Things You Need To Understand About SXSW
No matter what you are interested in, you will find your niche. There is just so much going on at SXSW and I cannot stress that enough. There are lectures, speeches, fashion showcases and just the simple joy of walking the streets and exploring all the side shows littering the street. Or just people watching. Music dominated my time at SXSW and I feel as though I missed out on another complete world, sheltered by my one-track mind. And even within the sphere of music, I was constantly missing out on shows I wanted to see as I carefully managed my times as I saw music from 1 pm – 2am almost every day. It became an exhausting, grueling trek of band after band and nearing the end it became a bit boring. But I still loved every second of it.
Given the sheer mass of the festival and all the moving parts and pieces associated with pulling it off, there is obviously going to be confusion. It may be impossible for something the magnitude of SXSW to go off without a hitch and it showed. Often times volunteers didn’t really know what they were talking about or different messages were relayed from different sources. I even had a friend from a different radio station that got off without paying for his wristband, just lost in the paperwork associated with all of the transactions. At all times, pretty much everyone had something they were confused about. But it worked out in the end for most parts.
Another point of confusion and frustration was the insanely tight schedule the festival ran on. Bands were subjected to 15 minute change overs often and this just didn’t cut it for the most part. The result were sets cut short and a mess of sound issues to start off a couple of sets throughout SXSW.
Continuing on the topic of confusion, let me talk about badges versus wristbands. Wristbands are SXSW lite in a sense, costing about 250 dollars on average as opposed to the VIP experience of badge holders (badges are somewhere around 750 dollars). The difference between the two? Basically priority access to shows as far as I was concerned. That means that until everyone who has a badge gets in, people with wristbands won’t get in. Theoretically you could have spent an infinite amount of time waiting in line to see Fiona Apple at Stubbs, 24 hours even and had a badge holder who walked about right as the show was starting go in before you. All the badges have to be in before a wristband can get in for the high profile showcases. That results in a lot of frustration and exposure of those pent up feelings of social turmoil between the rich and the middle class. It was frustrating not only because I couldn’t get in too see M. Ward, but to see the executive fat cats who appeared to care less about the show, casually walk up as I had been waiting for an hour and just hop in line and get in. The result? Most of the official SXSW showcases with a large number of badge holders were a deadbeat affair in which the official journalists and reporters attended the concert not as fans but as objective, removed observers. And yes I suppose that is what something like SXSW aims for, but it still was a bit disappointing.
To combat badge debacles, so much of SXSW’s offerings are completely free. In fact, most of the artists I saw were in day showcases, including Girls, Chairlift, Youth Lagoon, Cults, Titus Andronicus and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Wristband, badge or nothing matters not because you will have fun if you look for it. These day showcases were put on by record labels and various companies trying to market their products, and yes that does mean some freebie drinks and food. And this free advertising for free events springs up all over the place in a variety of free activities going on all the time.
Another thing that must be mentioned is boxed water. Instead of the traditional, and less Earth friendly plastic bottles, nearly every official vendor sold boxed water, milk carton style. This meant a lot of artists chugging down what appeared to be milk cartons on stage and just a insane amount of exposure for this product. Quite the advertising move by the company. Not sure how well the product will take off. On the plus side, I never tasted it but apparently it tasted no different than bottled. The not so good thing about drinking from a milk carton is it is sort of awkward to drink straight from.
Panache Showcase at The Scoot-In (Tuesday Night)
The Seattle based lo-fi band was a bit bland. Perhaps it was just the venue, but all it sounded like to me was a fuzz of mediocrity, with melodies buried in a haze of distortion. It wasn’t bad, wasn’t particularly memorable noise rock either. There is potential there.
Interesting fact: Grave Babies is not the favorite band name for expecting mothers.
After Grave Babies came this former WUOG #1 charter and while I heard good things about the band, they didn’t really impress me much. I don’t even have much to say about the show, it was okay. Keep in mind, this perspective was colored by exhaustion.
Interesting fact: I daydreamed jumping on the stage and the consequences that would follow to stay awake during this show.
The first band at the Scoot Inn that seemed to excite the crowd. I actually had to leave the pit in favor of a seat because their drawn out, psychedelic jams acted more as lullabies than anything else. They were good; I just didn’t have the patience.
Interesting fact: Laying down to sleep the ground was seeming like a great idea.
