After a long flight in the morning, spent most of the day of Day One in lines for various badges & wristbands I wasn’t going to use, but spent the night rooted at Stubb’s for some must-see acts.
The start of South-by-Southwest 2010 was dominated by lines. One has to wait in line to get your official credentials, and there are a number of unofficial events taking place over the four days that require another badge or wristband to be picked up. So, unless you got to Austin a day early (or live there), that’s what you spend most of the first day doing (Day One also has the relatively weakest daytime line-up of unofficial shows, contributing to & because of this fact).
In order of length & hassle of wait, least-to-most:
-SXSW badge line @ Austin Convention Center. Not really any ‘line’, so to speak, just pop in to the Convention Center, get your picture taken for the badge, get badge. Note: that was for a badge; there was a significant wristband line (but at least it was indoors).
-The Hype Machine badge line @ Vice. One didn’t need a badge to get into The Hype Machine’s four days of shows at Vice, but could pick up a special RSVP badge on the first day only, noon-to-five. Line only went down a couple of doors on Sixth Street.
-FADER Fort wristband line @ FADER Fort. Huge jump here, as the FADER line was collossal, stretching along the entire green spot in front of the parking area. However, it was a little less of a hassle than first met the eye, as it moved relatively fast. Moreover, FADER Fort is consistently the best unofficial all-festival space/event, with a wide range of free drinks (though its line-up didn’t have anyone you wanted to see, who you couldn’t see anywhere else).
-Pure Volume House badge line @ Pure Volume House. If the FADER line wasn’t as bad as it first looked, Pure Volume’s was worse than first impressions. The line may have been shorter, but certainly moved slower, and instead of on an open green, it was on a city sidewalk. They’d also split the line in two based on last name, A-N and O-Z – and it was those in the back half of the alphabet who had the much shorter line. Though at least they didn’t let anyone game the system: observed someone in the O-Z line, there with a group of friends, who was supposed to be in the A-N line, get told he couldn’t just wait with his friends, but had to get in the other line – and this was at the check-in table…
Of course, how much were any of these badges/wristbands used (outside of the official badge)? Basically not at all. Hype Machine didn’t have any must-see artists. FADER Fort required a separate press badge to be able to bring in a camera, unlike last year (and not indicated in any of their announcements). Stopped in to Pure Volume House after getting their badge, but purely because one got thirsty waiting in that line; Warpaint were scheduled to go on at 3:00 PM, but never showed, so after the two free drinks & a free taco, took off. The sunburn from waiting in those outdoor lines was their most lasting contribution to South-by-Southwest.
Popmatters Party @ Paradise
These United States, 3:25 PM
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After all of that waiting in all of those lines, decided to start South-by-Southwest for real with a favorite up-and-comer, These United States (at a venue that I saw much of at Day One last year – QRO recap). The Kentucky-by-D.C. band straddles the Mason-Dixon the way alt-country jam bands are supposed to, as they neither take themselves too seriously, nor act like it’s all a joke. They’ve got a winning, but not overbearing frontman in Jesse Elliott – the kind who can have an American flag hankerchief in his back pocket, and it’s neither a statement, nor ironic. Even his hand motions worked.
These United States were not only prolific last year, putting out both Crimes(QRO review) and Everything Touches Everything(QRO review), but also improved nicely, and look to continue that trend. To compare to two veteran acts that were also at SXSW 2010 (and long-time favorites – QRO live review together), if you mix T.U.S. with eighties alt-freak-irony-country Camper Van Beethoven (QRO live review), you’d get Camper singer/guitarist David Lowery’s ironic alt-country act of the nineties, Cracker (QRO spotlight on).
