The five-day, 19th annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Music and Media Festival in Austin, Texas (March 16-20) was one long emotional money shot; well over a thousand bands from around the globe (16 from the Detroit area) came to play, either at an official club show at one of 50-some venues or at one of myriad satellite parties. And the countless panels, trade shows, non-official events and the personal problems arising from navigating streets populated by tens of thousands of people could bring out the misanthrope in anyone; Ben Lee, even.
One thing this year’s SXSW taught us is this: If your band currently looks like Keith Richards circa ’67, you’ll likely land a deal on a major label. Following is a hasty timeline of some the best and worst shows we saw:
Houston airport, 5:30 p.m.
Fame, at SXSW, is relative: For Brit troubadour Ed Harcourt, SXSW begins at the airport. Preparing to board his flight to Austin, he’s buttonholed by a pair of gushing fanboys. After they leave we can’t tell if the look on his face is one of pleasure or a grimace; there were, after all, quite a few pulchritudinous gals also in the boarding area, none of whom even glanced in his direction.
Bar of the Hilton-Convention Center, 8:35 p.m.
He’s still the Golden God: We’re getting our gears lubed and who should be standing next to us but SXSW keynote speaker Robert Plant, also engaged in some preliminary elbow-bending. A gaggle of star-struck music PR chicks gradually clusters, so Plant graciously extracts himself and glides imperiously out the door.
Elvis Costello & the Imposters at La Zona Rosa, midnight
The headlining act at the Lost Highway Records’ showcase, Costello is, by some measures, the crown jewel in the label’s roster. As if to prove himself also the Wednesday night king of SXSW, Costello pulls out all the stops for a marathon set that runs nearly two and a half hours and encompasses material reaching all the way back to My Aim Is True, much to the delight of his disciples.
Tegan & Sara at Emo’s Main Room, 3:30 p.m.
We liked ’em better when they were called Juliana Hatfield. We see the first hipster fashion casualty of the weekend — a pair of plastic trooper-style sunglasses lay smashed next to the trash can in the bathroom. Tragic.
Spin Cocktail Party, 1213 Castle Hill, 7:45 p.m.
Who owns this misplaced Miami Beachhouse? Guccione? You know that scene in Revenge of the Nerds where the nerds are half-dancing to “Everybody’s Crazy”? This party is kinda like that (with open bar and product placement), but with flocks of half-baked, mostly-trashed indie-rock dorks and toxic glam hags (S’Cool Girls) on the set of Miami Vice. “It’s like a high school party,” says Blanche’s Tracee Miller, standing on the balcony as SXSW-ubiquitous former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha spins Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Def Leppard’s “Photograph” and other anti-Hughes flick gems into his set.
Southern Bitch at Flamingo Cantina, 9 p.m.
This Athens, Ga., quartet seems hell-bent on reinventing Southern rock with pit stops at Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy and AC/DC; the pouty, Lita Ford look-alike rhythm guitarist even whips her hair and jacks the neck of her ax à la Angus Young. Midway through the set we turn and realize the club, half empty when the band started, is now packed to the gills, almost as if word had spread down the street that this brawny, brassy, swaggering outfit was taking no prisoners.
Thunderbirds Are Now! at Whiskey Bar, 9:45 p.m.
The last five minutes of TAN wash the Spin party weird off and actually give some evidence that these dudes can connect with an audience. Scott Allen’s shaggy-haired, tambourine-bashing leap from the bar may be spontaneous, but his landing is expertly calculated — as anyone else would have crashed the liquor or broken their damn leg. Chicks dig it.
Black Moses at Flamingo Cantina, 10:05 p.m.
It’s usually not a wise move to be at a urinal in a rock club and, as you grip your dribbling member, turn to the guy beside you and casually inquire, “Is your name Jim?” Luckily this Jim — Jones, former frontman for Thee Hypnotics — remembers one of us from prior run-ins back in the early ’90s. A few minutes later we’re front and center watching Jones’ new power trio. Like the Blues Explosion channeling the Stooges, MC5 and the Sex Pistols, Black Moses struts, spews and testifies — as exhilarating a kicking out of the proverbial jams as we witness during the entire SXSW festival.
