My group of friends got off to a late start on Thursday morning. Other than a few sleepyheads, most of us had gotten to bed around 4 a.m., and someone made sure to draw the curtains over the hotel window so that 4 a.m. looked no different than noon.
When we did make it out, we discovered a beautiful day. Our first stop was around 3 p.m. at Schuba’s 11th Annual SXSW Roundup. There were a handful of acts I was looking forward to seeing: Benjy Ferree, Cold War Kids, Elvis Perkins, and Russian Circles, in particular. I had also considered the possibility of free beer and barbecue. There was free beer; there was not, however, free barbecue. I’d heard all this talk about free grub at SXSW and hadn’t yet managed to find any.
We walked into Yard Dog Art Gallery and immediately out the back door, where we found a crowd of people in a relatively small space pushed up to a tent where a band had already started to play. I grabbed my beer in a plastic cup -- the boys grabbed two each -- and we joined the herd to hear a band whose identity we had yet to discover. After we posed a few questions to irritated listeners one offered the answer “Cold War Kids.” I figured they were irritated not only because I was asking them questions, but also because they couldn’t see anything. I had a lovely view of a bunch of dudes’ heads, and what I could hear didn’t make me very interested in seeing anything more. I’ve heard lots of talk about soulful singing and blues-flavored indie rock, but what I actually heard at Yard Dog was loud singing and guitar that didn’t sound very “bluesy” to me.
My girlpal and I opted for Mexican food for the second day in a row and left our boys at the Midlake show. We both liked Midlake but had seen them not even a month earlier at the BottleTree in our hometown of Birmingham, AL. We took a quick ride across town on Austin’s Golden Dillo (that’s what their transit system is apparently called), to catch some bands at Filter Magazine’s High Noon at Cedar Street party. When we arrived, Kenna was playing. I would tend to file them under “decent-sounding indie rock,” a generic label that now encompasses too many of the bands I saw at SXSW. They had some appealing, if typical, vocal harmonies, and the lead singer gave us plenty of photo opportunities. He bounced around stage, used his hands for emphasis since he played no instrument, and wound up climbing up the stairs and standing atop a rail by the end of the band’s set. His ego-driven behavior was a comic distraction to the blandness of the music, and most of the audience was amused watching his antics.
Next, I enjoyed standing in the front row for Sydney, Australia natives Youth Group’s set, and there wasn’t anything terribly special about their music, either. Like Kenna, they played listener-friendly, guitar-driven indie rock. They’ve been compared to and have toured with Death Cab For Cutie and have even been featured on The O.C. They also remind me of Dirty On Purpose in a good way, and I think it was the pretty, delicate melodies and the guitar reverb that did it for me. Had their set been much longer I might have gotten tired of the sameness of it all, but as it was I quite enjoyed it.
During Youth Group’s set my girlfriend went inside to rest her feet, and I switched places with her for Badly Drawn Boy. I know he was the headliner of the party and I know I probably should’ve stayed out there to watch, but one of the glories of SXSW is getting to see so many bands and not really caring about the ones you miss even though they might be ones to see in a hometown scenario. I found a comfy couch where I could hear but not see. Damon Gough was alone, and he played a man-and-a-guitar set, which was the perfect accompaniment to resting my ass on that oasis of a couch while people five feet away crowded toward the stage. His set ended around 6:30 p.m. and gave us plenty of time to go next door and devour some yummy veggie spring rolls in plum sauce at Saba Blue Water Cafe before heading to the Mohawk for the Secretly Canadian showcase.
The longest line I stood in the whole week was the line to get in to see The Besnard Lakes at the Secretly Canadian showcase. I wanted to hear them and possibly Richard Swift at 11:30 p.m., but we were able to hear quite enough of The Besnard Lakes whilst standing in line by the fence lining The Mohawk. We ran into some old friends, and as we chatted, a cloud of thick smoke came wafting through the holes in the green fence accompanied by what surely couldn’t have been The Besnard Lakes. I was expecting the pretty Beach Boys sound of “Disaster,” but what I heard was much more jam bandish. We sat on the curb and listened until I heard “Disaster,” which wound up sounding very different from the lovely version on The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse. Figuring this show was a complete wash, we trucked it over to Antone’s to catch Sondre Lerche at the Astralwerks showcase.
Small Sins were in the middle of their set when we arrived, so we caught the rest of their set and thoroughly enjoyed watching the guitar player dance around like a huge dork and the auxiliary percussionist beside him bang two tambourines together like a three-year-old having a temper tantrum. Their self-titled album on Astralwerks sounds more subdued, but if they’d been that subdued live they probably would’ve been more commonplace and boring. Good for them that some of them act foolish onstage, because their behavior made them memorable.
Sondre Lerche finally played, around 10:30 p.m., and I was surprised to hear how much his music has changed since I caught him with Ed Harcourt at the Exit/In in Nashville in ’03. For the most part, he played songs from his 2007 release Phantom Punch, which is incredibly different from the last release of his I heard, 2002’s Faces Down. Back then he had an instantly recognizable pop sound with sunny melodies and memorable hooks. The songs from Phantom Punch are more straightforward rock songs with little to set them apart from other straightforward rock songs. Even so, he charmed the audience with his gorgeous smile and upbeat banter, as always, and I couldn’t help but notice that the first three rows of fans consisted of cute females.
My friends and I were debating an early night, but we hung around long enough to catch The Little Ones’ set. They are a fun, hand-clapping, lollipops-and-sunshine indie pop band that had SXSWers out of their hot, tired, grumbly pissypants mood in no time. I bet if you’d wandered through the crowd you would’ve seen some typically head bobbing indier-than-thous dancing retardedly -- or at least caught off guard. My grumpy boyfriends, for example, had been ready to go home, but they, too, were caught up in The Little Ones’ set and were particularly geeked-out by the band’s use of a Mellotron.
After this set, most of us were ready to retreat to our hotel before the 12:30 a.m. headliner bands. I stopped by Habana Calle 6 briefly to check out Birds Of Avalon, but I was yawning so much I couldn’t make it past one song. Thursday for me was the most disappointing day of the festival. I hadn’t seen any particularly stand-out shows, and most of what I did see has since globbed itself together in my mind to form indie rock band 'X.' Sifting back through each one to focus on stand-out differences has been difficult because there just isn’t that much to say about one that can’t be said about the others.
All photos by Leah Hutchison