Seeing as any weeklong festival is a battle of attrition for those there for the duration, I figure I’ll start by telling you what my wife and I went through, materials-wise, during the course of South By Southwest 2013:
• 15 full tanks of gas in two automobiles
• a roundtrip plane ticket for my mom (who was flown in to watch my brood during the week)
• two packs of Marbs, one “gold” and one “red” (sorry Lucky Strikes)
• four batches of bad hotel coffee
• 10 sheets of notebook paper, used exclusively to detail bands to see
• two liberal Austinized sandwiches, eight taco salads, five burgers, one “Gay-ass” chicken sandwich and four hetero ones, one Big Mac, six slices of pizza, four burritos, a chalupa, and one substandard Chinese “hot-pot”; other delicacies: chili-cheese Fritos, peppered beef jerky, two big, slobbery milkshakes
• eight wristbands, six-to-ten handstamps
• one pair of sunglasses
• a bottle of semi-cheap rum
• one $10 gin-and-tonic, seven other mixed drinks
• a flask, purchased specifically to avoid the future preponderance of said $10 drink
• 35 beers, at least
• more than 30 iPhone notes, “jotted” down to assist in writing this very article
• a surprisingly small number of photos (to avoid traditional SXSW pic overload)
During this year’s SXSW, I also met my anti-nemesis Mr P (not to mention a few other beautiful souls), crossed a few bands off the ol’ bucket list, reconnected with the wife I just-plain haven’t had the chance to fuck silly enough, socialized with strangers (cool ones) for the first time in what seems like years, and managed to get a little exercise doing it. I know a lot of people hate SXSW, but I’m more in love with the despicable bitch than ever. She really stuck me in her mutton-hole this year, and I loved every stank-ass minute. Writing these things on a timeline is such a lame strategy, but it’s the only way to keep my thoughts in order. Hope you understand.
For every inspiring, admittedly genius track pulled out like a bowie knife from that first album, there was a lukewarm sophomore-slump cut to match it.
Tuesday, March 12
Lo Echo: I can see why Lo Echo make sense at a Pitchfork showcase. I also understand the appeal of Lo Echo. It’s the 80s again, in case you didn’t know (stupid!). Other than that, I can’t hear any reason to be moved in any way by this muzak. Just inoffensive enough to be offensive.
???: I would tell you about the band after Marnie Stern, but I don’t know who the fuck they are, and their name is search-engine impossible. Not only that, but the official SXSW site is worthless when it comes to looking up expired showcases.
Marnie Stern: What better way to jump face-first into SXSW than through the prism of the estimable Marnie Stern, indie rock’s fem shredder of which everyone seems to be a Fan Halen? The girl’s got those spider-leg fingers creeping all up and down her fretboard, not to mention a highly serviceable voice and a deceivingly powerful backup band. When she mentioned that you could stretch her vagina from her microphone over to the bassist’s mic, I nearly fell in love, my wife’s cold, hard SLAPS to my face the only thing tethering me to reality. As cool as it would have been to watch Zach Hill match his skins to Stern’s strings, it was impossible to be disappointed by the set.
Cloud Nothings: Cloud Nothings are okay in my eyes, but my wife insisted we leave during their set, so I did. Was hoping to at least hear “Old Street” (which is the perfect pop-punk song, if you’re keeping track), but seeing as it was only Tuesday, I decided to choose my battles wisely (not that I’ve seen Battles lately).
At this point, we tried to drive over to a showcase for Jim James — not my choice — and we ended up at an upscale gated community shining our headlines around, looking for a venue. Pretty stupid.
Wednesday, March 13
Christopher Petkus: Early (well, 3 PM or so) Wednesday, we trudged over to a house far-removed from the spread-out splendor of downtown Austin. Among the many benefits: A plane flew overhead every few minutes, adding to the atmosphere; a dude who was in one of the later bands was cradling a bong like a baby in the middle of the lawn (always a good sign); and, finally, the small setting allowed us to truly kick back. No hipster would ever deign it fathomable to attend such a teeny showcase, and I can’t think of a better way to clear out the douche-clutter. First up was Petkus, a trippy guitarist floating in the chord-clouds with hushed loops and gentle string slides. Not anything to FREAK OUT, MAN about, yet I find when I take the time to envelop my ears in this sort of music, the rewards are plenty.
