There’s a band out on the highway, They’re high steppin’ into town, It’s a rainbow full of sound, It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns. Everybody dancin’. C’mon children, C’mon children, Come on clap your hands. Sun went down in honey and the moon came up in wine, You know stars were spinnin’ dizzy, Lord The band kept us so busy we forgot about the time. – The Music Never Stopped (Barlow/Weir)
For four days the 27th annual SXSW Music Festival was the equivalent of my own living jukebox. A cacophony of sounds emanated from every imaginable space in Austin, Texas – creating a non-stop playground for music fans. This is spring break for adults. It’s an aural buffet of genres. It’s darkened bars and make-shift stages in parking lots. It’s bands playing for as few as ten people in a Mexican restaurant to crowds of thousands in an amphitheater attached to a legendary BBQ joint. It’s a giant choose-your-own-adventure book, with infinite possibilities each day. It’s an intoxicating experience that leaves you both enthralled and exhausted each day, as you hustle from show to show, sometimes fully knowing the band that you’re about to see, while other times just taking a chance on one that you overheard someone talking about.
There is no right way or wrong way to experience SXSW. You can spend your time each day hunting down parties that offer the promise of free booze, or setup shop at one venue that offers two stages of continuous music or stand in line for hours to get into a club show from an act that has put those days of playing small rooms way behind them. You can plan your schedule for weeks leading up to the fest, only to throw all that out the window once you take that first step onto Sixth Street.
It had been four years since I last attended SXSW, and there were some noticeable differences from the last time I was in Austin. First and foremost, the hip-hop world seems to have finally gotten the memo that the fest isn’t just for buzz-y indie bands or bearded Americana acts anymore. The genre is tailor-made for SXSW, as it’s best consumed in 20-plus minute high energy sets. Every hip hop show I passed seemed to be more packed than the next, as the rapid-fire pace gets the audience involved right from the start. The other noticeable difference for me was having a smart phone. Back in 2009 iPhones were still expensive toys for tech geeks, and Twitter was still in its infancy. The well-designed SXSW app was truly a revelation making for easy planning, band discovery and maps to every venue – which can be tricky to find if they are off the beaten path.
Austin’s scenic Auditorium Shores hosted a tribute to the late Levon Helm yesterday as part of SXSW. A number of musicians shuffled on and off stage to honor The Band drummer by performing with The Midnight Ramble Band, who were making a rare Texas appearance. JJ Grey of JJ Grey and Mofro led the act formerly known as The Levon Helm Band through Ophelia, while Ramble regular Steve Earle sang The Mountain and The Band classic Rag Mama Rag.
Carolyn Wonderland sang Don’t Do It with The Midnight Ramble Band…
Historically, Saturday, the last day of SXSW, tends to be the thinnest day of the week. Most of the bands and quite a large number of industry folk flee town before the weekend, smartly avoiding the mass exodus on Sunday and the overwhelming crowds that descend upon Sixth Street in hordes that seem greater than normal. Unlike the Olympics, there are no “official” closing ceremonies but unofficially John Fogerty, Vampire Weekend and Justin Timberlake will play “closing” sets. Oh yes, there’s also Prince, but that seems to be Samsung-sponsored boondoggle and it’s unclear whether badge holders are even encouraged to go. Timberlake’s gig appears to be a guerrilla-style affair with the location being tweeted by MySpace like a siren call during the day. Yes, I too am surprised that MySpace has money to afford this.
[Vampire Weekend Photo by @kiasuchick]
Despite the fact that there is no MOG showcase this year, the line for Mohawk extends well down Red River and the day showcases are filling up much earlier with locals making SXSW their Saturday activity.
At the All Things Go Music/Indieshuffle day party, Haerts, from Germany are entertaining a crowd that would be deemed healthy under normal circumstances but for shortly after noon, it’s quite impressive. From Germany, you would have to think that the odd spelling of their name owes less to a Gaelic homage to the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day and more to solid advice from their intellectual property attorneys. Their set consists of pleasing pop that flows nicely from one song to the next.
