Friday, March 14th, 2008
SxSW XXI II
Photo by Frank Yang
Sometimes it’s fun to hit SxSW without a plan – after all, even if you have one all it takes is one glacial lineup to toss everything out the window or, in the case of today, one completely fubar-ed day show. Things started well enough with a round table discussion at the conference portion of SxSW (yes, there’s a business side of things) amongst a number of bloggers, just talking shop and yes, it was as exciting as you’re imagining it to be. When that let out, nothing on my schedule demanded my immediate attention so I took a leisurely mosey around the bustling 6th Street/Red River corridor, popping into day shows to see what’s up but not sticking around until finding myself at Minipop’s show inside the Red-Eyed Fly.
San Francisco’s Minipop were one of my 2007 discoveries, their gauzey dream-pop falling quite squarely within the realm of “stuff I like”. But just as their showcase last year was marred by technical difficulties (at one point the power went out), this time they were battling their sound system on a few fronts, but mainly it just wasn’t sounding very loud or clear and there were random hums and buzzes everywhere. But still they fought through it and turned in some numbers from A New Hope, some presumably new material and an unexpected cover of Catherine Wheel’s “Black Metallic”. Sweet female vocals? Check. Shoegazer classics? Check. Cover songs? Check. All three rolled into one? Yes, please.
Directly across the street (I love Austin) was the broadcast centre for Free Yr Radio, which was featuring live to air sets from many of the performers at the festival. What I didn’t know was that these sets were only three songs in length and over before you knew it, which was why I only saw one song from Glasgow’s Sons & Daughters who, in This Gift, have put out one of my favourite records of the year so far. This didn’t bother me too much as I was planning on seeing the later that afternoon, but first had a date with Ms Emmy The Great in a parking garage on the far side of downtown. Get your mind out of the gutter.
The party was supposed to be thrown by NYLON and Guess Jeans and take place on the top floor of a parking garage but when I got there, the street address provided was a leasing office for an apartment building and the entrance, not marked, was on the other side of the block. Then upon getting to the top of the parking garage, I found it was barely attended either by guests, artists or staff. No one I asked had any idea of who was playing where or when and when I finally did find someone with a schedule, none of the artists listed on the flyer were there at all. It was like the most ridiculous bait-and-switch ever. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed and found a cab to get back downtown. NYLON, I am boycotting your publication and will get my news on durable, synthetic polymers elsewhere and Guess, if I had any of your clothing I would wear it with disdain.
On the plus side, I had no trouble making it back to the Mohawk in time to see… Sons & Daughters again. This time, however, it was for a proper-length set that proved that the band is as electric live as they are on disc. Adele Bethel was an intense and magnetic frontwoman in her leopardskin tights, false eyelashes and gold glitter dress but it was guitarist/vocalist Scott Paterson who really impressed, his furious riffing and hollered vocals – to say nothing of his stylish pompadour – proving to be as crucial a part of the band’s magic as Bethel’s lead vocals and presence. Riveting stuff – the Scots are impressing at SxSW this year – and certainly getting me excited for their Toronto show at Lee’s Palace at the end of the month.
Now anytime I mention hip-hop, I qualify whatever I say with the fact that I don’t know anything about hip-hop, but I do know that the live shows are fun to photograph, especially when the crowd is into it, and the Mohawk was definitely anxious to see Clipse perform, and hell – I was already up front. I asked Matt from You Ain’t No Picasso for a quick Clipse primer and got back, “they’re a duo from Atlanta who sing about cocaine”. Well as it happens they’re from Virginia Beach, and while I don’t doubt that cocaine turned up in the lyrics, that wasn’t all. Or so I assume – I couldn’t really make lyrics out but am pretty sure there was more to it than odes to coke. Anyway I was into it for a while then peeled out to let someone who was actually a fan into the venue and to score some dinner.