Youthful Masturbation Techniques (pictured): Next came one of the big surprises of the week and maybe my life. It’s hard to fully recount experiences such as this, as it all tends to happen so quickly. From what I can ascertain, a young man put on a chicken mask and sat at a table with a knife and a bottle of poop, while his YMT compadre hoisted a 2x4 above his head and laid waste to a helpless old television set, which was hooked up to a device that manipulated the sound of the pounding. We watched in horror. (Funny, when I saw them set up the TV, I figured it would be for “trippy” images to accompany another drone performance. Guess the joke was on silly ol’ me.) The whole scene lasted less than 10 minutes, and that might not seem like a long stretch of time, but when you’re observing such strange acts, one step short of German shizer films and no one is uttering even a peep — they’re too shocked to try — time tends to slow to a crawl. Needless to say, when people asked me what I did at SXSW, this is the first show I mention, despite the many highlights we witnessed. Small anti-showcases rule.
Smoky Emery: As the last pieces of the TV were picked up and sluffed to a trash dump somewhere, Smoky Emery started setting up his assortment of reel-to-reel machines and pedals. Sort of like Stephan Mathieu with more of an edge, looping eternity and showing the patience to see eternity through. A comedown from the static CRASH-BOOM-FUCKA-DUCKA that preceded it for sure, though not exactly a mellow-yellow swim in spiritual Jell-O you might be expecting. This cat had claws when the mood struck.
Taylor Channing: Damn, I almost forgot about Tay-Chan’s spoken-poetry set, psychedelically backed by the dude that would end up (spoiler alert!) playing a set as Daze Of Heaven next. I’ve been mulling Channing’s performance for awhile now. Did it work? Did it kinda go off the deep end? Am I feeling defensive because I see so little spoken-poetry these days? Can I say “yes” to all three? Well shit, it’s my write-up, so… yeah, all of those things. And when things go off the deep end, at least that means it’s not shallow, right? HA! But seriously folks, the kid put his heart into the presentation, and I feel like I learned something. I’m not sure how stimulated and/or nourished my spirit animal is, but then again, I’m not much of a spirit-whisperer in the first place. Hats off to Channing for going there, wherever “there” is.
Daze Of Heaven: I’ll have to be frank on this one: Daze Of Heaven’s set sort of melted into the glaze in my eyes. The guy had a gnarly patch bay and some decent synth whirls to toss out, yet none of it really stuck.
Brown Owl: I came within another bad song or two of shooting myself in the head during Brown Owl’s shit-off. How do bands like this win awards? I’ll tell you how: By being vaguely worldly and just bland enough to not offend anyone, ever. Worst 20 minutes of my life.
Ben Kweller: The Kwells dwells in Austin now, so what more appropriate than a short-as-FUCK set for the SXSW crowd? There were lots of old people everywhere. Not that I despite the elderly, but… you know, Brown Owl. Anyway, Kweller’s face was red as a Radish when he went on, and I must admit he still has that boyish charm about him even as his age designates him a man. I could never subscribe to his music personally. There’s not enough character or urgency. In a live setting, it’s a little better. You can see he means it, and if you’re trying to cater to your wife’s tastes at a huge music festival after hours of noise, I can’t think of a better way to quell and/or satiate the demons. That’s really all I got. We good?
Andy Stott: WHOOPS! Turns out in my haste to get this puppy up and running I neglected to shed light on our sojourn to Elysium to see Andy Stott. Having witnessed Yoko Ono/Sean Lennon/Greg Saunier et al at the Elysium a few years back the club has taken on special meaning for us. While I expected more twists/turns from the Demdike Stare labelmate, Stott’s rhythms and atmospherics twisted the crowd up and then unraveled them through cleverly disguised build-ups and consistent, bass-packing beats. Surprisingly, in a year overcrowded with electric maestros, this was among the only dance-oriented sets we took in. Gumshoe, the trend-avoider!