Canadian Brunch @ Brush Square Park
Hollerado, 4:25 PM
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Canada has produced a lot of great indie music this century/millennium (thank you very much, Factor program of government support for the arts, even alternative music), but you headed to the official Canadian Brunch on the first day of SXSW at Brush Square Park (across the street from the Convention Center) more for the food than the music (after getting a free drink at the Registrant’s Lounge next door), because the brisket-beans-pasta will fill you up after arrival (and there’s not enough free food at SXSW). Also, while the line for the food was long, the line-up of acts wasn’t strong – how can there be a Canadian indie music event, indeed their festival-long Canadian Blast series of events, without a single act from the Great White North’s best label, Arts & Crafts (Broken Social Scene, Feist, The Stills)?!?
And doesn’t help when they book acts like Hollerado. While waiting in line for food, heard them tell the Yanks in the crowd they should be supporting universal health care, ’cause that’s what they’ve got in Canada, and what they don’t have is your crazy conservatives (even though their Prime Minister is a Conservative…). And their rambunctious rock was run-of-the-mill. The act ended with a cover of another Canadian who feels free to harp about American conservatism, Neil Young’s “Keep On Rockin’ In the Free World” – a song that actually could be more over-covered than actually is, and Hollerado did encourage their countrymen in the crowd to join them, making for a sloppy if enjoyable finish at least.
You Say Party! We Say Die!
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There was one act on the brunch bill worth seeing, and they were one who had a legitimate gripe with America, You Say Party! We Say Die! After getting caught in a lie when trying to cross the border to promote Lose All Time (QRO review), the British Columbia band was slapped with a four-year ban on travelling to the States (and became the poster child of what not to do for all of the musical countrymen). But that ban has finally expired, and You Say Party! is back with the more upbeat XXXX (QRO review).
Maybe that long absence explained the phalanx of photographers (leaving this member of the media rather embarassed for his profession…). But one did need the photos to remember the band – if you weren’t familiar with their music, you could still have a good time, but could easily forget about them later on.
Waterloo Records Presents @ Waterloo Records
Cheap Trick signing, 6:50 PM
In the hour or two between daytime & evening showcases, when the venues change over, took a shower, recharged phone (batteries don’t exactly last forever on your iPhone), and stopped off at Waterloo Records, where the legendary Cheap Trick were doing a signing – for an altogether strange experience.
I’d gone to get Cheap Trick to sign something for my brother-in-law, who’s a big fan and whose birthday is on Day Four. I’d hoped to get them to sign a copy of their DVD, Music For Hangovers, which includes them performing the classic “No Surrender” – “You’re mommy’s alright / You’re daddy’s alright / They just seem a little bit weird…”, get them to sign it, “You’re brother’s alright”. But getting to Waterloo, the staff seemed to have never heard of Music For Hangovers – and they informed me that Cheap Trick were only signing copies of their new album, The Latest.
It was more about getting the band to sign something, so I asked if they could sign that – and if I could buy it, which seemed to confuse the staff there almost as much. It was near the end of the signing (which was not exacly well-attended), with fans as old as the band (older than my brother-in-law, though, before or after his birthday) getting their pictures taken with them. One of the Waterloo staff pulled a copy of The Latest from their racks, told some super-fan he had “to move on”, and managed to pass it to the band to get it signed. But when I tried to buy it at what I thought was a register, the staff made some joke like I was asking them to buy it, pointed me somewhere else, where someone else ushered me somewhere else to finally a register.
Waterloo Records might be Austin’s premiere record store, and hold concerts in their parking lot throughout SXSW, but didn’t exactly make a great impression. No Princeton Record Exchange, that’s for certain…
NPR Music Showcase @ Stubb’s
The Walkmen, 8:45 PM
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This is where South-by-Southwest really started in earnest. The festival has so many acts playing in so many places, one has to make decisions: Do you see bands you’ve already seen before and know that you like, or do you use the festival as an opportunity to see new music that you might not get a chance to otherwise? Do you come to SXSW to discover small bands, or catch bigger bands in small-for-them places? Do you try to do an ideal schedule, running from venue-to-venue, band-to-band, or stick at one place for an evening or an afternoon? Do you see a band you know is good more than once, or specifically try not to?
