SXSW Music 2011
[Austin, TX]

A few years ago, someone asked me, “So, how did you get hooked into this whole concert/festival scene, going from show to show and getting in free?” And I thought, Wow, this guy thinks I’m a burnout who jams his thumb out every time a festival comes around, living off music, beer, cigarettes, and whatever else happens to be around.

COOL! Things, since then, have tapered off a bit by dint of necessity. I had a child and moved around a bit; the “Malibu nights/Tangerine Dreams” era isn’t completely over, but things have slowed down. UNTIL NOW: I had the chance to attend two days (Friday and Saturday) of South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, and it was like the old days again: sore feet, half-drunk head-nodding, enough talented bands to choke a damn donkey, and too many pizza-slice merchants to mention. It was a blast, just as I remembered. No matter how much the locals bitch about the rush, SXSW, to me, hasn’t lost any of its vitality despite the wacky promotions (“Hey there, want a free light saber containing a shot of jet-fuel Red Bull?”) and lines, lines, LINES of people, packed into rows following an unseen pied piper into the decrepit depths of armpit-venue after armpit-venue.

This is what I saw as I stared into the abyss of agents, radio reps, desperate A&R guys, and EPMD fans (they played a set, which I missed, but still; crazy!):

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FRIDAY

The Fresh & Onlys

It only made sense to kick off the fest with a band I knew would deliver exactly what I wanted no matter how skimpy their allotment of time: The Fresh & Onlys. Tim Cohen’s troop is a tight one, and they don’t EFF around when it comes to delivering carnival post-punk with stained-glass melodies and spaghetti guitar leads. They started with a few nice tunes from the new album (“Waterfall,” “Until the End of Time”), segued into a couple of cuts from the August in My Mind EP, and then hit on “Invisible Forces” from Grey-Eyed Girls. The quartet, as with so many bands at large festivals, didn’t get their white-water rage on like they do when you see them on tour with a full hour or two at their disposal, but what they did offer was heartfelt and well-practiced, and Shayde Sartain’s (I know this band so well I can spell this dude’s crazy name without even bing-in’ it) simple, seductive guitar lines never fail to provide a solid bed for Cohen’s wails. They played a slower song and dragged the “solo” section out for way too long — a no-no when time is of the essence, so there’s that. Also, there was supposed to be free beer, but only for “VIPs”… if a hot-lookin’ yet also pot-bellied TMT writer isn’t a “VIP,” who the hell is? Who’s policing the beer police here?

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Kurt Vile & The Violators / Deerhunter

A few hundred hot concrete steps and I was smack-dab in the middle of the Deerhunter den for my first Bradford Cox Experience, but first: Kurt Vile and his, um, Violators. Well, I was a huge suck-up for Childish Prodigy and God Is Saying This to You, and I have to say, the two songs I witnessed were quite anticlimactic. Granted, I’m the sort of guy who can fall asleep standing up (or on the subway) when the mood strikes, but not often in the middle of a rock show and not often over the course of two songs. But there it is — boring, brooooother.

Deerhunter fared much better. Cox has that Sean Lennon (stayed tuned for Saturday’s coverage if you know what’s good for ya) noseplug bleat that somehow turns soft and silky when it needs to, and he’s obviously feeding off this crowd like a deer tick, blowing up as soon as he hit the stage, a giant smile plastered across his lovely, very white face. I’m mostly a Cryptograms/Microcastle man myself; I bought that “something-something-Tapes” EP and haven’t really digested that one yet, and the new record has quite simply gotten by me (though I did pick up Lockett Pundt’s Lotus Plaza record and duggit, for what it’s worth). So beyond “Nothing Ever Happened” (which was enchanting front-to-back, as I knew it would be) and one or two others, I’m sort of in the dark here. But that Krautrock-mixed-with-a-pinch-of-ambiance-and-modern-indie-rock thing Deerhunter have going is impressive. What they do is so simple (repetition, linear grooves, the alien tenderness of Cox’s voice, lots of noodling, some space-rock, snips of other stuff), yet I’ve heard few bands come close to equaling what they accomplished with those first few records, and the live set is as good a representation of the material as I would have expected. Definitely a group that backs up the studio magic with a nice live show, that ebullient bassist guy staring into the crowd and making everyone feel they made a new friend.

