Every year, The A.V. Club reports from the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. This year, we sent five writers—Josh Modell, Sean O’Neal, Kyle Ryan, Marah Eakin, and Marc Hawthorne—who will be filing daily mini-reports on the best stuff they saw, ate, and did. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Thanks to everyone for coming to our day party at Mohawk, and thanks to an absolutely incredible slate of bands. We couldn’t have asked for a more wall-to-wall bunch, and you’d be crazy not to buy all of their records. They were: Valleys, Balmorhea, Wild Belle, Paws, Houses, METZ, Fear Of Men, The Thermals, The Coup, Baths, Telekinesis, and Frightened Rabbit. Hutch from The Thermals put it best when he said something to the effect of “This is the best party ever.” Indeed.
With feet destroyed and complete exhaustion setting in, it always feels like an accomplishment just getting out of the hotel on the final day of SXSW, which is why having the A.V. Club party on Saturday was both a blessing and a curse. But, ultimately, having a reason to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the room was for the best, and the party at Mohawk was a blast. I'll leave it to Josh to fill in the details, though I will say that I was pleasantly surprised by The Thermals, a band that I haven't paid attention to in years but which totally killed it in the baking sun. The drenched trio had the pit churning, and I fully believed frontman Hutch Harris when he said it was it was the band's favorite show of the festival. I'm actually pretty excited to check out their forthcoming record on Saddle Creek.
The last day of the festival also lends itself to taking things relatively easy at night, though admittedly I would have jumped through any hoops I had to in order to see Justin Timberlake or Prince. But, alas, it wasn't meant to be, so I went with option C: Third Eye Blind at The Belmont. (The Smashing Pumpkins were also on the list, but these days it's getting increasingly difficult to separate Billy Corgan's early triumphs from his plethora of embarrassing shenanigans.) Not that 3EB doesn't come with its own baggage, but I suppose I resolved all of my guilty-pleasure issues with Jenkins and company long ago.
Prior to Third Eye Blind, without a doubt the douche-iest crowd I dealt with in Austin was treated to a dance-pop set from L.A.'s Capital Cities, whose matching yellow jackets and dance moves (they even did something they called the Capital Cities Shuffle) complemented the overall vibe at The Belmont. I thought it was clever (or something) to open with the Prince-penned "Nothing Compares 2 U," seeing as how the Purple One was playing his much-ballyhooed show just a few blocks away, but in general Capital Cities are pretty cheeseball. I assume the guys in the band know this. That said, it was a little weird seeing the singer in the band who rocks a massive hardcore-looking beard doing the running man. So who knows where his head is at.
After a ridiculously long changeover, Third Eye Blind finally got going around midnight, but the sound was so bad that it was almost impossible to tell that they were playing the excellent "Narcolepsy" from the first album. The sound improved over the course of the set (though people did keep complaining, which led Stephan Jenkins to keep calling out the sound guy), and the show was a pretty good mix of old and new material. The jury is still out on whether the new stuff is going to come together to make a decent album (my favorite was a Weezer-ish one), and Jenkins claimed they're kicking around about 50 songs. But, not surprisingly, the crowd wanted the hits, which led to an awkward exchange between singer and crowd when some bros starting chanting for "Semi-Charmed Life" (which I never heard the band play in Austin this week). In addition to "Narcolepsy," they played "Crystal Baller," "Wounded," "Never Let You Go," "Slow Motion" (which Jenkins intro-ed by explaining the irrelevance of major labels, one of which once made the band edit the version on Blue), and "Jumper," which closed out the hour-long set and left everyone feeling relatively fulfilled. I felt a little weird when Jenkins thanked all of us for loving them, but Christ, who are we kidding? I attempted to see them as many times as possible at SXSW and was genuinely bummed that my friend never showed up to put his around around me and help me sing along to every word of the songs I know. After all these years, 3EB's monster pop-rock jams still have some kind of hold on me, and if that isn't love, then I don't want to know what love is.
P.S. I decided to follow Kyle over to Brazos Hall to finish my night with an eardrum-scraping set from A Place To Bury Strangers, who ended up breaking a bunch of shit, just like they did a couple of years ago at the Rachael Ray house party. (Yes, the previous act was completely lost on the EVOO crowd.) It was actually a nice little bow tied onto several days of noise and over-indulgence. Goodbye, Austin, I hope to see you again around this time next year.
As Marc and Marah have pointed out, SXSW long ago expanded its focus from new and up-and-coming bands, and that shift was no more obvious than Saturday night, when a slew of superstars played exclusive shows in venues much, much smaller than they normally play: Prince and A Tribe Called Quest at a show that required the audience to be Samsung customers; Justin Timberlake for a “secret show” that required the audience to dig up their old Myspace logins; and Smashing Pumpkins at a Red Bull Showcase. The purported Daft Punk performance never materialized, though. While there’s something to be said against these massively branded events that exist at the whims of corporate largesse, and SXSW losing its soul, maaaaaan, they’re pretty easily ignored. We didn’t bother trying to get into Prince, though I heard from a prominent journalist that Samsung had some coverage demands—branded hashtags in tweets and such—that were deal-breakers for this person. But it would’ve been nice to have seen Tribe and Prince, especially after the crappy Prince show Josh, Sean, and I saw in Chicago a few months back.