The Specials: I put on The Specials’ self-titled LP around the house sometimes, telling my wife, “You never know when you might need to know this stuff.” The opportunity to prove this theory correct came sooner than I ever thought, and as the quintet donned the stage, I got that old-fashioned feeling in my belly that all was right with the universe; for once, all was right with the universe. They played the old shit, not that anyone would have cared. Ska, when delivered with any modicum of passion, tends to gain a lot of momentum in a live setting. Throw in the combined experience of one of the greats and you have a freight train on your hands. And don’t forget, the early 1980s weren’t so long ago; these fellows look okay. I noticed a few Rancid-looking punkers in the crowd passionately throwing down in a curious mix between a mosh pit and dance-off. About eight HUGE shit-kickin’ motherfuckers who obviously all knew each other were throwing their asses around a lot, which is never an ideal situation, yet I’d rather deal with enthusiasm and jostling than deadness and boredom. Those off-beats were really poppin’, jack. YOU’VE DONE TOO MUCH / WAY TOO YOUNG / NOW YOU’RE MARRIED WITH A SON / WHEN YOU SHOULD BE HAVING FUN-LET’S GO!!! The lead singer reminds me of the dude from Elbow. Very dapper (which is to say, very English). Just sayin’.
Ghostface Killah: We sat through a shitty band I won’t bore you with before a DJ hit the stage after a long setup period at 1:30 AM. Considering the delays I’ve witnessed in the past at hip-hop shows, I was figuring we’d be able to take in a crisp 15-minute set from Mr. Killah. That didn’t happen, but we did have to watch glassy-eyed as the DJ spun his shit from side-to-side for a spell. Never fun. Once Ghostface finally hit the stage, you might say it was On. He was wearing the baggiest sweatpants I’ve ever seen. They looked like a king’s cloak almost as he grabbed the crotch portion constantly, moved it around, then let it flop down like a sagging elephant’s trunk. He also wore about five coats/hoodies/sweathers right overtop one another. He was sick, apparently, but he’s a silly-good egg and reminded us why. I despise the snippet-style onslaught of crowd favorites a lot of rappers resort to, and this was no different. The only thing saving the presentation was my love for Ghostface Killah and the early days of the Wusphere. A lot of crazy shit went down, too. Cuts from all the albums you would expect were floated, as were a Wu-Tang track or two from the first album and even a healthy track from Liquid Swords. At one point a dude from the crowd was allowed to take the mic (I think during “Protect Ya Neck”), at others, a lot of promotion for a group of Ghostface’s friends who also rap was delivered to indifference. I actually took in the last few songs sitting outside on a huge rock as a dude in a Napalm Death t-shirt rapped along to every word. That’s my kind of people. Turns out he is from South Carolina yadda-yadda, but my point is: People listen to everything. Give them a chance and they’ll surprise you every time.
When she mentioned that you could stretch her vagina from her microphone over to the bassist’s mic, I nearly fell in love, my wife’s cold, hard SLAPS to my face the only thing tethering me to reality.
Thursday, March 14
Samantha Glass: Samantha Glass, a.k.a. Beau Devereaux, filled the room with droll synths with no problem, and because he kept on picking up his microphone and setting it down, I became obsessed: This man must do some singing. And he did. He’s got this detached delivery method that piques my interest for some reason, most readily apparent via his latest LP on Not Not Fun (Mysteries From the Palomino Skyliner). Saddled somewhere between Disco Inferno and eternity, Samantha-the-one-man-band struggles on, to our delight. It was super-early in the night and most of us were just getting started, so the atmosphere wasn’t quite ideal yet, but for what it was worth, he came out swirling.
