Everything You Need to Know About SXSW 2009
AUSTIN -- I saw tons of bands, walked many miles, drank lots of cheap Lone Star and Twittered my thumbs off. South By Southwest is in the books, and here are the crucial details. The rest is noise. (In which case, I probably saw them play multiple times.)
Best Band: Future of the Left
Rock-and-roll isn't supposed to happen at 4:30 p.m. with sunlight streaming through windows behind the band. But Future of the Left was so completely on fire at Friday afternoon's Onion day party that you could have set the Welsh trio up in ... I don't know, what's something not very rock-and-roll? An Ann Taylor Loft? The band still would have rocked your face completely off.
Future of the Left formed after the dissolution of Mclusky, one of the great bands of the early half of the decade that many people only discovered after its breakup. Singer/guitarist Andy Falkous and drummer Jack Egglestone recruited bassist Kelson Mathias and didn't stray too much from the Mclusky template of biting, brutal rock in the vein of Jesus Lizard and the Pixies. After seeing them play a couple of shows this weekend, it seems like they are about to surpass their old band in terms of greatness, which is no small feat.
There's a lyric in "Manchasm," Future of the Left's biggest "hit," that goes: "Every minute matters." That can be seen as a kind of mission statement for the band. Not just every minute, but every sound, every element of every song. There is no dead weight, no wasted energy in Future of the Left. Many of the songs charge along with just overdriven bass, drums and Falkous spewing his hilariously hateful lyrics before he attacks his guitar and scorching, sharp sounds come screaming at you.
This is angry music. This is not music that you will play for a lady, unless that lady has some serious issues. (In which case: Hey baby, I'm single!) There is nothing vaguely romantic about Future of the Left, and thank god for that. At the Friday afternoon show, the band played eight songs and every one of them reverberated in your gut. It was perfect efficiency. But what sets the band apart is that it's not just pummeling and pounding. Future of the Left writes catchier songs than most pop bands. Sure, they're slathered in distortion, but there are sing-along choruses and half the songs had people in the crowd clapping along. They even use keyboard instead of guitar on some songs!
The lyrics are another element that make Future of the Left unique, as Falkous is one of the few lyricists who understands that you can be funny without being a joke band. He's a supreme smart-ass, and most of the humor comes from how vicious his words are. Plus, he curses a lot, but not too much that it loses impact. I mean, the band's first album was called "Curses." Future of the Left doesn't try to be everything to everyone and thus manages to perfectly achieve what it sets out to do.
(Much more after the jump.)
Best Band, Runner Up: Kurt Vile (and the Violators)
Kurt Vile has got it. The Philadelphia singer-songwriter-drone-folk-punk dude has a definite magnetic quality. He also has a baby face that you can rarely see because it's almost always hidden behind his thick, long hair. He doesn't always strum his guitar; sometimes, he simply flicks the strings instead of using a pick. On his fabulous record, "Constant Hitmaker," he sounds like a vulnerable bedroom composer on meditative songs like "Breathin' Out" and "Don't Get Cute." Then you see him live with his motley crew of a backing trio -- two guys who look like they were picked up off the street and another from the high school band room -- and it's a completely different story. They literally roar through "Freak Train" (I'm guessing the title, it's unreleased), a true steam-engine of a song that features Vile howling the chorus -- "Riding on the freak train! TRAIN, TRAIN, TRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAIN!" -- with all of the intensity of another Kurt who often used to hide behind his long hair.
Big things are in store for Vile. At his Friday night showcase, there may have only been 20 people in attendance, but a good number of those folks were some Very Important People at Matador Records. When I saw Vile in New York back in January, a few of those people were there then as well. Where there's smoke there's fire, although it's still unclear if Matador will be the winners of this little bidding war or if another label such as 4AD will sign him. The label doesn't matter, though. The only question is how he harnesses his talent. Right now he's one of those guys who is great for record collectors. He has tons of releases, many of them limited-edition or vinyl-only, on a bunch of different micro labels. Each one of those records has at least one or two sublime songs. I dare you to try to find five songs released in the last year that are better than Vile's "Freeway". If he ever decides to put all of his best songs together -- and judging by "Freak Train" and "Overnight Religion," a new song he played Saturday night, he's got them -- he's bound to make a classic album. And if he doesn't, the wild goose chase will still be plenty of fun. Don't miss out.
