Trying to cover something like SXSW is sort of like climbing into one of those booths where there’s a bunch of dollar bills floating around. You grab at what you can get, all the while knowing that a wealth of good stuff is slipping through your fingers. The A.V. Club spent several days in Austin last week during the music portion of the festival, and while we don’t claim to have seen everything worthwhile at SXSW, we did see a lot that we liked: Fiona Apple, Jack White, The Shins, Jesus And Mary Chain, Bruuuce Springsteen, and even a bunch of non-superstars who actually need the attention.
Which is not to say that SXSW isn’t a mess at times, or that the hype doesn’t sometimes greatly oversell the actual proceedings, or that corporate synergy hasn’t sucked some of the soul out of the festival. This year there was an outdoor stage that was built to resemble a giant Doritos vending machine, with the bands playing in the part where the “product” would normally come out. This thing was like 60 feet tall, and apparently it worked, as clearly people were talking about Doritos. Or maybe it didn’t, as the word “Doritos” was usually accompanied by something like “Did you see that abomination?”
But no matter how cheesy or gross some aspects of SXSW are, it is simply impossible to completely fuck up a combination of great music, nice weather, fun venues, and a cool city. The A.V. Club made a lot of good memories at SXSW. Here are 22 of them.
1. Jay-Z at Austin City Limits Moody Theater, Monday
Why did we go? The chance to see Jay-Z in a relatively intimate venue, for free, with the (somewhat-dubious) promise of a set entirely composed of crowd-sourced song requests was too great to pass up, even if it meant implicitly supporting the “corporate takeover” of SXSW. If you even care about that sort of thing, which, sort of, but—Jay-Z!
How hard was it to get in? In one of SXSW’s strangest, most convoluted marketing strategies—even in a year where homeless people were turned into wi-fi hotspots—American Express offered tickets to cardmembers who also had Interactive badges, provided they “synced” their cards with their Twitter accounts. If you possessed both those things, and you were willing to give your Twitter handle to AmEx for some discount program thing that uses hashtags or something that you’ve already forgotten and will never use, it was ridiculously easy to breeze by the convention center and pick up two tickets.
Why we won’t forget it: The “tweet your requests” aspect was probably bullshit, but it was still heavy on most-wanted hits—from Blueprint tracks like “H.O.V.A.” and “Heart Of The City” up to more recent Blueprint 3 tracks like “Run This Town” and “Empire State Of Mind,” with obligatory stops for “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “Big Pimpin’,” and “Hard Knock Life.” (Though I’m pretty sure nobody requested that Jay-Z rap about his baby, judging by how many people headed to the bar during “Glory.”) Jay seemed genuinely happy to be there yet also slightly tired—perhaps owing to a 40-minute flight delay that required a police escort from the airport—but he remained firmly in command, even restarting “Empire” and “U Don’t Know” when he fumbled the lyrics (“I don’t fuck around with the words to my songs, y’all”). Considering it was just a corporate promo gig, he totally could have gotten away with phoning it in, which made his commitment all the more awesome.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: Jay did bow to his corporate overlords with a halfhearted shout-out to American Express, and the whole live-streaming aspect (including being projected on a billboard on Sixth Street) more or less reduced the crowd to props. Still, hardly the most egregious example of SXSW’s slide into synergy hell during a week where Snoop Dogg performed inside a giant Doritos vending machine, or Lil Wayne used his set to film a Mountain Dew commercial. It’s also probably worth noting that this was easily the nerdiest crowd Jay-Z’s ever entertained. [SO]
2. You Made It Weird taping at Esther’s Follies, Tuesday
Why did we go? SXSW has increasingly become a destination for comedians, and with the rise of comedy podcasts, many of them are recording episodes at the festival—including Comedy Bang Bang, WTF With Marc Maron, Sklarbro Country, and Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird. The comedian recorded his first live episode at comedy venue Esther’s Follies, and The A.V. Club might as well have sponsored it, considering how crammed it was with people we like and/or have recently interviewed: Judd Apatow, Kumail Nanjiani, Todd Barry, Chris Gethard, and a cameo from Doug Benson.
How hard was it to get in? A Tuesday show at 6 p.m.? A breeze if you had a badge.
