempted manipulation.
Just up the road is Club De Ville and my next plan was to see a band Id wanted to see for a while, namely Bowerbirds. It turned out to be an object lesson in the Unacceptable Face of sxsw. It doesnt happen often, but when it does, its infuriating. Along with a couple of hundred other people, I stood for over an hour as a completely hopeless excuse for a sound crew failed to enable the extraordinarily patient band to conduct a sound check. The crew were communicating over the PA, which revealed that they genuinely had no more clue what they were doing than most of the crowd would have had. Along with many other people, I eventually gave up and left without hearing a note, sad that we had potentially missed something good round the corner. Thats why I was headed to Stubbs, to try and get in early for Austins finest (equal) band, Spoon. It was a big deal for them to be headlining the prestige (if quaint) venue and they pulled it off with aplomb, aided by the fact that they only have a few members and instruments and therefore dont need complicated sound checks. Plus, bless them, they do a sweetly lugubrious cover of the Damned classic A Love Song. As usual at Stubbs, we nipped down a secret side alley which heads to the stage and got a deafening ringside view and the traditional telling-off from the bouncers for using flash photography.
Yesterday, I had made the embarrassing error of heading to a Shearwater show 24 hours early, having mis-read the schedule. The Galaxy Rooms is a strange place which seems to change hands and name each year. It is currently up for sale and completely empty, which actually makes it great for gig-going. They have brought in a stage and a PA, which is pretty well all you need. I make no bones about adoring Shearwater (prog roots revealed) and they delivered as usual. They all look so blissfully happy, its no wonder the music comes out so brilliantly. In the wrong hands it could be pompous, as it is, its sublime.
The afternoon panned out in perfect style. At two, we were at Headhunters, a homely metal dive which annually plays host to the Six Shooter Hootenanny, a label shindig for Torontos finest. With free Tequila and lovely tacos and salad, the atmosphere is fantastic and the music invariably great. Each act does just a couple of numbers and lots of cross-pollination goes on. Each year, I find something new and fun here, and this year it was Hot Panda.
Long-time favourites Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland entertained next, before we had to head off for an hour.
What could possibly drag us away from the Hootenanny? Probably the best band of the festival, thats what, namely Rhode Islands The Low Anthem, who had triumphed at the End Of The Road Festival back in September, and who triumphed again at the Galaxy Rooms. How lovely that such quiet, slow, intelligent music can hold an audience so rapt amidst all the mayhem on the streets outside.
Back to Headhunters in time to catch the wonderful Justin Rutledge rocking out to a much greater extent than usual with backing from The Beauties, newly signed to Six Shooter.
I was on a mission by now, doubtless fuelled by the Tequila, and needed to see one off my favourite artists, Jason Lytle (previously of Grandaddy). Lytle famously hated the pressures of fame and now has gone so far as to assimilate himself anonymously into a band called Admiral Radley, which played six times during the festival. Unfortunately we chose the wrong show because (are you seeing a pattern here?) they had trouble sound checking and by the time they got going, only had time for three songs, ignominiously playing behind a flickering projection of a sponsors logo. But I would later encounter Jason again.
After a quick peek at the excellent Besnard Lakes at Stubbs, I was off on a hunch. A friend had recommended Nive Nielsen, a singer from Greenland, to my knowledge, the only artist from that country ever to play at sxsw. Also, she was playing on the eighteenth floor of the Hilton Garden Inn, a plushy oasis where the beer is surprisingly cheap and the seats unusually comfortable. I like to go there at least once a year for a rest from excessive volume. Nive was enjoyable but suffered from a condition afflicting many this year, namely an inability to resist using loads of unnecessary musicians. Many of the songs got lost in the convoluted arrangements and it was always a relief when she did something solo. Plus, ahem, it entailed very lengthy soundchecking.
Everyone says how brilliant the Drive By Truckers are, so in the spirit of supporting local music, we headed back to Stubbs. Last time I saw them I found them to be lumbering, bog-standard alt-country with few redeeming features, and this time I found them to be er – lumbering, bog-standard alt-country with few redeeming features. Surrounded by a crowd of Truckers fans, we survived five songs before heading off to a far more important Texan band.
Centro-Matic have been a highlight of all the South Bys I have attended apart from last years when they unaccountably didnt play. After the disappointment of the cancellation of Will Johnsons tour with Jason Molina (owing to Molinas illness), it was essential to see them this time and, of course, they never disappoint. Even in the characterless Emos Annexe, the trenchant rock and Johnsons soulful vocals underlined their uniqueness. It was terribly sobering when Johnson dedicated one song to the memories of Alex Chilton, Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous. That is way too many dead geniuses.
