The massive music industry festival that is South-by-Southwest fell into some bad timing this year, coming right after the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis, and right before the United States and her allies joined the fight in Libya by bombing Muammar Gaddafi (Day Two of the festival was also St. Patrick’s Day, but SXSW knew that going in…). It all threatened to make the festival, and music in general, seem irrelevant, what with the world going to hell in a handbasket. But ensconced in the cocoon that was downtown Austin, on your smart phones and Twitter, with wristbands and free drinks galore, SXSW proved to once again be an engrossing, all-encompassing musical clusterfuck of an experience.
A smorgasbord of music from every style and genre: intimate acoustic performances by the lake, a lively Cajun romp, funk-rap and a grand finale featuring indie rock legends. Plus I met one of my favorite singer/songwriters working today.
Thursday morning found me up early and on my way to Lady Bird Lake to catch We Listen For You’s Walking Show – a fantastically original idea that proved challenging in execution, largely due to Mother Nature, clearly a hater of acoustic music. Thursday was probably the windiest, chilliest morning all week, and the lakeside spot originally chosen for the event turned out to be occupied by the fireworks for The Strokes later that evening. Still though, it was a uniquely intimate experience with some of my favorite artists.
[Note: QRO had a number of correspondents at SXSW this year; this is just the Day Two recap from Amanda Krieg; click here for Ted Chase’s Day Two recap, click here for Tammi J Myers’, and click here for Robin Sinhababu’s]
We Listen For You’s Walking Show @ Lady Bird Lake
Mother Mother, 10:00am
Despite the elements, Mother Mother was in good spirits considering the early hour. Add the fact that their voices sounded crisp, and the delicate harmonies and guitar picking managed to transcend the blustery wind, and it was impossible not to be impressed. The Canadian quintet appeared all over SXSW this year supporting their new album Eureka!, which dropped last Tuesday on Last Gang Records. Present for the performance was Jasmin Parkin, Ryan Guldemond, and Molly Guldemond, with Ryan on guitar and vocals, and the ladies on vocals. It was truly special to be treated to a short selection of acoustic tunes – some from the new album, one from the old by request – and the audience was rapt and appreciative.
Ben Sollee, 11:15am
Ben Sollee surprised even the event organizers when he called saying he was moments away from the performance site, having cancelled at the last minute the night before. Not that he acted like anything was amiss – he bounced up to the small party in a dapper sport jacket and a pleasant smile. When the team setting up fireworks fired up the jigsaw, Sollee cheerfully suggested that we turn the “Walking Show” into a literal walking show. Since no one was going to turn down the chance to see a man walk and play the cello at the same time – we agreed. He took off down a lakeside path, and before we had time to process, we were hustling to keep up. Not only was it mind-boggling that he could walk while playing such a large instrument, but incredible to watch his bow and voice dance through the feathery melodies in unison as well.
Partway through the second song, titled “Captivity”, our troupe came across a metal fence lining the perimeter of the park, with a small opening to allow those on the path to enter and exit. When the song reached its climax Sollee sprinted through the gap and a short ways down the street – the audience in hot pursuit – then stopped, and played the ending of the song. It couldn’t (and wouldn’t) have been more special had it been planned that way.
The IFC House Party
Young The Giant, 1:00pm
After I had my fill of the crisp lake breeze, I headed inland to catch Young The Giant at the IFC House. I had heard much about the SoCal quintet and was excited to see them live for the first time. Clearly I wasn’t the only one – the room was hot, sweaty and packed full of people, the low ceilings exacerbating any feelings of claustrophobia.
Fortunately it didn’t seem to phase the band, even lead vocalist Sameer Gadhia, who was struggling with sickness for the duration of the festival. Sure, the vocals weren’t quite as ‘tear your face off’ as can be found on their self-titled debut album; they may have come off a tad restrained, but the band still provided the perfect amount of warm, melodic rock energy for the space and midday time slot. The eclectic bunch (India, Persian, British and French-Canadian between them!) bounced their way through each song, subtly building the energy to the end, rip-roaring jam, “My Body”, which got everyone in the room bobbing up and down. Young The Giant is one band to keep your eye on folks, as they manage to be unique by being accessible – bridging the gap between indie rock and pop rock in a way that isn’t often seen these days. Just plain fun.
HBO Presents Treme – A Special SXSW Day Event @ The Ghost Room
Pine Leaf Boys, 2:30pm
For something completely different, I then hoofed it to The Ghost Room for HBO’s Treme Party. The place was big, airy and felt like an old time saloon, not least because everyone in it was boisterous and drinking. After grabbing myself a beer a plate of Southern cuisine, I got in place to see the Pine Leaf Boys – a Grammy nominated young Cajun quintet who were recently featured on the HBO show.
As soon as the music begun everyone was dancing. Don’t get me wrong, I love indie rock in (almost) all its forms, but the unadulterated joy pouring through those instruments was a breath of fresh air. Wailing on accordion, Wilson Savoy would close his eyes for stretches at a time as he played, fully wrapped up in the robust, happy sounds bursting forth. They each took turns singing and each instrument got a few moments in the sun – fiddle, bass, guitars, drums and accordion all in turn – demonstrating just how skilled each man was at his craft. And the crowd was loving it – hooting, hollering, yelping, clapping, stomping, you name it. It was impossible not to get caught up in such lively tunes, and yet the band managed to up the energy higher and higher after every song.
