I was walking alone down Sixth Street on Friday night around 1am, listening to the music pouring out through every open window and door into the warm night air. My boots clacked on the asphalt as I tucked away a BBQ sandwich from a street cart to drown some of the Shiner Bock. Everyone I walked past had a smile and sometimes a nice word or even a hug. I felt so in my element, so alive.
I had the pleasure of attending the 2010 South by Southwest Music Festival this year with a sailor who informed me in detail that when reading a compass, south-by-southwest is technically a direction that doesn’t exist. I’d try to recreate the explanation but it’s sailor talk. In any case, I remember thinking how I enjoy that the only place SxSW exists is in a mythical land in Austin. It’s fitting.
A thousand people could go to Austin and have a thousand different experiences, and I love that about the crowded, sweaty, jubilant mess. No one I talked to saw (and loved) the same bands. The endless options for every time slot is simultaneously fantastic and heartbreaking. I surely missed more bands I wanted to see than those I made it to, but I made it to some marvelous shows that invigorated me and reminded me why I do this, why I love music.
Here’s what made this year’s festival for me:
Lissie was everywhere, delightfully. This girl from Rock Island, Illinois has a voice that is even more potent and chill-inducing in person; it’s as if she has the force of a complete gospel choir of large black women lying in her belly waiting to explode through songs like “Little Lovin’” and “Everywhere I Go.” When she sang the latter at a nighttime show in St David’s Church, I actually got tears in my eyes from the lugubrious power of that sparse song. Later on that weekend I heard her cover Metallica from downstairs in Stubbs while I shook Bill Murray’s hand. Go figure.
J RODDY WALSTON & THE BUSINESS
J Roddy Walston & The Business felt like Jerry Lee Lewis meets Soundgarden, and in a completely insane way, it worked. I wrote about them a long time ago and said I absolutely wanted to see them live, so when they played the Little Radio party, I was there in the front row. I was speechless. All I could do was look at my friends with a glowing smile; “So bizarrely awesome,” Bethany replied. The bass player stood wide-stanced, thrashing his long locks around with a force I’ve not seen since junior high dances and headbanging to Metallica, while J Roddy pounded the piano and kicked over his chair. Whew.
Rock and Roll II – J Roddy Walston & The Business
Andy Clockwise from Australia also led me to use breathless descriptors of two artists I would never think of pairing together: Nick Cave and the Eels. Clockwise has 1,000-megawatt star magnetism, all swagger and quirky dance moves that I loved, and his music explodes into a supernova live — so much so that I went to see him twice. The fact that he came down in the audience, danced on the bar, handed me a Lone Star, and knelt and buried his face in my belly while we danced might have also helped things (I’m only human). Holy crap go see him live (and his fantastic band featuring my new favorite drummer, Stella) if you ever have the chance.
Sorry for the sometimes-shady video, but you get the fabulous idea — and know you wanted to be here:
THESE UNITED STATES
And speaking of superb live moments, These United States covered Violent Femmes! I was walking up Trinity Street immediately upon arrival to Austin when I heard this ridiculously catchy drumbeat cascading down from a window above. For some reason my brain flashed to thinking, “I wonder when that day party with These United States is?” After checking the schedule, I was thrilled that I had recognized them from their drummer warming up, and we jostled up the stairs to start our fest right. I saw them two more times at SXSW, their rambunctious, heartfelt country-tinged tunes are right at home in that environment, and I was delighted when they covered this (after some previous discussion on the matter):
Jennifer Knapp – an artist I had no idea would be at the festival (there are always dozens of such pleasant surprises at SXSW, it seems) but one I loved a lifetime ago and made a point to see. She was a young Christian artist when I was in high school and early college, a warm alto voice full of Melissa-Etheridge-like power and conviction, fierce on the guitar. I knew she’d vanished for years and years and was now resurrecting her art apart from the church, as far as I can tell. Her new work belies years of struggle that I can relate to, and a grasping at what she can still hold. I was completely blown away, one of the top shows for both myself (as an old fan) and the sailor (as a newly-converted one). This song was towards the end, as she played to a riveted and packed St David’s Church, and she said it conjured up her “Bob Dylan side.” Her album Letting Go is out May 11. [SXSW VIDEO]
STREAM: Stone To The River – Jennifer Knapp
The music of JBM (Jesse Marchant) is completely entrancing, with his intricate guitar fingerpicking and pink moon stylings. Walking into the dark quiet of his show felt like a respite from the storm outside. The church hall was rapt and silent, and for good reason. He played this song using loops for the slide guitar part, and something in the timbre of his voice just breaks me. A friend told me a story of seeing Ryan Adams at SXSW ten years ago and if there’s any justice in the world, I feel like JBM could be an artist we look back on to this year and remember when.
