Earlier this year, the Web site furia.com tossed all the votes from the Village Voice’s 2008 Pazz & Jop Poll into a database and determined—of the year-end corral’s 577 voters—which were the most similar in terms of the albums they considered to be the best. Only Brent Burton, a contributing writer for Washington City Paper, shared my 2008 tastes more than Marc Masters, another near-D.C. denizen who was one-sixth of the team this newspaper took to South by Southwest this year. Funny thing, though: Until I caught a ride into South Austin Sunday night to meet Marc and a few of his friends for a late dinner, our paths didn’t intersect once in Texas. Crazy, right?
Not really. During four days in Austin, about 1,900 bands played official shows for SXSW. There's no telling how many acts playing only day parties for sponsors or, by nighttime, bars not included in the sanctioned Sixth Street activities joined them. Such is the necessary qualification of Eric Harvey’s SXSW-as-iPod/iTunes analogy: Not only does this iPod carry more music than you could hear in four years—much less four days—but it also covers a range of genres, subgenres, styles, strata and niches more expansive than most people will ever appreciate at any single point in their life and, most likely, all points of their life combined. Sometimes, such a variegated gathering can lead to unexpected glory, where unlikely artists unite to form a front of sorts or collaborate in surprising ways. And sometimes, well, not so much.
I realized I actually wouldn’t see Marc during the music festival’s four-day core late Saturday night. Marc was not even a mile away, watching obliterative noise representatives from Load Records that I’d never miss in Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, I was in a bar divided into a one-stage room and a tented patio, drifting from the arid Texas country-soul of Bosque Brown inside to the lean, energetic electric rock of La Gusana Ciega, a popular Mexico City act that’s opened for Oasis back home, outside.
We’d barely missed each other the entire festival: The night before, he arrived just after the excellent set from Absu, the Texas men that’ve released one of the year’s best metal records. We watched separate shows by the mesmerizing, weirdly mellifluous noise-girded pop of Woods on Friday, too. Saturday night, I half-expected Marc to wander into Mohawk’s, another two-stage space that was hosting an experimental showcase with the confrontational AIDS Wolf and the middling Clipd Beaks outside and the great Blood Brothers offshoot Past Lives inside. As AIDS Wolf’s Chloe Lum stalked through the tight space, staring at people and shrieking into her microphone, I stood upstairs on a balcony. According to this photo, Marc stood at the same spot only three hours later but long after I'd left, watching as Monotonix did its own version of the crowd interaction game.
But where friends don’t run into one another, strangers often do. Saturday evening, for instance, during the annual Mess with Texas party in Waterloo Park, New England trio Akron/Family was halfway through its last festival set when B.O.B.—an eclectic hip-hop/funk party band from Atlanta—arrived. They were delighted to see hundreds of kids dancing for the heavy rhythms of Akron/Family, so they decided to join the action. A young drummer set up a miniature kit on one side of the stage, trailing drummer Dana Janssen’s beat, while a few more members danced in front of a psychedelic American flag I was holding onstage. I’ve seen Akron/Family play some these songs dozens of times, but—with the help of new collaborators they’d never met—they sounded completely revitalized, possessed of a new energy that only such a fluctuating, teeming environment can provide.
The day before, the same held true for Earthless, an often-brilliant San Diego stoner-psych trio given to 20-minute jams in which Isaiah Mitchell explores every bit of his guitar tone. During an early evening party hosted by radio promoters AAM, Mitchell was able to reflect those sounds off of J. Mascis, the guitarist who’s explored his own instrument with the same voluble zeal for the last two decades. Their rare collaborative set felt like watching the offense of your favorite college basketball team work with well-greased hinges—players moving without the ball, someone occasionally taking it to the hole, etc. The guitarists charged each other, and the supple two-piece rhythm section pushed them forward for close to an hour, textures and leads wrapping around one another in perfect clouds of fuzz.
Unexpectedly close quarters can sometimes be a bother, of course. Given the sheer number of bands crammed into Austin for four days, some sets are inevitably interrupted by the music next door or—as it often happened—outside. “Is Cream—I mean, Creed—still playing out there?” quipped Daniel Martin-McCormick, the frontman of Mi Ami, a fierce trio recently rescued from the scraps of old D.C. dogs Black Eyes. He was referring to burke., a fairly awful band playing the AAM party outdoors. Martin-McCormick even started singing a bit of “My Own Prison,” laughing before launching into his band’s final scorcher. I had high expectations for Mi Ami going into SXSW, and their tightly wound numbers destroyed them. Let’s hope that their dozen SXSW appearances land them a good home after the fall of Touch & Go. Similarly, Kurt Vile—a Philadelphia bandleader who seems to fly high with Lou Reed and Tom Petty—played a set with his electric band on the floor of a tiny club east of Interstate 35 later that night. Outside but 15 feet away, a group of DJs mixed hip-hop hits for a dance party, interrupting Vile’s set with unfortunate frequency. It didn’t ruin the show, but it certainly limited it, stalling Vile’s use of dynamics and mood.
For me, SXSW hit a high note Friday night when it put a diverse horse of bands within the same very general genre (heavy metal) within one small space. When bands like Metallica play a relatively tiny club like Stubb’s during SXSW, they’re often met with a mix of fanaticism and confusion. A lot of folks get really excited, while some wonder why one of the biggest bands in the world would want to pull people away from the thousands of band’s hoping anyone will make it to their shows in Austin. Coincidentally I assume, Metallica’s surprise show in Austin on Friday came during the middle of metal night, when bands like Savannah’s mighty Kylesa were set for Red 7 and Plano’s menacing Absu were billed for Spiro’s Ampitheater. Southern Lord was hosting a showcase in a big white tent with Wolves in the Throne Room and Pelican, and Valient Thorr joined a few rock bands at a club called Rusty Spurs.
Somehow, amid all of these bands in all of these clubs, Metallica’s appearance felt oddly unifying. It was thrilling to watch dudes in 20-year-old Metallica shirts race into Stubb’s, smiling and hugging each other, or to talk to the older man carrying a canvas bag full of Metallica LPs he was hoping to get signed. “This is the best day of my life,” proclaimed a college kid standing on the corner, wearing a pink Polo shirt and khaki shorts, sort of defying the expected look for someone willing to wait in line for a few hours to see Metallica. When Metallica had finished what, by most reports, was a spectacular set, those fans—ears certainly ringing—filtered into the clubs to see the night’s relative upstarts. In essence, one of the biggest bands in the world served as a magnet for a bunch of little bands it might have inspired. That is, the iPod’s heavy core directed attention to its younger neighbors. Even if by happy accident, what else can a music festival hope to accomplish?