With many of the artists that make SXSW so appealing fleeing before the weekend, Friday usually provides one last chance to catch bands that you’ve missed so far on the theory that you’ll catch them later. On a separate note, the two things I think I’ve enjoyed most when they occur: a lead singer talking to the audience while forgetting that their reverb level is still set to maximal distortion and a set simply ending without fanfare as the band simply puts down their instruments and everyone disperses. The latter is such a corporate way to end a set. There’s also the tall person that parks themselves in front of me and then immediately ignores the band to tweet, text or facey-spacey. But I get that in New York too. Apparently, it’s a universal social skill possessed by crowds in all states.
[Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears Photo by Joan Bowlen for Glide]
The Sam Chase Band entertains the early risers at Red Eyed Fly as part of the After The Gold Rush party which treats the guests to Bloody Marys (and tasty ones at that). With fiddles, banjo and sax, they are reminiscent of a rowdy band that plays the saloon where the villains hang out in a western flick.
Wild Belle bisects their set on the airier outside stage. The siblings from Chicago offer up high quality reggae-inflected, indie pop and with added confidence, the attractive Natalie Bergman has the makings of a fine front woman.
One of the inanities at SXSW is the pre-festival pressure to RSVP for certain day parties. For the most part, it’s a non-sensical endeavor. With a couple exceptions, no one is getting turned away from a free party because they didn’t click on a virtual button two weeks prior. Unsurprisingly, the party host simply wants your e-mail address and demographic information. The Fader Fort holds to the mandatory RSVP policy but allows plus ones and gives deference to badge holders. Another, a bit pretentiously, is SPIN magazine, who unnecessarily complicates the process of coming to their showcase by adhering to the RSVP policy. Quite frankly, if this works to keep you out, it’s a moronic mess; if you get in, it’s a minor inconvenience and a reward to forethought. Either way, SPIN shouldn’t be doing anything that paints them in a bad light. How many times have they gone bankrupt?
It seems somewhat strange that getting to downtown Austin shortly before 2 feels like running late and that opportunities are being missed. Will there only be 12 hours of music instead of 14? How terrible. How slothful. While there may be no rest for the weary, sometimes the weary get to rest. On the way downtown, there is solace in the comment from Foxygen’s Sam France, who in feeling that they weren’t at their best explained that they generally aren’t awake and playing music this early.
[Foxygen Photo by @glidemag]
En route to Emo’s, there’s a quick pit stop that involves The James Douglas Show, doing a tremendous impression of Living Colour from the late ’80s. High octane vocals from the blond coiffed, heavily muscled Douglas (presumably) and hi-hop metal ease into deep and smooth funk nicely augmented with organ and keys. Their allure fades quick as the move to more standard fare.
On the Jr. stage at Emo’s, the home for the Brooklyn Vegan festivities, PAWS from Glasgow, Scotland beckon the crowd closer to the stage before unleashing a burst of Vaselines inspired rock. The rest of their set is a high-paced Nirvana-influenced set with deep bass, powerful drums and vocals at a near scream. We are finally at an age where the younger bands of today are growing up with Nirvana and grunge rock as a deep influence. PAWS is definitely in a happier place than much of the grunge rock godfathers.
In years past, Wednesday’s unofficial day parties would, for most, officially start their SXSW. Six years ago, Jeff Davidson and I contributed to the festivities with Earvolution’s inaugural (and only) afternoon event. (Two artists from that showcase will be playing SXSW 2013: Joshua James and Ace Reporter’s Chris Snyder formerly of The States). With Tuesday becoming the new Wednesday, there is tempered excitement while heading into downtown Austin.