Guillemots frontman Fyfe Dangerfield was tipped by Mojo Magazine as one of Four To Watch at SXSW (alongside the XX, who I totally failed at seeing despite my best line-waiting efforts) so his 10pm showcase at Lambert’s was quite packed. And for good reason – his new album Fly Yellow Moon has my favorite single of the last forever [SXSW VIDEO], but also is laced through with these heartbreaking piano ballads and tunes like this one that can’t help but make your heart jump on up and cartwheel, if just for a moment:
She Needs Me (Monarchy remix) – Fyfe Dangerfield
(“I am yours, you can do what you like with me…”)
Frightened Rabbit‘s sweltering daytime set at the Paste party was rife with technical difficulties from the start. Keyboards didn’t work at all, monitors went in and out, and finally the band decided on a minimalistic, stripped-down approach. “But you know,” Scott Hutchison said from the stage, “This the way it should be, isn’t it”? I completely agree. I liked hearing the visceral gut punch of the songs from their new album Winter of Mixed Drinks acoustic, and was only sad I missed a live performance of “The Loneliness and the Scream,” my favorite track on there. But since I was actively trying to avoid crying at the festival this year, perhaps that was for the best.
SXSW VIDEO: Keep Yourself Warm
Chicago songwriter Joe Pug played a day party where people were chatty in the big bar, so he took the refreshing tack of asking the first three rows of us who were sitting down listening closely to join him by the stage. He came in front of the microphone and sang one of the most powerful songs on his new record (“Won’t you bury me far from my uniform, so that God will remember my face?”) with nothing between us to obscure things.
The final show I saw at SXSW this year was the Electric President set in the wee small hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning, at a little venue on the far side of town. It was their first show in three years, and worth walking to in the cold Saturday night air. Their new album The Violent Blue has been on non-stop repeat around here for months. I was so dead beat from the festival that I remember this show as if through a haze, but I was deeply content to hear their intimate songs recreated live. Ben Cooper’s voice is, as he self-effacingly joked, “that of a twelve year old girl,” despite his brawny man appearance, and their songs simply shimmered in the loose, congenial midnight atmosphere.
A few other show impressions:
–I adored seeing The Damnwells live again and hearing a bunch of fresh material, including an announcement of a new album they are working on recording. Alex Dezen walked into the center of the tipsy midnight Paradise crowd to sing “Golden Days,” and for that song it felt so so right.
–Jukebox The Ghost brought pleasingly nerdy piano-based rock to the WXPN dayparty, both classic and charmingly awkward.
–The Scissor Sisters were highly hyped and I so wanted to enjoy them but I was not turned on by their set at all. Maybe it’s because I was freeeeezing all Saturday, and by their outdoor set at Stubbs I just wanted a hot tub and a hot toddy and other hot things. It felt stilted and not at all fabulous.
–Matt Pond PA‘s Galaxy Room showcase set was one of the hardest things to get into all weekend. I hope that means word of his absolutely marvelous new album is spreading. He is a hardworking artist of the best kind, with literate songs that make all my insides happy. (new tour announced!)
…And a few final favorite moments of SXSW 2010:
–Eating a fantastic Sunday brunch at Moonshine, which I am still full from, carrying on my favorite tradition started in 2009.
–Admiring the Hall & Oates coloring contest at Home Slice Pizza, and then participating in an “Only At South-By” restaurant singalong of “Hey Jude” in the very best possible way, everyone in full voice, with their whole hearts, sitting at their tables.
–Taking a ride from an elderly Austin native named Howard who drove a VW Rabbit with a handicapped placard. Go go renegade taxi services when you need one!
I missed seeing Hole at the SPIN party, and Warpaint who everyone raved about, and Local Natives, and the XX, and …and …and … but I did have a momentously marvelous time, drenched in the music. Anyone who doesn’t have a good time at SXSW might have their music-thingie irretrievably broken.
See you next year, Austin.