SXSW 2012 Rhapsody's Running Diary
Like most of the music biz, we ambled down to Austin, Texas, for this year's installment of the zillion-band bacchanal known as South by Southwest. Various Rhapsody editors filed live reports, running diary-style, often accompanied by pics from Jesse Lirola. Here's what we got up to.
Sunday, 12:25 a.m. Red-Eyed Fly
Lydia Loveless wins everything. I saw plenty of delightful and semi-delightful things this weekend -- Rick Ross, for example, way sprier and energetic than I would've guessed -- but at the 11th hour it was all obliterated by a country-punk siren from Columbus, Ohio, a brash fount of drinking songs who's barely old enough to drink herself. She opened with Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" and had an ultimate-badass upright bass player who looked like "Weird Al" Yankovic. It was incredible.
Loveless sits at the precise intersection of Neko Case and Miranda Lambert , a tornado and a crazy ex-girlfriend both. She's got a song called "Steve Earle" about how Steve Earle is stalking her, in love with her bombastic voice and apparent taste for cocaine. You can't blame him. That one kills here, of course, but so does a lighter, gentler tune like the monster-chorused "Learn to Say No," which she hasn't, yet, and that's the point. Her tales of hard living and uneasy loving (instructive song title: "Jesus Was a Wino Too") serve as both cautionary tales and anthemic invitations. The crowd (mostly older alt-country gentlemen, shaken to their cores) flipped out. I was not planning on drinking at all that night. I changed my mind.
(Oh, and check out the exclusive performance of "Back on the Bottle" she just did for us.) [Rob Harvilla]
Saturday, 8:50 p.m., La Zona Rosa
Norah Jones doesn't so much walk onstage as simply glide, a glide as elegant and effortless as the famous dusky voice that puts her among the most multi-generational, genre-less artists of the '00s. But if Jones is a natural class act, the scene at La Zona Rosa is anything but. The mob who haggled, pushed and pleaded to get into this place is a mix of superfans (many of them mid-forties intelligentsia who resemble BBQ-soft Pearl Vision models, more than a couple of them loose enough on Shiner to be persistent in their hollered come-ons) and a displaced, rather befuddled group of teens clad in Jesus tees who are here early for Texas Christian hip-hop breakout Lecrae, who are playing later. (Side note to Christian hip-hop T-shirt designers: Time to chill with the Old English fonts, we get it.)
"Is it weird hearing stuff you've never heard before?" Jones asks coyly. She's playing the second show ever with her new band, and all the tunes are from the forthcoming Blue Note release Little Broken Hearts. From the show, the record has a decidedly more acrid bent than anything she's ever done -- essentially a breakup/kiss-off record that finds Jones exploring her dark side through Blonde Redhead-esque grooves and co-songwriting credits with Danger Mouse. By the time she closes, thanking the audience "for coming to see me play my new record, with my new band, in my new dress," the little broken hearts are all over the place. [Nate Cavalieri]
Saturday, 1pm - 8 pm, University Medical Center, Brackenridge
Oh man, what an awesome band name that would be! Alas, it is not (yet). It's the name of the procedure I underwent on Saturday to remove a piece of chicken fried steak that got lodged in my esophagus during the previous night's aborted BBQ feast. The lesson here: chew your food, kids! Otherwise you'll find yourself in an emergency room ceaselessly expectorating into a baggy while a delirious bearded man next to you screams about being molested as police secure him to a wheelchair, then spending the next hour sitting next to said man watching "Full Metal Jousting" on the History Channel, thus missing The Roots. During that band's set not but .25 miles away, you will find yourself disrobing, changing into an actual butt-exposing hospital nightgown, being hooked into an IV, being wheeled into an operating room, given "Texas-sized doses" of sedatives that will send you to the "The Twilight State" of unconsciousness during which you're supposed to remember nothing, nevertheless remembering having a large tube get shoved down your throat, being hit with a second and possibly third dose of the aforementioned sedative, thus rendering you completely out of it, waking up two hours later next to a guy in the midst of a heroin overdose, and finally asking your extremely kind and understanding girlfriend what time it is in the hopes of still making the Turquoise Jeep show, which it will then be too late for. Yes indeed -- after nine consecutive visits to SXSW, this is the strangest, most exclusive day party I have ever had the privilege of attending. [Garrett Kamps]
Friday, 11:45 p.m., Frank
I feel bad whenever I see an older, comfort-food sorta band at SXSW -- I should be at something totally random, seeing the Next Big Thing! -- but '90s alt-rock survivors Imperial Teen can't help but warm your heart, just the overwhelming coed power-pop cheeriness of it all. Their stage banter is always loopy and superb (discussed: the subtle difference between "virile" and "viral"), their habit of swapping instruments after every song is super endearing, and their breathy en-masse backing vocals are weirdly alluring.
