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AUSTIN, TEXAS—Wednesday at SXSW would end, for Dana and Adina and me, on a genuinely international note, so it was apt that it began on a faux-international note with a hearty breakfast at the IHOP two driveways down from our hotel on I-35 in Round Rock (“the sports capital of Texas”).
After securing a parking spot near the middle of town for $40—which seemed like a reasonable price until Thursday, when we realized that we could park for free just by passing under I-35 into East Austin—we made for the Paste day party, a blowout at the Stage on Sixth. The free gin was about to run out, so we made three quick bar runs and grabbed a table in the main room. (You can follow along at home via my SXSW Day 2 playlist on Spotify.)
We were sorry to catch only the end of a great-sounding set by Typhoon and their most welcome horn section. Once Typhoon’s set ended, we had a good long while to finish our drinks while the venue staff worked furiously to get Apparat's complex electronics set up. “Really, it's a miracle to get all this set up in 20 minutes,” said frontman Sascha Ring, apologizing for a false start. Once the band got going, they delivered a forceful set that belied their chill new album The Devil’s Walk.
Following Apparat were two bands who we talked about for the rest of the trip: Hospitality and Tennis. Both are hot buzzbands with great albums—especially Tennis, whose sophomore set Young & Old is a huge leap forward from their perfectly pleasant debut Cape Dory—but both left us a little bored. Maybe it was SXSW ennui, maybe it was the bands’ nervousness, maybe it was the fact that everyone was tired and distracted and buzzed all at once, but both bands’ sets felt…well, perfunctory.
Ben Kweller, the day’s headliner, was a different story entirely. Having been a young prodigy, at 30 Kweller has the savvy and polish of a road-tested pro without having lost any of his youthful energy. Playing a short set of songs ranging from his new disc Go Fly a Kite to his 2002 breakout Sha Sha, Kweller had the crowd in the palm of his hand. For a final flourish, he jumped up into a window open onto the packed Sixth Street to rip a guitar solo for the benefit of everyone inside and outside the club, then waved goodbye and jumped off the stage. Dana was able to grab Kweller for a few minutes on his way out to thank him for making one of her all-time favorite albums (Sha Sha); if the static sets by Hospitality and Tennis showed the shortcomings of SXSW, the chance to see Ben Kweller—for free!—in close quarters reminded me why people keep coming back to Austin.
The Paste party over, we snagged a stirfry food-cart dinner and walked up to Stubb’s on Red River Street, hoping to get into the showcase featuring Fiona Apple. It was here that we hit our first non-wristband wall: I got in, but Dana and Adina were stuck in a long line for prospective cash-payers, unlikely to even have the chance to pay the $25 it would have cost them to see Apple and the rest of the star-studded showcase headined by Andrew Bird. So we bailed on Stubb’s, met a few friends, and commenced a short bar crawl.
We first hung out at the Dizzy Rooster, another of the local empire co-owned by Bachelor Brad. There we heard a few songs by the powerful singer Lauren Silva and most of a set by the Continuums, a cock-thrusting quartet who almost made up for the fact that we’d be shut out of the Tenacious D show on Thursday. (Sample Continuums lyric: “Excuse me! You said you need me/ Now you’re saying you don’t want me around/ I came too close, you were pushing me away/ Now my heart’s in the lost and found.”) Things got even worse when we went to Whiskey & Ink for an entire nails-on-chalkboard set by Tucker Jameson. (Sample Tucker Jameson song title: “Charlotte (Don’t Be a Bitch).”)
Having given the locals a shot, it was time to look abroad: specifically, to a Brazilian showcase at Maggie Mae’s, where I used my wristband for the first time in two days and Dana and Adina snuck in for a cool five bucks each. The venue was literally cool inside—and nearly empty, despite being in the middle of the Sixth Street melee. It was everyone else’s loss, as we enjoyed a beautiful set by the duo Tiê, who attracted at least one ballet-dancing superfan.
The last band we saw on Wednesday were Tiê’s fellow Sao Paolians Some Community, who appeared out of nowhere as though they’d been beamed down from the Planet of Ridiculously Good-Looking People Who Are All Virtuosos On Four Different Instruments. The band’s sound was complex, rich, and melodic—but we were fading, and beamed ourselves back to the Red Roof Inn to rest up for our last day in Austin. It was going to be a big one.