Why we won’t forget it: Holmes wanted to have a bizarre guest lineup, so he started the show with Nanjiani, then brought out Apatow, then the evening’s Charlie Brown, Chris Gethard. Apatow mentioned that he just bought Gethard’s book, A Bad Idea I’m About To Do, because he liked the cover, which Holmes initially took to mean Apatow optioned it. That led to Holmes gleefully torturing Gethard—his former improv instructor in New York—into a quasi pitch meeting with Apatow on stage. Gethard couldn’t have been more uncomfortable, to the delight of Holmes and the audience.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: As the show stretched on before final guest Todd Barry came out, a tuxedoed Doug Benson (on his way to host the SXSW Film awards) came out to tell Holmes to hurry up and bring out Barry. With so many performers in such a small area, drop-ins like this are practically expected. [KR]
3. Consequence Of Sound party at Beauty Bar, Wednesday
Why did we go? I went to SXSW most excited about seeing the latest wave of loud and feisty guitar bands that have made some of my favorite albums of late, and this bill offered several of them: The Men, Screaming Females, and Mikal Cronin.
How hard was it to get in? I was interested in seeing pretty much every band on the bill, so I got there early before there was much of a crowd. By the time that headliners Titus Andronicus and Cloud Nothings were set to take the stage, however, there was a line going around the block.
Why we won’t forget it: Everybody I wanted to see lived up to expectations, but New Jersey’s Screaming Females actually exceeded them. While the band’s albums haven’t really connected with me yet, I was blown away by the live show, particularly the positively possessed performance by singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster. While diminutive in stature—she appears to stand just over 5’0’’—Paternoster is a monster showman, absolutely shredding on guitar and literally swallowing the microphone while spitting out crazed vocals. My expectations for the forthcoming Ugly in April just went up several notches.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: My other favorite act of the party, the nice-guy punk-tunesmith Mikal Cronin, rolled in several minutes late because he made the mistake of trying to drive down the perpetually traffic-choked Sixth Street. [SH]
4. Beach Fossils at Emo’s Annex, Wednesday
Why did we go? Well, I wasn’t planning to. I was walking down Sixth Street and happened to hear tones friendly to the Kyle Ryan aesthetic: what sounded like octaves being held on a guitar that gradually bled into feedback against a driving beat. I stopped by the Annex—the lot across from what used to be Emo’s—and watched the Brooklyn group’s set for about half an hour. I was unfamiliar with Beach Fossils only moments before, but I left with a mental note to pick up the band’s 2009 debut and the new full-length due out this year.
How hard was it to get in? Have an ID showing you’re over 21? Welcome.
Why we won’t forget it: You see a lot of music during SXSW, and most of it isn’t usually memorable. The good stuff sticks.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: This is the SXSW experience at its best: walking down the street, hearing something you like, then stopping in to check it out. [KR]
5. Bleached (Panache showcase) at Beauty Bar, Wednesday
Why did we go? I’ve been charmed by Bleached’s bare-bones pop punk, though the group only has a trio of 7-inches to its name. The band features Jessica and Jennifer Clavin and recalls their previous group, Mika Miko, or a more rocking Dum Dum Girls.
How hard was it to get in? Easy with a badge, but…
Quintessential SXSW-ness: The venue, Beauty Bar, has two separate areas for performances: inside and outside. In theory, people can move freely between the two. In practice, if one reaches capacity, no one can enter. So when I decided to head inside to sit down for a few minutes—SXSW is a punishing marathon of standing and walking—a couple dozen others and I were prevented from going back outside later. The fire marshal had showed up, and the club was on lockdown only moments before Bleached took the stage. (The venue understandably didn’t want to relive the “riot” that happened during Death From Above 1979’s performance last year.) After a few minutes, the staff informed those of us who were waiting that no one else would be allowed on the patio.
Why we won’t forget it: I ended up watching Bleached’s set through the one part of the chain-link fence behind the club that wasn’t covered with a obstructive tarp. The fire marshal isn’t the boss of me! [KR]
6. Future Of The Left at Hotel Vegas Wednesday and at Swan Dive Friday
Why did we go? I’m a huge fan of Future Of The Left, the band spawned from the late, great Mclusky, and since they’re from Wales, they don’t come around all that much. Seemed like a great way to start the festival.
How hard was it to get in? I headed to the Wednesday afternoon show pretty much straight from the airport. It was at the divey new Hotel Vegas (which was showing Todd Solondz’s depresso-classic Happiness on a lonely TV), a bit of a hike off the main drag. Other than the walk, it was a breeze to get into the Brooklyn Vegan day party. Same deal for Friday’s nighttime show.