The songs, too! They put out a new album, Feel the Sound, in January (the sighing, keyboard-driven " No Matter What You Say" is killer tonight), but you also gotta flip for their older, sneakier semi-hits: " Yoo Hoo," which perhaps you recall from that teen movie Jawbreaker, is a monster tonight, a riot of overlapping voices and PG-13 sleaziness. The packed crowd -- even a few younger folks milling around! -- flipped out. Beats the hell out of waiting in line to see Jack White. [Rob Harvilla]
Friday, 3:30 p.m., Club de Ville, Rhapsody Rocks Austin
Gauntlet Hair to bedroom-popper-turned-chillwave-king Washed Out. But smack dab in the middle was the unassuming Caveman, whose album Coco Beware was one of my favorites from 2011. I saw these guys back in December at the intimate Brick & Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco. They sounded great then, but what a difference a few months -- and maybe a few extra bucks (they recently signed to indie label Fat Possum Records) -- makes.
Grizzly Bear) and tribal-beat rock, meaning there's a mesmerizing balance of hazy distortion and bass-y heftiness, boosted by either two guitarists or two percussionists at a time (that's lead singer Matthew Iwanusa who switches between the axe and the sticks). They performed mostly songs from Coco Beware, including "Old Friend," "December 28th" and my personal favorite, "Easy Water," a dark yet woozy slice of hypnotizing pop that has the power to make you feel weightless. They also played a few new tracks (sorry, no titles were mentioned) that were a little heavier and a little denser yet still maintained Caveman's dreamy aura. It sure got the kids rocking out. The guy next to me was even headbanging. See, indie pop can be badass. [Stephanie Benson]
Friday, 11:35 p.m., Central Presbyterian Church
A huge crowd files into this honest-to-god church right at 7:30 p.m. for yet another transcendent Fiona Apple set, and six (!!!) hours later a smaller crowd thrills to yet another transcendent The-Dream set, but in between sits a pack of fascinating electro-pop experiments, most of them female-fronted. Charlie XCX is the British, Britney-esque, aggro diva (first time I've seen an exposed midriff in a Presbyterian church); Purity Ring is the twee boy-girl duo with the super-elaborate light show; Nicolas Jaar is the brainiac abstract expressionist shrouded in pitch-blackness.
But the highlight is definitely "Genesis," from Montreal's own Grimes, a/k/a Claire Boucher, she of the keening falsetto and indie-R&B proclivities and tiny stature ("She looks like an Olsen Twin," notes my companion) and the seemingly endless string of samplers and loop pedals she darts between frantically, like a harried Iron Chef contestant with four minutes left. It's stressful! "I screwed that one up, but that's OK," she apologizes after flubbing one track. "I have better ones."
And she does. The lovely "Genesis" is the only real note of calm in a half-hour, a simple, hypnotic string of arpeggios and lovely keyboard lines, over which Boucher makes mega-reverbed, barely discernable declarations about her heart. Soon the track gets busier and louder, and we're back to Iron Chef calamity, ending only when she's looped maybe a dozen sighing, moaning Claires atop one another -- to a standing ovation, it should be noted, and yes we've been sitting in pews this whole time -- and the crew actually brings the house lights up to get her to stop, like a long-winded Oscar winner with an endless acceptance speech being played offstage. She could've gassed on for quite a bit longer, as far as I was concerned. [Rob Harvilla]
Random Chuck Observations
Various Austin Spots, Thursday, 12-5 p.m.
