Thursday, March 13th, 2008
SxSW XXI I
Photo by Frank Yang
Ahhh, ATX. Once again I find myself nestled in your soft, tortilla-like bosom. Ever since I decided to attend the 2008 edition of SxSW (which was about two minutes after the 2007 edition ended), I swore that I’d do this year right – badge, downtown hotel, RSVPs to all the day parties… but of course all the RSVPs really mean is that you get to stand in line to add to your ever-burgeoning wristband collection. The first day started in one of these lines, to get access to the ever-popular Levi’s/FADER Fort – where I’d never been before. I haven’t been so diligent about RSVPs in the past.
Anyway, once wristbands were acquired, we moseyed in to have a look at what the big deal was and was greeted by the first band of the day, Los Angeles’ Mae Shi. Whenever I type that, I unconsciously want to add a “t” at the end of their name but that’s not really a reflection on what I thought. Granted, their loud, vaguely angry and spastic rock did nothing for me but that’s no reason for name-calling. They were working hard up there and working up a sweat and that’s what SxSW is all about.
Then it was off to the Donewaiting party at the Creekside Lounge – Donewaiting is a crucial SxSW reference site and this was their first-ever sponsored event, so it felt right to pay respects. Even if only for a few minutes, as I caught just the last song of Catfish Haven’s set and the one thing that stuck out to me… George Hunter has gone electric! George, say it ain’t so.
The draw at IODA’s fifth anniversary bash at Emo’s Annex was Glaswegians Frightened Rabbit but I was early enough to see Curumin, a sort of laid-back, soul/lounge/hip-hop outfit whose three members curiously set up at the back of the stage while plying their trade. Very mellowed out but quite affable and enjoyable.
And then the Rabbit – I’d read somewhere that they were shy sort of live act but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They delivered songs from their forthcoming The Midnight Organ Fight in loud and frenzied fashion as a four-piece, three of them Telecasters (pointy guitar tone yes) with low end handled by organ pedals or samples. Frontman Scott (no last names please) pogoed around the stage when he wasn’t bellowing melodic angst into the mic in his wonderfully thick Scottish brogue and as their short set was possibly the only chance I’d get to see them this week, I’m glad they impressed as much as I’d hoped. Now I hope that Organ Fight takes off when it’s released on April 15 and justifies a North American tour so I can see them play a proper-length. Maybe with labelmates The Twilight Sad? Yes please?
With that done, it was to the Mohawk for Shearwater – seeing them play Sx has become something of a tradition for me and I was eager to hear them preview material from Rook, some three months before its formal release. The set still drew mainly from Palo Santo but some Rook material was aired out, some for the first time. The latent greatness in the new stuff was evident but the arrangements still need to incubate a bit, I expect they’ll sound better when they hit the road in May with Clinic.
And closing out the day portion of the Wednesday, it was back to Emo’s Annex for the only appearance of the week from The Wedding Present. Or part of the Wedding Present, anyways. The band was represented by singer/guitarist Dave Gedge and bassist Terry de Castro and while it’s always a treat to hear Wedding Present songs (and one Cinerama tune) played, the absence of the drums and second guitar was keenly felt. Gedge was probably as aware of this as anyone and promised a proper tour in support of their new album El Rey (out in May) this September and October so as a stopgap and lead-in to dinner, the performance sufficed.
Now since it was announced, R.E.M.’s show at Stubb’s on this night was the inflexible certainty on the schedule. But seeing people start to line up at a quarter to five and with everyone I talked to opting not to even bother trying to get in since they expected to be beyond full before they got there. And while I’d complained before about how the festival had scheduled a lot of bands I wanted to see against R.E.M., it began to look like that would be a blessing since it meant a wealth of contingency options.
I started things off at The Parish for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me now. I caught the tail end of Zambri’s set, a co-ed, electro-heavy act from New York who serve up glammy rock with a healthy dose of angst. I believe I listened to a copy of their EP a little while back and that bit of familiarity may have steered me here and, in turn, their show has encouraged me to revisit the EP. It’s the circle of life.
They were followed by Wild Light, the next in a long long of hot new bands coming out of New Hampshire. Yeah. They featured three capable singers and good musicianship but even with these ingredients, the final product came out more than a little bland. I gave them a few songs to impress me but after receiving a text message saying that the crowd at Stubb’s wasn’t too bad at all, I bolted for the amphitheatre.
And lo and behold, there was no line and I was in in no time. Contingencies be damned, we were back on plan. Of course, there was a price to be paid and that was sitting through the opening acts who were apparently hand-picked by R.E.M., something I hope isn’t entirely true. Florida’s Papercranes were almost impressively unimpressive, lacking the chops and charisma to make their dramatic goth-rock saleable. Georgians Dead Confederate fared much better with their sludgy yet surprisingly nimble stoner rock. Slow and heavy, I’m sure they’re in heavy rotation in Stipey’s iPod.
And then, it was R.E.M. It’d been some seven years since I last saw them live at the most excellent noontime show that shut down Yonge St in Toronto back in 2001 and while their recorded output since then hasn’t really grabbed me, they’ve always managed to stay in my good graces by virtue of how much they meant to me when I was younger and how those records still have a hold on me today. And while a greatest hits show would have gone over just fine, they were intent on selling Accelerate, out April 1, and reestablishing themselves as a proper rock band. And while the new material obviously didn’t resonate as much as the older material, it did seem to deliver on their promise to be louder, punchier and more concise. Of course, the older material got the best response – hearing “Second Guessing” had me bouncing around in the line to the photo pit like a little kid and “Fall On Me”, long one of my favourite songs in the world, had me singing along at the top of my lungs. I know SxSW should be about the new bands, the up-and-comers, but sometimes the veterans just bring it.
But no, I didn’t stay the whole set. I’ve still go their June 8 Molson Amphitheater gig on my calendar but don’t have any expectation that my final show of the night, Trespassers William, will be coming through town any time soon so missing their only SxSW performance would have been unacceptable. One of my favourite new discoveries of the last five years or so, they were slotted in at The Hideout, a little theatre in the back of a coffee shop that provided a nice, if exceedingly dark, atmosphere for them. Though they’ve made their name with languid space-rock led by Anna-Lynne Williams’ mournful voice and lap-style slide guitar, their live show was surprisingly dynamic, incorporating more noise, swells and crescendos than their recorded output would have ever implied. There was also a much larger electronic component to their sound that thankfully added to the appeal of their original sound rather than obscuring it. Happily, there was a full house for them as they previewed some material from their new record – due out sometime this year – and put a terrific cap on a day of music that had its ups and downs, but with the peaks thankful being much more memorable than the valleys.