Music: Sean's day one (Hurry up and wait)
Welcome to one of the most redundant blogs I’ve ever written, considering I already spent most of Wednesday dutifully Twatting my every move, and it looks like my colleagues here have already mentioned nearly everything notable I said or did during the day in their own write-ups. So what hasn’t been covered already? Uh… Well, speaking as an Austinite, the weather is about as good as it gets around here; I consumed way too much free food, drank for nearly 14 hours, and pretty much saw every local friend and itinerant ally I expected to see, and now we’re just going to get gradually sick of one another over the course of the next few days; and I’m also pretty sure the hangover I’ve had since Monday’s Decider party isn’t going away until mid next week. Guess that’s about it. Thankyougoodnight.
Oh, right: I suppose we could talk about music. I started my SXSW the same way I always do, at the Austinist’s Gonna Gonna Get Down, where the first band I managed to catch in between mouthfuls of free brisket was Here We Go Magic—which I believe actually bills itself as Here We Go Magic w/ Luke Temple (not to be confused with Rod Torfulson’s Armada Featuring Herman Menderchuk). The arty folk group’s self-titled album has been sort of a sleeper favorite of mine since it came out, but clearly it hasn’t made that much of an impression, because as Erik already pointed out, I was convinced that their closing song was a cover. After various people I was hanging with tried to name that tune—“Pink Floyd!” “Supertramp!” “A-Ha!”—I started digging around on my iPhone and discovered both that it was actually HWGM’s best-known song, “Fangela,” and that a million other blogs had already noted its “instantly familiar” attributes and similarity to most of those bands. Like I said: Redundancies.
[Unfortunately, between trying to play Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Indie-Rock Galaxy, feeding all of my (apparently douchebaggy) experiences to the great Twitter maw, and exchanging sympathetic texts with my stranded Chicago peeps, I managed to drain my phone’s battery in around two hours—which was a real problem, considering this year I decided to go to the festival completely “paperless.” As you may have heard, SXSW has been making Apple’s 3G network its bitch this week, and all that straining to send my oh-so-important 140-character quips into the ether killed my phone in record time. This became a running meme throughout the day with all the iPhone users I knew—and holy fuck, there are certainly a lot of us—and more immediately, it meant having to locate someone with a laptop. Fortunately, my friend Josh Huck came through for me, and here is his shout-out, as promised.]
I have nothing to add to Erik’s appraisal of TV/TV, save that its wholly generic name is a perfect fit for its wholly generic, Warped Tour sound. Expect these guys to pop up in the soundtrack of an episode of The City any day now. Heading to the Terrorbird party, I had higher hopes for Max Tundra’s bizarre cut-and-paste, ADD electro, but something about the combination of being constantly jostled by the swarming crowd and his scatterbrained beats made me vaguely seasick. On the outside stage, The Thermals provided a welcome tonic, proving that it’s still possible to craft worthwhile songs using only barre chords and without coming off like rote, post-Green Day pop-punk. The group’s brief set stuck primarily to promising cuts from its upcoming Now We Can See, which meant I didn’t get to hear one of my favorite songs of 2006, “Power Doesn’t Run On Nothing.” I don’t understand; did they not get my set list?!
The first real surprise of the festival was Damaged Good$ (DMG$), a duo of spitfire Texas rappers whose sound meshes Dirty South swagger with blipping club beats. (My beer-addled brain initially had them pegged as Anticon’s Themselves, until I remembered that Themselves are actually white dudes.) Maybe it’s just that I’m always grateful for a little hip-hop to break up the monotony of fuzzy indie bands and neo-folk beardos, but this was easily one of the most entertaining sets I saw all day, a non-stop collision of glitch and gangsta grime that reminded me of the first time I ever heard Dizzee Rascal.
This was my first year at the official media reception, hosted by Mayor Of Rock ’N’ Roll Will Wynn over at City Hall. Wynn’s tastes in music run a little dry—primarily toward the white-boys-singing-the-blues variety—and for all of his intentions to foster “the SXSW spirit,” he’s a somewhat enervating presence on stage, particularly when he wanders off into that sort of lofty speak. (Though, to his credit, he at least acknowledged that “nothing wrecks a party faster than some politician getting up to talk.”) So there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment, but hey, the food was phenomenal—except for the table offering an odd spread of cookies, chicken liver pate, ceviche, and tequila shots, which, according to the server, was meant to be consumed in that order (with a digestif of stomach acid). I also managed to meet and hobnob with some writers whose work I’d been reading for years, which was cool, and I went home with a portable “media kit” (that’s seriously what they called it) bursting with booze and various mixers. How did they know journalists like to drink?