One band generating a lot of talk at this year’s SXSW was Los Angeles’ Haim, anchored by sisters Danielle, Alana, and Este Haim. The name is pronounced “Hi-yum,” not “Hayme,” though I liked to imagine it’s the later, because some of their songs would’ve fit in perfectly on the soundtrack to an ’80s move starring Corey Haim. They’ve drawn comparisons to Fleetwood Mac—they even covered “Oh Well” at their set at Stubb’s Saturday night—but they’re too interested in full-on rock for the resemblance to stick. In fact, over the course of its set, Haim seemed more like a cock-rock band as Danielle soloed on her guitar, Este made all kinds of “totally feelin’ it” bass faces, and they generally rocked out. Este’s banter even sounded like a young female version of Paul Stanley’s at one point. Enjoying Haim requires a tolerance for cheese, because as enjoyable as the band can be, the songs, kind of generic lyrics, and “are you ready to rock?!” antics made for some silliness.
Vampire Weekend headlined the show Haim played, but I try to avoid bands I’ve seen before during SXSW (and I’m not the biggest fan anyway), so I headed to Brazos Hall for The Zombies and A Place To Bury Strangers, who were playing the Austin Psych Fest (“powered by Yahoo!”). The event likely needed Yahoo!’s deep pockets, considering it was the only official SXSW show either band played. The Zombies were the British band behind such seminal ’60s hits as “Time Of The Season” and “She’s Not There,” and although it broke up in 1967, founders Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent reunited in the early ’00s (following a one-off reunion with the original members in the late ’90s). It’s easy to say The Zombies sounded good for men in their late 60s, but they sounded good, period. Blunstone can still pull of a wail that would impress Rob Halford, and Argent remains a virtuoso organist. (He snuck a few bars of “The Yellow Rose Of Texas” into the “Time Of The Season” solo.) Rounding things out were bassist Jim Rodford (formerly of The Kinks), his son Steve on drums, and guitarist Tom Toomey. They were also pretty adorable on stage, giving thumbs up to the audience after every song and seeming genuinely touched by such an enthusiastic response roughly 50 years after their formation. Justin Timberlake can only hope for the same when he performs at SXSW 2053.
One of SXSW’s most head-snapping segues occurred when the sweetly psychedelic Zombies preceded the pile-driving attack of New York’s A Place To Bury Strangers. Easily the loudest and most aggressive thing I heard at SXSW—by a couple orders of magnitude—the band’s set was absolutely ferocious, as bassist Dion Lunadon, singer-guitarist Oliver Ackermann, and drummer Robi Gonzalez moved through a relentless series of ear-bleeding post-hardcore. None of them said a word to the audience, and Ackermann performed as if the music and lyrics came out of him via a continual seizure, taking as he flung his guitar around the stage carelessly. The near-constant strobe lights were disorienting, though they didn’t seem to affect the band, and the audience—which had thinned to about a fifth of who was there for The Zombies—ate it up, including a rambunctious group of bros up front. One of them attempted to stage dive into the crowd that wasn’t dense enough to support him, and landed with a thud on the floor. (He quickly hopped back up seemingly to save face, but it looked painful.) SXSW frequently coincides with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, and when that happens on the final night of the festival, it’s a total shitshow. Sony gave us their new AS15 video camera to play with, so I took it to Sixth Street around midnight to give people a sense of the madness.
Sadly, the memory card reached capacity before I reached the woman doing stripper movies on a club balcony’s handrail, to the delight of the assembled crowd.
Watching A Place To Bury Strangers fueled my fantasies of having A.V. Club Caustic Bastards SXSW Party, with them, Metz, The Future Of The Left, and because this is a fantasy where I can imagine anything, Shellac (or a Rapeman reunion). No hooks, all aggression. Please email Josh Modell to tell them how we need to make this happen (even if Shellac wouldn’t do it in a million years).
At festivals like SXSW, I tend to find myself drawn to the heavier, more intense fare because after days of walking and watching 40-odd bands, the sappy indie rock just gets a little boring. That's why I'm totally on board with Kyle's Caustic Bastards party, and I'll throw another band on the pile: Naomi Punk. The Olympia, Washington band is releasing a new record on Captured Tracks in April, so at the label's showcase Saturday night, it ripped through some massive, drone-laden gut-bombing cuts that woke me right up. Bonus points to the guitarist for having the guts to rock a Bobby Budnick haircut straight out of Salute Your Shorts.
Oh, also, METZ was really, really great at our party. Like super great. See them immediately. And Telekinesis' new record, Dormarion, is a must-listen, and I'm not just saying this because Michael Lerner dedicated a cover of INXS's "Don't Change" to my husband and myself from the stage. Swoon.