Paik at Blender Bar Balcony at the Ritz, midnight
We manage to lose Sights keyboardist Bobby Emmett somewhere in the teeming masses between the sidewalk and the door. Meanwhile, upstairs (a mini-theater den seemingly custom designed for far-out sonic wanderings and the people who love them) Paik starts to get their mojo good and lubricated. Smoke machines, drones, hypnotic rhythm, shadowy projections on the wall, the accumulated effect of a good 12 hours of libations, volume and the seductive power of repetition have the crowd, by the end, levitating.
Tony Joe White at Antone’s, midnight
If the Swamp Fox performed nothing but his signature classic, “Polk Salad Annie” — tonight, a 12-minute psychedelic-choogle rave-up — we would still be happy. Armed with just his guitar and an array of foot pedals plus a drummer, White purrs and growls and picks out primal fretboard licks like he was John Lee Hooker reincarnated as a white man. And as with the Hook, the man’s undeniable sexual magnetism is impossible to ignore; the crush of gorgeous women — older and young — down front give ample testimony to just that. During White’s set we spot a feeble, ancient man clutching a box of CDs and seated on a bench next to the shoeshine chair in the back of the club: It’s blues pianist legend Pinetop Perkins selling autographed discs for $20 apiece. While his take for the night is substantial, there’s still something unsettling and sad to see the man reduced to shilling his signature.
Small Stone Records Showcase at Room 710, 2:30 p.m.
Small Stone Records head Scott Hamilton (whose SXSW-initiate wife ably mans hubby’s merch booth) tells us we’ve come too early to catch the heavy stuff. Then Bottom — four chicks from San Francisco who look like they wanna beat the hell out of us — prove him wrong. Later, Acid King and Sasquatch administer a similarly voluminous ass-whooping. The Small Stone showcase is one of the few joints that feels like a bona fide rock show in a fest of Friendster/MySpace gatherings, and is one of only two places that graces our nostrils with friendly whiffs of weed.
Oranges Band at Emo’s Annex, 3:30 p.m.
Baltimore’s Oranges Band is an unassuming bunch of dorks — the bassist might’ve stepped off the golf course. Still, their tuneful punk ’n’ roll is actually really stinkin’ good. No shit. Quick, name one other band from Baltimore.
The High Strung outside at Red’s Scoot Inn, 3:35 p.m.
Rock ’n’ roll rule No. 1: Let it not happen in daylight. Period. Still, Detroit’s High Strung (now down to a trio) respond well enough with a Raspberries-Cheap Trick power-pop set in front of bar regulars, assorted beer-guts and a smattering of sunburned fans who know every goddamned lyric.
Filter Magazine’s Son of Showdown at Cedar Street Courtyard, 4:15 p.m.
The Cribs get the benefit of the doubt because Filter magazine and ASCAP provide free beer. Well, that and you have to watch it with the snarky remarks about shitty, derivative haircut rock played by limey yobs when surrounded by other, drunker limey yobs who are very sensitive about their buddies’ shitty haircut anthem rock. The Kaiser Chiefs’ singer looks like the unholy offspring of James Spader and Simon LeBon. Spooky, dude.
New York Dolls at Stubbs (Spin party), 5:30 p.m.
Punters who bolted from Spin’s invite-only outdoor block party to escape some British dolts called, er, Bloc Party (the Jesus Jones revival has officially begun) should have stuck around for the headliners, for this is an inspiring, if at times overly scripted, romp through da Dollsian jungle. When Johansen, Sylvain & Co. catapult into “Trash” and the entire front contingent of the crowd spontaneously breaks into a mass pogo, the evidence is clear: Here, folks, in this motley, glammy crew’s oeuvre, is where punk was born all those tattered years ago.
Paybacks at Flamingo Cantina, 5:30 p.m.