Before the show, an extremely inebriated woman apologized in advance for the rocking she was prepared to unleash upon the show. I didn’t quite understand what was to come until the tandem of drummers unleashed the beat to “The Dream.” Yes, it was a Tuesday night and yes the show had been pretty much immobile up until that point, but the lack of momentum didn’t factor into the 40-ish minutes of moshing that followed. John Dwyer and company had the audience in their hands, a combination of stage presence and experience that seemed so natural to the group. The show was awesome and left me with a piece of advice. Don’t wear sandals to a Thee Oh Sees concert. Oh and you may notice a lack of photography from the show? Snapping a picture off was pretty much out of the question from where I was standing.
Terrorbird/ Forcefield Showcase at Red 7 (Wednesday Afternoon)
Hadn’t had a chance to check out this guy-girl duo before the showcase, but they impressed me. Their sound featured such quick changes in tempo and mood and little explosions of change that dotted each song. The guy drummer was pretty jacked and could have been a basketball player, so if you were wondering he is not Mr. Gnome.
Interesting fact: I think I saw lead singer Amanda Palmer’s face twice unvealed behind her shroud of hair.
I was very excited leading up to this show. Widowspeak’s self titled release last year was one of my favorites of 2011 and they materialized on-stage just as any listener would expect. Lead singer Molly Hamiliton was cute beyond belief, with an adorable mix of half smiles and shy commentary at her disposal. Her vocals were spot on and the band presented themselves as a replication of their studio production.
Interesting fact: Every guy in attendance wanted to marry Molly Hamilton after the concert.
I can just imagine a bro saying “That was chill bro.” And this hypothetical bro would be right on. Nothing really jumped out about the performance, save the trippy videos played behind them on stage. Their instrumentation consisted of much more traditional tools than I would have expected based on their album sound. Instead of synths and keyboards, the band relied more on electric guitars paired with some impressive pedal boards. A very acceptable if not exciting show.
Interesting fact: The drummer from Tycho looks a good bit like the singer from Bear Hands.
This boyish duo, and yes their handsome looks might have been a teengirl fantasy to an audience member, was another victim of the tight scheduling of the day and the 20-ish minute time allotted to set up just wasn’t enough. Their set was cut short but the little they had to offer was quite good. It was a chill dance scene, but just lively enough to get some dance moves going amongst the crowd. The band pleaded for another song when the sound guy cut the cord and the audience seemed to want to see another as well.
Interesting Fact: 1,000,000 photos of the band were taken by their number one fan.
I could go on and on about how much I love Trevor Powers and Youth Lagoon. However this lovechild of bedroom dream pop got lost a bit in translation at the show, through no fault of the band. Instead of housing them on the smaller, intimate indoor stage, Youth Lagoon was thrust into the light of the spacey outdoor stage, where they fell victim to a loss of a personal connection and sound-bleeding from another venue. Trevor Powers still delivered on his emotionally charged lyrics with feeling but it wasn’t perfect.
Interesting fact: Trevor Powers would most likely fit a cheesy super hero name.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
These guys were one of the main reasons I was excited for the Terrorbird showcase and to say they were underwhelming would be calling the Titanic a minor incident. While I certainly don’t know the full breadth of the situation, Unknown Mortal Orchestra ended up with only enough time to play four songs. From an audience member’s perspective, it seemed as if the band lazily went through the motions to set up their fairly basic sound check. This was then followed up by a similarly lackluster set that featured just 3 original songs and only one recognizable to this fan, the other being a cover. Complaining about a free showcase is a bit absurd given all the other great bands I saw, but really it was just disappointing to see UMO approach the situation with such a lack of enthusiasm.
Interesting fact: I left midway through their fourth and final song.
Wednesday Night at NPR Music at Stubbs BBQ
Sharon Van Etten took the stage following Fiona Apple at the NPR Music showcase (a show I missed due to the badge-holder situation). While I can’t pinpoint exactly what did it, her set was strangely captivating, extending far beyond what you would expect from a show of hers. I came in with mild expectations, expecting the standard fare from a singer songwriter. But she was different. Maybe her emotions shone through, I don’t know. Either way my wearied body and mind actually paid attention. I have a new found appreciation for her and her music.
Interesting fact: Mike Birbigalia, a comedic hero of mine, kicked off the showcase with a short introduction.
This band has been picking up a lot of hype over the last few months, even going as far to sell out the Georgia Theatre here in Athens. However, I can’t say I was very entertained by their set. I was tired and I just didn’t connect with the rest of the band’s songs, save the three “singles” that have been floating around on the internet. The band seemed to be fairly into the performance but I just couldn’t get into it and spent most of the time daydreaming about crazy scenarios to stay awake.