It's embarrassing to be the only person walking around Austin publicly talking to people on a dumb phone this week. But that still doesn't mean I have any intention of buying a smart one.
I should've included my jeans in that laundry load last night. Didn't realize until I was already on the Metrorail toward downtown how much dust and grime the cuffs had picked up tromping back and forth from Scoot Inn yesterday. Hope nobody noticed.
Outdated grocery list I found in the back pocket: "sm red potatoes (if tiny, 10, if med 5), bananas, 2 portobellos, garlic, zucchini, broccoli, scallions, mushrooms, sausages, Canada bacon, olives, chickens, pizza crust, fresh mozz, white vinegar, Cola Zero, club soda."
During SXSW day parties, there is free beer everywhere, and fortunately for my liver, it is always really crappy beer. In cans. Which is even worse.
Okay, I lied. The (bottled!) Estrella Lager from Barcelona served at Sounds From Spain in Brush Square (a small park across from the Convention Center, not a bar) was not bad. Or at least it seemed passable enough that I actually took one. And Madrid six-piece Vetusta Morla were even better, demonstrating that even if rock en español mostly wimped out and started trying to sound Amerindie when the Internet happened, Romance language indie bands still have more flamboyant vocals and a better sense of rhythm than their U.S. and U.K. counterparts do. Basically these guys sound how Vampire Weekend would sound if they were as good as people pretend - the multi-drummed (incl. oil barrel) percussion jam they ended on ruled.
The likewise Spanish band that came next - Guadalupe Plata from Andalusia, dirty-guitared garage-boogie trio with an old guy (like I should talk) on homemade one-stringed washtub and broomstick bass - were rather nifty, too.
When Brooklyn alt-country joker Jonny Corndawg did his poor man's Michael Hurley "Dog On A Chain" from last year's almost amusing but still too preciously anti-folkish Down On The Bikini Line album, I am proud to say that I totally recognized it even though I was inside Stubb's Bar-B-Q with a VIP pass, eating a jalapeno brisket breakfast taco that will probably give me heartburn later. His band hoedowned live better than I would've guessed, too. Pretty sure I liked them more than either rockabilly rootser JD McPherson's band, which came earlier and covered "Farmer John" by the Premiers, or Lucero, which came later had a singer painful to listen to.
From there I stopped by the Pitchfork party at Mohawk and saw Japandroids, who I'll probably keep confusing with Japanther despite my learning that the former are two young guys from Vancouver playing drums and guitar with some semblance of surf in their blur, stopping and starting a lot with songs that don't seem to have coherent beginnings or endings.
Speaking of the Austin Convention Center (as I was somewhere above), the wordless elevator and restroom signs there, while perhaps designed to be decipherable to people of all languages, are also very easy for people of all languages to get mixed up.
Somebody somewhere along the line gave me a card granting me "a free month of access" to Topspin, which "creates software to help you release your music or film." I'm throwing it away. [Chuck Eddy]
Billy Joe Shaver
Thursday, 1:45 a.m., The White Horse
With his big black hat and ornery finger wagging, honkey tonk veteran Billy Joe Shaver ended the night at the KCA Artists Showcase with with the surly panache of a Texas-born elder. The band - a bunch of scrappy North Texas youngsters who looked recently parolled - were rowdy, raucous and at full volume. Maybe Shaver's crown as the "The Original Honky Tonk Hero" has been dented or two over the years, but as they kicked into "Hottest Thing In Town" he wore it proudly, strutting around the stage during a guitar solo of supercharged twang. "That's what I call belt buckle polishin' music." [Nate Cavalieri]
The Punch Brothers
Wednesday, 6:20 p.m. and 9:25 p.m., Billy Reid K-Swiss Party/La Zona Rosa
A few songs into the Punch Brothers' performance at Tuesday's Billy Reid K-Swiss party Chris Thile - the band's rakish mandolinist and a man T-Bone Burnett recently called a "once-in-a-generation" kind of musician - gave the road weary smile of a musician who has come straight from the airport to the gig. "Its like we're not performing for you," he smirked, finishing a tune from the band's recent Who's Feeling Young Now? "We're performing with you." This was the first of the band's barnstorming tour of Austin, and the short set was certainly more informal than their official showcase stage several hours later at the cavernous La Zona Rosa (there, they wore suits). The group's jaw-dropping talent -blazing through traditional blue grass or the patterned genre bending texture of "Movement and Location" - was staggering in both environments. But in the big room it was the rowdy closer "Rye Whiskey," that connected best with the wobbly crowd. After all, they weren't performing for them; they were performing with them. [Nate Cavalieri]
Titus Andronicus/The Men/Cloud Nothings/Mr. Dream
Wednesday, 3 p.m., Beauty Bar
Fiona Apple/Sharon Van Etten
Stubbs, 8 p.m.
