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.
I’ve come a long way for this week, and it’s hard to believe it all passed by so quickly – especially considering the fact that I was up about 20 hours a day. While CMJ seems to stretch on and on, my first SXSW flew by. (Maybe it had something to do with the fact that ‘home base’ was a hotel room shared with friends and not my own familiar apartment.)
One-and-a-half hours of sleep is not a solid foundation to build your SXSW week on, but somehow, it worked. The rush of the week and the promise of abundant (free) tacos, music, and beer kept me going.
I had intended to post an update at the end of each night, but my plans quickly fell through when I realized that I needed that time to plan out the next day’s activities.
walking down 6th Street (photo H. Michael Karshis)
Allow me to catch you up now.
My computer clock’s preference for Eastern Standard Time meant I accidentally ended up downtown an hour earlier than necessary (precious sleeping time!), but it also meant I had time for some free food courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan and a quick set from the adorable Savoir Adore. As is often the case at SXSW, the band had to compete with overflowing music from neighboring venues, but they still managed to engage the audience with their fun hand motions and polished sound.
Savoir Adore RIYL The Love Language (photo courtesy of artist)
Savoir Adore clip:
I fell in love with the outdoor space at the French Legation Museum my first day in Austin, so I decided to go back to catch at least a couple of acts: Papercuts and Hanni el Khatib. Though I found the latter to be intriguing recorded, I can’t say I was really feeling them live, so I headed over to one of the NPR Music showcases and saw Khaira Arby, Wild Flag, The Joy Formidable, and The Antlers.
Even if it wasn’t really my bag, it was fun to see Carrie Brownstein’s new project: you guessed it – an all-girl garage band. Then there was The Joy Formidable. All I can say is wow. Chick has the crazy eyes. Photographic evidence:
The Joy Formidable (photo courtesy of artist)
The Joy Formidable clip:
By far the highlight of the show (besides chatting with the Jon Pareles, the chief pop music of the NYT) was the set by The Antlers. They performed the entirety of their upcoming album, Burst Apart, in sequence for the first time in a live setting. (You can stream the show here.) Apparently, the band had been practicing it like crazy with back-to-back sessions. A lot of the task was finding out how to build all of the layers included in the studio recordings. I’m not convinced that their new material is nearly as cinematic in scope as Hospice, but of course it’s hard to tell what direction the new songs will ultimately take in a live setting.
Like Hospice, much of the new album seems to project a dark kind of resignation to pain, sickness, and heartbreak. But in addition to the darker songs, it ended in a surprisingly hopeful, (albeit bleak) vein. “I’m not going to die alone. I stitched the stuff up to close up the hole,” sang Pete Silberman in a particularly Hospice-like song.
The Antlers (photo Ben Ritter)
As the last strains of The Antlers were dying out, I quickly left the building and headed back to the French Legation Museum with just enough time to see two songs from Low, a band I had been meaning to see for a while.
Up next was quite a change of pace from the big-name headliners in the dimly lit upstairs room at The Parish – a lesser-known crop of musicians, playing on a rooftop bar. In quick succession, I saw Herman Düne, Bobby Long, and briefly for a second time, the captivating act Sea of Bees before attempting to get into the Pitchfork showcase at Central Presbyterian Church to see Juliana Barwick. Upon learning the show as a mean $30, I declined (but not before asking the SXSW staffer, “Is this Pitchfork just being a jerk?”).
Sea of Bees (photo Amanda Hatfield)
To fill in the gained time, I checked out a couple of new acts: goofy, ironic mustached garage rockers Gospel Claws and the pleasant uptempo Scotish artist King Creosote. Neither were particularly memorable, or at least not in comparison to what I saw next: Austra.
Zola Jesus may drive me a bit crazy due to Nika Roza Danilova’s overly dramatic performance, but Austra seemed to strike exactly the right balance – theatrical and eye-catching without coming across as disingenuous or over-the-top. Their beat was addictive, their appearance and dance moves, arresting. Austra is the project of three women: Katie Stelmanis (front and center) and Maya Postepski and Dorian Wolf (who contribute both backing vocals and synchronized dance moves).
Austra RIYL Zola Jesus, CocoRosie (photo Simon Gentillier Reelsgaard)
Throughout the week, I had either an Austra or Sea of Bees song stuck in my head – not that I was complaining about it on either count.
I finished off the evening with Lord Huron and The Heligoats before calling it a night and jumping back on my bike to take the late-night uphill ride back to the hotel room.
band count of the day: 15.
"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