After a thirteen-hour drive across Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana into Texas and a 3:30 a.m. arrival Wednesday, I can’t say I was terribly excited about my first day at SXSW. Preparations leading up to the trip surely did nothing to cure the anxieties I had. A veteran SXSWer friend insisted that I make an Excel spreadsheet “with backups for [my] backups,” and I couldn’t even figure out how to make the stupid charts. I opted for the handwritten version instead and felt ready for, if wary of, the week of exhaustive festival-going.
Early in the afternoon, my friends and I finally made it from our hotel six miles outside of Austin to the convention center, where I was horrified to the discover that the badge line extended from one section of the massive center to another and then up two escalators to another line on the third floor. Luckily, the process was efficient, and I made it through the line within 45 minutes and was ready to hear some music.
This didn’t happen before my girlfriends ditched me. They already had wristbands and wanted to get over to the Mohawk to hear Architecture in Helsinki, a show I am admittedly glad to have missed. I wound up with the boys. After we were taken care of at the convention center, we headed down to the Mohawk and heard Apes and Androids playing from the back patio, but the line to get in the venue was stretched down the block. I was a bit annoyed when my boys wanted to walk all the way back to Slackers Lounge, a venue where we’d seen some hot girls dressed in cropped tees and short shorts passing out handbills, but I decided to be agreeable and roll with it.
This turned out to be a great decision because, as I’ve often heard is the case at SXSW, there were some previously unannounced shows scheduled and free domestic beer available until the club ran out. The first of the unannounced shows was Robbers on High Street, a newish indie rock band from New York. On record they are pretty decent, if forgettable, but live they were quite entertaining. Sometimes they sounded like Spoon and sometimes they sounded like Sondre Lerche, but their setup and methods were far more memorable than the songs they played. One of my friends noted that the drummer’s kick drum was a suitcase and that his snare drum rested on a chair in front of him. When they played a song with a trumpet player, the trumpeter, with the apparent goal of softening his sound, aimed his trumpet toward the door and away from the audience. All these tricks showed the band was interested in overcoming any poor acoustics in the room, and they made all of us happy because we could listen comfortably without feeling the need for earplugs.
Next up was Jesse Sykes, one of my must-sees, playing a set with ex-Whiskeytown guitarist Phil Wandscher. I was delighted to hear the two of them play in such a small space with such few people attending. They were scheduled to play other shows with the full band, but hearing them play in such an intimate setting trumped that option for me. Neither Sykes nor Wandscher has an exciting stage presence, but it’s likely that fans of their records don’t expect that, anyway. I didn’t, although I thought it would be nice if both of them would look up from their fixed stares at each others’ shoes. I didn’t know whether Phil Wandscher was Phil Wandscher by the look of him because I’ve never even seen a photo, but I thought I recognized his sparse, haunting playing style immediately. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Jesse Sykes’ pensive vocals. They played several old songs, some of which I recognized from Oh, My Girl, and a new song or two. Sykes remarked that their set felt surreal, and I wondered whether she was referring to the fact that they were playing to a sparse crowd in an echo-y, Miami Beach-looking venue where they would never play outside of SXSW. My friends and I sure as hell wouldn’t have wandered into such a place had it not been during SXSW.
After the Slackers Lounge shows and a nice breakfast dinner at Katz’s Deli on 6th Street, the girls and I went to a decidedly girly show at La Zona Rosa: The Pipettes. The line was surprisingly long, and as a SXSW novice I wondered with horror whether the folks in that line were coming early to catch Peter Bjorn & John at midnight. The line quickly dispersed, though, and we wound up with a passably good spot in the crowd for The Pipettes, who had already started playing. The Pipettes are from Brighton and are not typically the type of act I would care to listen to on record, but like several other bands we saw throughout the week, they were somewhat of a spectacle live. They are admittedly a novelty — which usually makes me cross in my old age — but they are a talented novelty, and they had the audience smiling stupidly throughout their performance. Their short, polka-dot dresses, sassy songs, and Shangri Las-like dance choreography made them irresistible. We were sorry their set didn’t last longer, but at SXSW there’s hardly time to fret about one band when there are so many others to see.
Next we took a quick cab ride over to Habana Calle 6 Annex to hear Through The Sparks but stopped off at Flamingo Cantina to hear Austin natives Oh No! Oh My! Whatever pleasantness had been instilled in me by the Pipettes was obliterated by this all-male group, which was just as silly as the Pipettes but not nearly as clever. Their name suggests such silliness, and although their songs tend to be quite catchy and likable, their live set felt like a big inside joke that we weren’t a part of. This makes sense because they were playing to the home crowd, and the venue was stuffed with people who kept yelling “tell the one about...,” referring I guess to jokes that fans were fond of. After this Kevin Federline-looking dude in front of me started dancing erratically and closely enough to elbow me in the face, I grabbed my girlpal and dragged her out of there.