[The Lone Bellow Photo by @pastemagazine]
As it their custom, Paste Magazine has taken over The Stage At 6th for the week, this year pairing with HGTV, running two stages making it The Stages At 6th. As is also their custom, they’ve booked eclectic showcases featuring a wide variety of genres as well as a nice mix of buzzbands and soon to be buzzed about bands.
After a quick run down Sixth Street due to a change in bus routes, it’s a Lone star with The Lone Bellow. Well, it would be but for Red Hook Brewery’s sponsorship and free IPAs and ESBs. The bartender responds to my query about what makes the ESB extra special with a tired “I don’t know.” I suspect I’m not the first person to ask this. The Lone Bellow may owe a debt of gratitude to Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers but with gorgeous harmonies and lovely acoustic folk melodies, they can definitely stand their own ground. Their debut record may not do justice in showing how solid they are.
Before shifting its focus to music, SXSW encompasses Internet/technology and film. As you might expect, the tech portion has grown in importance in the last few years and those here for that part of SXSW cast mocking glances in my direction whenever I make use of my Blackberry. This Tuesday afternoon, it’s interesting to walk around downtown Austin as the festival starts to shift its focus to its noisiest and rowdiest component. The gigantic Dominos stage that irked Father John Misty last year is in the process of being built and many of the outdoor stages still look like the parking lots and vacant fields that they are the other 51 1/2 weeks of the year. The tech kids are taking fabulous photos for their Instagram pages. No such luck for me, I have a Blackberry and had to research what Instagram is – twittering with pictures – all hail illiteracy?!?!
[Photo by aj_kyle]
Walking up Red River towards Mohawk, I pass Metal & Lace, which I have been told was the subject of some TLC or Food Network Gordon Ramsay renewal TV project. It’s a sunny day and Metal & Lace is too dark, metally and headbangery. Plus, I hear the locals aren’t impressed by the attempted rescue of the bar (which may have once called Headhunters, that was also dark, metally and headbangery). After getting to Mohawk in time to hear Thurston Moore bash out the last notes of Chelsea Light Moving’s set, I opt to not stick around for Delorean. I think they’re electro-dancey and quite frankly, the car really doesn’t travel through time.
I was somewhere outside of Austin when the drugs began to take hold. Wait, stop right there. I’m cribbing from someone who might have an incredibly litigious estate. (Parody! Fair Use! Prank caller! Prank caller!). However, when writing about the annual South By Southwest Festival it’s quite easy to feel as you’re borrowing from others as several themes are universal. There is an ocean of free beer and a plethora of fine food spanning Tex and Mex cuisines as well as a wide range of fine BBQ; the lengthy days are often an exhausting ordeal leading to sore feet, tired legs and aching backs; there is music coming from every nook and cranny of downtown Austin; lines and queues are aplenty and, if done right, you leave knowing dozens more bands than you did one week prior. If you’ve read SXSW coverage before – including last year’s Trunk Road dispatches – you are familiar with the usual tropes.
For the uninitiated, SXSW or South-By is an annual music industry boondoggle that attracts more than 1,000 bands to Austin, Texas for a slew of showcases that last from noon to 2:00 AM. (and often later). With influential executives and tastemaking cognoscenti present, it’s a phenomenal opportunity for up-and-coming bands to solidify their reputation, gain exposure or make their name. Each afternoon, there are a whole host of parties that are open to the general public and at night, the official showcases take place with access (mostly) restricted to badge holders and wristband bearers. If you are a music fan, this is Disneyland.
In a little over a week, thousands of music fans, industry insiders and various members of print, online and multimedia outlets – including myself – will descend on Austin, Texas for the annual SXSW Music Festival. Now in its 26th year, the fest was originally intended to be an extension of New York City’s New Music Seminar, but when those plans fell through, a handful of writers from The Austin Chronicle, along with a music booking agent, decided to create a local music festival instead, dubbing it South By Southwest. Over the years the fest has expanded to include both a film and interactive component, but music is still its driving force – as smaller bands will squeeze in as many showcase appearances as possible, looking to capitalize on the fest’s ability to break bands, while the more established acts use the opportunity to preview material from their upcoming releases.