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Times New Viking

I’ve been thinking a lot about Times New Viking’s set Friday, and I have to venture that the trio was robbed by the strictures of the SXSW machine on this day. I made my way to the Merge showcase — line — and when I got in, I could hardly believe the band I was watching was the same band that TORE THE SHIT out of my speakers a few years ago with Rip it Off and… well, Rip it Off is good enough on its own — no further explanation needed. But in this environment, playing in front of Merge people who are used to the mostly harmless piddle — no offense, though I know some will be taken — peddled by that label, it seemed most of their juice wasn’t flowing through the appropriate channels, or something. Those twin-vocal moments are just about the only aspect of their act that survived the transition to the stage; other than that they, they, sadly, sounded like a lot of those astoundingly middle-of-the-road Merge acts I’ve come to dismiss over the years. Where’s the bone-vaporizing CRUNCH of those seedy two-dollar guitars? Where’s the action? Where’s the distortion? They didn’t sounds like the ROSEbuds or anything, but man, this one hurt…

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JEFF The Brotherhood / YUCK / Ariel Pink & The Haunted Graffiti

In a daze, it was time to stumble over to the Ariel Pink show. Tough decision, but for me, Pink washes out all else when he’s on the menu. JEFF The Brotherhood, a beefcake-jerky excuse for a grunge-blues two-piece, were actually pretty good considering how limited their sound is. It’s a Black Keys thing — if you have somehow found a way to convince yourself that Black Keys are a great band for any number of reasons (Maybe because you feel sorry for two-piecers? Maybe you have bad taste? Hell, YOU TELL ME), then you’ll definitely find a lot to like in the keep-it-simple-STUPID-FUCKER, pre-Sabbath, bam-bam-thank-you-Sam caveman-isms of JEFF The Brotherhood. Strangely, this isn’t as brutal a slam as you might think. Yes, they’re big and dumb, and yes, I won’t be seeking out their record, but there are much, much, MUCH worse things than band containing young guys that don’t wanna do anything but spit out the same two or three chords night-in, night-out. I’m not gonna salute this brotherhood, but a slight nod might be in order.

I can’t say the same for Yuck. This is, quite simply, an awful band. I’ve been hearing an awful lot about them, and I think Fat Possum have been signing up a lot of decent-to-great bands in the wake of the major label BUST-UP (Wavves decent, Walkmen and Smith Westerns great, to name a few), but exactly who saw this group play their tepid multi-angle rock (a.k.a. cast-with-a-wide-net rock) and thought, Hey, let’s sign these up and get a hype storm going? I mean, really — too tame to be Sonic Youth, not eerily queer enough to be Yo La Tengo, not distinctive enough to be Versus, a shoegaze band, or the next National, and so THIS is what we get: boredom. I’m getting tired just thinking about Yuck’s set and the way the guitarist threw up an angry middle finger when a tiny pin-prick of a beer drop dared soak into his indie-guy outfit. I just… I’ve been fed up dealing with the empty-hype syndrome the indie rock world undoubtedly has for years, and Yuck seemed to bring those feelings up again like a rancid bout of heartburn. Above all, it’s depressing because if this is what people are getting excited about these days, I feel bad for the music industry. Sorry, I guess?