Interesting fact: We were asked if the Alabama Shakes were from Athens, GA. They are from Athens, AL.
On first impression this concert should be a knockout for any Andrew Bird fan. But as the concert wore on I began to feel the disappointment settle in a bit. Before the concert, the crowd around me was electric with anticipation but as time ran on, I found some of these same audience members heading for the doors at Stubbs. Mr. Bird was wonderful as ever in performance, elaborating on his studio recordings with ease. But a wearied mind and body coupled with a set dominated by the new LP Break It Yourself left me wanting a bit more. Eight songs of an album that I have yet to fully appreciate, and may never, is a just too much for someone like me. I know others walked away happy as can be but the concert just had too few great moments for me to hold on to as I reminisce.
Interesting fact: Bird nailed “Don’t you know that you should have died” in “Fake Palindromes.” Shivers.
Thursday Afternoon at the Mess with Texas Party
“Give us your hangovers!” exclaimed lead singer Caroline Polachek at their 1:45 set in a dingy warehouse. Chairlift was universally criticized for their kiss-ass comments throughout their shows during the festival and the Mess with Texas Party was no different, when she told the audience they were amazing before breaking into “Amanaemonesia” to close out their set. The lifeless audience was certainly not amazing but all is forgiven because Polachek put a considerable amount of energy into the show, showing off an entire set of interesting dance moves and mobility that easily established her as the best dancer I saw at the entire festival, even so early in the morning. While they didn’t play their hit “Bruises” I still really enjoyed their set despite not really being that familiar with their material. Definitely wanted to get more into their recent release after their show.
Interesting fact: There is an entry online that explains that the word Amanaemonesia is not a word, and was made up by the band Chairlift. Second fact: I cannot pronounce Amanaemonesia without singing the word. Third fact: The band was just chilling on some tree stumps outside the warehouse before they went on.
Starting out early on the Mess with Texas stage, the all-girl Norwegian explosion doused the tired audience in some sunny pop indie ska. Most of the audience was quite unimpressed by I found it quite impossible not to get some motion going on in the hip area. It was a nice little oasis of something different to start the day, with songs sung in both Norwegian and English.
Interesting fact: Razika is an Arabic girl name that means one who provides fortune. Also if you have a funky band name, a member with a t-shirt that spells the name out is a good idea.
Outside at the Mess With Texas stage was a bit rough for some acts. This was the case with the post punk act “The Men.” Plagued by some sound issues and the large, airy arena, The Men certainly failed to connect much with me. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Men but for whatever reason they just didn’t really impress me much.
Interesting fact: Patrick Stickles appeared the next day with a The Men t-shirt and ranted and raved about the band.
Christopher Owens. What a guy. I expected greatness from this set and that is just what Chris, his three backup singers and the supporting band delivered. While it was a bit shorter set than I would have liked, Mr. Owens managed to touch on the highpoints of Girls’ discography, paying equal respect to Album and Father, Son, Holy Ghost. While Chris may not be the most charismatic performer, the three backup singers certainly colored in some personality, pumping up the crowd and one singer even managing to land a kiss on Chris’ cheek.
Vomit was the obvious highlight of the show, as the emotional epic tore the house down, giving me goose bumps all over as it climbed its spiraling climax. The raw outpouring of emotion was beautiful; it nearly brought tears to my eyes seeing Chris pour himself so completely into a song. And to cap the whole performance off, the audience received about half a dozen bouquets of flowers that adorned the stage during their performance. An interesting souvenir for a concert, something you can take away only to have to give it up when the flowers die.
Initially the show was labeled a DJ set, and the pair of French men from Yelle tried to rouse the crowd into dancing. Quite the task considering they were following up Girls, a strange fit for the band and doing it in a spacious well lit warehouse that screamed “everyone is watching your awkward dancing.” At first it looked as though they were going down in flames, but things picked up and slowly but surely the crowd got into it. This was aided a bit when Yelle’s Julie Budet actually showed up to play a few songs as Yelle. As the show ended, it ended as a mild dance party, an enjoyable interlude between the Cults and Girls.
Interesting fact: The beat producers of Yelle tried a clapping exercise with the audience in which we were supposed to mimic the beat. They gave up when they realized the crowd was severely challenged in the area.