Preparing for SXSW is like a full-time job itself with the dizzying amount of bands playing both the sponsored daytime parties and official night time showcases at dozens of venues around town. Studying the schedule, lineup, venue locations and keeping all your RSVPs in order is bit like preparing for a fantasy league where you’re drafting a team comprised of players from every sport. While SXSW is a bit of a different beast than most other major music festivals, there is one parallel – there is no right or wrong way to approach it, it comes down to personal preferences. For me, that means mixing up genres, mostly seeing bands that are new to me or that I’ve never seen live before, while also squeezing in some that are personal favorites.
With literally hundreds of bands playing over the course of SXSW Music, here are ten acts that are high on my priority list to catch during my time in Austin…
Hurray For The Riff Raff
Hurray For The Riff Raff have been on the top of my Must-See short list since last summer, as they released one of my favorite records of 2012 – Look Out Mama. Barely into her twenties, front woman Alynda Lee Segarra has already lived a life that reads like its been lifted straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel – which has included hopping freight trains across the country at age 17. Segarra has channeled those experiences into her music, with wise-beyond-her-years lyrics set to country-infused folk-blues, all punctuated by her cooing warbly vocals.
Yesterday we brought you the news of a Levon Helm Tribute at Auditorium Shores in Austin as part of next month’s SXSW Music festival. Today, SXSW organizers have revealed the Friday, March 15th show at Auditorium Shores which will feature the Flaming Lips, Jim James and Divine Fits.
The Lips will likely preview material from their new album The Terror, while James is expected to focus on material from Regions of Light and Sound of God. As with other Auditorium Shores SXSW shows, this event is free and open to the public.
SXSW Music has just announced a special Levon Helm Tribute and Benefit that will be held at Austin’s Auditorium Shores on Saturday, March 16th. This “all-day concert” will feature the Midnight Ramble Band (formerly known as the Levon Helm Band) fronted by Amy Helm with “special guests.” All proceeds will go towards Keep It Goin’, a program designed to save and preserve Levon Helm Studios and the Midnight Ramble programming.
[Photo by Jeremy Gordon]
In addition to the Midnight Ramble Band, other acts expected to play at Auditorium Shores that day include Robert Randolph and The Family Band, Los Lonely Boys, JJ Grey & Mofro, James Hunter, Spirit Family Reunion, Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers and The Mother Hips.
A job well done goes out to our friends at HeadCount who have just announced that last week’s HeadCount Participation Tour, which visited four cities with the likes of Dumpstaphunk, Anders Osborne and Keller Williams in tow, raised $12,000 for Sandy Relief. Not only did the concert series inspire voter turnout, but the shows put $12K in the coffers of City Harvest to help their effort to provide meals to New Yorkers most affected by Superstorm Sandy.
[Photo by Jeremy Gordon from NYC HeadCount Participation Party]
Dave Grohl has just been named the keynote speaker for SXSW Music 2013. The Foo Fighters front man has a tough act to live up to after Bruce Springsteen’s extremely engaging keynote speech at this year’s event. SXSW Music takes place Tuesday, March 12 – Sunday, March 17, 2013 in Austin, Texas.
Finally, Phish’s WaterWheel Foundation and the Mimi Fishman Foundation have joined forces to raise money for victims of Superstorm Sandy. Ticket/CD packages for every night of Phish’s upcoming New Year’s Run at Madison Square Garden are up for bid on the Mimi Fishman Foundation’s auction page. 100% of proceeds will go to victims of Sandy.
Thanks to David Schultz for keeping us posted on the action at SXSW in Austin.
Saturday, March 17
There are several constants about the last day of SXSW. As it always falls on Saturday, the streets, especially Sixth Street, become mobbed with people that descend upon the downtown area because it’s the most exciting thing in town on a warm weekend night.