The evening portion of Thursday began with The Brother Kite at Habana Calle 6 and I was excited to see them play in considerably lower-stress situation than my Pop Montreal showcase last October. I will hold up their last album Waiting For The Time To Be Right as one of the best guitar-pop records of this century – no hyperbole – and now having seen them play a show not marred by technical difficulties, save an oncoming cold for singer Patrick Boutwell, I will expand that praise to say they’re one of the best wholly unknown bands in America. Even with the 8PM slot at a little basement venue, the band still soared and happily, there was a good-sized crowd there to witness it and who were openly impressed by what they saw.
The next order of business wasn’t a showcase so much as to procure some food, but after grabbing some 6th St curb with a slice of pizza and Texas-sized Coke I glanced up and realized that I was outside the Wave, where The Coast were playing in about ten minutes. That is what we call a sign, and I admit I was feeling a bit guilty about not having seen a single local or Canadian act since I’ve been here so I went to root for the home team a bit. Their stage was absolutely minuscule, with barely enough room for them to stand let alone put any sort of physicality into their performance but they sounded good and gave pause for everyone trying to walk past to get to the NME party upstairs that maybe the better band to see was downstairs (and from what I heard of the rooftop performance from the street, I suspect that was true).
Though the NYLON/Guess party was a bust, I still got my opportunity to see Emmy The Great at her proper showcase at Latitude 30 and it was worth all the effort and anticipation. Together with her small band (backing singer, second guitar, violin) she put on an utterly charming performance with both old songs and newer ones that are targeted for her album. What struck me the most, and which I probably took for granted from the recordings, was her remarkable elocution while singing. The girl has excellent diction and that’s crucial for performing songs as densely wordy as hers. That may seem strange praise but it’s warranted. And she’s got a marvelous voice, gift for melody and is cute as a button but that’s all obvious. I could have happily ended the evening there (and my feet thought that was a terrific idea) but there was still much more to see.
Rob from Donewaiting convinced me to abandon my original plan of wandering aimlessly for an hour and to go see Bon Iver at the Mohawk (this is what it took – “hey, let’s go see Bon Iver”). I haven’t jumped on the For Emma, Forever Ago bandwagon as many have, but have looked at it a length and with curiosity. And while a lot of the story behind that record appears to be its origins in a log cabin in the Wisconsin wilderness (I’m paraphrasing), I found the material much more impressive live, with a band behind it. the addition of a drummer prone to fits of mad yet tasteful fills does a lot for the dynamics of the songs and is a good match for Justin Vernon’s soulful vocals. Consider me a couple steps closer to convinced.
London’s People’s Revolutionary Choir were one of those random discoveries made while cruising the SxSW listings. I was immediately taken by the grand energy of the sample song on offer and decided to dedicated the Thursday midnight slot to them because, hey – if you’re not going to take a flyer on a band at SxSW, then why even come? The venue – a hotel conference room with a stage erected in the corner – wasn’t very high on vibe but the band put on a raucous show regardless though I found what impressed over the course of one song began to sound rather unfocused over a half-dozen. Their musical manifesto cribs from 25 year of Brit-rock anthemicism but they haven’t managed to distill all that down into something new and interesting on its own merits. They still merit watching but at this point it’s unclear if they’re actually staging a revolution or are just a bunch of people taking a very loud walk.
To cap the evening, I had a number of options written down though all were of equal interest or disinterest. In the end, The Wombats’ gig on Maggie Mae’s rooftop won out because a) I’ve been in a British mood of late (if you hadn’t noticed) and b) it was on the way back to the hotel. Unfortunately I forgot that Maggie Mae’s is possibly the most painful venue in Austin to stand in, with its cobblestone floors, particularly if you’re coming off a full day of walking and standing. Of course, the band were late getting started and when they did, their youthful, high-energy fun-time rock seemed to come with the singular message of “dance!” (it helped that the band exhorted the audience to dance at every opportunity as well). Not especially deep but delivering on their mission of having a good time, The Wombats were entertaining but it wasn’t too long before the barking of my dogs was overpowering and I stumbled back to the hotel.
Only half done? Oh god.