Other acts played at the Not Not Fun house party, but by that point, I was more focused on socializing and meeting with newly minted Gumshoe buddies from TMT, not because I wasn’t interested in the music playing, but because I was at least four inches in the bag. Couldn’t stop filling up that keg cup, and I didn’t even get to meet Not Not Fun head Britt. At this point, I felt a strong urge to go see the band MONA, of Nashville, because we promised one of its members during a drunken conversation that we would check them out; not necessarily because I wanted to, but because it’s SO FUCKING TYPICAL to say, “Dude, I’ll be there!” and not deliver; I wanted to buck the trend and possibly reality. I say that because we didn’t make it. Sorry dude.
Bernie Worrell: At the risk of offending you, would you mind if I butt-funk’d yo’ mama? Ahhhh yes, Bernie Worrell, of Parliament; holy shit, he’s old but alert as hell and bent on working those quad-keyboards of his to death. Something about a man singing a protest song as white people shake their asses doesn’t quite compute and never will, and I’ve never been a huge funk guy. If you were standing there with us on this night, however, you would have seen that it was impossible to not be at least somewhat buoyed by the energy in the room. To some, this man is a legend, and I paid my respects.
The Skatalites: Many of The Skatalites’ members are young enough to have been mere gleams in the universe’s eye when The Skatalites first started recording and playing out in the 1960s, so to be sure, this isn’t the same band you saw at a dancehall in Jamaica. Two, maybe three original members remain from the looks of it (that bass player’s a little spry; not sure if he’s an OG or not), and that’s okay because the collective soul put out by the group can’t be disputed. This is deep-ska, not the uptempo joy-juice squeezed out by The Specials but a highly specific form rounded out by sax, trombone, trumpet, and, as mentioned, a mean-ass bass player. Not to mention the drummer; he’s one of the originals and grooves like a goddamn tomcat. He’s half-machine, half-robot when it comes to blasting out an even ska groove. A vocalist joined them for a few romps in the hay, changing the dynamic of the songs enough to reinvigorate the throngs when she left and the band went back to the straight cheddar. A lot of solo showcases notwithstanding, The Skatalites carry a lively spirit with them and transfer those sacred vibes around with relative ease. I even moved my body rhythmically; if that’s not proof enough, I don’t know what is, as I wouldn’t dance if you were shooting at my feet in a Western.
Friday, March 15
Tiny Mix Tapes x Northern Spy’s Unisex Earplug
Holy moly, Tiny Mix Tapes (the site you’re reading right now; does this feel weird?) finally had a hand in a SXSW showcase: The barbershop-influenced Unisex Earplug, wherein indie listeners could go for a cut, trim, hot towel, and, just maybe, an ending happier than that of any storyboo—… Wait, what’s that you say? Oh that’s right, this was just a concert. I feel a teensy bit weird writing this portion of SXSW up because it was so directly influenced by the site I’m writing this review for, so I’m going to do you and I both a solid and perform a sports-style roundup:
- Spires In The Sunset Rise are an old Gumshoe favorite (like penny whistles and moonpies; those damn things never go out of style), and their set was a hypnotizing witch-drone affair, replete with little of the singing-in-tongues zaniness I remember from their early recordings. Oh well.
- Guitar loops, in the hands of some, can generate about as much excitement as an unwanted reach-around. In the right fingers, however, there’s no limit to what can be accomplished. Dustin Wong, late of Ponytail, is of the latter category. Not much variation, but what he does, he does burning-well. Bloody-well right, gentlemen.
- If you were looking for a gnarly improv jam, you didn’t have to look much further than Thurston Moore’s eternally young hair and his project Caught On Tape, with Rat Bastard, John Moloney (from Sunburned Hand of the Man and Chelsea Light Moving), and a couple ladies on vocals, and the result was… yep, pretty gnarly! The rumor that Moore was kissing a bunch of people after the set is untrue; he only gave the two singers quick friend-pecks. Sorry to disappoint you!
- I would have donated my left ball to hear Greg Fox do some thrilling blast-beats, but I also have plenty of room in my hope chest (which is not actually located in my chest) for his tom-tom-bass-pattern nuttiness. Oh, and he’s surrounded by a band in Guardian Alien, who will one day rise to the challenge.
