When it comes to musical performance, there seems to be a thin line between showmanship and gimmickry. I prefer bands who play great music with their heads down, but even with my favorite groups whose unique stage acts approach gimmickry—Wolf Eyes, Boredoms, Prurient, etc.–the difference is that I could close my eyes and still enjoy them. But by the fourth day of SXSW, even though I had heard more great sound than I could imagine, I started to crave something novel to see, too.
No matter how I tried to pace myself, my Saturday became a gauntlet. By drifting to whatever show seemed semi-interesting and close enough to walk to, I somehow saw more bands than all previous days combined. Inevitable schedule delays meant I saw a lot more sets than I'd intended, and most of the time, that was a great thing.
I hate getting stuck down here. You show up at the spot a little early to get yourself good and situated for whoever's up last and find more often than not that every little thing's been pushed back, so that drought in the back of your throat or the crimsoning of your forearms (If you're me, that is...) in the unforgiving Texas sun will just have to wait another 45 minutes for somebody else's schedule. I'm that dude who, even back home, buys tickets for a show and intentionally gets there to avoid the openers, even when I like the openers. Impatience can be a virtue too, you know. After all, why waste one's time waiting for the Soft Pack to tear down in advance of your fave rave's soundcheck when you could be sitting under a tree in a back-alley bar somewhere watching the Vivian Girls learn by doing. Zing.
So why I volunteered myself to cover a few of the biggest shows this town put on during SXSW 2009 was—until about 9:45 p.m. last night— more than a little unclear to me. I don't discriminate between what sells and what doesn't: My favorite album thus far in 2009 is by a mall emo band who shall, for the purposes of my continued employment as a music journalist, remain nameless. But this is South by Southwest, not Lollapalooza, and it's my understanding that we journalist types are supposed to be on the lookout for the next big thing, not just a big deal shoehorned into a small spot just 'cuz somebody thought that might be fun. And when it comes to the bigger deals—I mean, the deals even bigger than the line wrapped around the corner for St. Vincent— there's even more waiting around to be done, even more of that nagging sense that you should be out there seeing stuff instead of standing around trying to angle more free waters. But Kanye West's supposedly secret set last night was worth missing a day chock full of truly excellent somewhat obscure acts and what I'm told was yet another spectacular showing from the Dirty Projectors. Sometimes, if you want to see the best thing, I guess a little patience is required.
As Scottish indie pop band Camera Obscura were tuning up in advance of a 5 p.m. set, covered from the blazing sun by a huge canopy, lead singer Tracyanne Campbell asked the audience: “Are you hot, and freaky? A bunch of hot freaks?” The crowd yelled in approval, but not because they were anticipating the sort of sweaty dance party that question might imply or from the temperature outside, either. It’s because they were attending the second day of the Hot Freaks day party, curated by six of the best and most hardworking music bloggers (MOKB, Gorilla Vs. Bear, Aquarium Drunkard, Largehearted Boy, Chromewaves, You Ain’t No Picasso).
Writing about my Wednesday activities, I noted that skipping between South by Southwest shows was akin to clicking through iTunes—eclectic, somewhat random, fast-paced. To say that Hot Freaks was a bit like taking a Tron-esque trip inside Hype Machine, the aggregating website that culls together and streams mp3s from thousands of music blogs around the world, would not be untrue, but only a bit shortsighted. That’s because the entire festival, more or less, is a of course its own living, breathing, promotion engine.
“This is the center of the universe—well, our universe,” said Josh Moore, a folk singer-songwriter from Carrboro, his face was glowing with child-like excitement. Moore caught a ride to Texas with Wilmington band He Is Legend. He isn’t in Austin to play his own music, but rather to absorb everything else that's here. As we sat on the pavement together, we listened to The Love Language run through a quick soundcheck. I thought about all the North Carolina bands who are at SXSW this year. North Carolina—in particular the Triangle of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh—sent several dozen bands to Austin to play both official showcase sets and house parties and art gallery shindigs.
SCENE I: THURSDAY NIGHT
[Standing in a balcony overlooking a venue beneath the cool Texas night. A stranger approaches a music writer (myself) and a group of friends, all in a band the stranger has just signed]
Band Friend 1: Grayson, [Redacted.], have you two meet?
[Writer extends hand.]
Stranger with Record Label: You're dead to me.
[Writer extends hand again and smiles in what he is sure is the most disarming Southern way ever, right?]
Stranger with Record Label: Nope, we're done.
[Without smiling, Stranger walks away.]