Ariel Pink? Well, I saw him a few months ago and he had that blow-dryed look with freshly dyed hair and a strange gym outfit I think I first saw an extra wearing in Boogie Nights. Also, I saw him at my debut SXSW in 2004 and he was a completely different dude, almost devastatingly normal. Oh, and his performances at SXSW 2004 were by all accounts just awful unless you were self-consciously trying to root the guy on (as I was, but it still blew). Thankfully, as his reputation has grown and his blonde locks have sprouted up and out, so has his live-performance mojo. He no longer looks around, bewildered to be playing songs he recorded to cassette with his mouth and a two-string guitar. Now, he gesticulates, he grooves, and he gets his melted funk on. On this night, he was neither the common-man nor the rock-star incarnation I witnessed in November in Denver; he was tired and going through the motions a bit. I entered into a conversation with a few onlookers about how Pink looked a lot like Cobain with his flannel and his blonde-end, brown-root hair at just the length Kurt’s was at the time of In Utero. I think this conversation partly stemmed from the fact the other people in the conversation wouldn’t be able to hold their own if I started talking about Gary/Dennis Wilson, Stevie Moore, and Joe Meeks, but they might have been onto something there — Ariel looked as if he’d just run out of drugs (I’ve run out of drugs, so I know).

The set wasn’t bad, but Ariel had a new member or two, if memory serves, and he was sort of dictating to them a bit. Also, he just seemed to want to get through the set. In November, he silenced the Denver crowd and mocked them in rich, I-know-more-than-you-but-you-still-love-me fashion; here, he barely said a word between songs and didn’t put on the maestro either. Still, he’s hitting on something legendary with his music, track by track, and the crowd was thrilled to be a part of the whole celebration of audio that’s so kitschy sounding it just has to be good — really good. I’m pretty sure the entire set was culled from Before Today — no “Among Dreams” (damn), no “For Kate I Wait.” And “Round and Round” was conspicuously absent, which isn’t such a bad thing: Disco dance rushes making odd bedfellows with retrograde synths and enough porn grooves to get the flesh flush with the chance currents of expectation. But Ariel Pink and his Haunted Graffiti definitely didn’t tear the place up. There were no fans dancing in the cages hither and thither (the venue, the Kiss & Fly, is a gay bar, after all) and with the short time allotted no time for a psychic connection beyond the dozen-or-so in the crowd who seemed to know all the lyrics word for word (impressive, I must say) and would probably drink his chew spitter if he so asked (I don’t know if Ariel chews, but trust me they would).

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SATURDAY

I forgot to mention this: On the way back to our car after Ariel Pink (I wasn’t aware Bun B was playing next and am eternally bitter about it), we saw a guitarist with a gas mask playing on a li’l practice amp. Also, I figured I should round up some of the other eccentricities I noticed this time around at South By Southwest:

• A band playing in the back of a pick-up truck
• A fellow in a V For Vendetta mask telling us not to pay our taxes.
• A girl in a super-short skirt and a shirt that read, “I like it bloody.”
• A group jammin’ on the grass across from the Elysium with a drum set and a few amps — not sure how they got power on this one — and a singer who could really belt ‘em out. Rocked all sorts of ass, she did…
• Sadly no master-slave combos with choke chains; WHAT THE EFF, AUSTIN?
• So many Brits in expensive denim… thick, unyielding denim that had to be TORture in the heat. Y’all are douches, I swear.
• SUNGLASSES INDOORS, BABY! SOOO ORIGINAL!
• More pizza-slice distributors than I’d ever previously believed could, in fact, exist in one region. It’s too bad a lot of these people don’t eat, ever.
• Goths.
• A large leaf with “Beach” neatly scratched/carved into it.

There were a lot of possible paths to be taken (or not) on this, Saturday, the ultimate day of the ultimate festival of the ultimate — from what we know; from what we knowww — universe. I coulda seen Smith Westerns and Ty Segall at the Mohawk or some shit, or maybe slaked my thirst with some Miracle Fortress and chase it with a little bit of sweet, sexy, sulking Black Heart Procession.

Our various decisions — some of them insanely regrettable — ultimately led us to witness Austra, Little Scream, Man Man, Middle Brother, and, from there (about 7:30), a night at the Elysium with Sean Lennon, Yoko Ono, and a motley crew of improvisers, noisemakers, and pretty, young faces. The latter was one of the instances where I feel we really hit the number, so to write. I think you’ll agree once you find out the mysterious guests.

