SXSW 2004

Here’s a taste of the uniquely enjoyable madness that is South By Southwest. Every evening, all evening, at the Junction of Sixth and Trinity, a group of Christian evangelists try to convert the many thousands of sinners streaming past. As every building is shaking to the bone-shattering volume of punk bands, rock bands, metal bands, blues bands and Japanese Hardcore Transvestite Glam-Slam bands, the only way they can convey their message is to shout. But they are not alone. Permanently challenging them is a wizened old hippie dressed in nothing but a skimpy leopardskin chemise and a thong. His method of countering God’s word is to shout even louder than them. He roars terrifyingly into their faces for as long as they are there, which is a long time. It’s great entertainment, but there’s no time to spare, for we have 1200 bands to see.
The madness continues. In an event where eccentricity is almost de rigeur (Robyn Hitchcock comes across as being perfectly normal), London act Paul The Girl, dressed in a silver lamé dress and a trilby, is playing a looped Led Zeppelin song to fifteen people on the 18th floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. She is warming up – I kid you not – for Jamie Cullum.
At Elysium, the singer of one of the many Japanese all-girl groups present is reading her between-song patter from cue cards. The front row of the audience is having a great time. “Say ‘rock & roll’”, they plead.
SxSW is famously impossible to review, because at any one moment, scores of bands are playing concurrently in different places. Teeth-grinding dilemmas are a permanent reality. Franz Ferdinand or Athlete? Razorlight, the Veils or the Gourds? How do you decide? Why, you drink loads of beer and do whatever seems right at the time, which is almost certainly wrong. My best example: Choosing Drive By Truckers rather than the Polyphonic Spree, on the basis that it would be easier to get in. It was, but the Truckers were a load of sub-Lynryd Skynryd bombastic country rock, of a standard lower than hundreds of other bands around this weekend.
So what is the “real” SxSW? Is it the industry bashes where labels, and, increasingly, national cultural agencies show off their new artists? These ones are good to suss out, because they invariably dole out lashings of free beer. The UK Showcase “pre-party” (may have got the terminology wrong) saw snooty music journalists mingling with Radio 2 DJs and the likes of Tom McRae and Thea Gilmore being terrifyingly cool. Refreshingly uncool and just charming were Aqualung, who played this event acoustically. “We’ve never played at a wedding before”, observed Matt Hales.?
Nearer to the “real” SxSW was the brunch party at Maria’s Taco Express, hosted by Aljandro Escovedo, a respected Austin musician who is currently much in the limelight on account of a serious illness. As breakfast burritos crunched all around, the huge but cuddly Nicolas Tremulis pricked the bubble refreshingly with some swampy Chicago blues. “If there’s anyone influential out there”, he cried, with unusual candour, “don’t sign us, we suck!”
Even closer to the “real” SxSW (maybe on account of being miles from anywhere, conducted in the Church of the Friendly Ghost, a prefab on a suburban trailer park), was the Ba Da Bing party, featuring those lovely Sons and Daughters, a Glasgow band who are relishing the increasing attention their hugely entertaining mutant punk-folk is receiving. They have the added advantage of being frienfs with Franz Ferdinand, which means that they are going to be heard by lots of people. Seldom has a band deserved it more (and seldom, incidentally, has a band been more drunk).
Ah, Franz Ferdinand. The event in which an act that no one has heard of is booked into a little venue but then turns out to be the hottest ticket in town is definitely part of the “real” SxSW. The mayhem of this show is hard to describe, and there is absolutely no doubt that FF is a great band, but there is a certain arch knowingness about them which takes the edge off. Credit where it’s due, but once you’ve got it into your head that Alex Capranos is actually Wilco Johnson and Nick McCarthy is a member of Spandau Ballet, it’s hard to concentrate. Whatever you do, though, don’t try to stare out the bassist – he’s scary. So allow me to observe that the band immediately before FF, namely Clearlake, stole the show as far as I was concerned. With their pastoral melodies, melancholy lyrics and unstudied, low-key delivery, this is a band whose patience will one day be rewarded.?
If you can get over the feeling of “Oh God, what if there’s a fire?”, Stubbs Barbecue on Red River is probably the best place to be. Here, I contrived to see Detroit’s Von Bondies twice – one of the few bands for which the expression “You rock” is truly apt. Las Vegas’ semi new romantic revivalists The Killers impressed too, as did the showbiz-dedicated Hives, trying out some new songs on us.