- If there’s one act I know TMT’s big cheese is all gooey over, it’s ZS. And after a bout with sound problems, the group, abetted beautifully by Fox, set out to hypnotize the crowd with their extended straight-line jams that lead you to think they’re going nowhere, but next thing you know, you’re three towns over without a bus pass. I really wanted to chew saxman Sam Hillmer’s beard, an impulse I’ve never had before. Telling?
- clipping. (pictured), a group without a proper album or even a physical artifact to sell to attendees, might have been the most forward-thinking act I saw all week. What they’re doing is just so far-removed from what masquerades as experimental music. I think Death Grips comparisons are going to be inevitable, but this is its own thing: Noise-rap, motherfucker, without the busy skins of Zach Hill to distract you. This is what your grandkids are going to be smokin’, folks (yes, music will be smoked, not listened to, in the future, though it will be healthier to vaporize).
Saturday, March 16
Expo 70: Easily the best venue I was privy to , The Hideout coffee shot had just about as much as it could handle in Expo 70, a psychedelic-rock project featuring a recently procured drummer and shades of Guru Guru, Harmonia, and Psychic Ills (hey, I took a shot). This outfit might hold the record for Most Sold-Out Tape/LP limited editions, and though outsiders will say a lot of the material runs together, I find it to be a slow progression toward a peak that is yet to come. His was one of the only merch tables worth visiting too; lots of goodies.
Shit & Shine (pictured): Remembering the Load album Shit & Shine put out, I was expecting blazin’ guns and clobbered eardrums. What the small crowd got instead was a welcome break from the pounding of the week, more of a jazz-den feel than anything, albeit buttressed by quirky masks and the spectacularly movie-theater-style setting. Hadn’t heard much of these guys since that split 7-inch with Expensive Shit on Monofonus Press (who was responsible for the Hideout showcase); nice to reconnect.
HAIM: As much progress has been made in the indie rock world, sexism remains rampant. To me, it’s most obvious when a girl group takes the stage and everyone starts to blubber how how “hard they rip” in the same manner one would use to point out how articulate a black guy is or how quickly a 10-year-old can tie his shoes. FOLKS, LADIES CAN JAM LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER; you don’t have to go nuts for every girl that can play a wee-bit of guitar anymore. HAIM are a perfect example. Absolutely nothing about their music is noteworthy in any way, save for the fact that three members are female sisters who also play rudimentary drums every so often. Whoop-ty fuuuuckin’ dooooo, people. I could show you Sleater-Kinney performances on YouTube that make these ladies of Eastwick look so frail and shriveled you’d be ready to toss them into a bowl of bran with some milk. Maybe it was because I was anticipating Vamp-Week’s set a little too much, but to me, HAIM came off as so boring as to be the cause of all dullness. It all makes sense though, because I’ve come to realize that the more you learn about music, the quicker the bands you respect at the time drop out of competition in favor of identity-less groups like HAIM. So sad, yet so true. I’ll never forget how many people around me said, “Man, these chicks can really jam!” One older guy even turned to me and asked me, “You digging this?” My reply? “Yeah.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him he’s an utter fool.
Vampire Weekend: It doesn’t betray confidence when, just as you’re about to launch into a new song, you ask the crowd to “Take it easy on us” for this one. Really? Didn’t have time to iron this one out in the luxury apartment, P. Simon Junior? Hahahaha! Okay, just fucking with you, but what IS up with that new song? And why did you choose to play “I Think You’re a Contra” (my title for it: “What The Fuck Do Vampire Weekend Know About Contras?”) instead of “Diplomat’s Son”? Blunder, baby, straight-up blunder. How about the omission of “Mansard Roof”? Heartbreaking. And for every inspiring, admittedly genius track pulled out like a bowie knife from that first album, there was a lukewarm sophomore-slump cut to match it. This was the most precisely half-and-half show I’ve ever seen. You could slice and dice this performance to 50% of the running time and I wouldn’t have noticed a thing. Unfortunately, I won’t have to pretend that I never want to see you again, Vampire Weekend.
[Illustrations: Carolina Purdum]