Why we won’t forget it: FOTL are angsty, funny, and incredibly intense (not to mention loud). They leaned mostly on songs from the excellent Travels With Myself And Another rather than dishing out songs from their upcoming album, which presumably nobody in the audience had heard before. I’ve seen them fall apart, but it’s always been excellent and this was no exception.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: I cut out of the Hotel Vegas show before it was done in order to pick up my badge at the convention center and get some Veracruz tacos. A friendly user Tweeted “MCLUSKY ENCORE” at me, which made me (and Sean O’Neal) sorry we’d left. Luckily, they played pretty much the same set on Friday night, so I caught the beginning and end, which included roaring renditions of Mclusky’s “To Hell With Good Intentions” and “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues.” Awesome. [JM]
7. Christopher Cross at Austin Music Hall, Wednesday
Why did we go? SXSW is a great place to see artists that, for whatever reason, you wouldn’t usually consider seeing back home. I’ve always loved Christopher Cross’ self-titled debut and, to some extent, Another Page—long before he had the ironic yacht-rock seal of approval—but never really thought about hitting up one of his casino gigs, or whatever circuit he’s on these days. But seeing his name on the SXSW schedule this year meant everything on Wednesday night at 9:40 p.m. had to be set aside.
How hard was it to get in? Though his performance was part of the Austin Music Awards (he’s apparently lived in Austin for some time), which Josh had scared me into thinking would be far too powerful for my measly little wristband, the Austin Music Hall was big enough to accommodate Christopher Cross fans of all stripes. Which, it turned out, was basically me and a bunch of old people, the kind who wear Ron Paul Freedom Tour shirts and dance all funny. Good thing I got in quickly, as the performance started about 10 minutes early.
Why we won’t forget it: My sincere hope was that he wouldn’t bother with much of his catalog from, say, the mid-’80s on, and what I got was so much better: All five songs were from the first album, and judging from the old-school stories his bandmates were telling between songs, we were hearing them played by the original performers. “I Really Don’t Know Anymore,” “The Light Is On,” and “Never Be The Same” got things started just fine, but Cross was saving the best for last. After introducing the Mother Falcon string section, the smooth “Sailing” poured out of him like a fine glass of pinot grigio—no, seriously, “Sailing” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and he got a standing ovation on Wednesday night because of it. Then it was on to “Ride Like The Wind,” with Cross’ bass player ably handling the Michael McDonald parts. More epic magic, and yet another standing ovation. Bravo, my flamingo-loving friend.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: Like I said, SXSW gets you to see things you might not otherwise, and the short sets make it even easier to give wild cards a shot. Less than half an hour after Cross’ set, I was back in my familiar indie-rock world, but getting myself out of my comfort zone led to a true highlight of the festival. [MH]
8. Fiona Apple (NPR showcase) at Stubb’s, Wednesday
Why did we go? One of the few absolute coups of SXSW was this, the first time Fiona Apple graced a stage outside of her Los Angeles bubble in five years. Would she be amazing? Would she freak out and start screaming and cutting herself or something? Would she suddenly be 300 pounds—and wouldn’t that be sort of funny? These and other outlandish hypotheticals were passed among the crowd, but the consensus was that, no matter what, we all had to see. (And some of us were also big fans and excited just to see her again.)
How hard was it to get in? The Stubb’s amphitheater is one of Austin’s largest venues, but people weren’t taking any chances: They started stacking up hours before the gates opened at 7 p.m., creating a line that stretched well around two different corners. But it all went pretty smoothly, and even people with just wristbands got in eventually.
