As you may have noticed, all week, I’ve been posting about my exploits at SXSW, but of course, the festival is about more than just the music, films, and panels. It’s about the sheer energy of the place and how even if you have neither a badge nor plans, you can still stumble upon something great- whether it be music (Austra), a person (Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic of the New York Times), or yes free food (vegan tacos, fresh fruit, delicious coconut ice cream).
It’s running into NPR’s Bob Boilen four times, talking to a few Swedes about their first trip to the country, and finding out one of your friends snores. It’s the sun and the much-needed change of scenery. It’s the pilgrimage itself and knowing that you’re surrounded by other music devotees and talented musicians alike. It’s standing next to Sam Amidon in the crowd one minute and watching him perform the next. It’s stopping at a random diner on the way back to the airport and ordering fried pickles (billed as a basket full of “yum”).
Sure, biking straight uphill at 3:30 am was pretty killer and flying back to Jersey at 11:30pm the night before I had to be back at work wasn’t the best, but the week was a blast, and I already can’t wait to go back. Maybe next year, I’ll even find someone to pay me to go…
When I woke up and realized it was Saturday, my last full day in Austin, I couldn’t believe time had passed by so quickly. Though I had managed to assemble rough plans for the previous days, I had run out of time to make an itinerary for Saturday, so I hastily jotted down some addresses and set times and set out. (Man this would all be so much easier with a smart phone.)
After ducking into the BV day party for a little while, I decided to leave for a while to check out the band Mutual Affection, but when I arrived at the park where they were scheduled to play, I quickly realized that it probably wouldn’t be happening. The scene resembled a photo shoot more than anything else. The band members were climbing an old, knobby tree and hoisting up their guitars/bass. Though it looked pretty awesome to see a group of guys playing from a tree, back on the ground, the music back barely even audible, so I left somewhat disappointed.
But on the way back to the Swan Dive, something odd happened. I spotted a band unpacking gear from their van. A small piece of paper in the window notified me that it was the group Typhoon, a group that Bob Boilen at NPR Music had just recommended to me the day before. Convinced that it was meant to be, I followed the large group into a venue and caught their lively 12-person set.
Typhoon - RIYL Lost in the Trees (photo courtesy of artist)
Following this pleasant happenstance, I headed back over to Swan Dive and caught Austra for a second time (yes, totally worth it), Malajube, and Little Scream before darting out once again to see the High Highs. It was a fast-paced 90 minutes, running back and forth between venues, but I’m glad I had the chance to see the High Highs, one of the few bands that I had awarded the highly selective 5-star rating in iTunes. Though their music wasn’t terribly memorable in the grand scheme of the week, I remember being fairly impressed by what I heard – especially for a band that hasn’t even released an EP yet.
High Highs RIYL Smith Westerns, Surfer Blood (photo courtesy of artist)
High Highs clip:
Though I would have liked to stick around Fado’s to see ARMS play, the timing wasn’t right, so I headed back to Swan Dive to see two more acts: Mount Kimbie (how much of that was live and how much, samples?) and the consistently impressive Owen Pallett. After stumbling into Bob Boilen again at Owen Pallett, I decided to pall around with him for a while and saw Fang Island, The Felice Brothers, and Bright Eyes (in addition to briefly meeting Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein, which was pretty sweet.)
Though I was tempted to go see the captivating Norwegian singer-songwriter Silje Nes, I decided I should close out the week with a handful of new artists, which led me to The Parish Underground for a pleasant, low-key line-up with The Deer Tracks, Indigo Tree, Foxes in Fiction and His Clancyness. More on the Swedish group Deer Tracks soon. (I actually got to hang out with them for a while after their set, which was pretty fun.)
The Deer Tracks RIYL Cold Cave (photo Petra Salmi)
The Deer Tracks clip:
Though I was intrigued by the rumors circulating about a late-late night show with Bon Iver and Jay-Z, I decided to call it a night.