One really rewarding thing to do at SxSW is go and see a band that you’ve liked before and find that they don’t let you down. Stellastarr* opted to play a little show at the Red Eyed Fly rather than a schmoozefest showcase, and it worked. This is a band you should take someone to see who wants to understand what rock and roll is all about. They are just incendiary. Bassist Amanda Tannen would stir unworthy thoughts in the most respectable of gentlemen, while Shaun Christensen really should invest in a trouser roadie. Similarly un-disappointing was Jesse Malin at the Cedar Street Courtyard. This New York ex-punk is charming, literate and humorous, plus has a lovely voice and great songs. A new album from Jesse later in the year is indeed something to look forward to.
Mentioned in dispatches: Sarah Sharp, whose “do-it-yourself” ethic has resulted in “Fourth Person”, an astonishingly accomplished album which will kick-start her career; International Noise Conspiracy, deft masters of the art of scissor-kicking, microphone-lassooing and vying with the Hives in the “Scandinavians in daft outfits” stakes; Robyn Hitchcock – so it’s true he’s still big in the States; the Black Keys, whose “turn it up to eleven” distorted blues couldn’t have found a more appropriate home than Antones; American Music Club, who gave the lie to the notion that legends shouldn’t re-form (as unfortunately demonstrated by Big Star); representing the huge Aussie contingent, a shockingly well-behaved Sleepy Jackson. After two technical breakdowns, even the mildest-mannered band would have smashed their instruments, but the Sleepys’ mood was positively mellow. Great, though; … oh, and a couple of dozen more.
Disappointments: The Veils (it just doesn’t work); Graham Parker (he’s been at the same thing for too long); Electrelane (amateurism is sometimes good, but not in this case); and Cerys Matthews, who looked and sounded virtually unrecognizable in her perfunctory set. And by the way, if this all seems a bit indie for you, it’s worth mentioning that other artists appearing included NERD, Kris Kristofferson and – yes – Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
No two reviews of SxSW will mention the same bands, and certainly none will agree on a highlight. Mine had the unexpected bonus of being a bolt out of the blue. The scruffy, Grandaddy-style unkempt bunch of apparent Austin slackers called Centro-Matic didn’t look promising at all, but the explosive performance of their anthemic songs – think Radiohead meets Neil Young with a healthy dollop of grunge thrown in – caught the soporific audience on the hop, chewed them up and spat them out, exhausted.
It was a low-key afternoon affair at the Red Eyed Fly, so there probably weren’t any cheque book-waving A & R men shouting “sign ’em”. But there should have been.

From LOGO magazine

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SXSW 2003

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 don’t have much in common. In Austin, the 110 dollar wristband which gets you into most events is good value, but there’s no camping, so you have to find your own accommodation. That’s either central and pricey or non-central and inconvenient. Either way, you’ll 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? You’ll never know.
I counted 1243 bands playing, and that’s 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 can’t fail to be be a reflection of one person’s 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. Here’s my list: Austin’s 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 Mae’s (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 I’ll one day be boasting about seeing them when they were “small”); and New Jersey’s 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 UK’s most sludgy, uninteresting rock bands. And as for Peter Bruntnell … well, I’m a fan, that’s 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. Here’s 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 didn’t 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 ain’t lived till you’ve 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 Mac’s “Tusk” and, yes, Status Quo’s “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 you’d have to see them 23 times to fully appreciate them, as each member merits study for the entire performance. My friend Paul’s tip: front row, extreme left of the choir. My tip: the theramin player.
That’s SXSW, then. Hope I’ll get my breath back before next year.

From Amplifier magazine

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