After a quick freshening-up (one of my many home field advantages), the wife and I headed over to the Central Presbyterian Church for the 4AD showcase, only to find a line already stretching down the block. Thanks to the hierarchy of SXSW, we were forced to split up into opposing badge and wristband lines, while a third, delusional line snaked around the side, made up of people with neither badge nor wristband but plenty of high hopes, many of whom had been standing in line for close to six hours. After an hour or so, the security guy went down the line explaining that even the people with just wristbands were basically wasting their entire evening waiting here for nothing. The only movement came when people gave up and left (including my wife), and for a while there it seemed like I was never getting in, despite being only 20 people back.
Then, miracle of miracles, the M Ward crowd poured out and I managed to grab one of the few empty pews to catch Department Of Eagles. In Ear Park was one of my favorite records of last year, so I was stoked to see it played live—particularly in this cavernous, peaked chapel setting, which seemed perfectly tailored for the band’s psych-folk-what-have-you—but in all honesty, the show was just merely okay. The band is obviously best in a studio setting, when every layer can be fine-tuned, but here it was a touch too ragged around the edges to achieve the spectral beauty of the album. It also didn’t help that the band chose to completely flip the beat around on the one song everyone was waiting for, “No One Does It Like You.” Hey guys, I know you’re sick of playing it already, but this is one of your first shows for a wide audience; give us what we want! Promisingly, the best song of their set was a brand new one, full of sampled choir loops, pipe organ, and its biggest drum sounds yet. Still, it mostly just made me anxious to catch Grizzly Bear tomorrow night.
I’ve actually lost count of the number of times I’ve seen St. Vincent in the last couple of years, but it seems like every single show is completely different, so I never get tired of her. It also helps that Annie Clark is totally adorable: She tells us how “psyched” she is to be back in Texas (she’s a Dallas girl), and how her first thought upon getting back to her home state was, “What’s up Whataburger? Hey, old buddy!” (Never mind the fact that she looks like she’s never eaten a single carbohydrate in her life.) Her set was, as she put it, all about “kicking out all the new jams” from her upcoming Actor, backed by a full band that included saxophone, flute, and Daniel Hart’s usual violin wizardry. I’ll say this: Actor is in early running for one of my favorites of 2009. She’s taken her usual chamber-pop and given it a huge dose of prog bombast that is, dare I say it, Peter Gabriel-esque. Easily the best set I saw all day, and it’s going to be the one to beat.
Over at Buffalo Billiards, I ran into yet another club at capacity, with all wristbands being turned away yet again. Seriously, is there a bigger waste of money than a SXSW wristband? Unless you’re willing to get to a showcase as soon as the venue opens its doors, you’re almost guaranteed to end up bumping from club to club in vain until you’re forced to settle for something no one else wants to see—like the impromptu gig I saw awkwardly crammed into a Pita Pit, for example. Even I was one of the last five badgeholders admitted inside, and that was pure luck.
Of course, that was where my luck ran out, as I was really hoping to catch Norwegian firebrand Ida Maria, only to discover that she’d been held up at customs and had to cancel. I settled for the throbbing shoegaze of opener School Of Seven Bells (whose debut Alpinisms really should have been called My Bloody Valentine-isms. Or perhaps Laika-likes). The trio had the requisite studied aloofness on stage, and its music was similarly hermetically sealed—not to mention stiflingly same-y—so I got bored and made the horrible mistake (or was it best decision ever?) to join Josh and Kyle over at Cash Cash. (Seriously, it’s like if The Killers starred in their own Disney Channel sitcom.) Two things: 1) There were several late-20s, baseball cap-wearing dudes who knew every single word, which baffled the hell out of me. Do these guys really drive around blasting songs like “Sugar High” in their cars? 2) I’m going to have “Party In Your Bedroom” in my head for a fucking month now. Thanks, Josh.
For as much hype as it got and as long as it took us to get out there, the Red Bull Moon Tower was incredibly underwhelming—unless you count the complete shock of the huge, glowing stage set-up that had to have cost at least a cool hundred grand. Fuck you, economy! Photoshop provocateur Shepard Fairey put on his Now That’s What I Call The ’80s! CD and parlayed his tenuous claims to fame into a DJ set that no one in their right mind would ever pay for, but hey, people have sort of heard his name before, so why not give him a few thousand to spin “My Sharona”?
As for Monotonix, though I’d never actually seen them before, I’ve certainly read enough write-ups, heard enough accounts, and seen enough cell-phone videos to know what to expect: Sweat and beer everywhere, legs kicking in all directions, and at some point Shalev is probably going to end up lighting something on fire or diving into a trash can. We leave before the former happens, but as soon as Shalev is borne aloft in the latter, I feel like I’ve gotten my Monotonix experience and can safely crawl home to bed around 4 a.m., where I will surely end up sleeping the rest of the next day away and fucking up all of my carefully crafted day show plans. (P.S. This is exactly what happens.)