Last year (QRO recap), I tried to do the formers of those many decisions, but this year, I tried mostly to do the latters, starting on Night One. Well, ‘mostly’ – headed to the biggest place at South-by, Stubb’s, stayed there for the whole evening, and was there mainly for a band only playing once at the festival – but, besides one new act, had seen everyone on the bill before (save missed first act Visqueen), none more so than Brooklyn’s own The Walkmen.
Before The Walkmen, there wasn’t really a ‘Brooklyn’s own’ – they were one of the first bands to not only break out of the scene but make it a scene, to the point of its incredible essentialness and centrality today. They did that with their early drunken, saloon-style epitomized by “The Rat”, but have since evolved to a much more refined (and sober…) sound, most recently with last year’s You & Me (QRO review). However, their old songs are still their best – there was more a reaction to “The Rat” at Stubbs than anything else.
Yet The Walkmen still give it their all on old pieces – or at least singer Hamilton Leithauser and drummer Matt Barrick do; the rest of the band at least looks bored while they’re playing, but that might just be their much more sedate personalities. And, compared to many prior sets seen, the band did more successfully integrate older & newer material – possibly playing a shorter festival set, not at home, restrained their artisté impulse to focus on new material, like they did at the inaugural ‘It Came From Brooklyn’ concert (QRO live review) at The Guggenheim Museum (QRO venue review) last summer.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, 9:40 PM
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Another band out of Brooklyn, but otherwise very different, is Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, who channel sixties Motown big band soul in an utter throwback. Playing in the run-up to the release of I Learned the Hard Way, the follow-up to breakthrough 100 Days, 100 Nights (QRO review), Sharon Jones is still the very effective frontwoman who got such reknowned (including appearing with Michael Buble on Saturday Night Live – QRO Indie On Late Night TV – as well as contributing to – and appearing in – Denzil Washington’s The Great Debaters – QRO soundtrack review). But one can’t shake the feeling that, once you’ve seen one song of theirs, you’ve seen their whole set – Jones’ Tina Turner-like strong frontwoman, The Dap-Kings’ big band soul sound, etc.
Broken Bells, 11:00 PM
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There wasn’t a more anticipated ‘new’ act at South-by-Southwest than Broken Bells – ‘new’ because it’s a collaboration of two established artists, mash-up maven Danger Mouse, and James Mercer of/is The Shins (QRO live review). A few years ago, there wasn’t a hotter mixologist than Danger Mouse, thanks to his combining of The Beatles’ The White Album and Jay Z’s The Black Album into The Grey Album, nor a hotter indie band than The Shins, thanks to their prominence in smash-hit indie film Garden State, and follow-up Wincing the Night Away (QRO review). Then Danger Mouse went to work for others, while Shins singer/frontman Mercer shed members and didn’t deliver the new Shins disc. So how was this hot return of two hot commodities? Uhh – not memorable?…
To be fair to the Bells, they could naturally only play songs off of their new self-titled release, so if you didn’t know it, you didn’t know what they were playing. But they made that bed, as well as some others – neither Mercer nor Mouse (in the back on drums) are engaging frontpeople (others served as the exciting ones in The Shins), and they didn’t recruit anyone in the rest of the band to do that job this time ’round. More significantly, they made the decision to reduce the lighting to a film projector playing over them, shakily and off-center, making it hard to see anyone or anything. At a place as large as Stubb’s outdoors, and coming off of the engaging-even-for-those-who-don’t-like-them Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (see above), this did not serve the band well, as many got distracted.
Mercer’s voice is still strong, but this is no replacement Shin.
Spoon, 12:00 AM
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But here’s the reason you came: SPOON! (as The Tick would say…). The veteran Austin indie band made it to the serious big-time in 2007 with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (QRO review), but once that record’s tours were done, they disappeared for a while – singer/guitarist Britt Daniel took the time to produce White Rabbits’ It’s Frightening (QRO review), after that band (and The Walkmen – see above) had opened on tour for Spoon. But they came back at the start of this year with Transference (QRO review), a rawer record that took away some of the bells & whistles of their breakthrough.
