I got back from SXSW this past weekend, but I’m still in a bit of shock and awe (and recovery) from my five days down there. I’ve been meaning to post this since Sunday, but I’ve also been battling some kind of post-SXSW plague while trying to catch up at work.
SXSW is this weird, all-encompassing music industry free-for-all that showcases the best and not-so-best of this industry I have somehow found myself engulfed in. While I came away totally exhausted and fairly overwhelmed, I also managed to run a very successful Day Party (for eMusic at the Beauty Bar), see some solid panels, eat some great BBQ and tacos, and, of course, catch a ton of killer shows. I also put my new lens to its first true test, so my review below is pretty photo-heavy with a few themes and thoughts to pull it all together.
There’s really no way to include a review of every band I checked out, so here are my highlights:
The Work Gig:
My SXSW 2011 officially started on Wednesday with a work gig for eMusic at the Beauty Bar which I actually helped organize. Although I put a shitload of time and effort into planning and running the event, the one thing I didn’t have much to do with was the actual lineup. The bands chosen were more geared towards lo-fi garage rock and unique takes on indie pop, and not necessarily in styles I typically dig: Hurray for the Riff Raff, Grass Widow, JEFF the Brotherhood, Ty Segall, Obits, Pains of Being Pure at Heart. But, man, all of these bands put on great performances and sucked me in at various points throughout the day. I especially liked the Sabbath-esque stylings of guitar & drum duo JEFF the Brotherhood, as well as the Indie pop/punk of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart (more on that one below).
Killer Band, Lame (Conference Center) Scene:
Goddamn do these guys rock! I’ve liked them for years, but it was great to finally catch their live set. And I always dug them as a trio, but they’ve since added another guitarist. Justin expressed some concern on the change, but I think he really adds a nice dimension, especially in the way he can help deal with some of the proggy dual-guitar leads from their album material. Unfortunately, I had to catch their set at the Convention Center, which is just a lame scene. These guys should only be seen in a dark, dank, sweaty rock club. Next time, I’ll plan it better, but it was still a great set nonetheless.
This was another “convention center” set, but I wanted to at least catch a few songs from Sam’s new Yellowbirds project while I was down in Austin (this was necessary since all of his other showcase shows were on Saturday, when I’d already be on a plane back to NYC). Luckily, Sam is from Brooklyn and plays a lot of local shows, so I know I’ll be able to see Yellowbirds soon. In the meantime, I am seriously digging his new album, The Color. It takes a few listens to dig in, but I highly recommend it.
Surprise (that I liked this) Set:
I caught Solid Gold’s set waiting for Gayngs (which is Justin Vernon’s soulful, almost R&B side project). I had no idea who these guys were, so it was a very pleasant surprise to hear them tear into a dancey, dark groove with a bit of an untz and some nice vocals.
Pains of Being Pure at Heart:
Though I’ve definitely got a space in my heart for classic bands like the Cure and the Stone Roses, I never really got into the pop-punk aesthetic that the Pains seem to subscribe to. But sometimes seeing a band live makes your ears put two and two together and take another listen. And my ears dig it. Their sound has plenty of jangly lead guitar riffs, just enough punch, and the right amount of familiar major chord progressions to make it feel right and to let the super breathy vocals slide. I am now a fan of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. eMusic has turned me.
Yellow Ostrich put out one of my favorite records of the year thus far, which I discovered entirely based off of an eMusic editorial recommendation….they’re actually the current “eMusic Selects” band (which is eMusic’s program to find and promote interesting unsigned bands). Yellow Ostrich is basically the brainchild of Alex Schaaf and relies heavily on his stellar vocal chops and a loop pedal. The rest is all textures and rhythm and frankly, it’s a sound that’s very hard to explain through the written word. You just have to hear the way this guy crafts a pop song with his vocal loops. It’s very reminiscent of Andrew bird’s approach, but with a completely different set of textures and a sound that’s totally unique. Although they’re young and still have a few screws left to be tightened in their live set, I thoroughly enjoyed their showcase and hearing some of the new material. Also, seeing them live made me realize that their drummer looks just like Jon Fishman circa 1993….which is definitely a plus.
This is another recent discovery (also, as it happens, from an emusic editorial recommendation). I simply can’t get enough of their latest EP, Trust, which I recently flagged for one of my “Song of the Day” posts. But as much as I love their EP, their live show fell a little bit flat for me. I dug the tunes where they featured the trumpet, but overall, they lacked a little bit of charisma and the vibrant energy I typically want from a live show.
I caught the tail end of Small Black’s set, but what I saw was….raging. And this coming from a band whose music you’d never, really ever characterize as “raging” (it’s more of a softer, slower dance-pop which is mellow enough that some have even labeled it — gag — “chillwave”). But damn, these guys had the crowd seriously bumpin.’ I kinda can’t wait to catch their next show in NYC after this throwdown.