Other Standout Bands
I was very happy to catch Gentleman Jesse and His Men late Saturday night after missing them in D.C. a few weeks ago. This is one of those bands that most everyone should like. The quartet plays absurdly catchy power pop that's a little rough around the edges, but the looseness only adds to the fun. Every song is an anthem that has you jumping up and down.
I saw loads of bands that played high-energy garage-punk, but San Francisco's Thee Oh Sees were the best of the bunch. The band's Thursday show at Emo's was a hip-shaking blast. Honorable mention to youngster Ty Segall who played keys for Thee Oh Sees at the show and delivered his own memorable set of garage chaos Saturday night at Red 7.
I wasn't planning to catch much of Wovenhand because I saw them last fall, but it's simply impossible to pull yourself away from David Eugene Edwards and his apocalyptic folk songs. There's something truly mesmerizing about his songs and his presence on stage. It's scary as hell, but in the best way.
Echo and the Bunnymen played the hits and played them to perfection Wednesday night at Emo's. It was mostly melancholic, romantic and anthemic with tunes like "Seven Seas," "The Killing Moon" and "Lips Like Sugar," but "The Cutter" slayed.
Most Ubiquitous Award: King Khan
Most bands play only one or two official evening showcases, but since the bands are in town and there are countless places to play, there are shows all the time. And some bands really take advantage of this, to extreme levels. Three bands that seemed to be on just about every bill were Wavves, Vivian Girls and King Khan and the Shrines. They played around 60 shows between them over the course of the week. But it was King Khan who just seemed to always be around, at least where I was.
I never made a point of seeing him, but I ended up catching him him twice anyway. With his rock-soul revue band the Shrines, the act is perfectly suited for a festival like this. He's always going to be on a pretty good bill. The show may be the same thing every time, but it will always be entertaining, with its gospel call-and-response, horn-fueled rock and the regular set-closing cover of "Know Your Product" by the Saints. Fatigue becomes a factor earlier than you might think for festival attendees. So faced with a dilemma of walking some distance to see a band that may or may not be good versus staying close and seeing King Khan, who you know will be pretty good, it's easy to stick with the known quantity.
And when he wasn't playing a show, he was apparently seeing the same show I was, whether it was his sometimes-stage-partner BBQ at Beerland, the Goner showcase at Red 7 or the Sonics at Emo's. (Fun fact and quick diversion: Only two bands name-checked in LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge" played at SXSW, and I saw them both -- the Sonics and the Bar-Kays. It's sort of not fair for the Bar-Kays to still call themselves the Bar-Kays, but the Sonics had their three core members and sounded surprisingly awesome.)
Another time, I was just standing on the street talking to Aaron Leitko (who is blogging SXSW for the City Paper) and there was King Khan just standing next to me. So I asked him if he remembered the King Khan and BBQ show at the Red & the Black a couple years ago, one of the more insane/dangerous shows I've seen in this town. His response? "Oh, that show [expletive] sucked. That was the show where we were trying to soundcheck and the guy who was supposed to be running it was just doing lines of coke instead." Hey, I'm just reporting here.
The Big Story: There Isn't One
Every year people look for the "big story" to come out of SXSW. What's hot?! What are the new trends?! What were the big surprises?! Well, here's the big story: There are more than 2,000 bands -- a few hundred of which are even good -- playing shows all week. At all times. Often within a few blocks of each other, always within -- at most -- a few miles of each other. Seeing live music is the best thing in the world to do that's legal and doesn't occur in the bedroom 65 to 85 percent of the time, so there's your story right there. I saw 44 performances by 38 different bands over the course of four nights and three days.
If you're trying for any quality control at all, it would take at least a month or two to accomplish that, even in a relatively busy live music city like D.C. The majority of the sets I saw were pretty good to excellent. But that's because I knew what I was doing and who I was seeing. It's easy to see lots of great music at SXSW, but it's much, much easier to see tons of terrible music. I know I earlier said that you shouldn't try to run yourself ragged and I do stand by that -- to an extent. Don't necessarily try to go to five venues in seven hours. Find a good showcase and stick around for a bit. Your feet will thank you. But don't just wander aimlessly. You must have a plan. Sure, one of the great things about SXSW is discovering new bands, but I think it's more like "seeing bands you haven't seen before." There's too much good music to leave it to chance. Or to wait in any lines for more than 15 minutes.
