If Boston and New York are the places to make a name as a professional runner, the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas is the annual marathon for bands and their fans. Count them: four days of music, over 2,000 acts from around the world, 80 venues, parties from noon until five a.m. every day. It’s an overwhelming display of musical extravagance that daunts even the most road-worn veteran.
I saw well over 25 acts while conducting my personally mapped-out musical marathon, the pedometer application on my phone informing me of over 50,000 steps taken – 51,826 to exact figure – or more than 25 miles covered from Wednesday through Saturday. I walked through crazy crowds of drunken debauchery; I walked to barbeques and pizza dens (I suggest pepperoni and jalepeno); I walked to official and unofficial SXSW shindigs and showcases; I walked more than I’ve ever walked before in the pursuit of good music. Did I mention it was a load of fun?
The cost to do see and do all of this great stuff? I didn’t buy a wristband or badge, and did it all for around US$100. Instead of doing Spring Break with beaches overrun by frat-boys and drunk co-eds, Austin beckons those who like to party like a rock star while seeing as many favorite bands as possible in four days of non-stop, solid audio action.
Day 1 – Wednesday, March 18
The day started at Maggie Mae’s in the heart of 6th Street, the focal point for all things SXSW. The police closed the street all week to vehicles to allow for people to make their way to the plenty of venues along the route. I saw Carrie Brownstein of the now defunct Sleater-Kinney catching a set by Titus Andronicus, who sounded like the kin of Austin’s And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. I later saw her at the Fader/Levi’s Fort, one of the bigger stages in Austin during the week, where I took the opportunity to say hello.
The Club Mohawk had the Akron/Family from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. If Animal Collective did less L.S.D. and smoked way more pot, they’d be a close proximity to Akron/Family. The trio had the crowd – lots of facial hair in attendance – dancing in the heat with rhythmic incantations and warm melodies, transforming the Mohawk tent into a veritable sweat lodge. Ah, the sweet smell of mariju-Austin.
I hit up the Data Pop ’09 party, a night of music inspired by Gameboy music. A great concept, Data Pop suffered in execution during the two acts I witnessed, 8bk OK and Sievert. Sorry, but it was really hard to rock out to a performance consisting of someone holding a souped-up Gameboy aloft in the air, and not much else.
The Gigacrate Party at Beso Cantina, featured The Rub (DJs Ayres, Cosmo Baker, and Eleven), a fantastic DJ crew from New York City. Along with party headliner Tittsworth, The Rub has been revitalizing the underground DJ mash-up movement, remixing some of the most recognizable hip-hop, soul, R&B, and house tracks. The three DJs simply killed it in Austin.
Brooklyn’s The Cloud Room showcased their soaring, underrated alt-rock such as single “Hey Now Now” at the nighttime show at the Cedar Room. The four-piece also offered new tracks from the yet-to-be released second album. Belfast’s General Fiasco, a group of young Irish lads followed, and showed plenty of potential, recalling the feistiness of The Jam and bygone Britpoppers, The Big Three.
Day 2 – Thursday, March 19
A little taste of home awaited first thing Thursday with a performance by Jenn Grant of Halifax, Nova Scotia at the SESAC Daystage. There she showcased songs from just released Echoes. I once compared her to Leslie Feist when I wrote about her in Halifax, which in hindsight, was an unfair statement. She has grown into her own distinctive voice, her lilting tone inviting listeners to get lost in her words.
Viva Voce from Portland, Oregon parlayed their mysterious psych-rock into one of the week’s muggier shows at the Red-Eyed Fly, with new songs from the May 2009 album Rose City. The Von Bondies returned to former Detroit rock city glory, ripping through a fierce set list during the Direct TV filming at Austin Convention Center’s Bat Bar.
Where the VBs were kick-ass, North Carolina’s indie-pop darlings, The Rosebuds were positively endearing. The Merge labelmates (also home to Arcade Fire) featured a song-list that was 80 percent audience requests, a hilarious sing-along, keyboardist Kelly Crisp dancing in the audience, her giving the front row high-fives after songs.
Day 3 – Friday
My friends and I arrived to the Filter Magazine SXSW Showdown at Cedar Street party in time to see half a set by The Whip, one of my favorite indie-dance bands in the world right now, New Order being a big point of reference. This quartet of live musicians definitely got the party started.
Nottingham, UK upstarts Late of the Pier created one of the biggest stirs of the week, getting into a fistfight with security after trying to play one too many frenetic synth-punk tunes. Too bad Razorlight, a huge in the UK band, had to follow. Lead singer Johnny Borrell exuded charisma, but ultimately fell a little flat after the throwdown at the Showdown.
The best performance seen at SXSW 2009 went to none other than relatively new White Lies from London. They roared through their dark debut No. 1 UK album, To Lose My Life, with surefire post-punk classics such as “Fairwell to the Fairground,” “Unfinished Business,” and “Death,” easily one of the best singles of 2009. They hit Montreal on March 30, playing Les Saints. I suggest getting tickets this very second.
Day 4 – Saturday
Saturday was about two bands – Echo and the Bunnymen and Silversun Pickups. The former band has been around for 30 years and help kick start the careers of many bands such as U2, The Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, and Interpol. Music would be very different without the Liverpool act.
Although more reserved in their old age, Ian McCullough and company were in fine form back at the Bat Bar for another TV taping (the tapings were free), playing their big ones such as “Bring On The Dancing Horses,” from the Pretty In Pink soundtrack and “Killing Moon,” heard on Donnie Darko. It was amazing to see heroes play their finest gems and have SXSW deservedly recognize the band’s achievements.
The most packed show I attended came on the last night at Antone’s, the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd happily welcoming Silversun Pickups. The Pickups soon release their second album in May after gaining huge accolades for their Smashing Pumpkins-influenced debut, Carnavas. The band didn’t disappoint, even drawing the attention Drew Barrymore, who bowled people over, including myself, to get to the stage during the radio hit “Lazy Eye.”