By 10 p.m. we were safely removed from Oh No! Oh My! and planted in a less-crowded audience at the Habana Calle 6 Annex. As we walked through the gate I heard a SXSW worker ask some girls, “Aren’t you going to stay for the Alabama boys?” and listened as the girls snickered and walked off. I thought later about how they had written off said 'Alabama boys' Through The Sparks too soon because their set stood out as being one of my favorites that day. Their stage presence is questionable, I suppose: They certainly don’t shoegaze, but they don’t compete for attention, either. Frontman Jody Nelson was soft-spoken and self-deprecating, and it was easy but unfortunate to miss his stage banter. At one point he sat down at an electric piano and remarked something along the lines of, “They say that rock ’n’ roll died when Buddy Holly died, but I think it died when people started bringing these fuckers onstage” and motioned toward a laptop computer the band used during their set. Traditionally their songs have been most easily categorized as folk rock, but apparently their upcoming record is different enough to warrant the label “avant/experimental,” which is how they were listed on SXSW.com. This set featured a little bit of both sounds, and the band, like Nelson himself, exhibited a quiet confidence that helped them appear relaxed and unassuming.
After Through The Sparks’ set we trucked it back over to La Zona Rosa to catch some boys (and a girl) from overseas: Tunng and Peter, Bjorn & John. I was worried that with all the blog buzz, PB& J would have the place packed out enough that we couldn’t get back in, but there were surprisingly few people there. I immediately guessed why. Onstage was Fink, a.k.a. Finian Greenhall. Not knowing who Fink was and not knowing much about Tunng other than that “Jenny Again” song is awesome and that they were high on my list of bands to see, I was incredibly disappointed at the thought that I might in fact be seeing Tunng. The mediocrity was Fink, though, and luckily it didn’t last very long.
The stage setup for Tunng was interesting to watch. I observed as three chairs were planted fairly far apart from each other onstage and three chairs were set behind and to the left of those chairs. This was where the laptop that would produce the band’s scratchy electronica sound was set up. To the right of the stage was what my friend called an “adjunct percussionist” setup: various wind chimes and a triangle tied to a string that was stretched across and tied at either end. There were three guitar players, the adjunct percussionist with his weird instrumentation, and a female background vocalist/tambourine player in a swishy dress. The group, from London, seemed excited to be in the U.S. and playing for such a large crowd and was polite to the audience between songs. The vocalists’ harmonies were strongly reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, and the glitchy laptop add-ins contributed to the originality of the songs. They played my previously mentioned favorite, “Jenny Again,” and pleased the crowd with their unique take on Bloc Party’s “The Pioneers.” My feet hurt and my back ached terribly by this point, but as a folkie at heart I was dazzled and invigorated by this beautiful set, and it turned out to be my favorite from the entire festival.
Next up was every indie kid’s favorite Swedish pop group, Peter, Bjorn & John. As extreme crowd pleasers, they were the appropriately chosen headliner for the night, though I found myself wishing they were playing at a time I felt more like seeing them. After playing a few songs, principal singer Peter Morén mouthed off at the audience for talking; he mocked the industry in a thick Swedish accent, suggesting that the talkers were bored industry people with better things to do. They were touring as a three-piece (and of course their name suggests they are nothing more than that) and naturally played many of the songs differently than they sound on the records. Although they played songs from every record, the crowd responded most to the tracks from 2006 release Writer’s Block, particularly “Young Folks” and Björn Yttling’s “Amsterdam,” which was played at a slower speed live. Morén soaked up the crowd’s energy, and during the last song he crazily abused his guitar, rubbing it against the mic stand and sliding it across the stage, ending by dancing upon it. The practical side of me hoped he didn’t pay a lot of money for it and that it could easily be replaced, but another part of me was pretty damn excited to witness the spectacle.
Yet another part of me was dying to skip the cab ride home and immediately be asleep on my side of the bed in our crowded hotel room. Excited by a day full of great shows yet exhausted from all the activity by 2 a.m., I thought about little else besides sleep — and whether I’d see anything later in the week that would top my first day at SXSW.
All photos by Leah Hutchison, except Through the Sparks photo by Traci Edwards