A SXSW Diary

Beginning on a Wednesday and continuing with official showcases until Sunday, the music portion of South by Southwest the 21-year-old film, interactive and music conference in Austin, Texas, was a veritable marathon of band performances, day parties, BBQ, free beer and industry movers and shakers (known unaffectionately by locals as “fucktards”). This year, 60 venues were included as SXSW partners, and with one band an hour from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m. for four days, there were 1300 official performances. Though most bands have only one “official” showcase, they may play upwards of six times during the event.

Here is a recap of my week at SXSW:

Tuesday March 13 – 1:14 p.m.

As I sat down on the plane in the only available seat, I found myself next to a bushy, red headed Scotsman. I noticed a tour summary in his hands, labeled The Fratellis. We chatted for a bit, and I learned that he was, indeed, the bassist for the band. He listened to an iPod for most of the trip – yes, Apple provided one for each member of the band, whose song “Flathead” is featured in their latest TV spot for the ubiquitous mp3 player.

Wednesday March 14 – 3:27 p.m.

I sat in the Emo’s main room, drinking a tall boy of PBR and watching The M’s spacey twang, while waiting for the Smoking Popes and their Chicago pop-punk sound which soundtracked countless Chicagoans and suburbanites’ high school experiences. Earlier, my first show of the conference was at Momo’s, where a band called Hogpig from Denton, Tex., displayed sludgy, Texan rock with a Jim Morrison vocal tinge.

I also saw Brian Posehn in the convention center. He’s much bigger than I thought he would be.

Wednesday March 14 – 9:52 p.m.

The Pipettes were amazing. Their postmodern ’60s girl pop group style is at the same time tongue-in-cheek and authentic, and the Cassettes, their backup band, are no slouches. The Rapture captivated the audience and got their asses shaking – even the photographers in front of the barricade were nodding along, hopefully not to the detriment of their pictures. Later, Holy Shit! brought their explosive hardcore set down from Milwaukee, with one of the many band names laced with obscenities this year. I missed I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House, so I had to fulfill my quota of bands I see only for their name.

Wednesday March 14 – 12:45 p.m.

After Holy Shit!, I ran over to Habana Calle 6 for The 1900s. Keyboard laden with two female vocalists and one male, their sound is full and complex in the vein of The New Pornographers. They’re on Parasol, and will be playing this Friday at 10 p.m. with The Beauty Shop at Cowboy Monkey. I wandered to a couple venues, but they were all full to bursting by this point, so I decided to head back over to Momo’s for Hayseed Dixie, the bluegrass tribute to AC/DC, who spewed forth with the appropriate exultations and the grain of salt necessary to make this concept work.

Thursday March 15 – 11:45 p.m.

There were rumors of a huge band playing at Eternal tonight, as these rumors fly around every year. But, no go on the huge band – it was the Beastie Boys. No surprise there. I had to sit through a half hour of the worst music while I waited, and then went to Mohawk to check out Catfish Haven. They were running late, so Frida Hyvînen was still performing. She reminded me of Regina Spektor and Nellie McKay, with wry wit dished out while sitting in front of a piano. Not bad.

I went outside, where I sat down to rest my feet and lick my wounds, when Bishop Allen began to play on the patio. A troupe from Brooklyn, they played selections from their first record and their ambitious self-released EP every month during 2006. At first listen, they seemed to me an American version of Belle and Sebastian, and their pop, while a little syrupy, was earnest and inspired. They were a gem who reminded me why I make the annual trek to Austin.

Then, I went to Room 710, where I caught Minsk, who are on the opposite end of the spectrum as Bishop Allen – stoner metal from Peoria that drew a big crowd and had them standing and nodding their heads with abandon. Don Caballero played next, who have been bringing intricately angular math rock from Pittsburgh for at least a decade, and nobody in the business does it better.

Friday March 16 – 2:37 p.m.

I went to Red 7 after checking out The Pipettes again at the Pitchfork party. Here, at the Mess with Texas party, comedians filled up the time in between bands. Not a bad way to kill time. David Cross curated the event, and so far today Eugene Merman, Michael Showalter and the Fun Boys delivered some funniness. Donnelly and Gold, however, did some weird Simon and Garfunkel bit that did not work. Dead Meadow scraped things up with their melodic metal, and the tall boys of PBR went down pretty well.

Friday March 16 – 10:21 p.m.

Nellie McKay was 20 minutes late, but still played for 35 minutes. She was her inimitable quirky, hyper-talented self, though the crowd, for some reason, found it necessary to chat during her set. Unfortunate.

Andrew Bird played Stubb’s Patio next, in front of a throng of people who were all entranced by him. It’s heartening to watch a man so worthy of praise and recognition receive it, because there are so many creative and talented people out there toiling for so much less. His new album, Armchair Apocrypha came out last week, and should be picked up by all.

Saturday March 17 – 6:35 p.m.

Last night, I went over to Red 7 for the Polyvinyl showcase, where Headlights played an inspired set. They always look as though they are having so much fun on stage, and represented Champaign incredibly well. Earlier, Aesop Rock also put in a great performance, gyrating the Emo’s crowd with well crafted lyrics and singular productiaon.

It’s the last night of big shows at SXSW. Sunday has a couple of venues with about 15 bands total, but tonight is the last hurrah. Everyone has to get on a plane tomorrow and make it back for work on Monday, so they’ll be letting it all out tonight.

Saturday March 17 – 11:59 p.m.

The night started out well. I got right in to see the Buzzcocks, who played as though they haven’t aged a bit since 1978. Then, I went over to Red 7 for two Austin bands, Amplified Heat and Tia Carrera, whom I try to catch every year. Amplified Heat is a trio of brothers from Mexico who moved north and play faster than seems humanly possible, and Tia Carrera is Texas melodic metal who tie together twisted licks and impossibly hard drumming. Their drummer begs off songs halfway through the set because he doesn’t have the energy to play them as hard as he feels they deserve, which to me is the mark of a dedicated drummer.

Sunday March 18 – 2:45 p.m.

I went to Maudie’s, a Mexican restaurant on South Lamar, to meet up with friends for our annual post-SXSW lunch/rehash of the conference. The best story I’ve heard so far is from Zena, who was lactated on by one of the members of Nashville Pussy, which trumped my Fratellis story without batting an eye. One of the members of the Didgits was there, so we chatted about our days in Champaign and Chicago while drinking prickly pear margaritas and eating enchiladas. It’s a great way to wind down from the exhaustion SXSW wreaks upon the body, and we all said our farewells, knowing we will be here again to join the teeming rock throngs yet again next year.

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