On Wednesday night, as we braced ourselves for the marvelous musical onslaught that was churning ready to release onto the streets of Austin, somebody told me that the SXSW Festival was 40% larger this year than last. I have no idea if that is true because I am terrible at estimating numbers of anything, but I can certainly believe it, as SXSW continues to grow and draw so many acts down to Texas that I always leave feeling like I’ve been through a musical washing machine. Or maybe I feel like that episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ where she is trying to eat the chocolates that just keep coming so fast, and more, and more, and more. No one can keep up with all that deliciousness, but I was game to try. I’m always game.
After a splendid opening reception for media at Austin City Hall with some excellent local talent and gift bags with bottles of Tito’s (uh oh), I headed as quickly as I could over to Bat Bar for Walk The Moon, to start my SXSW 2011 off right. You know I was mightily excited. With the crowd packed close and the bar walls open to Sixth Street passersby stopping to watch, their set was crackling with the kind of kinetic confidence that comes easiest in youth. Their energetic, dancey set can best be illustrated by two texts I sent to a friend while I was trying to convince him to come over.
9:24pm: “These guys are adorable. And twenty.”
9:26pm: “And wearing facepaint.”
It was everything I had hoped for. The first show of my SXSW was also the feel-good winner. I had to stop filming a video clip because I decided I had to dance instead.
Walk The Moon
I want to join Wild Flag. I want them to adopt me as egg-shaker rocker girl (since I couldn’t depose the formidable Janet Weiss, of Sleater-Kinney, as their drummer) and take me on tour with them, so I could bask in their rock glory every night. Fronted by Carrie Brownstein, this new band of Pacific Northwest badasses were phenomenal at the NPR party, playing their squalling guitars held behind their heads. Their songs had strong driving melodies and basslines, with that singsong female voice that sounds even better with the right heft behind it.
Their MySpace helpfully says “Apt adjectives for describing the band’s music: wild. Also: flaggy.” To that I would add: really damn good. Cannot wait to get their (Britt Daniel-produced) first 7″ on Record Store Day.
After lunch on Thursday I started out from the house I was staying at, and walked past the Auditorium Shores where The Strokes were due to play that night. There was already an amazingly long line of kids standing waiting in line for the free set. Even if it hadn’t been for the multitude of Strokes shirts in incarnations from the last decade on every other person, it would have been fun (and easy) to try and tell which band they were waiting for just based on the fashion.
That night was my first time seeing The Strokes, and it was long overdue. I was giddy with anticipation. For a band that saw its comeuppance in small NYC clubs and the sweaty intensity of raucous tiny shows, I was acutely aware that something was missing from the way I was experiencing them for the first time, but beggars can’t be choosers, as they say, and to me they sounded absolutely terrific. With the Austin skyline silhouetting them, their set peppered with new songs, Julian brought his lackadaisical drawl (I’ve always said it sounds as if he can’t be arsed to get up off the couch), but there was that underlying edge, the guitars and drums tight and spot-on.
On most days, this is my favorite Strokes song, and I just stood there with a big stupid grin on my face to get to see it from so close.
The set ended with a massive bombardment of surprise fireworks that started exploding during the opening drumbeat of “Last Nite.” I am a sucker for fireworks. I also thought fleetingly about some sort of metaphor in there for a band that used to cause all the fireworks themselves in small dark clubs, now playing such massive stages that they can light off pyrotechnics into the night air.
After a quick beer with my drummer friend Robby from These United States (who looks awesomely like Jesus these days, and whose sets I totally missed in Austin this year, sadly) I headed off – to church.
The rootsy new G. Love album, produced by the Avett Brothers, feels very much like the album he was always meant to make, and since it was recorded in a church, this seemed also like the setting I was absolutely meant to see it performed live in for the first time. Joined by Luther Dickinson from the Black Crowes and the North Mississippi Allstars for a few songs, he wailed and howled and stomped his way through his very solid and compelling set.
