SXSW Music 2008
Now that it’s been more than a month since South by Southwest, I figured I should commit my memories to (e-)paper now or else I’ll never do it. Better late than never I guess, or something.
There’s very passionate love/hate relationship with SXSW here. The festival has truly ballooned to enormous proportions. Just in the time that I’ve been attending (my first being in 2003), the crowds have seemingly doubled every year. There have always been naysayers, but they have been particularly disgruntled/vocal the past two years. Some of the complaints are completely understandable: the crowd, the traffic, the trash, the local bands that deserve some of the spotlight but are denied showcase spots. Accusations of money-mongering, iron grips on what happens on the fringe of the festival (i.e. the smorgasbord of free, unofficial day shows), and political whatnot have been flying, which in my opinion is just to be expected with something as massive as SXSW. I personally can’t hate an event that brings in over 1,700 bands from all over the world and pumps millions of dollars into the local economy.
“But, all these lame out-of-towners are crowding our bars/restaurants!!!” Hey, you *live* here. You should know of plenty of other spots that the tourists can’t possibly find.
“But, the bands suck!!!” Out of 1,700+ bands, I can’t disagree that some of them (probably even most of them) are not going to be the highest caliber, but that’s what plans are for. You don’t go charging into SXSW without plotting out where you’re going and who you’re seeing. If you end up seeing a continuous stream of bands that make you want to gouge your eardrums out, it’s your own fault.
Anyway, that’s just my opinion. Now, on to the events. One of my best friends, Sal
(whom I’ve known since the fifth grade), flew in from California on Tuesday evening and we kicked things off in our “traditional” way: we went to get Thai food. We took it easy in preparation for the next four days of madness.Wednesday
Typically, Wednesdays are rather breezy. The music festival is just starting and most of the industry folks are still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, not yet in a semi-zombie-like state of perpetual hung-overness. The first act I saw was at a day show next to Jo’s Coffee. Lightspeed Champion
is the alias of one Devonte Hynes, a young British fellow who used to be in a band ridiculously called Test Icicles
. I remember reviewing the Test Icicles album a few years ago for our college radio station and thinking it was absurdly noisy, overwrought, and a tad obnoxious. So imagine my surprise when I heard one of them was going not only going solo, but acoustic. He was accompanied by a violinist, and it was just ok, not particularly stunning. I would continue to see L. Champion, and his silly furry hat fit for the tundra, at very random times for the duration of the festival.
I did a fair amount of showcase hopping that night, unusual for me on a Wednesday. I saw:Wolfkin
- The first of several Scandinavian acts I would see. I don’t quite remember what this band from Denmark sounded like (kind of poppy generic rock), but it wasn’t horrible. Then it was...Slaraffenland
- Another Danish band. I mostly remember there being about 3-5 instruments for every band member and their matching shirts, which had little raindrops sewn on the front. There was a kind of weird, artsy jazz vibe about them (must have been all those brass and woodwind instruments), and I must make a note to myself to check them out more thoroughly when I have a moment. Next up...Rupa and The April Fishes
- Meh. Kind of boring folky rock, followed by...The Nightwatchman
- Tom Morello’s solo project. Sal stuck around, but I only stayed for the first song and saw...Plastic Constellations
- Not quite terrible, but almost. I was only there to see...The Mae Shi
- Raucous and amusing. I can’t think of anything else to say about them. I then walked to the outside stage and saw...The Dodos
- Good show. The Dodos consist of only two people, but their sound is quite full. Quite folky, a bit experimental. Next was...The Blow
- Strange. We didn’t stick around for long because I wanted to see...Cadence Weapon
- A rapper from our friendly neighbor to the north. I missed him at Fun Fun Fun Fest because of scheduling conflicts, so I had to see him this time. Good rhymes, and with the energy of a 5-year-old on Red Bull to boot. Great way to close out the night.Thursday
We headed downtown for a couple of day shows. After spending an eternity to find parking, we headed to the Free Yr Radio tent to see:DeVotchKa
- I’ve said enough about Devotchka. If you know me, you know I love them and have seen them play every opportunity that has come my way. Their Romani-bolero-Eastern European rock still makes me smile. It was a short but sweet set. After them...Jim Noir
- Jim Noir’s Tower of Love
was one of my favorite releases of 2006. His 2008 self-titled brings more of the same sunny, electronic-laced pop tunes, which is fine, but not super amazing. Another short but sweet set, filled with happy songs and smirk-inducing British wit.
We then headed to my friend’s store, La Luz, to catch a bit of her day show and say hello. I saw O’Death
, who were, er... kind of jazzy Appalachian hillbilly punk? Anyway, they were wild, and I enjoyed it.
I then walked a few blocks east to wander South Congress while Sal and Julie hung around La Luz. It was a good decision, because I happened to stumble on some interesting acts. In the parking lot of Home Slice Pizza, I saw:No Kids
- Just caught two songs. They weren’t great or anything, but they were interesting. Precious indie pop.The LK
- More Scandinavians (Swedes this time)! I had never heard of these guys before, but I’m glad I stuck around Home Slice. For a group of just two rather pale fellows, they created a pretty textured sound. A bit ambient-electronic, a bit sunny pop, and every so slightly pastiche-musique-concrete-esque. And they were kind of cute to boot. :)
After the LK’s short set, I walked across the street to Jo’s Coffee. There I caught A.A. Bondy
, a southern folk-y sounding fellow who made several non-sensical but funny jokes while little children danced in front of the stage.
