Whether it’s your first time visiting Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest or your tenth, you swiftly realize two things are required to enjoy the insanity: tolerance and self-discipline. If you can hang with the consumption of live music, Tex-Mex/BBQ, vice (alcohol, cigarettes, etc.) and endless, blistering walks in the Texas sun for four days in a row — on little sleep — well, you’re set.
You can read a list of my favorite shows, as well as those of Denver Post pop music critic Ricardo Baca, right here, but this year’s roller coaster deserves another retracing, as high and low as its splintered points were. Last year I went out of my way to see a great deal of stand-up at SXSW, but 2009’s installment (its 23rd overall) found comedy on the lighter side of representation, so I gained satisfaction in the warm bosom of guitar-driven rock.
Wednesday opened with a set from Loney, Dear at Red 7, a twinkling, sleepy wash of Swedish indie pop that the crowd seemed too hungover and half-lidded to really appreciate. That changed when the Thermals took the stage, unleashing songs from their new Kill Rock Stars full-length with bouncy enthusiasm. The Portland trio’s indie-punk tunes instantly invigorated the air with crunchy notes and beats, forcing even the most annoying fashion victims to drop their texting rituals and rock out in the sun. A suitable kickoff.
I switched from Lone Star tallboys to water for a mid-day book signing at the convention center with comedian Eugene Mirman before heading to Buffalo Billiards, where Australian act the Boat People began the night’s official round of showcases with a pleasant set of guitar- and keyboard-driven indie pop.
A skip over to the ridiculously sweaty, packed indoor room at the Mohawk offered an excellent set from earnest Chicago chamber-rockers Anathallo — a band that bears more than a passing resemblance to Denver’s Everything Absent or Distorted with their soaring, bittersweet melodies and propulsive, pseudo-orchestral arrangements. I wanted to stick around for multi-instrumentalist and Andrew Bird collaborator Dosh, but the shoulder-to-shoulder souls compelled me to seek looser environs.
That led back to Buffalo Billiards, where School of Seven Bells were working their icy synth goodness. The band’s been compared to Kate Bush, who I can’t stand, so let’s say they’re more like a shoegaze version of Ladytron crashing at M.I.A.’s flat. Petulant from the stage while hurtling through various sound problems, the band saved itself with its gorgeous dual-female harmonies and serrated guitar work.
Thursday afternoon meant one thing — the excellent lawn party at the French Legation Museum. Perched on a hill overlooking Austin, the calm, lush grounds offered a pair of stages that alternated between full-band setups and smaller, acoustic-driven acts.
My friends and I mostly planted ourselves in the shade to the right of the main stage to drink Tecate from our friend Jim’s backpack and enjoy sets from Efterklang (an all-too-brief highlight), Camera Obscura (sleepy but pretty Scottish twee-pop, and down a keyboard player), Pete and the Pirates (meh…), the Thermals (sterling once again) and Cursive (never really got into their strident emo-rock). I was also lucky enough to catch a sullen dude in a Don Knotts T-shirt, which totally made my day.
The main event that night was the Sub Pop party at the Radio Room, a showcase I attended mainly to see Boston spazz-rock trio Pretty & Nice. They’re actually on the Sub Pop imprint Hardly Art, (the name of which is taken from a Thermals song), but the Sub Pop party was a logical spot for them, since no other Hardly Art art acts were playing Austin that week.
No Age apparently opened the party, but we missed them because they either cancelled or played the shortest set in history (when we finally got through the line snaking down a packed 6th Street, Red Red Meat were already setting up on the outdoor stage). I wasn’t totally enthralled by Red Red Meat’s percussive cacophony, slide guitars and washed-out vocals, but I know how hipsters hold them dear for their groundbreaking ’90s work. The Obits, on the other hand, were an unexpected treat, slaying the crowd with ear-splitting chords and a fierce performance that shamed most of the bands I’d seen thus far. Satan rock incarnate. In a good way.
It was the perfect lead-in for Pretty & Nice’s set inside. Their album “Get Young” was my favorite of last year, and I’d been salivating at the chance to see them live, as much as I’m obsessed with their seemingly dissonant influences (Brainiac, Elvis Costello, etc.) and jerky performance prowess.