The Paybacks roll into town with their new lineup and proceed to whip the seemingly ever-growing crowd into a frenzy. That’s not hyperbole. People are buying them drinks and beer is flying from hoisted bottles. Frontwoman Wendy Case seems re-energized by new drummer Bill Hafer and bassist Jackson Smith, and the sweaty, star-studded throngs gathered at the Continental Club for the band’s Saturday night official showcase confirm this. Of course, the real memory we’ll take from the Continental showcase is the stunning Amazonian cocktail waitress who passes through the crowd with a Zen-like grace, fully-loaded drink tray poised some nine feet in the air. Sigh.
The Capitol Years outside at Red Scoot Inn, 6 p.m.
Predictable and faceless. Next …
Blanche at Emo’s Main Room, 9:11 p.m.
Damn. Blanche is having a ball. What with all the smiling and laughing, it’s easy to forget what they’re singing about (death and trust); even Little Jack Lawrence cracks a grin, which he never does. It helps that new Blanche songs “Back to Back” and “In This Town” (actual titles may vary) edge toward the rocking and the mob of loaded Irish fans in the front sing-along to every word.
The Kills at Emo’s Main Room, 10 p.m.
Unlike their records, the Kills, er, kill live. Employing a vintage drum machine (shades of Sisters Of Mercy) the duo’s guitarist Hotel sprays out staccato, hot-lead licks while vocalist VV bucks and yelps like Patti Smith with her finger stuck in an electrical socket. Unfortunately a PA malfunction brings the set to a temporary halt, killing the adrenalin-surge momentum that had been steadily building.
Louis XIV at Diesel party, Saengerrunde Hall, 10:55 p.m.
Along with the Sights (open bar, natch!) we wait for the new hype shit four-piece from San Diego. The band walks on stage late to a Bowie tune (first red flag), and then, dear God, what holy crap crap crap crap. What manufactured-sounding, unforgivably soulless tripe, outfitted with shameless Bowie-cum-Killers cops with nary a whiff of soul or passion, all of which translate into a kind of musical arrogance and an elevated sense of pop star entitlement. Canned glam-as-schtick moves, cheese-whiz light show, calculated Carnaby hair and tired melodies have the 300 or so crammed in front of the stage swallowing the myth, hook, line and sinker. Louis XIV is a current Rolling Stone Band to Watch, which shows us exactly how that magazine has become a home to service music journalism, a milieu where the PR flacks rule, where readers suffer, where truth is but a stretchy elastic wonder.
The Warlocks at Exodus, 11 p.m.
After a venue mix-up that finds us waiting in line for ages only to discover that we are at a goddamned folk show, we manage to catch the tail end of these psychedelic thugs’ set. Fred Mills says it’s his loudest concert ever.
Saturday Looks Good to Me at Friends, midnight
No offense to Saturday Looks Good to Me, but what the fuck were we doing watching a band from Ann Arbor while not a mile away, the fookin’ Rezillos are playing? That’s right, the Rezillos. Still, after a near-debacle with a couple bungling sound guys and a busted Farfisa, SLGTM burns through a greatest hits set, the technical tomfoolery forgotten the moment Betty Marie Barnes shimmies into the first chorus and Fred Thomas tears into his first beautifully freaked-out guitar solo.
The Blue Van at Flamingo Cantina, 3:15 p.m.
Loose-limbed, door-thin Danish blokes in denim hip-hugger flares, Gram Parsons-y shags — though the sharp-nosed organist, riffing ably on a weighty Hammond, is a dead ringer for Mott The Hoople keyman Morgan Fisher and the bespectacled bassist resembles an evil, meth-fueled Derek Leckenby from Herman’s Hermits. They gyrate and prance through a dusty, R&B-hued set of three minute rave-ups in the soon-to-be overdone Small Faces/Kinks vein. Best SXSW stage move witnessed: A superlatively timed flyer that sees the bassist flick his hollow body up over the amp line, 10 feet back to the drummer, who drops his sticks to nab the thing. Bravo. New album (The Art of Rolling) on TVT hits next month. Prediction: Watch little American girls flutter.
Hawthorne Heights at Waterloo Records, 2 p.m.
Ever been emotionally sodomized? We have.