With their revival of 50’s and 60’s girl groups, Cults pretty much delivered the concert everyone expected: a fairly laidback run through of their self titled 2011 release. Nothing was really out of the ordinary, the band went up and played their solid catalog and the crowd hopped along with them every step of the way. They did seem a bit more confident on stage than when I saw them last with Foster the People which was a plus, as guitarist Brian Oblivion showed with his goofy faces that preceded the major crescendos of their songs. A fun thoroughly enjoyable romp, fitting quite nicely into their 40-minute time slot.
Interesting fact: All ages shows can be a problem. Some kid was almost strangled for his constant commentary on his life in general.
Red Eyed Fly Showcase (Thursday Night)
This show almost fell through the cracks, and we remembered to head over to the venue just minutes before Yellow Ostrich took the stage for their set. The trio of Wisconsin natives immediately dove into their strongest hits, starting the set of with WHALE before they covered the best of the rest from The Mistress and Strange Land. Lead singer Alex Schaaf surpassed his studio efforts, mesmerizing me with his fairly emotional performance. I love Yellow Ostrich and the concert was everything it could have been.
Interesting fact: Alex Schaaf is most likely the basis for Topher Grace’s character Eric Foreman on That 70’s Show. There is definitely a strong resemblance between the two and they are both from Wisconsin. Coincidence? I think not.
Secretly Canadian/ Jagjaguwar Showcase at Mohawk (Thursday Night)
Peter Wolf Crier
Peter Wolf Crier are my buddies. No really, we met, I interviewed them and they even invited me backstage at the 40 Watt. As a big fan and what I would like to consider a friend, I was excited to see their set. As I later learned however, the Mohawk screwed them in a conflict over which drum set to use, resulting in their 40 minute set being trimmed down to a mere 15 minutes. That ended up being enough time for three songs and obviously the guys weren’t really feeling it, frustration more of a factor than anything else. The three songs were pretty forgettable but I did get to catch up with them after the set, where they somewhat vented their issues with trying to swing 15 minute exchanges between bands, something they described as “impossible.” And this showed throughout much of the festival, with 15 minutes usually leaving the first two songs a jumble of minor sound issues. Another take away from their conversation was the lack of reimbursement bands receive for a set at SXSW. Instead of a fat paycheck, artists at SXSW are offered either 250ish dollars or a wristband for the festival. No travel or hotel reimbursements or anything of the like.
Interesting fact: Brian Moen, drummer of Peter Wolf Crier, talked about how he was able to hug Sharon Van Etten. Kyle and I, both Packers fans, talked about Green Bay’s tragic fall in the playoffs. Finally, Peter Pisano apologized for interrupting “Sultans of Swing” on the pre-show audio, acknowledging they wouldn’t be as good as Dire Straits during the band’s introduction.
Interesting fact: Spotted my first couple grinding away during on of Bear In Heaven’s more dancey gems.
Maps and Atlases
As I wandered the street looking for something interesting to do, I once again stumbled upon the Red Eyed Fly where I saw a familiar name: Maps and Atlases. I had never actually listened to any of their recordings but had also heard good things so decided it was worth checking out. I stumbled upon a math rock band with defined pop tendencies. The rest of the crowd seemed genuinely excited to see the band and that fervor is contagious. I really enjoyed this random happening and even managed to embarrass myself later during the week when I saw the lead singer walking around. My response to seeing him in the street: Maps and Atlases!
Interesting fact: Best beard of the festival goes to Maps and Atlases lead singer Erin Elders.
Mess with Texas Party Part 2 (Friday Afternoon)
Part of Mess with Texas’ two rap acts, I wasn’t sure what to make of Fat Tony. The duo of rappers on stage left me questioning whether it was parody or reality that they were presenting and I’m still still not really sure. As a parody, it was an entertaining mash up of funny dance moves and silly lyrics. I won’t even get into the other side of the issue. Either way it was quite entertaining and a nice departure from the rest of the acts I saw at the festival.
Interesting fact: They catalogued the creation of man and the lager Guinness. In the same song!
Fell in line with Fat Tony pretty well. I only caught a bit of their set but it was similarly entertaining as a result of its stark contrast to everything else I saw at SXSW. The synchronized dance moves stole my heart and they seemed to make it a bit more clear, at least to me, that this was at least partly a parody.
Interesting Fact: smang = smash and bang
Even though the band only has a handful of released tracks, I was still really excited to see the Canadian duo, just because those few tracks are SO good. With three pastel sheets filling in the background and a series of strange lights that acted as drums, Purity Ring really set the mood for the show. While it wasn’t quite as intimate of a show as I would have hoped for, Purity Ring did not disappoint. They create such a distinct feel to their shows that perfectly compliments their atmospheric jams. Dancing was had and it got me even more excited to do it all over again when they came to Athens with Neon Indian.