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Austra / Little Scream

O…..K? A band with three female vocalists doing the running man and the most blatant stab at 80s nostalgia since about five minutes ago, giving me the chills? I never thought it would happen, but Austra managed it. Only caught the last four-odd songs they played, and it was enough to convince me they’re a good live act. The canned drums seemed a little unnecessary, as they HAVE A DRUMMER (one who sort of vaguely plays along with the drum machine; yick); what-up with that? So strange to see a drummer randomly tapping cymbals and toms while a HUGE, THICK, BORING dance beat POUNDS IN the STUPID FACE of anyone within earshot. Still, this kind of energy will win Gumshoe over every time.

Little Scream are from Canada. In fact, they’re VERY from Canada; insanely, even. They play in one of those big, loud, diverse (a few dudes, a few chicks playing handheld keyboards, flutes, weird tube things, etc.) bands one comes to expect from our greatest foe up-north, and they possess a lot of interesting instruments. And I tell you, the first few songs they pulled outta their canuck pockets were WICKED AWESOME; I’d even venture to report that I couldn’t have imagined them kicking off a set with more momentum, more hair-raising spontaneity and overall girth. Things tapered off though, and at certain points all the charm I noticed on their upcoming full-length was a bit obscured. Little Scream also made the fatal mistake of playing a slow song — their singer/bandleader even somewhat apologetically calling it such — when at festivals like SXSW there’s no time to play drawn-out tunes and indulge in that shitty ballad you wrote about some ding-a-ling from your past (I’m not saying that’s what this tune is about, I’m just saying slow songs have no place at festival gigs), and when bands do it anyway they should know that they’re KILLING us out in the crowd and causing us to like them less. But hold the fugg on here — Little Scream are a nice little curiosity with an often-grandiose sound that casts a gargantuan net. Getting caught in it wouldn’t be unreasonable for most indie fans looking for a rock band with a soft-loud, multi-tasking touch.

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Man Man / Middle Brother

After randomly catching a ride to the Auditorium Shores Stage via some dude driving a “Rayban” car (hey, we thought it was a cab and he/it picked us up, so… there) we managed to catch two… bloody… damn… Man Man songs, which sucked big, floppy-skinned BALLZ because I saw M² play at SXSW in 2004 and was looking forward to seeing them play on le big stage. It was not meant to be. I don’t remember a damn thing about them, neither.

Middle Brother were halfway decent for what they are, but they’re like the anti-TMT; I’m fairly sure my review will benefit from not going into this portion of the proceedings.

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Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger / Kemp And Eden / If By Yes / Consortium Musicum / Fig / mi-gu / Yoko Ono

Here’s where the day really started to COOK, man. I’d put so much emphasis on running myself (and my poor better half) ragged, checking out as many bands at as many different venues as possible, that by the time the second night rolled around I was hankering for a show where I could just stay there and not regret missing whatever else SXSW might have to offer if we hoofed around again. The showcase at the Elysium, featuring the above-listed bands, was the PERFECT place for us to Exist, and we took full advantage of the chance to sit on the red-velvet round-couches in between songs and retreat out back for smoke breaks.

Up first were Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, Sean Lennon’s collaboration with Charlotte Kemp Muhl that sounds like Fairport Convention having sloppy sex with Pentangle… with Lennon’s voice overtop. This is extremely limited-scope music, not something I’d have ever expected from someone with the adventurous solo spirit of Lennon. If you’re into folkity folk-folk and don’t mind Sean’s voice, I say go for it, but I anticipated a much more diverse performance than what was presented. Definitely not the project I’d openly mock, but to pretend I wasn’t a bit disappointed by this band would be disingenuous. So there; time to move on.

I next caught a drip and drab of If By Yes, the first of many star-studded side projects to come, this one helmed by one Petra Haden (HELLO: Charlie’s daughter, creator of a voice-only version of The Who Sell Out, member of legendarily scruffy scrappers That Dog) and another Yuka Honda (of Cibo Matto; yes, less impressive). Their music is so astray from the norm it was tough for me to take much from the performance — standing slack-jawed while two revered weirdos push around funk grooves and hip-hop beats like brooms doesn’t always lend much to a review — but what I managed to glom onto was sparkly and futuristic, awash in next-level synth effects and forward-thinking compositions. Definitely not my cup of tea, at least compared with the next few bands, yet very memorable and who knows, maybe I’ll come around and check back in with them at a later date (feel free to do the same yourself, sailor!).

