SXSW: Day One

To a music
fan with an overabundant appetite, the music festival presents a contradictory
experience. On the one hand, there's the optimistic angle where the very idea
of so much raw talent collecting in one place is certainly a positive. On the
other hand, there's the pessimistic view, which, looking at the slate of
artists scheduled to perform next door to, alongside of, or even literally on
top of one another, yearns to just concede defeat, sitting out of the game
rather than destroying oneself in the attempt to cram too much into an
evening. Ultimately, this creates a fine line for festival goers to walk. Yet
it's a line that I approach with almost religious fervor. Here's to SXSW 2006,
in all the joy and frustration it has to offer.

The Velvet Spade offered The Reputation. Unfortunately, they fell into the
category of bands I'd heard of, but never actually heard, so I got stuck on
thinking about exactly what the name "The Reputation" was trying to signify.
When people have "reputations," it usually means one of two things: they are
quick to violence or easy to get in the sack. From the confident and slightly
angry tone of the pop punk emanating from the PA, I decided that it meant that
this band was a pack of bad asses, ready to take on all comers. Feeling a bit
on edge, I sauntered downstairs to catch some of The Strange Boys. Not
surprisingly, my wimpy-ass found their fragile and fractured pop to be a cool
and welcome salve for the heat and passion of The Rep. They immediately made
me think of Half Japanese doing a set of White Stripes covers. Appearing to be
somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 or 16 (my apologies if I'm
underestimating), the members had their stage personae surprisingly well
developed with a real sense of restraint and purpose. Hailing from Dallas,
these were the most local of the groups I saw, but they seemed good candidates
for more widespread fame should the right people hear them.

At the Eternal nightclub I caught a set from 2004's favorite Norwegian pop
songstress Annie. I should say here that I am a huge
fan of Anniemal and that the mere idea of being in close proximity to
this petite chanteuse gave me goose bumps on patches of skin which I'd never
felt before. When it came to show time, the experience didn't quite match the
expectation. Annie's voice is a delicate instrument, and hearing it live, it
was apparent that the tools available in a recording studio do much to bring
it into its full glory. In a club with a troubled sound system, her voice came
off as thin and crumbly rather than ethereal and smooth. Her musicians played
skeletal versions of the productions on Anniemal, including "Always Too
Late," "Chewing Gum," "Heartbeat," and "Come Together." What saved it for me
was her overwhelming grace and her kind demeanor with the audience. She
repeatedly joked with the audience between songs, and in the midst of songs,
she would dance infectiously and beckon everyone to join her. This goodwill
did much to endear her to me even more, so while I may not make it to her next
US tour stop, I'll still be among the first in line for her next album.

A major destination for the evening was The Parish, where Art Brut was
scheduled to perform at 1 am. However, with some time before then, I sampled
what was being offered on the two stages in the club. The Grates were
pleasantly immature and angsty with a lot of boisterous energy, particularly
emanating from lead singer Patience Hodgson. After their last couple songs, I
wandered into The Research's set. A sweet, slightly off-kilter pop combo, the
group has the ramshackly line-up of bass, shitty-ass keyboard, and
stripped-down drumkit. With catchy/witty/honest choruses like "It's not that I
don't love you / I'm just scared of fucking up," it would have been a chore
not to like them. Although my energy level was waning, I found myself
consistently tapping out the beat with my foot and nodding my head.

like a pre-race shot of etorphine in a horse's ass, I was clobbered by the
live phenomenon known as Gil Mantera's Party Dream. I feel almost dirty
talking about the experience, like I'm airing someone's dirty secrets. The two
brothers, Gil and Ultimate Donny Mantera, arrived onstage clad in largely
black outfits--leather, faux leather, suede, and the like. They immediately
preened their way through an instrumental number that had both of them
charging towards the audience with their guitars. The two brothers had an
almost unsettling rapport as they seemed to physically and psychologically
fight with each other throughout the performance. Donny sang with macho gusto
and righteousness ("I only want justice / I only want equality, yeah")
while Gil skulked about him, prancing and at times even upsetting his
brother's performance. Donny never really lashed back, but his face would
register disgust in these moments. It was family drama as rich as anything in
a Lifetime movie.

Donny's between-song monologues were absurdist send-ups of the conventions of
such banter. The brothers also denuded themselves down to their skivvies by
the end of their set. The overall effect was intensely magnetic, and as a
friend pointed out to me, almost all attendees were pressed up to the stage in
order to be as close to the duo as possible. The music was undeniably
infectious, if one can appreciate or at least abide the theatrics. 80s synth
pop/guitar rock with tongue firmly in cheek and obviously being done out of
love. I'd like to see these guys get an opening spot on a tour with
Fischerspooner. That audience will definitely dig what the Party Dream has to
offer in terms of performance art and pop.

Ending my night, I had to wait in a short line to get upstairs to catch a
portion of Art Brut's set. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I hadn't
immediately been struck by the band's recordings - particularly Eddie Argos,
who I thought to be a goofy take on Mark E. Smith. Still, I thought I'd humor
my friend and go along. Of course, I was immediately struck by how wrong my
assessment of Mr. Argos was. While his voice was precisely the same as on
record, he had two secret weapons--an arsenal of good sentiment and a
mustache. Also, what came across live was the amazing skill of the band in
playing their intensely rocking songs. The audience was enrapt, especially
during their renditions of "Emily Kane" and "Moving to L.A." I'm glad that my
first impressions were wrong, as this group puts on an incredibly charismatic
live show that more than backs up the Argos's ranting. A good end to a first
night with more joy than frustration, and the hope of more personal
revelations in store for the rest of the festival.

(Day One)
(Day Two)
(Day Three)
(Day Four)