Friday started out strong. I headed over to yet another Brooklyn Vegan day show, glad for the chance to see BOBBY for a second time. (Too bad time only permitted them to perform three songs.) I stuck around Swan Dive/Barbarella the BV-claimed sites of the week for another few acts – Paleo and Holy Sons – before wandering into Side Bar where I saw The Bird and the Batteries.
the crowd at the French Legation Museum (photo Jon Bernhardt)*
I continued on my way, out to the French Legation Museum for the third day in a row. There, I saw an impressive line-up: Lower Dens, Grass Widow, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Cults, Sam Amidon, and tUnE-yArDs. (I decided against running back up the hill to attempt to see James Blake through the thick crowd. Prior to his Friday show, Blake headlined both an NPR showcase and the Pitchfork showcase.
Technical problems with Cults aside, I was fairly delighted with what I saw. Their music is upbeat and catchy. Any small flaws in their performance just made me like them more.
Cults RIYL Eternal Summers, No Joy (photo Bryan Bruchman)
With three familiar acts and 3 never-before-seen it was a nice mix: familiar but also fresh. tUnE-yArDs put on an especially powerful show, successfully baiting the lingering James Blake crowd over to check her out after he had finished his set on the opposing stage.
the fierce Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs (photo Jon Bernhardt)*
One of the biggest surprises of the day came as I was coming back from the French Legation Museum. As I passed an auto repair shop, I heard Grimes introduce herself and begin to play. For a minute, I watched from the fence but soon decided to go in. Grimes is the solo project of Montreal-based artist Claire Boucher. She mixes together samples and loops together her voice and keyboard riffs to create danceable music – kind of like a female Baths, minus most of the awkwardness.
Grimes RIYL Baths (photo David J. Romero)
Next up, I saw a series of new acts: aptly named folk/rock outfit The Head and the Heart, cute husband/wife duo Reading Rainbow, and looping expert Yellow Ostrich at Antone’s, before heading out to the Ghost Room to see Social Studies and Agent Ribbons.
Reading Rainbow RIYL La Sera (photo Charlotte Zoller)
Reading Rainbow clip:
Though The Head and the Heart was the best attended set of the group, I think my favorite acts were Reading Rainbow and Yellow Ostrich. The Head and the Heart seem like an earnest, enthusiastic bunch, but other than a song or two, their songs don’t really strike me. They seemed well-suited for the Austin setting though.
The final few shows turned out to be a wash. I should have known when I got in the horrendous line outside the Pure Volume venue that it was a bad idea. I should have known to turn back when I heard the guy in front of me admit he was only waiting in line for the free booze and didn’t know who was playing.
But like a fool, I stuck it out. Baths would be a good way to conclude the evening, I thought. A burst of energy to help inspire/liven up the bicycle ride home. Except they were running some 45 minutes behind schedule, and after witnessing the horrors of the videographers and the dancing drunks, I decided to head out after seeing just Clock Opera and Jonquil. I regretted not taking Sam Amidon’s advice and seeing David Thomas Broughton.
Lesson learned. Free booze is nice, but not when it means large, obnoxious, and largely indifferent crowds. Just can’t handle it.
band count of the day: 19
*For more great SXSW pictures, be sure to check out Jon Bernhardt’s Flickr page.
Yowza. I know it’s terribly clichéd to call a music festival a whirlwind of an experience, but it’s just so applicable. If you think SXSW is exhausting, try getting there. No, I didn’t have a 32-hour drive. Instead, it was a 2:50 am alarm, an early trip to the airport (that somehow involved no less than 6 trains and a bus – no exaggeration), and 4-hour drive from Austin.
By the time I arrived at the hotel, I was already fairly out of it, but after just a few minutes, I headed downtown on my rented bicycle. (“So you ride bikes regularly, right?” “Oh… sure.”) As I approached the scene, congestion started to build – and so did my excitement.
on the lawn of the French Legation Museum (photo Amanda Hatfield)
Then somehow, there I was on a beautiful green lawn in lovely 75-degree weather, surrounded by the moody/mesmerizing music of Still Corners. It was like a dream. Small children darted in and out of groups of well-dressed festival goers and their free cans of PBR. A light breeze sent women’s skirts gently billowing.