And now for the unquestionable high point of SXSW 2011 for this guy: Consortium Musicum. Consisting of Sean Lennon and Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, CM were such an unexpected, Zach Hill-ian treat I nearly lost control of my bodily functions when I heard the first few drum rolls and effects manipulations. Describe it? Okay, I’ll try: Saunier, leaning over his kit like an abusive uncle ready to do horrible things, sneering, snarling, hemming, hawing, thumping, tapping, retreating, scrapping, glowering, glowing, growling, groveling, shoving, shoveling, showing off, getting off, getting on, putting down, ratcheting up… Lennon, accompanying, rain-storming, zoning in, tuning out, static noise-ing, looping, sampling, cutting, snipping, mixing, matching, jamming, nodding, hypnotizing, traumatizing, circumcising (alright alright, that last one is a little much)… Need I say more? Saunier was particularly possessed, having steamy sex with his kit and spraying the love juice all over the crowd with euphoric PLUNge after euphoric plunge. He’s a sicko, a demented stickman with long, sinewy arms and the disposition of the wolf that ate that red-riding girl. One far-out twosome that I think anyone who gets down with Hella/Upsilon Acrux/T-bam! will wholeheartedly worship.

Fig are an interesting beast, made up of Nels Cline and Honda and focusing on slow-grinding beats, strange-sounding squiggles, effects-juggling, psych noodling, and seemingly anything else they can get their hands on. Then they come in with the soft, plaintive guitar and Cline’s subdued vocals and you realize this duo can do anything they want — the sky is the limit, and they appear to be enjoying the process of flying as high as they can on the wings of each other’s talent. The combination of Cline’s guitar and Honda’s space-junk didn’t always meld together all that well, yet the spirit of experimentation rights many wrongs. Notch one for Honda on this one; for her to be involved in a group like If By Yes while also moonlighting in Fig is much cooler than I ever would have given her credit for. She’s much cooler than I am, yes.

Next up: mi-gu. I loved the mini cowboy hat the adorable Japanese woman behind the drums was wearing, and I heard a few instances where the shackles of forced oddity were tossed aside and mi-gu let forth with a holy torrent of Lightning Bolt-driven noise-duo terror. For the most part though, this is a band more concerned with quirk than quality. I appreciate quirky-jerky as much as the next guy, but when it’s impossible to chew through, my teeth hurt and I just want to get drunk (luckily the show was at a bar, so HI-YO).

Finally: OOOOOOOOOOOOH Yoko, her LOVE will TURN you ON, baby, and she used to BANG one of The Beatles (crude but it’s true, foo)! I — and many around me — didn’t know what to expect when I saw “Plastic Ono Band” on the schedule, but when all was heard and done, I couldn’t complain. It was basically like a star-studded version of Acid Mothers Temple. The jams had that AMT sense of adventure and eccentricity, and Yoko’s bleating went fairly well with the maelstrom of psych death-doom swirling behind her. Saunier and the chick from mi-gu took turns drumming, while Lennon played guitar and Cline entered and exited randomly on guitar as well (don’t execute me if I’m getting a detail wrong here; the crowd grew exponentially as soon as Yoko was afoot, and I couldn’t get a good view going). It was strange watching Ono emit spastic whoops and yowls, bordering on orgasmic, as her son jammed on besides her, but that’s the rock-star way, and they had a lot of fun playing together. The vibes reached the rest of us, too, as one of the legends of rock and noise music proved to be a still-vital force and the overseer of an impressive little nook of the indie-rock underground besides.

What more is there to say? I love life and I love musical moments. SXSW once again provided plenty of these for me, and for that I’m thankful.

[Illustrations: Carolina Purdum]