sxsw 2013

South By South West Festival 2013

This is going to read like a “Dear Diary” piece, but I can’t think of any other approach. This is what we did, and this is what we saw.

Wednesday kicked off with new Loose signing Johnny Fritz at a far-flung venue called Weather Up, getting to which started work on the blisters which would characterize the week. Fritz was slightly upstaged by an extraordinary off-the-wall performance from John McCauley, looking wasted but sounding sublime, as, alone with an electric guitar, he gave us enticing previews of what is clearly shaping up to be a fantastic new Deer Tick album.

At the plushy Convention Centre (ideal respite from the charming but frankly unhygienic dumps which make up most of Austin’’s venues), a Swiss girl band called, – yes, – Boy were doing a passable First Aid Kit impression. I was all set to dislike Jake Bugg, especially as he looks as if he is yet to sit his GCSEs, but actually he was unaffected by the environment, making no attempt to ingratiate himself other than with his good voice and nifty songs. A good guy, who could teach Frank Turner a thing or two.

Back to Weather Up for a beautiful set from the Milk Carton Kids, gossamer-light harmonies and self-deprecating humour abounding. You’’d never think they hailed from Los Angeles, but they do, as do the magnificent Dawes, who followed. This was just the third of their twelve -– count ’’em -– sxsw performances, but they sounded sublime, playing to a hundred or so sun-drenched souls and presenting a load of new songs which bear their trade mark of being instantly accessible.

Now it was time to prepare for being unable to get in to Stubbs for Nick Cave, but no, the queue moved swiftly and I was able to get in the front row, ready to get my head blown off and be bollocked by security for my inability to switch off the flash on my camera. A Nick Cave show is more a triumph of theatricality than a traditional rock show but deeply affecting nonetheless, swaggering with confidence. After that, it was a bit of a comedown to be confronted with the sub-Eltonisms of Tom Odell, including a horrifically misjudged attempt at “Honky Tonk Women”. The evening finished at the comfortable Stephen F’’s Bar, not really designed for music but a nice place for Welsh roots artist Christopher Rees. After that, it was tempting to go and see Dawes again at the Moody Theater, but that would have felt like stalking, and tiredness triumphed.

Thursday would be a long haul, but worth it. At the excellent Ginger Man venue, the Waterboys’’ Mike Scott was kicking the day off with some traditional folk. At the Paste stage, Hurray For The Riff Raff were entertaining a big crowd, but I was on a mission to find the Allah-Las, which entailed walking agonizing miles to an amiable dump called the Scoot Inn, situated in a wasteland and doubling as the venue for a diverting skateboard competition. Squeezed in among various unidentified metal bands, the dapper Allah-Las took me back to my teens. Their vocals and stage moves were pure Herman’’s Hermits. Twee, sure, but I loved every moment.

Back in the Convention Center, Hiss Golden Messenger was flu-ridden and fresh off a plane, so it would be unfair to judge him on his allotted twenty minutes. It was off to the Chuggin’’ Monkey, a typical Sixth Street dive, for Peter Bruntnell and band, on sparkling form presenting their new “Retrospective” compilation.  Then it was on to Mellow Johnny’’s Bike Shop (one of the more inimitable sxsw venues) for the much-anticipated reunion of the True Believers, with Alejandro Escovedo and Jon Dee Graham. They rocked out with aplomb but the volume was so ludicrously excessive that I was lured by the siren call of some shrimp fajitas. Well, you gotta eat some time.

A short queuing process allowed access to Austin’’s famous blues cavern, Antones, for a typically well-judged half-hour of Richard Thompson and his hot electric band, opening with a blistering “Tear Stained Letter” which was one of the week’s highlights. Sadly, it was followed by a very low lowlight. A high-risk queuing strategy surprisingly allowed us admission to the small-scale Flaming Lips show at the Belmont (they would do the full production extravaganza the next night at Auditorium Shores). Things were running very late, which meant that we were exposed to the bland horror of an entire set by Alt-J. Insipid, soulless and generally useless, they nearly sent everyone to sleep with their warbles and bleeps. Considering Depeche Mode were in town, they should have hung their heads in shame.

Even the Flaming Lips were a let-down, and I never thought I’d say that. They’’d decided to forsake all their visuals and perform the whole of “Yoshimi vs The Pink Robots”, but it didn’’t really work. The augmented band was strangely hesitant and disjointed, and with little to catch the attention, it sort of fizzled out.

On Friday, there was the most ridiculously high quality showcase going on at Waterloo Records, with the likes of Frightened Rabbit, Richard Thompson, Emmylou Harris and (ulp) Alt-J, but I was desperate not to miss John Murry, so determinedly headed to the far-flung Hole In The Wall to experience him playing just four songs to a small but rapt audience. This led on (after some amiable psychedelia from the Besnard Lakes at Ginger Man) to one of those endearingly unique sxsw experiences, as John Murry agreed to spend the day with us. Surreal wasn’’t the word, as we found ourselves miles outside town in a fabulous, classic roadhouse called the Sahara Lounge. It was Happy Hour and the venue’’s speciality was an unspecified and evil concoction called Devil’’s Piss. Here, Peter Bruntnell and band were playing pool but no one else was present. If it hadn’’t been for me, John Murry and my companion, they would have been playing to their tour manager and the sound engineer. This, I hasten to say, did’n’t indicate any lack of popularity, simply that it was in the middle of nowhere and no one knew about it. The Bruntnell band (featuring Dave Little on storming guitar) cheerfully blasted through Pete’’s greatest hits, doubtless fuelled by the Devil’’s Piss.

Canada House this year was situated at Friends, in the full-on bedlam of Sixth Street. Here, Whitehorse (Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland) proved themselves masters of the mountain of technology they’’ve acquired and now sound, as a duo, more like a six-piece band. The energy is breathtaking.

At Red River, a far from sold out Stubbs played host to Cold War Kids who were deservedly received with deafening silence, and to the Specials, who caused frantic skanking with an unashamedly hit-laden set. Going through the motions in  the most pleasant way, seemingly sponsored by Grecian 2000.

Saturday was the day in which you could have seen, in true crazily eclectic sxsw fashion, the Zombies, Eric Burdon, Charlotte Church or Prince (we didn’’t). Much more fun was the Yard Dog Gallery (it’’s a blistering suntrap), where the Minus Five featured both Scott McCaughey and the legendary Clem Burke. After that, Austin’’s lucky mascot, In McLagan, presented a bunch of new songs, plus of course “You’’re So Rude”.

Then it was on to the Broken Spoke, where line dancing is the norm. A disturbingly bland Laura Cantrell and the gimmicky Pokey Lafarge were both put firmly in the shade by the cheerful Caitlin Rose’ – small of stature but big of lung’ – and her hot band. Not far away, Alejandro Escovedo’’s day party was taking place at Maria’’s Taco Express. As we listened to the Mastersons, I drank a couple of exquisite Margaritas and proceeded to buy some shirts which I couldn’’t afford. Don’’t ask.

At Hotel San Jose, Dawes were concluding their (almost) final show. With immense courage, they first proved they can stretch out and improvise, then finished with a quiet, slow and brand new song, earning an encore, normally unheard of at sxsw. An hour later, they unexpectedly popped up yet again at the Moody Theater as guest backing band for one song with John Fogerty, whose super slick, over-frantic approach to the Creedence legacy is almost parodic in its overkill. He really didn’’t need the three extra rhythm guitarists to back him as he galloped round the stage like Benny Hill.

So, as we say very year, “It was the best sxsw ever!”