My visit to this year's SXSW Music Conference was the typical whirlwind of daytime parties, evening showcases, and the occasional lukewarm taco. But, despite missing many more shows missed than I made, I still managed to get a decent snapshot of the wild and woolly Austin event, which remarkably celebrated it's 25th year this year.
Below's some of what I managed to see and hear:
Thursday, March 17
Portugal. The Man, AOL Music Showcase at Stubb's: We got here just as PTM (what's up with that name, guys?) took the stage, playing a high-energy set with a full array of stage lights and more smoke than a five-alarm fire. Big crowd, plenty of BBQ and beer. Not a bad start.
O'Death, Panache Showcase at Red 7: On our way back to the Four Seasons, we stopped in Red 7 to catch these Brooklyn anti-folk heroes whooping it up with a mix of guitars, fiddles and drums. Raucous and catchy. And, time for bed after a long day of travel.
Friday, March 18
Friday morning, I decided to take advantage of my Platinum badge and made my way to the Austin Convention Center, nexus of all SXSW panels, mentor sessions, and even the occasional record deal. I made a beeline for Room 18ABC, where local radio host Jody Denberg interviewed Yoko Ono for over an hour on a wide range of topics: everything from Fluxus, to the Beatles, to the Plastic Ono Band and beyond.
Yoko, who's 78 now, was like the Earth Mother version of the Dalai Lama: serene, soft-spoken, but sharp as a tack - with a plucky sense of humor to keep you on your toes. Some pearls:
"I wanted to start out today with a duet with Willie (Nelson), who's the same age as I am. He told me he couldn't do it."
"John had to play louder guitar when we performed together. He was competing with my voice."
"At 14, I decided I wanted to be a composer. But, my father wouldn't allow it, saying: 'There are no women composers.' So, I became a singer instead. I sang everything: German lieder, French chanson, English and American folk songs. But, I wanted to break out of all that."
"I met John after he read my book Grapefruit (1964), and he wanted me to build the lighthouse I described in the book in his garden. I said to him: 'I don't know how to actually build it. It's conceptual art!'"
"If you create art for it's own sake, instead of money, then you'll never be disappointed."
"We're all one body, but part of our body is asleep as long as we aren't using women's power. Hey, we have some good stuff here!"
"Of course, John would be Tweeting today. John was a homebody in real life."
"A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality."
Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Other Music Lawn Party at the French Legation Museum: Always one of the best spots to see a show during SXSW, the bucolic French Legation Museum provided the perfect backdrop for Sean Lennon's mellow duo with his girlfriend, Charlotte Muhl. (Also sitting in was a bad-ass horn player whose name I unfortunately didn't catch.) And, watching the whole thing from behind the stage right amp was his proud mom, looking natty in a black Fedora. Here she is, giving Sean some motherly advice:
Pitchfork Day Party, East Side Drive In: We got here in time to see Scottish veteran Edwyn Collins power through a 45 minute set in an open lot on E. 6th St. Collins, who suffered a cerebral hemmorhage in 2005, sat for most of the set (his son William contributed vocals on a few numbers), but stood at the end to sing his big hit, "A Girl Like You." Straight-up rock never felt so inspiring.
After Owen Pallett cancelled his set due to some sort of technical difficulty, South Carolina's Toro y Moi finished things up with a fun, dancey set that blended guitars and synth with spacey vocals. Just the right thing to enjoy with a Margarita as the sun set over downtown.
Bright Eyes, AOL Pop Up Show at the Austin Club: Thanks to the day job, I got access to what was basically a private Bright Eyes show at this gilded private club a stone's throw from the Texas State Capitol. Technically, the concert was open to the public, but between all the AOL folks and the 150 peeps on Conor's guest list, I'd estimate they let in a grand total of 50 hyper-enthused kids from the line which snaked all the way around the block. Unfortunately, Conor decided to wait til 10p to take the stage, eating up most of the night. But, it was worth it to see a rare gig from these indie stalwarts in such an intimate, beautiful space.
