If drums and wires rather than milk and honey in the Elysian fields is your idea of Heaven, then South By South West is the place for you.
Comparisons are often made between SXSW and Glastonbury, but apart from evil toilet facilities, they dont have much in common. In Austin, the 110 dollar wristband which gets you into most events is good value, but theres no camping, so you have to find your own accommodation. Thats either central and pricey or non-central and inconvenient. Either way, youll spend your four days in a frenzy of charging from venue to venue and stamping with frustration that the only five bands you want to see are all playing at the same time in different extremities of the city. Have you made the right choice? Youll never know.
I counted 1243 bands playing, and thats just the ones listed in the official programme. The furthest I had to hike in one go was from Stubbs on Red River to the Continental Club on Congress, a distance of about three miles. There were showcases from Japan, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada, the UK and countless other countries, as well as presentations from scores of individual US towns and cities. There was folk, jazz, rock, indie, country, metal, rap, dance, thrash metal and any other musical subculture you could care to imagine. So any review of SXSW cant fail to be be a reflection of one persons experiences. Here we go …
First, the peculiar things. The Joe Jackson Band played a storming free open air set to a huge crowd, and then a paying one indoors just a few hours later. This was surely a flawed managerial decision, and so it proved. The indoor show at the Austin Music Hall was sparsely attended and Joe had lost his voice, cutting short the performance. Stranger still was Grandaddy’s appearance at a V2 showcase at La Zona Rosa. They were so woefully unrehearsed that they struggled through a disastrously disjointed show and were plainly relieved when the stage manager made the cut-off sign. All other bands used this as a signal to do one more number, but Grandaddy gratefully scuttled for the exit. What a disappointment from a great band.
The “secret” appearance of Blur, also at La Zona Rosa, was fascinating. Alex James had failed to obtain a work permit, so a stand-in bassist was used. What with new guitarist Simon Tong being so understated as to be virtually invisible, this was the Damon Show in a big way. Luckily, he was up to the job and Blur satisfied everyone with old favourites like “Song 2” (Introduced as “Fuck You”) and a slur of new songs (all, contrary to rumour, perfectly accessible). It would seem that the new album is a killer.
The essence of SXSW is cruising the bars of Sixth Street, sticking your head into each one (earplugs a vital necessity) and seeing what gems you can discover. You catch snatches of scores of bands whose names you never find out, but some you remember, for diverse reasons. Heres my list: Austins Andrew Kelly at Mercury (for being quiet); Kinski and Maserati at Emos (both for being magnificently noisy and sonically ambitious); Spiraling at the Hard Rock Café (whose big showcase moment to an empty room was hit by an exploding PA half a song in); Pineforest Crunch at Maggie Maes (for being sweet, Swedish and using a Stylophone); Voyager 1 at Spill (for being the only post-Gong space rock band at the entire event); The Features at Spill (for being like XTC and for the feeing Ill one day be boasting about seeing them when they were “small”); and New Jerseys Rye Coalition (for being the hardest-rockin muthafuckers of very many hard-rockin muthas).
Being in Texas, it was vital to catch some country rock. It was odd, then, that the best country came from Canada (Kathleen Edwards), from Australia via the UK (Grand Drive) and from Devon (Peter Bruntnell). Edwards, despite her engaging personality, upfront lyrics and rocking band, gave little real clue as to why she has so suddenly burst forth from a very crowded and competitive market. Of equal interest was a young Austinite called Sarah Sharp, who popped up all over the place. Grand Drive stole the show at a UK showcase at the Ritz, admittedly not much of an achievement, since this over-promoted but under-attended event featured some of the UKs most sludgy, uninteresting rock bands. And as for Peter Bruntnell … well, Im a fan, thats all, and unashamedly caught three of his four performances.
Now the bit my editor hates, namely the cool bands which I missed. Excuses include: inability to locate the venue, clashing with something possibly inferior, and having to eat or else fall over. Heres that list of shame: Kaito, Cat Power, Raveonettes, Longwave and Drive-By Truckers. Other categories include those where overcrowding meant it was physically impossible to get in (The Coral at Stubbs); ones where I didnt think it would be good but apparently it was (Leona Ness, complete with Peter Buck), and bands I missed on purpose because I hate them (British Sea Power).
In an environment which was often more that a tad self-reverential, some welcome humour came from the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. The excellently geeky dad, accompanied by his young drummer daughter Rachel, are a Moldy Peaches-type novelty act, which certainly puts a new perspective on White Stripes / Kills-style duos. Their songs are written round old 35mm slides which they find at flea markets and, as the man from the Austin Chronicle said, you aint lived till youve heard a nine-year-old girl demanding “more vocal in the monitors”.
The rejuvenated Camper van Beethoven, also at La Zona Rosa, were another high point. Not only was David Lowery one of the surprisingly few people to make a clear, unequivocal and impassioned anti-war speech, but they also did a roaring “Take The Skinheads Bowling”, following up with their unique take on Fleetwood Macs “Tusk” and, yes, Status Quos “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”. And then, in an event overflowing with yawnsome sound-and-light freakout grand climaxes, they produced by far the most explosive and entertaining one of all. Phew!
All of which brings us to the answer to the inevitable “What was the highlight?” question. Luckily, there was no competition. On their home turf, completely selling out the huge Music Hall and then making it impossible to get anywhere near Stubbs, the Polyphonic Spree proved that they are one of the most original, intelligent, charming and just plain brilliant acts in the history of rock music, ever. And boy, were they on form. We worked out that youd have to see them 23 times to fully appreciate them, as each member merits study for the entire performance. My friend Pauls tip: front row, extreme left of the choir. My tip: the theramin player.
Thats SXSW, then. Hope Ill get my breath back before next year.
From Amplifier magazine