Red Eyed Fly, 10 p.m.
I just managed a nearly perfect SXSW day. It was a yin-yang of 10.0 balance, kicked off with Consequence of Sound's stellar, sweaty, testosterone-dense day party at the Beauty Bar and wound down with some of the most talented, kickass women in the biz. Two things became blatantly clear: The boys, they rage best with guitars. The girls, it's with words.
I give props to the CoS crew for putting together a fantastic lineup, and to the bands in said lineup for attempting to out-noise one another; my eardrums were thoroughly ripped through by mid-afternoon. That's a good thing, by the way. See, I've had this weird fear the last few years that I may be getting too old for punk music. It just doesn't give me the thrill it once did. But hell if The Men, Mr. Dream, Mikal Cronin, Titus Andronicus and Cloud Nothings didn't prove this ol' skeptic wrong.
Brooklyn's Mr. Dream was a band I previously knew nothing about, but this is what SXSW is supposed to be about -- discovery! Their Liars-esque threesome punk attack was fierce and tight, and even a homeless guy got in on the action, headbanging with force until being ushered out. Too bad, because he was nearly the only one in the crowd giving the band the enthusiasm they deserved. Next up were Jersey boys Titus Andronicus, who win for most outspoken band of the day. Possible quote from lead man Patrick Stickles (if my hearing and notation can be trusted): "This song's about someone swallowing up some invalidated bullsh*t from society." That led into "No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future," which was promptly given the perfect critique from the Quebecoise behind me: "Magnifique." Headliner Cloud Nothings then proved that punks can jam like hell, and I left the Beauty Bar feeling not so much beautified but buzzed, giddy and somehow 15 years younger.
After a well-balanced meal of beef brisket, mac and cheese and fried okra at Stubb's, I headed next door to catch Fiona Apple. You can read my recent Source Material on Tidal if you need any more proof of my love for this woman. I've been dying to see her perform since I was 15 years old, and have spent the last 15 years bellowing every one of her songs into my fair share of hairbrushes. She pouted, she scowled, she hollered, she growled, she stomped across the stage, she even smirked a little. She yelled at us: "You don't exist! You're not real!" (Not as a philosophical statement, but just because she was nervous.) We laughed. With every song, there's no doubt this woman is remembering/analyzing/hating that guy who done her wrong with every fiber of her petite being. Especially on "Sleep to Dream." Damn, that was killer. And ya know what, the guy standing next to me was playing Scrabble on his phone the whole time. What a jerk. This is why women like Apple need to exist.