Why we won’t forget it: Apple definitely wasn’t 300 pounds—if anything, she looked even more sunken and raw-boned—and she didn’t exactly go crazy, save for some frequent pacing and flailing, or the moment where she waved to the crowd and self-mockingly told us we were all “imaginary” and just “inside my head.” But she was damned close to amazing, in an electric, occasionally unnerving, and eventually triumphant way. Over a set filled with familiar, slightly unhinged versions of favorites like “Fast As You Can,” “Sleep To Dream,” and “Paper Bag,” Apple’s intense vibrato mirrored her palpable nervous tension, her voice eventually giving way to a ravaging scream on “On The Bound” that left her hoarse and spent on “Criminal.” Overall it felt like we were watching Fiona Apple genuinely fight to entertain—a rarity for a stage and showcase generally headlined by veterans on victory laps—and it was an exciting, unpredictable thing to witness.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: According to a club employee I won’t name here, the show was delayed because Apple was “freaking out” backstage, saying she refused to play until it got sufficiently dark. So the staff called in her friend, local singer-songwriter David Garza, to calm her down. SXSW is its own weird, gossipy little small town like that. [SO]
9. Cowboy And Indian at The Bat Bar, Wednesday
Why did we go? I was getting ready to turn in for the night when my friend, Sound Opinions producer Jason Saldanha, tweeted that Crucifictorious—Landry Clarke’s fictional band from Friday Night Lights—was playing a show at a Sixth Street bar. So, of course I got over there as quickly as I could. Turns out the band was actually Cowboy And Indian, which features actor Jesse Pleamons and, for this performance, Stephanie Hunt, who played Crucifictorious bassist Devin on the show.
How hard was it to get in? Not very hard at all. There were maybe 20 people in the whole joint. Apparently members of fictional bands reunite in Austin all the time or something.
Why we won’t forget it: Admittedly, I only saw about one and a half songs, and Cowboy And Indian is a far cry from Crucifictorious. (Way less metal, way more local blues band.) But still, it’s Landry and Devin!
Quintessential SXSW-ness: I showed up to the gig because it was hyped as something that it really wasn’t, but I had a good time anyway. [SH]
10. Bruce Springsteen keynote address at the Austin Convention Center, Thursday
Why did we go? Because some of us weren’t lucky enough to get into the secret Springsteen show that night. (Shakes fist in Modell’s direction.) But whatever, man. I’ve already seen Bruce, like, three times already.
How hard was it to get in? Again, the key at SXSW is to show up early. I rolled in one hour before the start time, and ended up in the seventh row.
Why we won’t forget it: Springsteen is nearly as good of a talker as he is a rocker. His talk centered on the music that inspired him as an aspiring musician, and while it was heavy on the usual suspects—Elvis, soul music, Dylan—Springsteen’s ample raconteur skills made the hour fly by. And there was even a few impromptu performances, most memorably a cover of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This This Place” that the Boss claimed has influenced every song he’s ever written.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: Springsteen was his usual energetic self during the talk, but he like most musicians at SXSW he didn’t appreciate having to wake up before noon, asking early on, “Why are we up so fucking early?” [SH]
11. Pitchfork day party at the Mohawk, Thursday
Why did we go? Pitchfork’s party is always one of the better lineups of bands you’re supposed to be really excited about, but probably won’t be talking about next year. You’d better go so you can be ahead of the curve in knowing why you should care/tell people that it’s not that big a deal!
How hard was it to get in? Not that hard, if you didn’t mind waiting a bit for the crowd to shuffle in and out between acts.
Why we won’t forget it: Danny Brown (dressed for the occasion in a shiny camouflage tank top) did some adenoidal rapping about eating sloppy pussy, backed by a Fool’s Gold mascot guy with Mickey Mouse gloves and a giant gold bar for a head. Hardcore punkers Trash Talk lived up to their name by creating a huge mess in the inside room, as indie-rock kids who thought it might be “fun to mosh” streamed out after things quickly turned violent and full of airborne bodies. Masked DJ SBTRKT made blippy, buoyant electronic music that mostly got drowned out in the mid-afternoon chatter. Cloud Nothings absolutely packed the inside with both diehard fans and people curious as to why this band had so many diehard fans, then delivered a solid set of Wipers-esque punk that pleased the former but probably still baffled the latter. And El-P, dressed in a self-proclaimed “awesome” wolf T-shirt, cockily rocked through some vintage Company Flow stuff and solo tracks like “Up All Night” while pausing to remind everyone of the last time he was here in 2008—when he said there was no difference between John McCain, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama, then got booed (“Are we so out of the delusion that we can admit now I was right?” he said to scattered applause)—and then brought up a series of special guests like Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire and Killer Mike to join in on some half-verses.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: Honestly, this whole party, from lineup to crowd (to the crowd’s wardrobe), is probably everybody’s mental image of SXSW. [SO]
12. The Shins at Auditorium Shores, Thursday
Why did we go? The Shins were one of the first bands I saw at my inaugural SXSW in 2001, so I’ll always connect the two. Also, it’s been a while since I’ve seen them—the last time I checked them out they were an actual band, as opposed to the James Mercer-and-hired-guns setup.