Jim James w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Jim James. Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Moody Theatre. Nuff said.
John Popper w/ Surprise Me Mr. Davis
Seriously one of my highlights from the entire festival….not much else to say, just watch the video:
I was super impressed with the Dodos’ late-night set at the Parish on Wednesday (not to mention, I totally surprised myself with my ability to rally for this one after a ridiculously long day on very little sleep…at SXSW, red bull is your friend). These guys have carved out such a unique sound. I think my initial description from the show via twitter was actually pretty spot-on: “The dodos are great live. Killer guitar interplay & picking patterns, interesting dynamics, driving rhythm. Got it all.” Yup.
I actually grabbed a quick video of the final jam from their encore:
Surprise Me Mr. Davis
Catching Surprise Me Mr. Davis on my first full night of shows was a nice treat. I liked seeing some familiar faces both on the stage and in the crowd, and the band put on a killer set. The show ran the gamut in terms of styles and sounds, highlighting Nathan Moore’s mellower acoustic folk as well as more traditional rock styles with Brad Barr taking the lead on guitar and vocals. Highlights included a bluesy rocker — featuring sit-ins by John Popper (on harmonica, of course) and Jojo from Widespread (on keys) — as well as the encore that had the five core band members singing a cappella in what I can only compare to the vocal style of the Blind Boys of Alabama. It was a powerful, and dare I say, emotional end to the Surprise Me Mr. Davis ‘variety show,’ and simply a ton of fun.
The Justin Vernon crowd was out in full force for Gayngs, which is the soul and R&B-esque side project of the Bon Iver frontman. Overall, I was impressed with the wall-of-sound these guys produced. The slower cadence of their songs lended itself to an emotional power that I rarely hear from bands in this space. I’m not yet sure I love this band, but their sound was interesting to my ears and I definitely left intrigued…which is really one of the best ways to spend your nights at South By, isn’t it?
Surfer Blood burst onto the scene at last year’s festival and did so with a pretty rock-solid album of beach-infused guitar rock (which made it on one of my best of 2010 lists). I had a good time catching the end of their set, but couldn’t help feel that something’s missing from their live show. I can’t quite put a finger on it. Overall, I really like their sound, but their stage presence is just a bit…lacking. That said, I kind of happened upon this show on the way back towards my hotel, so it was a total bonus round and a fun way to end my night.
Marco Benevento Trio
I’ve seen plenty of the Marco Trio in the past couple years, and all of my previous reviews probably better capture the essence of this band than my take on this quicker encounter with them in Austin. That’s because heading over to Momo’s for this set was a bit more about getting a taste of home and seeing familiar faces than taking in every last drop of music. It was great to see such a big crowd come out, especially at a venue that’s a bit off-the-beaten path from the main hotspot over at 6th St and Red River Street. Good times.
While this is probably my weakest set of photos due to some shitty sight-lines and a seriously packed house, this happened to be one of my favorite sets of the week. I love Deerhunter’s albums (especially Microscastle and last year’s Halycon Digest), but these guys are also a killer live band. From the mellow trippy stomp of “Fountain Stairs” to the washed out psychedelia of “Helicopter,” Bradford Cox led the band through nearly all of the high points of Halycon Digest, including “Desire Lines,” which proved to be a crowd favorite. But I think I was most impressed with the more driving sound of “Nothing Ever Happened,” which featured some serious guitar pyrotechnics during the outro, including a relentless guitar riff that just slayed me. Give it a listen and you’ll hear what I mean.
My Bottom Line on South By:
Overall, I had quite a crazy five days in Austin for SXSW 2011. A couple final takeaways…
Pain Points – aka things I did NOT dig about South By:
1) Foot pain – (I walked, stood, danced, and was on my feet for the good part of every day; by night two, my dogs were killing me!)
2) Music overload! (there’s music everywhere; it’s a good thing right up until it’s just too much)
3) Packed venues and shitty sight lines (I’m admittedly a bit of a live music snob, but I was a bit taken aback by the sheer amount of people at all of these shows. No matter where you went, nearly every show was packed to the gills. The crowds and crazy mix of venue sizes and layouts also made for some occasionally shitty sight lines. Is it too much to ask to get some different levels and tiers in some of these venues? Argh. Yep, I’m a total venue snob).
File Under Awesome — aka things I really dig about South By:
1) There’s live music everywhere (in the venues, on the streets, and everywhere in between)
2) Great weather. It’s warm, but not too hot, and generally a dry heat. Heart.
3) Killer BBQ & great tacos. Yum.