Buffalo Billiards is normally one of my favourite sxsw venues. Situated upstairs, it tends to host the hottest shows. This was where I was in the front row for Franz Ferdinands breakthrough show, one of the most exciting experiences of my life. Here, too, I shared the ladies toilet with Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs, but that is another story. This was where I rushed to after Centro-Matic, to catch another bunch of heroes from Denton, Midlake. Surprisingly, there was no queue, but a musical problem for me. Despite their The Courage Of Others being one of my top albums of 2010, they also suffer from having too many extra members. Because most of their instruments, including non-rock and roll items such as flutes, are acoustic, they guess what soundchecked forever and then gave a muted and, oh dear, Ill have to say it, rather boring performance. Oh well, bed time anyway.
This is a good moment to add that the bands mentioned here are only a sample of those we saw. Nipping in and out of bars, you catch snatches of scores of bands you never identify, plus others you fail to remember. And while it isnt really a street festival, you do come across gems on street corners, such as the Coal Porters, playing their hearts out outside a bank on Sixth Street.
Whenever I am at South By South West, I keep my eyes open for Hampshire bands. This is a strange thing to do in Texas, but I am aware Ill be doing reviews for Hampshire publications and that they like a local angle. Its normally quite a hapless task because, although half the musical population of the UK is present, there seldom seem to be any Southampton musicians around.
So it was with a certain amount of joy, not to mention surprise, that I spotted in the programme a reference to Southampton. Whats this? Band Of Skulls? God, it sounds like some horrible hardcore band, but Id better investigate.
Investigation proved fruitful. They sounded great, they seemed respected and they were about to tour with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. But my blood ran cold it seemed I knew them after all. It dawned on me that this was a band previously known as Fleeing New York, about whom I had once written a stinking review. Now I may not have been wrong about that particular band, but obviously things had changed in a major way.
So in Austin, I was determined to find Band Of Skulls and make amends. The show I had decided upon (out of several) was to take place at the Cedar Street Courtyard at 1 pm, an outrageously early time by sxsw standards, but the alternative would have entailed going to something called the British Music Embassy, a nastily jingoistic establishment populated by freeloaders and the rump of the music industry. The Cedar Street Courtyard, on the other hand, is the ultimate place to see A Big Band In A Small Venue. Last year, I stood through four acts I didnt want to see in order to be in the front row for Primal Scream on a stage the size of a pocket handkerchief, while in previous years, Ive got close to the Kaiser Chiefs, Embrace, Billy Bragg and many others. The intensity is very rewarding, but this time there was a problem. There was only one queue, and it was plain that hundreds of hopefuls were employing my get there early technique in order to see BRMC, scheduled for later in the afternoon.
On this occasion, someone had decided to roll all the queues into one, which was not exactly fair for people like me, who not only had a badge but had also gone though a lengthy online rigmarole to reply to an invitation and acquire a confirmation. Well, Im not proud, but I wasnt going to miss this band, so, in an entirely uncharacteristic Margarita-fuelled attack of bravery / aggression, I barged past the doorman and charged into the crowd before anyone could stop me, rather startling the smartly dressed delegation from the Hamburg Reeperbahn festival, whose promotional stall I knocked over in the process.
The reward was ample, though. Sneaking through the side bar to prime position in the front row, I felt a warm glow of pride as the compère announced that he was a radio DJ and that Band Of Skulls was the most requested band on his station. A Southampton band making it big in the States? How exciting is this? And how could it be?
Well, how it can be is that this is not just a band name change, its an entirely new and very American sound. You know how the White Stripes and the Black Keys have that spare, bluesy earthiness but sometimes you wish they had a bass player? Thats the trick that Band of Skulls pull off. Bassist Emma Richardson looks and sounds great, cool in a Hynde way but somehow rather English Rose-like. Guitarist Russell Marsden is more unkempt but wrestles out abrasive squalls of sound and makes a grand job of that most excellent rock and roll tradition of kneeling on the floor, extracting groans and screeches from his effects pedals. Plus drummer Matthew Hayward, with his minimalist style, outshone at least two thousand other drummers in town. The hooks on many of the songs are almost chants, simple yet not obvious. Wow! For a second, I toyed with shouting out Go Southampton! at the end of the set, but resisted, for fear of being branded a football hooligan. And, for obvious reasons, I chickened out of trying to speak to them. I would have apologized for my age-old petulance, of course.
I had already booked Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles to play in Winchester, so wanted to make sure it had been a good idea. The Belmont is one of the most salubrious sxsw venues, and I have to admit that, lolling on the patio in the blazing sunshine, eating a cone of shrimps and nursing a Dos Equis (the most glorious Mexican beer), I felt all was very good in the world. So it was that, when I spotted the notoriously shy and un-showbizzy Jason Lytle in the crowd, I simply marched up and started talking to him. I dont know what came over me, thats just what sxsw does to you. Luckily, the mood seemed to have got to him too and he was charm personified, allowing me to feel that I hadnt entirely made a fool of myself. Sarah Borges was great, too, so visiting the Belmont was a good result all round.