How hard was it to get in? Last year was the first time I ever tried to see a show at the Auditorium Shores Stage, and it was a completely miserable clusterfuck. Then again, The Shins aren’t The Strokes, so this time it was packed but not difficult to get relatively close to the stage.
Why we won’t forget it: You can say that The Shins can be a little bit boring and you wouldn’t be wrong, but there’s a comfort-food element to the band’s pleasant indie rock that makes even the throwaway tracks on albums sound good in a live setting. But really, the memorable aspect to Thursday night in the park was that it was a nice-sounding soundtrack to a gorgeous night with a fantastic skyline background. And “Caring Is Creepy” and “New Slang” always sound beautiful no matter where they’re played.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: It never ceases to amaze me how insanely packed Sixth Street can get during the height of SXSW, and this free show across the river was basically that big, crazy mess on a patch of grass. It’s easy to look to your left and feel like you’re part of one big music-loving world, and then turn to your right and wonder if it’s even worth getting up in the morning. [MH]
13. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band at the ACL Moody Theater, Thursday
Why did we go? It’s Bruce Motherfucking Springsteen, in a small venue (for him, anyway). I’d never seen Springsteen live before, though of course I’d heard the stories about him and the E Street Band. This seemed to be the perfect place to experience the magic.
How hard was it to get in? Theoretically the toughest ticket of the festival. You could have your badge or wristband scanned at the convention center, and then winners were picked and informed of the venue. In reality, they actually had a press list as well, and I got on that. I should also note that they let what looked like a couple hundred patient standby folks in right before Bruce took the stage.
Why we won’t forget it: The nearly three-hour set was short on hits but long on everything else you’d want at a special Boss show: guest stars, charisma, ultra-tight musicianship. Springsteen played more than half of his new Wrecking Ball, which sounded great, and dug deep just a few times, with “Badlands,” “Promised Land,” and a rendition of “10th Avenue Freeze Out” that included a lengthy moment designed for the audience to remember dearly departed E Street sax man Clarence Clemons. (After the line “the Big Man joined the band,” he basically stopped and held the microphone out to the audience, who clapped and shouted for a solid minute.) It was, as expected, an incredible experience. There’s no denying the energy on stage, produced by a minimum of 17 players and a maximum I couldn’t count. Jimmy Cliff came out for three songs, including his big hit “The Harder They Come.” Eric Burdon of The Animals—who Springsteen name-checked in his earlier keynote speech—joined the band for “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.” And for the final song of the night, the stage filled of for a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” featuring Tom Morello (who had been on and off stage all night), Joe Ely, most of Arcade Fire, Alejandro Escovedo, and more. It was a bit insane.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: I struck up a conversation about Springsteen with a superfan sitting next to me on the mezzanine level, who I thought looked familiar. After chatting with him for a few minutes about what I might expect on this special occasion, he introduced himself as “Gary,” and it clicked: My very friendly guide to The Boss was Gary “Ba Ba Booey” Dell’Abbate, longtime producer and sidekick to Howard Stern. [JM]
14. The Jesus And Mary Chain at The Belmont, Thursday
Why did we go? The Jesus And Mary Chain is easily one of my all-time top bands, and I’d never gotten the chance to see them live. Like I said to everyone who asked me what I was doing for SXSW, this was really all I cared about seeing.
How hard was it to get in? Despite boasting three levels (albeit with increasingly obscured views), the Belmont was a surprisingly small venue to host a set with such a devoted fanbase. But thanks to a lack of recognizable names opening (save Titus Andronicus), most people who weren’t me or similarly minded fans were able to show up relatively close to start time and still get in before it reached absolute capacity. The rest of the diehards and I diligently lined up in a nearby bank parking lot and were rewarded with a sound check of “Head On,” which made us sort of giddy.