Wild Flag, Merge Records Showcase @ The Parish: You can always count on Merge Records - home of Arcade Fire and M. Ward, among others - for a quailty bill, and so we were pleasantly surprised to catch Wild Flag: the new all-girl outfit featuring Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony from Helium and Rebecca Cole from The Minders. Intricate, spiky girl-pop from some of the best in the biz.
Bombay Bicycle Club, British Music Embassy @ Latitude 30: Perhaps the best discovery of SXSW came courtesy of these London lads, closing out the night at this annual British stronghold, going so far as to change the sign and paint the exterior of the building. These guys - who sound like a cross between Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend - have already made quite a name for themselves in the UK - they won Best New Band at the 2010 NME Awards, beating out The XX, La Roux, and Mumford and Sons - and you'll no doubt be hearing more from them stateside.
Saturday, March 19
I was back at the Convention Center Saturday morning, this time to catch something called a "Quickie," where you sit at one of several round tables while music biz experts circulate through, spending 8-10 minutes imparting wisdom about a particular topic. In this case, the topic was "Live Shows," and I got to speak to the owners of Cake Shop, the Roxy in L.A. and the talent buyer for Canal Room on what it takes to put on a solid show. Lots of good advice, none more pertinent than the simple bon mot: "Just keep at it."
Eleventh Dream Day @ Yard Dog Gallery Day Party: While my friends were shopping in the galleries on South Congress, I snuck back to this sweet day party, complete with outdoor stage and $2 microbrews. Chicago's Eleventh Dream Day are 80's vets (incl. Tortoise's Doug McCombs), cut from the same indie cloth as Yo La Tengo.
Surfer Blood, Mess With Texas 5 @ East Side Drive In: Just caught the end of this swirling, 80's influenced power rock from West Palm Beach, Florida. Fun in the sun.
Hit the Lights Day Party, Cheer Up Charlie's: Just down 6th St. was yet another free day party, in the lot where Todd P. used to have his (in)famous SXSW shows. (No sign of Todd this year; one can only assume he's taking the year off after last year's fiasco in Monterrey.) The main draw here was the only SXSW appearance by Dan Deacon, who engaged in his usual Simon Says crowd antics without any of the art (or heart) of his more recent forays into the new music world. More satisfying were sets by Toronto's electroglam outfit Austra and earnest NYers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart.
Big Freedia, Mess With Texas 5: The Queen Diva of Sissy Bounce strikes again. There's just something so pure, so great about her: especially the poem/rap with which she uses closes every set.
If By Yes, Chimera Music Showcase, Elysium: Back for more Lennon family goodness with this showcase by Sean Lennon's label, featuring former girlfriend Yuka Honda and Petra Haden (daughter of Charlie Haden). Their sound was spacey and vaguely adult contemporary, like a cruise ship bound for nowhere. Among the backing musicians was none other than Yuka's current husband, Nels Cline. Sean's mom Yoko was also scheduled to appear, but not until well after midnight. Too late for these bones.
Alcoholic Faith Mission, Paper Gardens Showcase, Swan Dive: Just down Red River, I met up with my good friend Bryan, whose Paper Garden Records has hosted showcases at South By each of the past four years. Headling this sweet luneup was Denmark's remarkable Alcoholic Faith Mission: full of evangelical swirl and brassy fun. Big crowd, too. Way to go, Bry.
Holy Sons, Ground Control Showcase, Lustre Pearl: Our last stop of the night was this off-the-beaten-path spot, where a huge tent was set up in the spacious backyard of this former house. Wasn't really feeling the straight up rock of Portland's Holy Sons, but the rest of the evening's lineup - Dawes and Deer Tick - looked solid. If only we weren't pooped out.
So, all in all, an action-packed weekend in Austin with one or two takeaways to keep the juices flowing. Of course, we could have seen and done a whole lot more, but hey, there's always next year...
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