Sharon Van Etten followed. Another smoky voice with an attitude so lovesick and potent, it's mesmerizing. Listen to "Give Out." Next, I traveled a block to Red Eyed Fly to catch Londoners Daughter. Apprehensive and appreciative, they were everything you love about a new band who are just realizing they may be something big. "This means so much to us," said the guitarist. "You have no idea." Their music is simple and gorgeous. I've been obsessed with their song "Landfill," and was thrilled to hear Elena Tonra meekly croon some of the most poignant lyrics I've heard in ages, maybe since Fiona Apple: "This is torturous/ Electricity between both of us/ And this is dangerous/ Cause I want you so much, but I hate your guts." [Stephanie Benson]
Black Tusk, Holy Grail, Saviours
Wednesday, 2:35 p.m., Scoot Inn
The first afternoon of SXSW is barely even over (no rain yet!), and I already saw three of the bands I was most interested in seeing - all metal, and all at the Scoot Inn, where the skateboarding zine Thrasher and Converse (my shoes forever) are again presenting daily non-official "death matches" with more loud bands than you can count: Bands scheduled every half hour through the afternoon, so a band inside the bar starts up right when one out in the so-called-biergarten finishes. Interesting venue, too. Several blocks east of I-35, past the Fader Fort but more appropriately past Austin Metal and Iron on Fourth Street, Scoot Inn basically seems like a creepy old shack in the woods -- right off a railroad track, surrounded by a big patch of trees and heavy graffiti-tagged oil canisters and things that resemble abandoned urban ruins. Very metal.
Anyway, first band I saw - outside -- was Black Tusk from Savannah, Georgia, who arguably didn't have much in the way of tunes but consistently found huge pockets of groove that were funky at least in the olfactory sense. All three guys switch off vocals - high-shrieking '70s burnout looking guitarist, low-grunting survivalist-wacko looking bassist, barking drummer with a backwards baseball cap and a Venom T-shirt. So naturally he introduced the song about Satan.
Black Tusk were almost arty, though, compared to L.A.'s Holy Grail, who played inside right after. They were a total blast: Five dudes, all dressed in black with lots of leather and studs, playing traditional proto-thrash power-metal of super-low-rent New Wave Of British vintage, with way fewer tattoos than Black Tusk but more guitar solos (a plus on both counts), and the kind of air-guitaring, hair-rolling, stage-straddling, fist-pumping, crowd-penetrating body language that too much metal sadly wrote off as cheesy decades ago - especially from singer-and-singer-only James Paul Luna, ex of White Wizzard, not a big guy but truly a majestic one.
Then I went and had lunch (seafood noodle soup at Mekong River), and came back and watched Saviours, from Oakland, inside again. By then the place was filling up, and way hotter, which caused three of four Saviours to show plenty of skin. Austin Barber, one of two singing guitarists (he did mostly lead work) has an excellent flying V, and bassist Carson Binks has an excellent fu Manchu. They both look convincingly dazed and confused, which makes sense, since even more live than on record, Saviours make some cavernous dawn-of-'70s barbituated-biker sludge, with as much rhythm as Black Tusk and as much catchiness as Holy Grail. Also, they perspire a lot.
Best T-shirt I saw all afternoon: Damn Yankees 1991. Others: Minor Threat, Kittie, Bad Brains, Hellhammer, Candlemass, G.G. Allin, Charles Manson Fan Club, etc. I had on a Styx/REO Speedwagon Together in 2000 one myself. But I'm related to this writer, hence disqualified. [Chuck Eddy]
Wednesday, 9:40 a.m., La Zona Rosa
And so here comes Ed Sheeran playing his increasingly infectious single "The A Team," a lovely Nick Drake approximation sure to light up you and your significant other's "Jamz For Us" playlist. "How nice," you think to yourself. "Someone to fill David Gray's shoes. We probably needed that." But then wait a second... here this kid - and he's definitely a kid -- is playing totally solo up onstage, dressed in cargo shorts and playing a teeny-weeny acoustic guitar, which he's at this point broken three of six strings on, but with which he nevertheless is laying down multi-tracked loops via some kind of pedal, combined with vocal harmonies again layered with some kind of pedal, and before you know it we've exited Nick Drake/David Gray territory and entered B.o.B territory, and here this very, very young Brit (a self-described "ginger") suddenly sounds like one of the more multi-talented solo-instrumentalist-singer-songwriter-beat-boxer-rappers you've heard in a very long time (assuming you've ever heard such a thing, which I personally had not), which he confirms (i.e. his talent) when he combines all of the above for a live, multi-looped song that goes on for like 15 minutes, includes audience participation, and eventually brings the house down. Did we mention he broke three strings on his guitar? We didn't notice. He didn't seem to. Look out. [Garrett Kamps]
Future, Danny Brown, Don Trip
Tuesday, 11:55 p.m., 1100 Warehouse
So every year hip-hop mag XXL does a Freshmen issue, whereupon they slap maybe a dozen ascendant, often lesser-known emcees on the cover and officially declare them the Next Big Thing. Not all of these picks work out, of course, but past honorees include Lupe Fiasco, Wale, Big Sean, Yelawolf, and so forth -- so sometimes they do. Their 2012 Freshmen Class was announced recently; a bunch of the victors piled into the 1100 Warehouse (indeed, a warehouse just over the river with an 1100 address) to revel in their triumph.