Why we won’t forget it: For one thing, it still sounds like there are cicadas in my head; I’m pretty sure I massacred at least 10 percent of the cilia in my ears by not wearing earplugs. That was stupid, but at least they didn’t die in vain: Opening with a punishing “Snakedriver,” the group laid down a thick, squalling storm of euphorically squalid fuzz-pop that had all the swagger and smacked-out bliss of its records, cranked to volumes that ensured everyone would be talking about the show decades later, by way of explaining how they sacrificed hearing the laughter of their grandchildren so they could properly hear “The Hardest Walk.” As expected, the Reid brothers bickered amusingly and the band was clearly unrehearsed, and any collective momentum was brought to a screeching halt in between songs while they dicked around with retuning—as the screeching feedback needled tiny holes into our eardrums—while the band refused to talk or even look at each other. Also, “Blues From A Gun,” “Just Like Honey,” and (most frustrating of all) “Reverence” all had moments of complete and utter collapse. But when it was chugging full-throttle, rising up out of the haze of flashing strobe lights and age-obscuring smoke, the show was truly transcendent and won’t be easily forgotten, especially any time I’m watching something on TV with quiet dialogue.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: As reported by many (and witnessed uncomfortably close by me) a young man ran on stage during “Sidewalking,” proceeded to strip naked, then dove back into the crowd—who, naturally, gave him plenty of room. After he was escorted out, Jim Reid pointed out that the kid’s abandoned clothes were still on stage, asking, “How the fuck is he gonna get home?” (Note: I don’t know how “quintessentially” SXSW this is, but this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Austin that often.) [SO]
15. Big K.R.I.T. and G-Side (Spin party) at Stubb’s, Thursday
Why did we go? I had some grand plans to see a ton of hip-hop artists I like this week. These guys were top of the list (and also had to substitute for all those I missed out on, like Freddie Gibbs, Stalley, Main Attraktionz, ASAP Rocky, Don Trip, Dom Kennedy, Young L, Schoolboy Q, etc.)
How hard was it to get in? Not hard when you have a press pass. Thanks, Josh!
Why we won’t forget it: Positioned as, respectively, “just some real people from Huntsville, Alabama” and pure “country,” G-Side and Big K.R.I.T. project an air of authenticity—as opposed to “cred”—that cuts through all the image and marketing bullshit and comes off as genuinely inclusive, which is rare in the cliquish world of hip-hop. G-Side testified to their inherent “realness” with a couple of old-school gospel backing vocalists and an eclectic on-stage entourage that included some gawky Bill Gates type who may well have been their IT guy, plus a laidback sense of humor and a focus on top-down, slow-rolling, speaker-booming bounce. And then Big K.R.I.T. pushed those good vibes to their apotheosis by jumping into the crowd and leading a sing-along to “Country Shit” that imbued Southern pride even in a room full of carpetbaggers. All in all, one of the most feel-good afternoons of the festival.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: Mr. Muthafuckin Exquire was also supposed to be at this party, but he apparently overslept or something and blew it off. “Fuck it,” he probably said, echoing every other SXSW attendee who missed something they were supposed to do and just moved on to the next thing. [SO]
16. Sklarbro Country and The Benson Interruption at Esther’s Follies, Friday
Why did we go? I’m a fan of the Sklarbro Country podcast, a Podmass favorite, featuring hilarious twin brothers Randy and Jason Sklar. I’m also a fan of comedian Doug Benson, and his Benson Interruption, wherein comedians perform while Benson comments, is fun.
How hard was it to get in? With a badge, easy. Comedy shows are only a small percentage of SXSW events, so people who have badges can usually get in because they have a priority over the general public.
Why we won’t forget it: Sklarbro Country featured the Sklars, batting-stance impressionist (yes, that’s his thing for real) Gar Ryness, comedian Ryan Stout, an acoustic performance by the actually-pretty-good Sheepdogs, and a hilarious appearance by Mark Wahlberg (Dan Van Kirk). Benson brought Comedy Bang Bang host Scott Aukerman to interrupt his interruptions, which made for two guys commenting on bits by comedians Brendon Walsh, Chip Pope, and Ari Shaffir. Aukerman and Benson have been friends for years, and they’re quite funny together, and the comedians mostly scored too. Shaffir struggled after starting off by announcing that his mom had recently told his family that he had an abortion with a girlfriend years ago. As Benson noted, it’s tough to get out of that abortion hole.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: An episode of Sklarbro Country with those guests, followed immediately by The Benson Interruption with that lineup, which was followed by a comedy showcase with 14 performers? All at the same venue? Only at SXSW. [KR]
17. Island Def Jam showcase with Nas, Big K.R.I.T., Asher Roth, Wax at Stubb’s, Friday
Why did we go? My first chance to see Big K.R.I.T. having been foiled by Stubb’s, I wanted to catch his set at the mysterious IDJ showcase, which listed Nas as “host.” The SXSW guide also listed other performers—including another “host,” Peter Rosenberg, “Noisemakers with Peter Rosenberg and Nas,” along with Ace Hood and Prynce CyHi—but just had “TBA” for their start times. The SXSW app had start times, but I later realized they didn’t mean anything either. But hey, I wanted to see Big K.R.I.T., and Nas would surely perform, right?
