Tom Morello announced that he would be transforming his Friday night set at Swan Dive into some form of protest in support of the Occupy Austin movement. The Rage Against The Machine guitarist regularly shows up at SXSW in his thinly veiled persona of The Nightwatchman, his appearances in conjunction with the Jail Guitar Doors showcase that raises awareness for the Billy Bragg founded charity that provides musical instruments to convicts as a form of rehabilitation. Morello’s 2012 set has always been denominated “Occupy SXSW,” which given his political views seems appropriate and slightly whimsical. His recent announcement that he will be joining with the Occupy Austin in “protest” of the policy that mainly limits attendance to his set to badgeholders seems apropos on its face. Depending on what Morello does though, it may be a bit misguided.
From what I have gathered over the years, playing SXSW is not a financial windfall for the acts that comprise the attraction. The festival itself does not pay handsomely. However, since this isn’t the NCAA, the organizations sponsoring the official and unofficial showcases can spend unlimited amounts to secure the talent for their shows. Many artists subsidize their official appearance with many unofficial ones. Given that Morello’s set is in support of a charity, I would wager that he is contributing his talents in the absence of any type of honorarium and his promotion of Occupy SXSW seems tied to publicizing both the Occupy Movement and the Jail Guitar Doors program. If that’s true, I don’t think it can be said that Morello is biting the hand that feeds him nor playing both sides against the middle. Rather, I suspect Morello has something fun planned.
In targeting the SXSW practice of preserving access to the official showcases to those that can afford the pricey laminate badges, Morello has surely found an easy target to analogize to the Occupy Wall Street movement. While the badge holders comprise much more than 1% of the SXSW population, they adequately substitute as the haves for those who wish to consider themselves the SXSW have-nots. Given Swan Dive’s proximity to the corner of Sixth and Red River, a nexus of sorts for SXSW activity, Morello very likely brings his set onto the blockaded streets and delivers his music to the people.
Elsewhere, The Hype Machine is sponsoring a weeklong event at a warehouse they are calling the Hype Hotel. For their shows, they are delegating the curatorship to tastemaking bloggers such as Aquarium Drunkard, My Old Kentucky Blog and Gorilla vs. Bear. As Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater described the environs, it looks like the detective’s office from Blade Runner. In lieu of the planned Shearwater sets this week, Meiburg, formerly of Okkervil River, another Austin band conspicuously absent this year, opened the day’s festivites with a solo set. Playing ambient electric guitar, Meiburg’s haunting vocals pleasingly filled the brick structure, echoing due to the fact that the people in line outnumbered those inside by a healthy ratio. (Quite frankly, any indignation I might have is militated by the fact that I didn’t have to wait in line. Viva la privelege). Meiburg finished the set by looping his guitar into an ambient melange, ended by stretching out on his back to take a minute and enjoy his creation.
[Meiberg on His Back]
Next to esurance, Doritos is one this year’s oddest sponsors. Quality BBQ be damned, I couldn’t resist trying one of the Dorito Tacos that they’ve concocted with Taco Bell. The new food always has its allure. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Dorito Taco fails to revolutionize the fast food industry. A psychiatrist is going to have to explain to me why I went back for a second one.
A polar opposite from Meiburg, The Twilight Sad shattered the volume levels with their heavy, strident version of what may be Scotland’s version of shoegaze. Despite the name, The Twilight Sad are far from melancholy and quite the potent rock outfit. Lead singer James Graham has the makings and attitude of a proper rock frontman. Plagued by sound difficulties, he didn’t get a chance to show it to the fullest.
With his thick white glasses, jittery demeanor and texas pedigree, Micah P. Hinson looks like the disenfranchised descendant of Buddy Holly. Playing a Guthried up acoustic guitar (it killed Fascists), Hinson played a moderately compelling set that dipped into Americana as well as the early roots of rock and roll. Big Deal, a co-ed guitar duo from London followed. There’s a fine line between stage shyness and acting like you’re too attractive to be in the same room with the people for whom you are performing. While male guitarist Kacey Underwood strummed through some interesting chords and engaged the audience, his partner, Alice Costelloe seemed like she would rather be anywhere else but The Hype Hotel. There were a couple smiles lurking underneath so I’m wagering it was a touch of stage fright. It didn’t help the mood nor make Big Deal seem like one.
Blitzen Trapper closed the event with an hour-long set that touched on American Goldwing, their most recent release, as well as Destroyer Of The Void. The Oregon based band sounds like they could be ripped out of the Ozarks with guitarist Eric Early’s twangy vocals providing a wild-eyed country roadhouse feel to many of the songs. For some reason straight forward, Americana based rock bands fail to flourish at SXSW. Drawing lots of buzz, Blitzen Trapper seems like they buck the traditional odds.
As there will be for the next three nights, there are dozens of little official showcases featuring hundreds of bands on the rise. Sometimes though it’s fun to go for the big ticket item and on Wednesday night that would be the National Public Radio showcase at Stubbs. There are many big names sponsoring events at this year’s SXSW but make no mistake, as a tastemaker and sultan of influence, NPR wields as much clout, if not more than anyone else in Austin this week.
The Stubbs showcase kicks off the reemergence of Fiona Apple. Not having paid much attention to Apple when she was popular, I have vague recollections of her going slightly off the deep end with paragraph-long album titles and a mindset that fame lasts forever. Her appearance at Stubbs drew a mighty crowd, extending around two blocks though the line moved extraordinarily quickly. Her new songs were heavily reliant on stand-up bass and sounded vaguely reminiscent of her old material. This became quite apparent after her run through Criminal, easily her biggest hit.
Sharon Van Etten followed Apple with a tight set that mixed equal part Velvet Underground strumming and earnest Gillian Welch style plucking. Van Etten sounded fine but the outdoor backyard ampitheater may have been too big a venue, the space swallowing many of her more intimate moments.
Electronic dervish Dan Deacon was nothing less of a whirlwind, quickly whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Equally impressive were the pair of drummers that frantically kept pace with Deacon’s manic compositions. Working with a set of electronic gizmos, Deacon unleashed a barrage of pre-recorded curios, occasionally chanting over them with his voice electronically distorted into incomprehensible robotic tones. Over his all-to-brief 40 minute set, Deacon dipped into his bag of audience participation tricks: the attempt to conduct at a dance contest in the middle of the yard burned brightly but fleetingly and the attempt at group interpretive dance flamed out quickly due to a minimum of people being able to see what was going on. A visual and audio candy store, Deacon’s Stubbs set seemed like only the tip of the iceberg of what he can deliver.
The piece de resistance of the NPR showcase was the SXSW debut of the Alabama Shakes. Much like Robert Randolph in the years after the release of Live at Wetlands, 22-year-old Brittany Howard currently wears the crown of the potential saviour of rock and roll. With gospel, soul, rock and rhythm and blues pouring out of her, it’s exciting to see such raw talent. If the NPR set was not the unequivocal blow-away performance many expected, it’s because the band is still relatively young and growing. After the hype that followed their CMJ performances, they are still trying to catch up with the onslaught of attention. The songwriting could use some finesse and the band a little polish, but all of the ingredients are there for the Alabama Shakes to mature into one of the finest rock bands of this decade. At the very least, Howard is going to have many more moments that equal the soul-wrenching delivery of You Aint Alone.
Andrew Bird had the unenviable task of following Deacon and the Shakes. With aplomb, Bird inventively played his violin in its traditional classical form and as a ukulele of sorts and showed his operatic whistling skills. A typically fine performance, people’s reactions varied mainly as to whether they wanted a change of pace to close the show or were looking for one more round of one-upsmanship.