Interesting Fact: They are Canadian, EH?
Even though I had seen them less than a week earlier, Titus Andronicus still managed to emerge as my favorite performance of the entire festival. At the beginning of the show, everyone seemed a bit unsure if a mosh pit would develop, anxiously looking around for the catalyst to get things going. While the first song passed without one, the second song did not disappoint as the energy ignited and carried throughout the rest of the set. The band’s set consisted largely of cuts from their upcoming album release, and if they stand as any indication, their 2012 release looks promising. The band was legitimately surprised when they found out they had a 40 minute set and then began to pick into their back catalog. Throughout the show, the band’s energy was unparalleled by anyone I saw at SXSW. Patrick Stickle dripped of sweat, pulled crowd surfers to him to trade verses and even had his own extended foray in crowd surfing. It was everything you would want from a punk show and then some.
Interesting fact: The bold under-21 X’s on my hands were completely obliterated in sweat. Or maybe Titus rocked so hard that they turned me into a proper man.
The importance of this performance was totally lost on me, a music fan born the same year the band started up and almost completely ignorant of the greatest indie acts of the 90’s (blame my upbringing). What I can say is that the warehouse was packed and the crowd seemed quite excited to see their 40-minute offering. The band looked a little stiff on stage but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. I enjoyed the set and what was one of my first exposures to this 90’s legend.
Interesting fact: Huge plumes of totally legal smoke were seen floating over the center of the pit in front of the stage. Tobacco only obviously.
Merge Records Showcase at Frank’s (Friday Afternoon)
After missing M. Ward’s set because of another badge-holder debacle, Hospitality was up next at the venue. The band was pretty cold on stage, they didn’t really say much during the show or after when I and some other fans congratulated their set. But no judgement shall be passed, a single encounter on what was probably an exhausting day is by no means damming. Their set was a collection of songs from their recent self-titled album, more of a recital than a concert. They went up there, played and left. And that’s okay because the album is so good. And understandable given the numerous other performances and traveling that led up to the show.
Interesting fact: While waiting in line for M. Ward, I finally figured out who was playing on the rooftop adjacent from the line: Class Actress. This revelation came about when they played Weekend. Also I discussed with the guy next to me how he was a dead ringer for Alan Palomo. On a related note, I actually asked a guy walking around the conference center if he was Bob from Best Coast. He wasn’t but was his undoubted doppelganger.
After Hospitality came Eleanor Friedberger, who refused to introduce herself because she didn’t at her other SXSW show and kept up the tradition of not saying her name because it was weird to say her own name. She played a very intimate, solo acoustic set, in which she sassed the somewhat ambivalent into shutting up to hear her play. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, easily connecting to her songs through intimate presentation.
Interesting fact: The girl behind me tried to drum on her legs in a few songs. It was painful. She was quite bad.
Before The Drums took the stage, I somewhat begrudgingly caught the end of fun.’s set, even managing to catch their sensational hit “We Are Young.” It was funny to see a trio of dad’s losing their sh*t over the song, rocking out like they were back in high school. And no judgement will be passed here, I admire their spirit. After that crowd cleared out, The Drums started their 40-minute set, the closer for the night after the Ting Tings had to back out (OH NO! WOE IS ME!). The Drums are always a fun act to see live, blasting out song after song of blissful dance joy. Front man Johnny Piece is quite the comical treat as well, always over-enunciating his post-song “Thank You” in a somewhat sarcastic manner and flinging himself all over the stage in a barrage of strange dance moves. A new and particular strange one I caught this time was his “peace sign” dance move where he would extend a peace sign and kind of move it back and forth to the music. The band played a pretty solid set, picking equally from their two full album releases. It was a shame that The Future or Forever Ever Amen didn’t make the cut but it was still a fun night of dancing and singing, even if the rest of the crowd wasn’t too into it. The show closer “Let’s Go Surfing” took three times to get started, as each time the drummer started the tempo well above normal. The takeaway from the show: it was fun.
Interesting fact: Midway through the concert, a 50 year old man dressed like a pirate offered me a hit of weed from his bowl. I declined, though regretted it and simultaneously felt very appreciative of his spirit.
Some more photos for your enjoyment!
That’s all folks! It was a blast!