Flying Dog/I Guess I’m Floating Present Floating Fest @ Lovejoy’s
This was my second time seeing the band and it was equally if not more enjoyable. Maybe it was the jovial atmosphere, new blogger friends all reuniting and fondly recalling the festivities of the night before, or maybe it was just the infectiously unpretentious, sunny nature of Grouplove. Despite technical difficulties causing the show to start about ten minutes late, the quintet immediately erased any impatience by launching headfirst into their set. Like wandering minstrels of the pop persuasion, the Los Angeles natives charmed the crowd largely due to the sweet persona and powerful pipes of Hannah Hooper, lead singer and only girl in the ensemble. If their EP and performance style is any indication, the full-length album due out on Atlantic later this year is going to pack a wallop. Get ready to sing – shout – along.
After all the smiles and hugs were passed out at Lovejoy’s, I followed the call of free empanadas and a couple imploring text messages over to a party at Bar 96 on Rainey St. There weren’t any bands playing, but plenty hanging out: not only did I get to ogle my girl crush, the effervescent Joy Williams of The Civil Wars, but nabbed a hug from singer/songwriter idol Josh Ritter. Fans will be pleased to know that he’s a perfect Idahoan (?) gentleman.
From there, I journeyed about a mile and a half outside of downtown on foot to a dinner with a few music supervisors at tasty Italian restaurant, Sagra. Thankfully we found a cab to take us back to the action afterwards, which brought me to…
Domino Recording Co. Showcase @ Emo’s
The Kills, 11:00pm
Not only was the large venue oppressively crowded, but with some very pushy people. I guess everyone was just getting into the grunge rock spirit, but I was shoved around more times seeing The Kills than at any other show that week. There were some sporadic feedback issues, but Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince just blasted right though, heavy guitar licks commanding the entire space to shut up and get into it. And they did. To many tracks off their forthcoming album, Blood Pressures, all of which were both raw and melodic, with an edgy smolder and generally belt-your-guts-out great. Each lyric spit out of their mouths was like gauntlet thrown down to the audience. Having never seen them before, it was amazing to me how two people could emanate such power and a rich, gritty sound that filled me from top to bottom.
Warner Brothers Records Showcase @ Habana Backyard
Theophilus London, 12:00am
I had heard enough about Theophilus London to know that he was not a jazz artist. Other than that fact, I went into his show completely clueless. When the man strutted out onto the stage wearing a black pants, shades, and a loose-fitting black button down with what looked like a giant, diamond encrusted bib embroidered onto the front – I had a much better idea.
Still though, it’s hard to pin him into any one category. Is rap funk pop a genre? I’ll create it for Brooklynite, Theophilus London, and throw in a dash of Prince as well. Unfortunately there was something just a little off about the performance – a though he was conscious of the fact he was playing an ‘official’ showcase and felt the presence of the man watching over his shoulder. The crowd wasn’t really feeling it. He managed to eke out some arm raising, but nothing that matched the energy and swagger of the music.
Then Theophilus London made it rain.
Okay not really. Water did not pour from the sky, nor did any actual money get thrown around. A dude did spring out of nowhere with some fake dollars though, and that was enough to break the ice with the crowd. Everyone started laughing and from that point on the dance party finally kicked it into high gear.
The night ended the way I’ve been told most do at SXSW – with a spontaneous act.
AOL Music Showcase @ Stubb’s BBQ
TV On The Radio, 1:15am
They actually started around 12:30am, but a friend of mine didn’t get the call about a hook up at the door until 1am, at which point we hustled over to catch the end of their set.
Even just the few songs I heard were completely cathartic. I mean, how often does it feel appropriate to describe a trombone as electrifying? Each of the five members played as though possessed, in spastic, tribal movements. We got there in time to catch old favorites, like “DLZ” and “Crying,” as well as a couple from their new album, Nine Types of Light, hitting shelves on April 12th. From what I’ve heard this far, their new sound seems to be much more abrasive; a cacophony of sound. They’re still the masters of the slow build, but the climb and climax are harsher. I’m still deciding how I feel about it, but at the end of the day when it comes to the live show – it didn’t matter, TVOTR is one band that will always demand an encore.
-One of the best decisions I made was to bring my travel coffee mug. Whenever I found myself somewhere with free coffee in the morning, I just filled it up and had a nice hot drink for hours.
-A piece of advice passed on to me that I found immediately useful: bring your cellphone charger EVERYWHERE. Your phone will run out of battery and it’s good to be prepared for when you spy a free outlet.
-When making your schedule, don’t forget to note where everything is – preferably on a map. It’s easy to spend days walking back and forth across the city.
-Cabs are impossible to get. Allot at least 30 minutes to finding one, even if you plan on grabbing one at a hotel. Don’t be embarrassed to use the Pedi cabs. Or just give yourself that much extra walking time.
-If you’re looking for a cozy break from the madness, or have someone to impress, a slightly upscale, very delicious dinner option is Sagra, about 1.5 miles outside of downtown at San Antonio and 17th St. Taking a cab to get there would be ideal, however, please see above note.
-Pepper Rabbit @ The Liberty, 4:00pm
-The beginning of TV on the Radio (see above) @ Stubb’s, 12:30am