That night, we tried to head downtown a bit early to catch Jens Lekman
. We missed most of his set, but I wasn’t too bummed since I got a full dose of Jens goodness last year. He’s still precious and adorable as ever. His anecdotal, hilarious, almost AM Gold-like tunes will always make me smile. Next was...Le Loup
- I bought The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly
last year kind of on a whim, after hearing two songs and seeing it on sale at Waterloo. Le Loup started out as a kind of bedroom project of Sam Simkoff, who more or less recorded the entire thing himself (he was “discovered” on MySpace; how crazy is that?!). It’s gently electronic, almost post-rock-y, with soft echo-y vocals and plinking banjos throughout. It’s ok, but not something I found myself listening to all the time. Now a proper band (and a fairly large one at that, with something like 7 or 8 people), the songs sounded much, much punchier, fuller, and dynamic. I look forward to their second album. Then came... dan le sac Vs. Scroobius Pip
- Thank you, KEXP, for introducing me to the hilarious, sometimes self-righteous but always witty Dan le Sac (the DJ) vs. Scroobius Pip (the rapper). Scroobius Pip’s rhymes lean toward beat poet territory, and he has a beard fit for a yeshiva. Dan le Sac samples Radiohead. These fellows are poised for widespread hipster-adoration, methinks. Despite the fact that I was surrounded by rather rude and drunk Brits who were annoyingly taller than me, I had a good time. Next up...The Weakerthans
- The Weakerthans seem to have a mighty strong following, but I’ve never really cared much for their brand of poppy indie rock. It was tolerable though. I was only there to see...
Devotchka- Yes. Again. This time, with the always lovely Tosca String Quartet
. The place was packed to the gills, and after much shuffling about, trying to free myself from the wall of obscenely tall people who insisted on plowing their way through to stand directly in front of me, I found a semi-decent nook. I was crammed into a tiny wedge of space between the door and the stairs, with an endless stream of people going in and out, but the gorgeous swell of strings on “How It Ends” made it all worthwhile. Closing the night was...No Age
- Sal and I decided to skip out on Billy Bragg
(I just couldn’t stand in that space anymore) and walked back to Sixth to see No Age. It was quite empty, which I found rather bizarre. A rock duo with a fairly heavy sound, I wasn’t interested enough to stick around for longer than 10-15 minutes. They were OK though.Friday
We got an early start on Friday so that we could see Devotchka (yes, again) play in the Austin City Limits Studio for a KEXP live broadcast. This is my hands-down favorite place to see a band, as every view is a good one, the sound is impeccable, and the atmosphere is soothing. Too bad it’s not a traditional venue, because I would love to see just a regular old show here. Devotchka was extremely late to start, but I didn’t mind too much, as this was the second-best show I’ve seen from them. The Tosca String Quartet sounded gorgeous in that studio. Just lovely.
We headed downtown after that and caught the Duke Spirit
at the Free Yr Radio tent. They only played two songs due to the singer being a bit sick. Next up was Cadence Weapon (yes, again). He just puts on a good show, so Sal and I were eager to get another dose. He was insanely energetic, and DJ Weasel was such a madman on the turntables, he literally overheated some of his equipment.
The first show of the night was at St. David’s Church. The downtown churches were added as SXSW music venues two years ago (I think?), but this was the first time I’d actually seen a show there. I saw Volodja Balzalorsky
, a violin virtuoso from Slovenia. It was so breathtakingly beautiful, I nearly cried. I am being serious. Moving along...The Builders and the Butchers
- another alt-country-ish/kind of circusy-vaudevillian-old-timey sounding band that I read about somewhere but can’t remember where. They were OK. We headed to Shakespeare’s Pub to see...Liam Finn
- And here is where Sal fell in love. :) I saw Liam Finn at my very first SXSW, when he was a young cheeky kid in a band called Betchadupa
. Betchadupa was the start of my SXSW “tradition” of picking a band out of the list just because their name is funny/amusing/interesting. At the time, Liam was a spastic, frantic front man who fell off the drum kit at the end of their set. Nowadays, Liam is a spastic, frantic front man who periodically sits behind the drum kit for rhythmic freak-outs while half a dozen effects-laden, freshly-made guitar samples loop on in the background and his music partner. EJ. wails rock ‘n roll style. This was the perfectly stereotypical rock show, jam packed with people, sweltering in the humidity, in a dingy, gritty bar that was rather basement-like (it was, in fact, mostly below ground-level). It was awesome. One of my favorite quotes of SXSW was uttered here: “I'll have a beer and a straight whiskey. And a gay vodka.” Silly Liam. After seeing Crowded House
at ACL Fest last year, I can say that Liam shares his father’s top-notch, utterly amusing showmanship. Our yearly Elijah Wood sighting also happened here. Seriously, I don’t understand why I always see this guy. Afterwards came...Plants and Animals
- I decided to see this Canadian band based on hearing one song of theirs, “Mercy.” I’m not sure what I thought of them. Kind of jammy and jazzy, a bit folksy and bluesy, a little gospelly... basically, all over the place. I’ll have to check out their latest album before I can make some kind of judgment. They were interesting, at least. One of them was dressed like Stevie Ray Vaughn
(cowboy hat, poncho). I wonder if he always looks like that or if that was something he put on because he was in Austin. We headed down the street and saw...Yves Klein Blue
- I remember not liking these dudes much. We left after a song or two to see...White Rabbits
- I’ve already written about White Rabbits' live shows here
. It was a similarly lively set from these fellas, albeit with a much fuller crowd than the last time I saw them. A couple of new songs were played and they were swell. Sal wasn’t too keen on the band, though. Rounding out the night...Todd Barry
, then Hard ‘n Phirm
- The night ended with some comedy, a relaxing time after wandering around downtown. Todd Barry was quite funny, and Hard ‘n Phirm’s (Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman) silly songs and ribbing of generic rock music left me smiling foolishly.Saturday
The last day. Always so bittersweet. Well, I don’t even know if there’s any “sweet”, more like just sad/bitter. By the time Saturday rolls around, I’m a bit tired, but I am in no way ready for the music to stop. Alas, it must come to end, and we always dread the moment when the clock strikes 2:00 AM Sunday morning.