And it was a rawer show – perhaps a little too raw, with just the four of them on stage. When they’d made & toured Ga, Spoon had borrowed a horns section from fellow Austinites Grupo Fantasma (QRO photos in Austin), but there was none of that at Stubb’s, despite the fact that not only were Grupo also in town for South-by-Southwest, but Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings had had horns – and so did The Walkmen! It might not have been as noticeable had Spoon not played Ga‘s breakout single, “The Underdog”. One of their best songs ever, it does rely on horns to give it that Billy Joel-perfectness, and converting some of the horns to keys did not do it justice.
“The Underdog” was a request, not on the set list (QRO photo), though the band played it also because they had prepared it. And it’s nice that they tried to do the song for the hometown crowd, but this was the start of the Transference tour that’ll be taking them to major venues like Radio City Music Hall (QRO venue review) the following week (QRO concert listing) – at places like that, need to bring the full set of silverware.
– Plants and Animals (QRO album review) @ Brush Square Park, 6:20 PM – 7:00 PM. Neeeded to shower & recharge phone – and miss band between them & You Say Party! (see above), Born Ruffians (QRO album review).
– Bear Hands (QRO spotlight on) @ Creekside Lounge, 3:15 PM – 4:00 PM. Thought I’d have time to catch them later at SXSW.
– Jason Collett (QRO spotlight on) @ Day Stage, 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM. The Day Stage Cafe at Austin Convention Center is not the best place to see anyone.
– Titus Andronicus (QRO album review), Japandroids (QRO photos), The Morning Benders (QRO live review) & The Rural Alberta Advantage (QRO live review) @ Emo’s Main Room, 12:45 PM – 3:45 PM. BrooklynVegan’s indie daytime showcase at Emo’s Main Room would have been drowned out by his metal showcase going on at the same time in the same building at Emo’s Jr.
– We Were Promised Jetpacks (QRO live review) @ FADER Fort, 3:45 PM – 4:30 PM. Went over there for them, only to discover couldn’t bring in a camera – promises unfulfilled all ’round.
– Frightened Rabbit (QRO live review) @ Galaxy Room, 5:00 PM – 6:00 PM. Don’t try to make it to the last band at a daytime showcase at Galaxy; huge line.
– Motörhead (QRO photos) @ Austin Music Hall, 10:30 PM – 12:00 AM. Catch a band that played The Young Ones…
– Grant Hart (QRO interview), Kid Dakota (QRO album review) & The Coast (QRO spotlight on) @ Lambert’s, 11:00 PM – 2:00 AM. Okay, not really Kid Dakota, but had been worried that Canada’s next great indie-expanse act, The Coast, had broken up (and this was their only SXSW appearance), and Hart was in Hüsker Dü (QRO spotlight on), the greatest band ever.
– Frightened Rabbit & We Were Promised Jetpacks @ The Parish, 11:00 PM – 1:00 AM. Scottish Arts Council presented two of that nation’s best.
– Alex Chilton, R.I.P. The star behind Big Star was scheduled to play the last day of South-by-Southwest; instead, he died on the first. The Replacements put it best – and not in Paul Westerberg’s New York Times op-ed tribute:
MP3 Stream: “Alex Chilton”
– The SXSW schwag bag had little interesting, as usual, save for the copies of the new SPIN (for its positive-but-honest interview with Courtney Love & inside-industry fascinating article about successful musicians who’ve left the business, and where are they now – Tanya Donnelly’s a mid-wife!) and PASTE (for short piece on best band names, from The Band – only group who could pull it off – to SXSW’s Camper Van Beethoven to Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, “Leave it to The Muppets to come up with the best band name of all time“…).
– You know your hair’s thinning when you get a sunburn on your scalp.