Still Corners (photo courtesy of artist)
Still Corners clip:
It was the perfect introduction to the festival: a beautiful setting and a new artist. I stayed for a few songs from Vetiver before heading out in search of some much needed hydration and nourishment. (Sonic had been the fast food of choice earlier in the day.)
Not having a badge or a wristband for the festival is both nerve-wracking and freeing. Since these passes don’t actually guarantee you a spot inside anyway, it was kind of nice to not feel the need to camp out in lines early enough to get into the hot showcases. Instead, getting in anywhere feels like an accomplishment.
I lucked out last night by getting on the guest list at the beautiful Central Presbyterian Church, which had quite a good line-up. First up were three artists I had never heard before about a week ago: BOBBY (a Mountain Man side project), Bell Gardens (who I recently blogged about), and the Texan singer-songwriter Josh T. Pearson (formally of the band Lift to Experience).
It was a nice treat to see three relatively unfamiliar artists. BOBBY was especially delightful. The natural reverb of the large, wood-paneled space seemed perfectly suited for their music.
BOBBY at the French Legation Museum (photo Amanda Hatfield)
Up next was one of my recent favorites, the Brooklyn group The Loom. It’s always a good thing when nice people make decent music. It makes everything seem right. The Loom is both incredibly talented and sweet. (See more about them here.)
After The Loom, I darted over to Swan Dive to catch a few songs from Sam Amidon, another one of my favorite banjo-wielding artists. Though I only had time to stay for a few minutes, I was rewarded for my trek by hearing Sam cover Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine.” (Ólöf Arnalds even joined in on the violin!)
Sam Amidon at the Swan Dive (photo Amanda Hatfield)
“Walking on Sunshine:”
After I had had my Sam fix, I ran back over to the Presbyterian church for the last couple of sets of the evening: the incredibly delightful Sea of Bees (soo good!) and Americana act Strand of Oaks.
For the past few years, SXSW has been something of a distant dream for me. Sure I’ve always wanted to go, but instead of making it out there myself, I kept experiencing it vicariously through other people’s stories.
But after much deliberation, I finally decided to spring for the airfare this year. Yes, in four days I’ll be in Austin.
In preparation for the trip down, I’ve been combing through tons of songs from the festival’s bevy of artists. Thanks to a friend, I managed to get my hands on over 900 mp3s. The list is an odd collection of hip-hop, electronica, garage rock, punk, singer-songwriters, world music, indie-rock, orchestral pop, and yes – even death metal, emo, and country music. Listening to it all in iTunes, you never really know what you’re going to get from one track to the next. It sounds something like this:
Of course, there’s good stuff in there. The trick is finding it. So far, I’m just on the G’s, but I have to say, I think my short list is shaping up to be much more promising than the anything I’ve made for CMJ. SXSW draws not only far more bands than CMJ, but from what I can tell, a more diverse array. For once, they’re not all from New York.
Here are some artists I hope to check out:
Bearsuit, an art-rock pop punk group from Norwich, UK.
Bearsuit (photo courtesy of artist)
“Please Don’t Take Him Back” by Bearsuit:
Bell Gardens, a couple of friends who stay up late at night talking and playing music over many late nights talking and playing music “loosely based on a sense of ‘pop’ from another time.”
Bell Garden (photo courtesy of artist)
“Through the Rain” by Bell Garden:
Alessi’s Ark, a British singer-songwriter with an lovely voice who left school at age 16 in order to pursue music.
Alessi's Ark (photo courtesy of artist)
“The Robot” by Alessi’s Ark:
Dog Day, a gloomy pop duo from Nova Scotia.
Dog Day (photo courtesy of artist)
“Part Girl” by Dog Day:
Family of the Year, a sunny six-piece folk-pop outfit from LA.
Family of the Year (photo courtesy of the artist)
“Chugjug” by Family of the Year:
Stay tuned for more picks!
"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."
- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being