Greatest Myth: "Part of the reason why SXSW is so fun is because Austin is such a great town!"
Austin may be a great town; plenty of trustworthy people say so, in fact. But to go to Austin for SXSW is not to experience Austin. It's to experience thousands of people storming and trashing the town while the locals come out of the woodwork and only make things crazier, more crowded and more annoying. Walking down 6th Street at 2 a.m. on Friday night is an absolute nightmare, much worse than that one with the clown, Gary Busey and your fouth grade teacher. Masses of people, most of them drunk, making it impossible to get anywhere without serious swerving and bumping. You've got horrible bands performing in the street, idiots with "Free Hugs" signs, and way, way too many females in outfits that are far too tight and small, in all the worst ways. This isn't Austin. It's like the Ocean City boardwalk at its very, very worst.
I didn't notice any real signs of the economy affecting things except for maybe the increase in panhandlers, especially gutter punks. Here's a helpful hint -- if you find yourself slightly-to-extremely intoxicated and a gutter punk asks you for money and you ignore her and she starts following you and chastising you, it would be wise not to turn around and tell her, "Maybe if you didn't spend what little money you had on [expletive] idiotic piercings and tattoos you wouldn't be in the position you find yourself in, you dirty [expletive] gutter punk [expletive]." That's not going to end well, but that is certainly where the large crowds and ample police presence come in handy, allowing you to run into a mass of people near one of the many cops at an intersection while her and a couple of her fellow lowlifes start to follow you. Hey, I got no shame. But that's the only time the crowd comes in handy. The streets are packed all the time. People are drunk from noon on. It sounds like a big party, and it is. But, you know, parties kind of suck. Especially when thousands of people who have no reason to attend the party just stop by because it's nearby.
Worst Deal: Pedicabs
An unquestioned truth about SXSW is that your feet are going to hurt. A lot. You're walking or standing all the time, and it's rare you'll find a soft, grassy area. Just lots and lots of concrete. You can bring comfortable shoes, socks, inserts and be gellin' like Magellan, but come 2:30 a.m., your dogs will be barking. It's a fact of life. If you're staying at one of the hotels right downtown, well, want to lend me a few bucks? Most people have at least a short walk to their place of lodging. And when it's late, you're drunk, your feet are killing you and you see all of those pedicabs circling and waiting for you to hop in, the temptation can be overwhelming. But you gotta suck it up. The going rate seemed to be $25 for around a mile of transportation. That doesn't come with any sexual favors. (Yes, I asked. This is why I don't drink so much.) But seriously, $25 to get biked around for a few blocks? Aren't we in some sort of economic meltdown? Your feet will have 360 days to recover until next year.
Funniest Recurring Theme: Clubs Dealing With Music That They Simply Do Not Regularly Deal With
It's not all indie rock down at SXSW, but there's a whole lot of it. And, obviously, I filled much of my time with it. Places like Emo's, Beerland and the Mohawk are used to these sort of bands but many other clubs and their staff are not, and it made for some funny moments. At the Siltbreeze showcase on Thursday night -- that's the fabulous little label that gives us much of the best weird and noisy stuff -- the bar staff insisted on playing Danzig at truly ungodly volume between sets. Some similarly inclined bands took over the Music Gym for most of the week. The defining moment was when I walked in to use the bathroom at one point (bands were playing outside) and one sound person asked the other, "Are these dudes done yet? How can we even tell?"
After Future of the Left's killer set Friday afternoon, I simply had to see them again later that night when they played at Aces. What a crazy venue that was. Apparently it's usually a burlesque club. The stage is elevated at least six or seven feet off the ground and there's a moat between the stage and the audience, and that's where the bar is. So the bartenders have their backs to the band while the band plays, towering above the audience, which is at least 15 feet away. Bassist Kelson Mathias did his best to bridge the gap by jumping down onto the bar during the band's final song and taking the soda fountain gun and filling himself up before spitting on the audience. The bartender, to his credit, had a good humor about him and proceeded to take a bottle of whiskey and pour it down his throat. Then there was Saturday night at Volume where I went to catch Let's Wrestle at Volume. I'll venture to guess it's usually a hip-hop club based on the music between sets and the people who were there (admission was free). Watching them quizzically stare at Let's Wrestle as the young trio played its distinctly British, slightly off-kilter guitar-pop was borderline hilarious.
By David Malitz |
March 23, 2009; 10:02 AM ET
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