Lord Huron from Los Angeles were more potent and feisty live than their warm and woolly EP suggests. Instead of bringing that Fleet Foxes meets Edward Sharpe vibe, they cranked up the percussion (dude was wearing a washboard on his chest and I wanted to run away with him immediately into the Texas night) and were entirely danceable, in a near-tropical way.
The Stranger – Lord Huron
My night ended on Thursday watching all dozen+ members of Gayngs (with Justin Vernon, and a dude in a white cape) cover George Michael’s “One More Try” to a packed Mohawk crowd. I just looked around a little confused and tried my best not to enjoy it (longstanding hatred of GM). And then sang it all the way home, dammit.
Friday’s mercury climbed into the sticky-uncomfortable range, and became the day I decided to start a new photoblog called hipstersinhotweather.com. It is going to be completely amazing. From the moment I left the house, the sweat beads formed and were unrelenting, and I saw a large number of skinny jeans pulled up into man-capris, and plenty of dark clothing and impractical scarves sweat through. I was grateful for my dress.
To escape the heat, and because there is a fantastically vibrant scene there right now, our first stop of the day parties on Friday was the SXSeattle showcase at Copa, where we caught Ravenna Woods, Young Evils (harmonic, well-crafted pop with a kickass girl drummer named Faustine), and a hip-hop artist named Sol that we danced our asses off to, to spite the heat. I also had the WINNING moment of Damien Jurado showing me his driver’s license so I would believe who he was. Ummmm, the heat was scrambling my brain? Sigh. Sorry Damien. You are awesome and I know it.
Get Over It – Young Evils
Later that afternoon, I caught one of the most high energy sets with Middle Brother playing to a packed Barbarella backyard porch. This is the supernova collaboration between three excellent bands: Deer Tick, Dawes, and Delta Spirit. There was a genuine affinity between the three frontmen (see kiss below) and lots of interaction with / dancing in / throwing beer on the crowd to complement their crunchy riffs and early-’60s garage rock feel. [VIDEO: Me, Me, Me]
I also, not surprisingly, kept finding myself at The Head and The Heart shows – I think three in 2 days, by my count. The buzz on the street for them was thrilling. After SPIN Magazine hyped them as their #2 band to watch at SXSW 2011, it seemed that everywhere I went (photographers pit, radio lunches, that welcome reception) people were asking each other if they’d seen them yet. I had a few friends to drag to see them, so I happily went along spreading the gospel.
They played a wickedly hot midday show at Lustre Pearl for the Dickies/FILTER party on Thursday afternoon (their first “real” one, they said, meaning to a bunch of sweaty kids instead of to industry folks). Then on Friday, both the legendary Antone’s as well as headlining the Sub Pop showcase at 1am, before heading to the airport for their European tour with The Low Anthem. They left vapor trails in their wake, from an explosive week for them.
The Head and The Heart
In between Head and The Heart sets on Friday night, I popped into the Ale House for my favorite Australian from last year’s SXSW, Andy Clockwise. Completely dousing the audience with charisma like gasoline, Clockwise commands you watch him, and commands you enjoy. He brought the girl next to me up onto stage to play electric guitar and I couldn’t help but be jealous of her badassery.
Josh Ritter played the St. David’s Church sanctuary at 10:30pm, and I got in only for the last few songs. It was quite a shift after Andy Clockwise, but it was utterly spellbinding, and –as you can imagine– transcendent. If there is a more poignant moment than Ritter performing “In The Dark” in a church, in the dark, with the crowd singing softly and spontaneously along, I don’t think I can handle it.
Saturday morning I hopped right on up out of bed (ouch, cowboy boot blisters, ouch) ready to tackle the final full day of SXSW. By that day, everyone is feeling it and you best be talking quiet. Denver’s soiree of the music year at the Reverb Party was happening at Parkside, and it was on the lovely rooftop patio overlooking Sixth Street. Since I forgot to have a breakfast taco back home, my day started gently with Great Divide’s Wild Raspberry Ale (I mean, this is Colorado, so we do up our free beer at day parties RIGHT).