Paul, meanwhile, had adored Low Anthem so much that he insisted on trying to get in to what turned out to be a private media showcase, and had lengthy and unfruitful negotiations with an unbending security team. So we met up again to try to get to the Hole In The Wall, a distant venue where Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express were playing the first of their many shows. The taxi we eventually found was driven by a militantly gay chain smoker, maybe not the kind of thing people associate with Texas, but this is Austin. On the return journey, the driver was an outspoken and vile homophobe. Ho hum.
The Chuck show here was intensely vibrant, maybe not one of their tidiest (he told me afterwards that he didnt know what the hell was going on) but with all the unique excitement that a full-on Mission Express show can stir up. Here, as all over town, the spirit of Alex Chilton was palpably present. Alex had been billed to play at Antones with Big Star but sadly passed away in New Orleans on the Wednesday. Chilton songs are always a feature of Chuck Prophet shows and this was no exception. I was so excited that I forgot to take any photos, but I did manage to film one song:
A long walk and a nice meal later, it was time to hit the Central Presbyterian Church, one of several ecclesiastical venues brought into sxsw service. Just as well we arrived early, because they cant just pack more and more people into the pews, so there is a more finite capacity than elsewhere. A long and friendly queueing procedure (with no alcohol or loos available) was eventually rewarded by Band Of Horses, playing melodic, Eagles-ish music which seemed entirely appropriate. Hard on the bum though.
For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to see Boxer Rebellion at Maggie Maes but I was wrong, as they turned out to be a bombastic, sub-Muse affair. Entertainment was to be had, though, observing one gentleman pouring beer from the balcony into the upturned mouth of his mate on the ground floor below, with quite impressive accuracy. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to get early into the line for Red Eyed Fly, a venue where queuing is very dangerous because it is in a busy car park. Fruitless, too, on this occasion, as after forty minutes of immobility it was clear we were never going to get in to see Deer Tick. So time to trouble the shoe leather again in a challenging trek to the Continental Club. This is one of the most atmospheric Austin venues. Someone once told me that Elvis played here. Its probably apocryphal but I choose to believe it. This journey was teeth-grinding as it was, because it meant missing Chuck Prophets official showcase at the same time, but Elliott Brood were only doing one show and I wasnt going to miss it. I arrived in time to decide I loved the Deadstring Brothers after all. Ive had an on-off relationship with their music over the years, but this environment suited them perfectly.
Elliott Brood is a hellraising trio from Canada, whose wild stage show is renowned. On certain occasions (for example, this one), they supply the audience with wooden spoons and baking trays, employing them as a vast percussion section. The show lived up to expectations, complete with stage invasions, collapsing equipment and the aforementioned mass culinary accompaniment.
After that, something calming was required and that was provided once again in the sanctuary of the 18th floor of the Hilton Garden Inn. I can take or leave Tom Brosseau, but his decision to dispense with all forms of amplification was a blessed change from the rowdiness of the day.
The best-laid plans The idea today was to amble out to the Mean Eyed Cat for the Mojo day party, but no one had anticipated the weather intervening in such a dramatic way. Overnight, the temperature had dropped by forty degrees fahrenheit! In the morning, there was sleet in the air. All day, the whole of Austin was remarkably quiet, the queues non-existent and the few brave souls around the place were wrapped in blankets and cagoules. Most of us, of course, had no such gear with us. I ended up buying three tee-shirts during the course of the day and wearing all of them on top of the two I started out with. Thank goodness for the sanctuary of the Six Shooter House, where we had been kindly invited to spend the morning but ended up spending hours, because everyone there was so convivial, the endless Margaritas and quiches so irresistible and the music so wonderful (they set up a studio in the cellar and do impromptu live recordings).
Luckily, the house was a stones throw from Home Slice Pizza, a mine of cool music, and the inimitable Yard Dog Gallery, where we caught Jon Langford, followed by yet another Chuck Prophet show. Goodness knows how any of them managed to play any chords without their digits falling off.
At this stage I had planned to see Athlete, but had been saddened the day before to see a snatch of them reduced to an uninspiring acoustic duo. When their first album came out, Id have bet on them being a world-beating band, but its been pretty much downhill from there. So it was off for a final visit to Red Eyed Fly (this time no problem about getting in, for obvious reasons) to listen to a few great new songs by Ben Weaver. When I shook his hand it literally felt like a block of ice, so goodness knows how he managed to play the banjo. Wrapped up in his hoodie, he had the air of a benevolent monk.
Now this is pretty shaming, but at this stage, I chickened out. On my list of unwatched bands for Sunday evening, I find Gemma Ray, Drums, Ian McLagan, Grant Hart and Swervedriver, but not only was the cold unbearable, but I was back into panic about waking up mode. What if I dont hear the alarm clock? What if the taxi driver doesnt hear his / her alarm clock? Oh god, how will I ever get home (etc, etc)? But the next day, remembering previous years when I have partied till 2 am and then had to get a morning flight feeling completely shit well, I didnt regret it.
And the best thing about the return flights? Waving goodbye to my bag at Austin Bergstrom airport and seeing it pop out in Southampton. It always seems like some kind of miracle, to be repeated next March (of course).