How hard was it to get in? A line for the general public stretched around the block, but once again the badge granted immediate access. While you don’t have to have a badge to enjoy SXSW, it sure makes everything easier.
Why we won’t forget it: All the confusion about Nas was quickly settled when the rapper strode out to the stage—for a half-hour interview with Peter Rosenberg, host of Noisemakers on Hot 97 in NYC. If fans wanted anything from Nas, surely it was an excruciating onstage interview! Two decades into his career, Nas has surely earned the right not to be subject to this kind of dog-and-pony show, so why would he bother? The rapper answered Rosenberg’s early questions with oblique, laconic responses, then straight up ignored another. It couldn’t have been more awkward, and I felt bad for the eager and earnest Rosenberg, who lobbed gushingly complimentary softball after softball only to have Nas either not answer or, at one point, get his name wrong. To Rosenberg’s credit, Nas eventually opened up with candor that even startled the rapper. Talking about his painful recent divorce, Nas stopped short, saying, “Oh shit, look at all these people!” He had some pretty great quips too: After being deferential to Rosenberg’s typically gushing praise about how he’s the greatest lyricist of all time and one of rap’s greatest, Nas said, “I’m just a fan… they better put me up high though.” As interesting as the interview was, people really just wanted to hear Nas perform, and even though he announced he wanted to do some songs, nothing happened. Instead, the crowd was treated to a thoroughly mediocre (and seemingly endless) set by newcomer Wax, a pint-sized Latino rapper boasting over weak beats and trying to sing hooks his voice couldn’t deliver. Big K.R.I.T.—with a cameo by Bun B—blew him off the stage and re-energized the apathetic crowd. Having had my fill of mediocre rapping for the night, I bailed before Asher Roth started.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: The event had the feel of an old-school label showcase, with a slew of artists appearing on stage and blazing through their sets, sometimes truncating the songs (as seemed to be the case with Wax, though no one would complain about that). Rosenberg dropped a quip at one point that would’ve probably killed in any room except a hip-hop showcase, noting that mustaches were “poppin’ this year” and everyone looked like “they were about to play tennis with Richie Tenenbaum.” Apparently, hip-hop audiences aren’t well-versed in the filmography of Wes Anderson, and the reference landed with a thud. [KR]
18. St. Lucia at Karma, Friday
Why did we go? I’ve been in love with St. Lucia since accidentally stumbling upon the mesmerizing electro-pop wonder that is “Closer Than This” during a fortuitous iPod shuffle about six months ago. I haven’t wanted to see a band this bad in a while, so when I saw the listing for Friday night at Karma, I knew I had the centerpiece of my weekend.
How hard was it to get in? Karma isn’t a very big venue, and when you take into account the enormous area taken up by the bar, the space to actually watch what’s happening onstage is tiny. Then again, the bands taking part in the Neon Gold showcase aren’t exactly household names, so it was easy to get in to see an electro-pop warm-up by Savoir Adore at 10 p.m.
Why we won’t forget it: There’s nothing quite like seeing your new favorite band for the first time, and the live-band rendition of St. Lucia’s multi-layered studio magic didn’t disappoint. Everyone onstage—including leader/mastermind Jean-Philip Grobler—was having a blast, and the crowd was going borderline bananas, due in part because they all seemed to be friends with the band. (And at least a couple of people were from Savoir Adore.) The general feeling was that they were at the coming-out party for a band that they’ve seen a million times back home, and in turn I ended up feeling like I was crashing someone else’s party. But it felt good to get my sweat on to great tracks from the band’s self-titled EP, and the few songs I hadn’t heard before have definitely whet my appetite for the forthcoming album.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: I might be getting a little ahead of myself here, but when St. Lucia eventually blows up, I’ll be able to say I told you so and talk about the one time I saw them at this little venue at SXSW. [MH]
19. Merge Records showcase at Frank, Friday night
Why did we go? Merge Records is a fantastic label whose bands are always worth a listen and are frequently excellent. Dropping by their showcase is kind of a no-brainer every year. This year was top-lined by Bob Mould and his band doing about half of Sugar’s Copper Blue in order; they did the full thing (almost) the following day at a day party headlined by The Roots.