Three Hours Pass. More alcohol is consumed. The group reassembles on the balcony after the club has closed.
[Writer extends hand. Stranger shakes it, grimaces.]
Stranger with Record Label: You're still dead to me.
[Stranger walks away.]
SCENE II: FRIDAY NIGHT
[Standing under a tent, with a large man with long hair and a beard draping his arm around same music writer (myself) with a beard and a notebook]
Writer: Hey, [Redacted.], it's great to see you again.
[Redacted.]: I'm glad you're here, Grayson. Grayson, man, [Redacted II.] is going to kick your fucking ass tonight. Seriously, I wouldn't put it out if it wasn't good. The new stuff is so much heavier. Stay for ’em, I promise, they'll kick your fucking ass.
[Writer smiles and agrees, silently wondering if the whole "kicking of fucking ass" thing is literal or figurative. As it were, he stays. With a great deal of bittersweetness, he’s happy to report that the ass-kicking was neither literal nor figurative.]
My favorite surprise about SXSW is that most of the live music booms out of the clubs and onto the streets with no complaining neighbors or disgruntled cops showing up. Apparently, this is somewhat routine in Austin even when SXSW isn’t happening, but it’s a bit of revelation for someone from D.C., where just one instance of noise blaring into the streets would likely result in a law against live music itself. They should probably mention this excellent benefit in Austin’s tourism ads.
As mentioned by my comrades here in Austin, hanging your hat on a few must-see bands at festivals as large as SXSW is preferable to running yourself ragged trying to catch everything. I've done my best to keep my schedule loose and hope the wind takes me toward some new and interesting bands—one of which was the charming weird pop of Woods, who play a warped and loping brand of folk that's still wholly accessible and melodic, and another was Pictureplane, who I describe a little more below. But even the unofficial parties at SXSW seem dominated by acts who consistently tour nationally, and admittedly, the few must-sees I've picked are artists I'm going to be seeing again, possibly in a few months.
If you want to make your mark at SXSW, a high-profile showcase slot will get you a ways, but you can't stop there. Nobody plays just a time or two down here if they know what's best for 'em; if you want to keep the buzz going, you've gotta haul your stuff down 6th Street just as fast as you can get between makeshift stage and cramped backyard. The younger the band and the bigger the buzz going into SXSW, the more gigs they seem to rack up. So often, though, these bands get that positive word behind 'em before they've gained the confidence any decent live band needs, and those sets can often be interchangeable and, given the greenness of the performers, pretty lousy, too.
For all the comparatively established bands who make the trip down here to remind us all of their existence (hey, Devo, they've still got... hats), though, just working up a truncated version of the set they play night in and night out isn't an especially good look. Not only are your familiar favorites here taking slots away from the truly up-and-coming, but they're here in an environment that blanches at familiarity; why would I go see, I dunno, Trail of Dead bash the hell out of their songs here in Austin when I could've just as easily seen the same thing back home in Chicago? So for those bands already rattling around in the consciousnesses of the madding crowds down here, doing something truly weird is maybe the best bet to get the by-now-exhausted attendees to take notice.
Yesterday, while standing in the back of the room at Emo’s watching a typically stunning performance by Brooklyn’s The Dirty Projectors, I noticed out of the corner of my eye an especially short girl standing right behind me, leaning up against the wall. I’m an especially tall guy by most measures, so I quickly turned around to ask her if she’d like to swap places. As she was replying to me with something along the lines of “No thanks, I prefer to lean against the wall,” I realized that the exceedingly short girl was in fact Janeane Garofalo.
I know this is a bit fawny and celebrity-worshippy of me, but let me have my moment: After all, this is South By Southwest we’re talking about here. Differing valences of celebrity worship are the currency by which this thing survives. Janeane Garofalo was my first celebrity crush ever, hitting her stride right when Alternative Nation was coming into full bloom in the early 90s. Not only was she wry and hilarious (and by all accounts, still is), but she broke into the boy’s club of stand-up comedy by calling them on their BS, much in the same way that Liz Phair, Kathleen Hanna, Mary Timony and, a bit later, Sleater-Kinney (um, I also stood next to Carrie Brownstein yesterday) were doing in indie rock at the time. Counter to yesterday, when I saw bands named Women and Girls which contained no ladies whatsoever, Friday’s highlights for me, both in terms of music being played and famous people being stood next to (or in front of) most certainly came from the distaff side of the gender divide. Oh, and Janeane Garofalo totally waved bye to me after the set ended. Swoon.