[The Roots at Mohawk - by @phillyinquirer]
Not only are the streets a congested drunken mess, the lines for every venue grow exponentially from the prior days. Compounding the issue, many of the more enticing acts that have populated the showcases over the past week have fled for calmer ground. Unless your tastes skew wildly eclectic, the probability of seeing something entirely off your radar is at its highest on Saturday night. If there was ever any doubt about the value of being a badge holder it is on the festival’s final night.
One of the other constants: the phenomenal lineup of the MOG Saturday afternoon party at Mohawk. Every year, the online music service books a show with the buzziest of bands and pairs them with high profile acts that sometimes forego any official appearances in favor of this one set. The doors for the event usually open at noon and when they do, the line has usually reached mindboggling lengths. To insure being in the building when the first act hits the stage, people lineup as early as 10:00AM and once people get in, they likely aren’t leaving.
SXSW – Friday, March 16
Ominous tones suffuse the corner of Red River and Sixth this afternoon. At the no-longer-named Emo’s Annex, the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival is in full swing. The guttural primal screams, pounding bass and speed guitar licks complemented the nearby Green Zone with its motto of “Free Range Against The Machine.” For the first time in a couple years, I had an old-fashioned SXSW day, bouncing from venue to venue without encountering any lines. Not that they didn’t exist, my plans for the day just seemed to avoid the queues. It is surely healthier to be outdoors in the sunshine then spending the day skulking in bars. Catching as many of the bands instead of mastering your queuing skills simply feels for productive. It’s also one of the true joys of SXSW.
The Under The Radar showcase at the Flamingo Cantina kicks off with a noontime set from Django Django. Despite what their name might suggest, they are neither purveyors of African beats or masters of gypsy acoustic guitar jazz. Mixing Talking Heads like beats and propulsive drumbeats, the East Londoners concocted a heady brew of old-school new wave and modern rock.
The dynamic of Lost In The Trees, the North Carolina troupe that followed, tends to be kinetic with their lush studio compositions susceptible to a fluctuating number of musicians. At the Cantina, LitT consisted of a modest string section comprised of an adorably cute violinist and a cellist that could serve as a stand in for one the skater-punk metal bands playing down the road. Offering lilting melodies that have symphonic scope, lead singer Ari Picker caused double takes with his preternaturally high voice. Extraordinarily engaging, they offered selections from A Church That Meets Our Needs, which will be released this Tuesday or, as the kids say drops on March 20th. At least that’s how the kids talked five years ago.
Thursday @ SXSW, March 15
Like a large majority of badgeholders and wristband wearers, the morning greeted me with an e-mail from the South By Southwest Festival & Registration committee regretfully informing me that I wouldn’t be going to see Bruce Springsteen tonight. There is likely no manner in which being told you’re being frozen out of the biggest gig of the festival can be made pleasant. I would wager though, that since the Soup Nazi actor is apparently taking acting gigs as his alter ego, an video e-mail tersely proclaiming “No Springsteen For You!” would have beem mildly entertaining.
In lieu of seeing Springsteen, SXSW offered me an alternative itinerary that included a Diplo DJ set, Quantic and Guards at locales inconveniently dispersed around downtown Austin. It’s unclear whether SXSW thinks these bands would be an adequate replacement for Bruce or simply wants to run me around Austin and tire me out like I’m an infant. In protest, I am boycotting The Boss’ keynote speech at the Austin Convention Center. I shall listen to it at my leisure on NPR. (Hmmph! That will show them.)
Even before lunchtime, 6th Street is already bustling with the line for NPR’s annual day party at The Parish already in fine form. The Sennheiser/Paste Magazine day party occupies the main room at The Stage at 6th as well as the backyard tent. Dinosaur Feathers opens the event with a noon-time set and based upon the last five minutes, they seem like the best sort of young, thrashy guitar rock band. However, based upon other media, I might be basing my opinion on an overly small sample size.