Port Au Prince is the new project of some good friends from the now-defunct band Astrophagus, back with a completely different sound. They are more accessible but still smart, with call-and-response melodies that made me happy when they rang down over Sixth Street.
Port Au Prince
I headed over to the Ryan’s Smashing Life blog party at Rusty Spurs, where Adam Duritz did a cameo appearance with the rapper NOTAR that he has signed to his T Recs label. I definitely gushed on a little too much when I met him about what his music has meant to me over the years. But then again, let’s be honest I am not known for hiding my feelings, and Duritz has been a major force in my musical development over the years. It was a great moment for me.
Also at that same party I got to check out the super talented Ivan & Alyosha from Seattle who were having quite a bit of fun up there. They’ve named their band after brothers from Dostoyevsky who struggle with faith and family ties, and chats with them before their set belie a depth of intelligence that is palpable in their smart, substantial songwriting. One of my favorite unexpected discoveries of the festival.
Easy To Love – Ivan & Alyosha
Then I went and decided to Mess With Texas at their free outdoors day party on the other side of the highway, and in a shocking role reversal it ended up just completely messing with me instead. I was sending texts about !!! and people thought I was so excited that I was forgetting a word in there, but really I was just totally wowed by their live set. For a man wearing (very) short blue shorts and a purple striped polo shirt, the lead singer of !!! had charisma in droves. Despite my weepingly aching feet, I found myself dancing harder than I have in a very long time, there on the dusty field.
I’ve been googling lead singer Nic Offer today (since I’ve decided to abduct him for a dance party, after that show – and that Prince outtake they covered!), and this quote from the A.V. Club profile on him pretty much sums it up in the very best possible way:
“A few years back, I perfected ‘The Prance,’ where you’re almost skipping in place and you have a look on your face that says “Nobody’s business, ain’t nobody’s business if I do!”
I do so adore a man who isn’t afraid to dance. As one of the best songs on their new album says, my intentions with him are unabashedly bass.
I packed into the giant sweaty tent for the ass-shaking extravaganza that was a Big Freedia show that I was promised would change my life (I never thought I would see a black man with a pompadour that impressive also have those sort of limber hips) and then almost died during Odd Future (no seriously) and evacuated the premises.
The last show I saw at SXSW 2011 was Rural Alberta Advantage at the Central Presbyterian Church late Saturday night. I have an affinity for the resonance of churches, and the simple quietude that is found in the shows that happen there. I am someone who is familiar with the interiors of churches, and lately shows like the RAA are the most deeply resounding and peaceful of the connections I make. Their set sounded fantastic: affecting, urgent, and honest. There was a simple joy, and words that needed to burn their way out. Their latest album Departing has been on non-stop repeat even before their set, but so much moreso after.
For their final song, they unplugged and walked down the red velvet aisle to stand among us and perform a stripped and perfect version of “Good Night.”
rush into the woods where we first felt god
ripple through our veins from the moment when we touched
When Nils threw his head back and the veins popped out on the side of his neck and he howled, “someday if you get it together in your heart / maybe we might get back together but good night….” I started crying and wasn’t even sure why, except for identifying with the longing permeating each syllable. It wasn’t a specific loss, rather a cumulative one.
I wandered alone through loud and colorful streets for about another hour, watching the expansive Laurel-Canyon sounds of Dawes for a few minutes from the street outside the crowded Lustre Pearl, but ultimately took my iPod, cued up Departing, and started the long walk home. The air was heavy and warm, and the as I crossed the river the almost-full moon was reflecting off the ripples. And of course, with so many songs ringing in my head, I was happy. There is no festival like this one.
[all of my best pictures from the week are here on the Fuel/Friends Facebook page]