We first headed to La Luz to see Fiction, a band that a friend/former classmate of mine is in. They had just formed when I met him some three years ago in our “introduction to recording techniques” class (holy moly, was it really three years ago?!), and they’ve really grown in some promising directions and tightened up quite a bit. Kudos to them.
We headed downtown to catch Liam Finn once more (Sal was well on her way to becoming utterly, utterly smitten). Good pop tunes, impressive looping pedal prowess, crazy on-the-fly song-making... it was a fun performance.
Next up was a couple of buzz bands that I wanted to check out. Blitzen Trapper
are an high-spirited, experimental-ish folksy rock band from Portland. Another band I have somewhat mixed feelings about; I’ll have to listen to Wild Mountain Nation
a few more times. Despite the fact that I didn’t quite like their self-titled from last year, I wanted to see A Place to Bury Strangers
live. They were loud and heavy, as expected; I enjoyed it more than I did their record, but I’m still not won over.
In a rather serendipitous turn of events, we saw Kevin Barnes
do a short solo performance, though I believe he was scheduled for just a DJ set. He sang a couple of covers and “Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse”, and I was a super happy camper. After Mr. Barnes, we saw White Rabbits again. Sal was bored, again. :)
That night, I split away from the gals for a bit and caught Maki Rinka
, a Japanese singer who does lounge-y, jazz-standardy songs in a blue sailor suit and short blond wig. It was a fun show, though the multitude of old Japanophile white guys was slightly creepy.
I headed over to Maggie Mae’s a bit early to see Jim Noir, as I anticipated a rather large crowd for the night’s headliners (British Sea Power
). I caught David Bazan
while there. He was “singer-songwriter”-ish (whatever that means), but I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to be honest. As the crowd got bigger and more obnoxious, I decided to leave before Jim Noir even came on (note: I kind of hate Maggie Mae’s; it’s a really fratty joint from my experience, and I try to avoid it when I can). I met up with Julie and Sal to see Liam Finn (yet again! Sal was pretty much in love by this point). This performance was live broadcasted on some cable channel that I can’t recall, and the set was filled with fancy lighting and filming equipment. Next up was my “let’s see them because their name makes me smirk” band for the year, victorian english gentlemens club
. Meh. Generic rock. Not terrible, not good. We left fairly soon.
Our group split up once more and I wandered aimlessly for just a short while. I decided to see the LK again and caught the act before them, Meredith Bragg and The Terminals
. I honestly can’t remember what the sounded like. The LK had some technical difficulties but it was a decent show, quite mellow and relaxing. I then headed across the street to see White Shoes and The Couples Company
, who started late because Ezra Furman and the Harpoons
(another “meh” band) just wouldn’t stop. White Shoes/Couples Co., a retro-y band from Indonesia who make happy ‘70s-Love Boat-like-throw-back tunes, were just precious. The large group of Indonesian kids who came out to see them was wildly enthusiastic and made me giggle. Coincidentally, I met an old classmate of mine there, who actually came with the Indonesian kids (he’s soon to embark on a year-long study-abroad adventure in Indonesia). Good times were had.
Closing out our SXSW was Z-Trip
, followed by MSTRKRFT
. Sal met up with me at the venue, and we opted to stand in the balcony instead of joining the sweaty mass of people on the dancefloor below. Fun beats, but we decided to wrap up a tad early. We walked to the garage where I parked my car, and with one last wistful glance out onto bustling Sixth Street, it was over. No more ridiculous absurdity with my friends against a backdrop of wall-to-wall music. Back to work, to the real world (boooo). This was my last SXSW as an Austin resident (for a while, anyway). I shed a small tear inside, but I’ll be damned if I don’t make it back next year for my annual dose of music madness.