They didn’t disappoint. In fact, my neck still hurts from the pre-tarded drunken flailing their music compelled me to partake in. It amounted to a butt-load of tumbling rhythms, melodies and tinny textures that shouldn’t seem to work on paper but do so when brought to life. Best performance of the festival, hands down.
I’m fairly sure I saw a punishing post-rock set from a band called Caspian later that night on Red River, but circumstances and alcohol conspired to leave that part of the evening fuzzy. Ahem. Check out my friend Loren Speer (a.k.a. The Bartender) on Donnybrook Writing Academy for his infinitely more sober, entertaining take on it.
Friday started with a quick trip to the convention center for an interview with Sub Pop A&R director Tony Kiewel for a Studio SX feature. Sitting in a glass box with cameras and lights trained on me while recovering from the previous night’s festivities, it occurred to me that my place is behind a keyboard, not a microphone.
Fortunately, the Rosebuds were playing at the Mohawk. The Merge pop-rock band is great on record (particularly their excellent 2005 disc “Birds Make Good Neighbors”) but even better live. Despite a couple technical hiccups, the band flattened the outdoor crowd with crowd favorites “Hold Hands and Fight” and “Boxcar,” as well as songs from their latest album, “Night of the Furies.” When the band came into the audience to direct a mass dance-along via acoustic guitars, I was in one of those blissful states — buzzed on music, beer and sunshine and holding back tears at the awesomeness of it all.
The day was punctuated with visits to the Mile High Fidelty party at the Jackalope (sponsored by The Denver Post’s Underground Music Showcase), which split the difference between a hometown reunion and a coming-out party.
Featuring loads of incredibly talented Denver acts, it made me so proud I wanted to hug everyone around me. Notable: Meese, playing an early but forceful set; indie-pop elders Dressy Bessy; Born in the Flood with Ben Desoto on drums; reliable spazz-punks the Photo Atlas; new/hot kids on the block Young Coyotes; the soul-meltingly awesome Overcasters; etc. After lots of free beer and a traumatizing few minutes half-watching a classic torture porn on Jackalope’s patio TVs, we stumbled toward Devo at Austin Music Hall.
By that point, however, we’d survived one of Ricardo Baca’s infamous pool parties and were low on verve, so Devo didn’t happen. (That, and my girlfriend was in the depths of allergy hell). No worries — there was still Saturday. That bleary day found its footing with an upbeat pop-rock act called Real Estate at Ms. Bea’s wide-open patio on 6th Street. My friends and I dove back into the strip for the Merge showcase at the Parish to see Telekinesis, another one of my favorite new bands.
Drummer/singer/everything-man Michael Benjamin Lerner continued the proud tradition of Seattle music with ass-tight melodies and performances, falling somewhere between Death Cab, Elliott Smith and Guided by Voices. The Warlocks and Violens were on the platter on Club de Ville with so-so sets that struck my exhausted brain as more posturing than entertainment, although there were a few bright spots in the respective sets.
The Mae Shi played next door at the Mohawk, seeming to please their adoring fans, although I just couldn’t get into the shrill, tween-quality self-involvement of it all. Christ, I should have waited until HEALTH came on next. Oozing with hipster cachet but utterly unlistenable (in the worst, least interesting of ways), the band did everything it could to shake the audience free from its eardrums. I mostly sat on the upstairs patio talking and drinking with friends, but by the time headliners Monotonix came around, I was barely awake (yeah… I’m old. At 31).
Granted — I’d seen Monotonix at last year’s SXSW and they were easily the best show of the bunch, crowd-surfing with their instruments, pouring beer over everyone and climbing anything they could like drug-addled spidermen. They also destroyed the Bluebird Theater when I saw them play Denver last October. But at this point, I’d had my fill of everything and a soft, quiet bed seemed like the best (and only) thing I could handle at that point.
Thank you, SXSW, for once again showing me my limits, taking me far past them and dropping me off in a pile of ruin at the edge of the world. There’s nothing else like you.
John Wenzel is the co-editor of Reverb and an arts and entertainment writer for The Denver Post. He recently published the book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” and also edits the Get Real Denver blog.