AUSTIN, TEXAS—Last year was my first trip to the South By Southwest (SXSW) Music conference, and I went by the book: the pocket guide to official SXSW showcases, featuring hundreds of bands from around the world. I had an incredible time seeing acts from Yoko Ono to Men Without Hats to Jessie and the Toy Boys, but by the end I was drained and, frankly, kind of lonely.
So this year I took a different approach: I arrived in Austin with my girlfriend Dana and our friend Adina, neither of whom had SXSW wristbands or badges, and the three of us set out to storm SXSW on a low-cash basis. Instead of my full-size Nikon D300S, I packed an Olympus PEN mini-DSLR in my pocket. Three days later, Dana had met one of her musical heros, I’d watched performances as exciting as any I caught last year, and we’d seen a total of 31 music acts for only $20 in cover charges. Not bad.
Our first stop Tuesday morning was the Austin Convention Center, where I picked up my wristband and unlocked a Super Swarm badge on Foursquare while Dana and Adina found coffee and considered our options. We munched free Doritos and decided to do our non-SXSW tourism first. We visited the Texas State Capitol (no cover charge) and downed a couple of tallboys at the Chuggin’ Monkey (also no cover) on Sixth Street. Why the Chuggin’ Monkey? Because it’s one of four Austin bars co-owned by Brad Womack of The Bachelor fame. Despite the bartender’s best efforts (“I have not been able to procure any information regarding the location of said Bachelor,” he declared in the diction of a Coen Brothers character), we didn’t see Brad—and it was getting to be music time.
We settled on a free party being thrown by several sponsors at the beautiful Cedar Street Courtyard, one of my favorite venues in Austin or anywhere despite the fact that, like last year, I ended up in an uncomfortably intimate relationship with an ivy-covered wall. We caught no fewer than nine acts:
• M.T. Bearington, a New Haven band (they must have been right at home amidst all that Ivy) who welcomed us with warm chillwaves.
• South Africa’s Parlotones, whose cuddly-Goth looks and anthemic emo songs harken back to Fall Out Boy.
• The Kopecky Family Band, a sunny lot from Tennessee who assured us that we’reall part of their family and drove the point home by sharing their miscellaneous percussion (maracas for everyone!). It’s safe to say that the KFB have a higher proportion of songs featuring whistling than any other band I’ve ever seen.
• The Lumineers kept the crowd’s attention as much for their ridiculously good looks as for their earnest songs. I’m not going to say the Denver band take themselves too seriously, but I will note that their website says they’ve “found their sound when the world needs it most.”
• The Wandas won our hearts by being from Boston (where Adina and I went to college), by handing out free LPs, and by displaying the kind of sturdy bar-band sound that reminds you of when 80s rockers like George Thorogood planted songs like stakes in the ground. The eponymous album itself sounds surprisingly light and pleasant—quite the opposite of the party’s other freebie, a whopping cheese platter.
• Elk and Boar played from the mezzanine between sets. It was a good idea, and at first the Tacoma duo’s gutbucket sound was welcome. By the end of the evening, though, the bucket-to-gut ratio rose to a tedious level.
• Live, Brown Bird's banjo-driven folk blues had a static sameness not reflected on the Rhode Island act's fine new album Salt for Salt.
• Quiet Life were so bland that headliners Dawes would surely have been distressed to learn what a large proportion of the crowd was genuinely under the impression that the clean-cut Connecticut (of course Connecticut) group were in fact Dawes.
• Whenever I need to demonstrate that I’m not part of the supposedly homogenous bloc of gatekeepers ruling the Twin Cities music scene, I say something bad about Dawes. Minnesota loves the Los Angeles rockers, and they’re certainly lovable: they’re generous and spirited performers who knew what to do when the fiery guitarist Martin Sexton joined them onstage. Dawes’s songs are still a little safe and sunny for my taste, but I have to concede that they played a hell of a set with a passion and professionalism that almost all the other bands I saw at SXSW could learn from.
Check these bands out for yourself on my SXSW Day 1 Spotify playlist. Up next: a three-gin Wednesday.
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Wrapping it up at SXSW: Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, An Horse, Hoodie Allen, and many more. Plus, a hot chile popsicle.
Punching through at SXSW: Colleen Green, Slow Motion Centerfold, Jeremy Messersmith, hair-salon hip-hop, the Sounds again, Karkwa, King Orchid, Marco Benevento, Sarah Jaffe, Gram Rabbit, Candy Golde, PS I Love You, and Men Without Hats. (Yes, they looked at their hands.)