How hard was it to get in? There was a wait, even for those with badges, which makes sense considering the comparatively small venue: Frank, a hot dog joint/bar that’s clearly inspired by Chicago’s beloved Hot Doug’s.
Why we won’t forget it: The Love Language rock way harder live than on record. Crooked Fingers should be huge. (I saw them twice on Friday.) And duh—Bob Mould and bad crushing through “The Act We Act,” “Changes,” “A Good Idea,” etc. on a foot-high stage in a tiny place—nothing wrong with that.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: I didn’t see them myself, but apparently Sugar’s David Barbe was in the house, along with Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M. Also, three-fourths of Superchunk was there. Jon Wurster plays drums with Mould, Mac McCaughn and Laura Ballance run the label, but they did not jam (as far as I know). I split to go to a private party that featured delicious food, open bar, and members of Arcade Fire dancing around. [JM]
20. Third Man Records Showcase at the Stage On Sixth, Friday
Why did we go? The bill offered lots of great (White Rabbits, Purling Hiss) and plenty of weird (John C. Reilly doing music not that’s supposed to be funny). Also, I am a huge fan of Karen Elson, and can’t believe that her ex-husband Jack White is using his association with her to further a music career that nobody gives two shits about. Oh, wait, did I get that turned around?
How hard was it to get in? Very. O’Neal and I had a good spot in line, but we had to wait three hours to get in.
Why we won’t forget it: You mean aside from the massive leg cramps? Well, for one thing, Jack White was incredible. He played two sets—one with his soulful all-lady band, and the other with his more aggressive all-dude combo—and over 80 minutes or so managed to sample parts of every period of his career, including the Raconteurs, Dead Weather, and even a song from that Daniele Luppi and Danger Mouse record he guested on last year. He also played generous portions of his forthcoming solo record, Blunderbuss, due in April. But the highlight, inevitably, was hearing White tear into vintage White Stripes material like “Ball & Biscuit” and “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground” with a crack line-up of backing musicians. As much as the White Stripes benefitted from a stripped-down, primitive set-up, the songs blossomed in this format, and White himself appeared appropriately impassioned by his new digs.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: Did I mention that we met Bill Murray at the show? Yeah, that was pretty fucking awesome. [SH]
21. The A.V. Club and Flowerbooking’s March Into Softness Party at Club DeVille, Saturday
Why did we go? Duh.
How hard was it to get in? For us, not that hard. But thanks to a whole gang of you early arrivers, we had a line out the door for most of the day. Hopefully most of you that really wanted to squeeze inside were able to.
Why we won’t forget it: The slow-burning opening set by The Jealous Sound into the crash-and-crash awesomeness of Cymbals Eat Guitars? The one-two punch of Scottish sad bastard rockers The Twilight Sad and We Were Promised Jetpacks? Two of the most anticipated bands in Austin this year, The War On Drugs and White Rabbits? All of that, plus borderline-insane between-band sets from Andrew W.K. and his gang of cohorts, including Aleister X and Cherie Lily. Yes, it was a bit disorganized, but this is rock and roll, people. Thanks to one and all, you were awesome.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: Where else can you see six bands plus a killer guest host play all day in the hot sun for free? Nowhere else, except maybe heaven. [JM]
22. Mind Spiders (Dirtnap Records showcase) at Valhalla, Saturday
Why did we go? It was my last night in town, and I was damn exhausted, but I toughed it out until 1 a.m. so I could see one of my favorite new bands, Mind Spiders, rip it up with some Ramones/Jay Reatard-style rock ‘n’ roll.
How hard was it to get in: St. Patrick’s Day turns Austin into a hellscape of drunks roaming the streets like dead-eyed zombies hungry for fights and Red Bull. Once I climbed my way out of that mess, getting into the show was a breeze.
Why we won’t forget it: While I was slightly disappointed that Mind Spiders weren’t playing with two drummers, as they do on this year’s excellent Meltdown, it was still a thrillingly tight set of spirited psych-punk. I saw bigger stars during the run of SXSW, but I found myself enjoying this Texas band more, if only because supporting independent bands that don’t get enough attention should be what this festival is about.
Quintessential SXSW-ness: I saw ageless Rolling Stone critic David Fricke the previous night at the Third Man showcase, but I was impressed to see him at this show as well, gently bobbing that ’60s garage-rock ’do of his. [SH]