Jawbone at English Underground Blues BBQ at Pol-E-Jo’s, 3:30 p.m.
Free beer and Scot-pop band Aberfeldys — like some country-rock version of the Rezillos or something — welcomes us in. Between sets, Detroit’s Jawbone kicks his box-as-bass-drum/harmonica/guitar one-man blues jams against a worn fence upon which his children and sister-in-law have played numerous hangman games and drawn fancy chalk doodles. Two songs into his mini-set, Jawbone’s guitar craps out and he finishes off with “And Wine.” We come to find out he spent some of the previous night busking Austin streets and in one hour sold out of CDs and cleared enough for his hotel for a night. Not a bad night’s work.
The Sights at Flamingo Cantina, 4:10 p.m.
The fourth show in four days for the hard-drinking Sights, and they actually improve with each performance. This gig confirms that the band has arrived at a place where musical intuition rules and musical (and personal) innocence is receding. Singer-guitarist Eddie Baranek is grizzled, unshaven, ruddy-faced, no doubt hungover, and on. The trio rips through a select hit list of audience-winning pop (eschewing their hippie shit) that sees breaking strings, flying organ benches, gape-mouthed chicks and hoisting fists.
Roky Erickson & the Explosives at Threadgill’s, 6 p.m.
Chemically balanced, lucid and beaming from ear to ear, the 13th Floor Elevators legend straps on his guitar, nods at the Explosives (his early ’80s band reunited) and steps to the mic for the first time in 10 years. Just three songs — a jangly and buoyant “Starry Eyes,” creepy-crawl blooze “The Beast” and an incendiary, primal, howling “Two Headed Dog” — but that’s enough. Roky’s back; the Earth has officially tilted on its axis.
Dwight Twilley at the Vibe, midnight
While certain aspects of Twilley’s showmanship seem stilted, the power-pop legend’s music, from old faves to the new 47 Moons album, sound as fresh as ever. With original Twilley Band guitarist Bill Pitcock IV by his side, the man is on a mission to reclaim his relevance. When the band kicks in with Twilley’s mid-’70s hit “I’m On Fire” and surprise guest Susan Cowsill bounds onstage to reprise her vocal harmonies, there isn’t a person in the audience not singing along at the top of their lungs.
Koufax at Sake on Sixth, midnight
Lazy, lazy, lazy — songwriting, performance and banter, just phoned-in pandering and blah, blah, blah. We miss at least three other possibly life-changing performances for this. You roll the dice at SXSW. Even the sweater-bedecked kids seem underwhelmed by the riffs and Office Space jokes in between. Bah.
High Dials at Soho Lounge, 12:10 a.m.
Supreme, goose-pimple inducing use of the Revolver-era Beatle drone; stroked by lovely harmonies and a 12-string Rickenbacker guit that simply sings, all capped by a sitar-fueled instrumental. Crowd: lots of record-collector geeks, beer-bellied gray hairs, indie-damaged fanboys and power-pop dorks; plus a surprisingly high-number of good-looking chicks — astonishing considering the HD gents aren’t playing into some Madison Avenue marketing plan outlining what aesthetic kids crave. It’s the music, man.
Outrageous Cherry, Soho Lounge, 1 a.m.
Matthew Smith & Co. put on a sonic levitation act of such profound intensity that fellow OC acolyte Doug Gillard (of Guided by Voices) is reduced to little more than a giggly schoolgirl. Fittingly, the show ends on a spiraling, spooling, sproinging “See You Next Time.” And if drummer Carey Gustafson and bassist Courtney Sheedy are not soon indie pin-up girls in the Tiger Beat style, then it’s official: There is no God.
Frank N Dank at Zero Degrees, 2 a.m.
SXSW is basically a white event. And so it is that the J. Dilla prodigies do a swell job galumphing it up with free-association rhymes, Detroit street sweat, and a fuck-all energy that defies their corpulence, all for a handful of fans. We dig the Japanese girls who clamor for snaps with the duo post-set.Brian Smith is Metro Times music editor. Chris Handyside and Fred Mills are freelance writers. Send comments to [email protected]