The best candidate for superstardom out of this year's bunch is probably Atlanta's Future, who perhaps you know from last year's sing-song mega-earworm smash "Racks" - yes, the "Racks on racks on racks" song. He dishes out that one early, along with the similarly splendidly repetitive "Tony Montana" and my personal favorite, "Magic," whose chorus is a hell of a lot of fun to sing with a bunch of random fist-pumping bros in a dank Texas warehouse: "Viola! Magic! Viola! Magic!"
Should you desire someone crazier, look no further than Danny Brown, a yelping Detroit wildman with a radically asymmetrical haircut tamped down by a baseball cap that simply reads "Black," not to mention a black hoodie with wings taped to the back. His 2011 mixtapes XXX and The Hybrid, are absolutely essential, lithe and loopy whether he's reveling in hedonism ("Die Like a Rock Star"), bragging about his "income tax swag" or announcing the specifics of his sexual prowess in a song I don't think I can even begin to describe on this website. He's pretty incredible for a guy who looks like he's auditioning for The Cure.
The single most bracing song of the evening though is undoubtedly "Letter to My Son," a recent hit from Memphis snarler Don Trip, with a bombastic Cee Lo Green chorus framing desperate, enraged verses about a vicious custody battle that's estranged Trip from his only child. He vacillates wildly between tenderness and near-homicidal fury, spitting out the last verse in a downcast but defiant a capella, lamenting that his son doesn't even recognize his father's voice. Brutally heavy stuff, but on the other hand it's probably the only rap song in recorded history in which someone complains about not getting to change a diaper.
The Heartless Bastards
Tuesday, 9:30 p.m., Club 606
When you emerge from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport baggage claim, the Texas breeze smells like springtime and cedar trees. The airless space of Club 606 as The Heartless Bastards play -- five hours, three cab rides and two plates of smoky TexMex later -- is, in the words of a local friend, as salty as a KISS concert. Welcome to the annual SXSW Music Conference. Bigger every year since its inception 20 years ago, the festival brings some 15,000 visitors to Austin every March, and it feels like all of them are packed into this room, watching this band, right now. Exciting, chaotic, maddening, decorated with passed-out middle-aged moms and double-parked vans, lousy with waifish fellows in beards and conventioneers in laminates: This is the beating heart of SXSW.
The Heartless Bastards are the perfect band to open the ceremonies. Their killer new album, Arrow -- praised by our own Justin Farrar as a deep, restless, adventurous American rock band full of Crazy Horse echoes and deceptively light heaviness, has deep roots in Austin -- it was recorded at locally in the studio of Spoon drummer Jim Eno. Plus, even though Bruce Springsteen and Norah Jones are in town for vanity appearances, it's bands like this whose careers actually benefit from the buzzy, boozy, wasted energy of the festival. (Not to pat ourselves on the back, but we were around for their salad days here, when they played to rooms half the size of the 606, and half-empty.)
Digging deep into Arrow tonight, lead singer Erika Wennerstrom is playing the kind of show that people leave talking about. Commanding the muggy room with sure-footed confidence, she rages and howls through a set of tunes that opens with the '70s groover "Parting Ways." By the time the short set is done - a full complement of grungy, gutsy tunes exhausted, with most of the crowd sweating out three more beers -- it feels like the festival couldn't be off to a more appropriate start. [Nate Cavalieri]