Before I get into all the fun that is South By Southwest, I wanted to first take a moment to express my sympathy for those who were injured and lost their lives during Wednesday night’s festivities. My two friends actually witnessed the horrific event, and if I hadn’t gone for a quick restroom break before leaving Cheer Up Charlie’s, we could have been out there when the drunken asshole selfishly plowed through a barricaded street. I’m not sure if the media conveyed the amazing speed and efficiency executed by the medics, volunteers, and police that evening. By the time I emerged to meet up with my friends, only minutes after the atrocity, all 25 of the victims were already receiving assistance, often from groups of three to five people, administering CPR and helping to bandage wounds.
With SXSW growing more and more each year, the streets feel more chaotic and dangerous than ever, but the quickness and professionalism displayed by everyone that night assured me that both SXSW and the city of Austin are prepared for literally anything. While this event certainly put a damper on the week, there were still a lot of highlights to look back on. Here are some of the best and worst moments from the week…
BEST SOLO ARTIST – Kurt Vile
My friends and I were at Cheer Up Charlie’s that night to catch Cloud Nothings and Kurt Vile play back-to-back. After Cloud Nothings put on a high-energy performance, I tentatively waited for Vile to take the stage. I’d seen him perform two times prior, yet both experiences were a bit disappointing. Not that I don’t enjoy Vile’s music; in fact, I named Smoke Ring For My Halo the top album of 2011. In past appearances he played with his band The Violators, and as a result, the performance took on a much more jam band appeal than featured on his albums. I never quite enjoyed it because my favorite Vile moments always tend to be the softer, more intimate tracks.
Much to my surprise, Vile took to the stage this year alone with only an acoustic guitar to hide behind. He sat on a stool, hunched over his instrument and commenced going through all of my favorite Vile songs. Without the band up there, he seemed exposed and uncomfortable, yet he’d occasionally joke with the crowd before moving into another classic. His honest, raw performance solidified my belief that Kurt Vile is my hero.
BEST SHOWCASE – Vice Records
For the second year straight, my best showcase experience came at the hands of Vice Records. Last year, it was an all hip-hop escapade, but this year they went with a more garage rock/punk line-up featuring Team Spirit, OFF!, and The Black Lips. We arrived in time to catch the second half of Team Spirit’s performance, a band I’d never heard before. They started the set off with a jangly, fun mix of old school rock n’ roll. Vice ensured that the fun kept going throughout the evening, offering free vodka drinks (I don’t remember the brand, but it looked fancy). It’s rare for a showcase to provide free drinks, so it was a nice cherry on top after two days of high-priced food and beverages.
OFF! did what OFF! does best – put on a damn good show. I’ve now seen them perform five times (two this year at SXSW) and they never disappoint. Sure, singer Keith Morris’s between song rants are a bit zany and weird (you want to put a dome over Austin and nuke Texas?!), but the band’s brand of high-speed, hardcore punk quickly washes away any of the nonsense he spews. Unlike OFF!, my past experiences of seeing The Black Lips have not been as fruitful. Not that they’ve been bad; they just never lived up to the energy I’ve found on their lo-fi albums. The mix of rushing adrenaline from the OFF! show and free-flowing vodka must have made for the perfect storm last Thursday because Black Lips ended the night like every night at SXSW should end. I found myself dancing like a fool as the band moved from one memorable, upbeat song to another. Vice sure knows how to concoct the perfect party atmosphere for SXSW.
A nice Lou Reed cover:
WORST VENUE- TenOak
During any other week, I bet TenOak is a pretty cool place. It claims to have the biggest variety of bourbon in Texas and has classy décor. But on Friday night when we arrived to TenOak to see the Lawrence, Kansas band Hospital Ships, there was nothing “cool” about it.
First off, we couldn’t even figure out how to enter the place. The lines that obscured the front of the building didn’t help, but when you looked inside the open-faced windows, there were no bands to be found. When we finally did maneuver our way through the entrance, we discovered blaring hip-hop music and patrons that looked nothing like the SXSW attendees we’d grown accustomed to. We squeezed our way around dancing college students (okay, they were grinding) and were finally directed to the back where the bands were playing. When we arrived, we couldn’t quite figure out where the stage was at. There seemed to be a kit set up in the corner, but right in front of it was a pile of gear, obscuring the view. This would end up being the stage, and said gear was never cleared from the front of the stage. At one point, the drummer for the next band began setting up his gear, right at the foot of the stage. The entire set-up was pretty surreal. As if this horror show of a set-up wasn’t bad enough, whenever the band had a softer moment in a song, the blaring hip-hop would come bleeding in, destroying the deepest moments of the performance. Hospital Ships plowed through this disaster of a venue and was still able to put on a pretty impressive set. I can’t wait to see them again at a real venue.
BEST DAY PARTY- Brooklyn Vegan
I should call this “BEST DAY PARTIES” because Brooklyn Vegan hosted a show at Red7 everyday. We ended up at their party two days in a row, and both experiences provided some of the best discoveries all week. Bands I’d never heard of like Upset, The Entrance Band, Nothing, and The Blind Shake had never passed under my radar, and their performances all had me nodding my head to the beat. One of the best moments at SXSW is when you stumble upon an amazing band you’d never heard before, and Brooklyn Vegan had me experiencing that feeling of discovery over and over again.
Brooklyn Vegan wisely sprinkled these bands between other established acts like Mutual Benefit, OFF!, Trash Talk, and Cate Le Bon, making for two days of jam-packed musical bliss. Each day also featured a grab bag of goodies: free earplugs, free shades, free Jamison, free Shiner Bock, free popcorn, and even free Frito Pie. While many of the bands took a moment to complain about the brutal comment section on the website Brooklyn Vegan, the event was a much more positive experience.
BEST DISCOVERY- The Blind Shake
Probably my favorite band discovered at a Brooklyn Vegan show was Minneapolis post-punk band, The Blind Shake. The band took to the stage wearing matching (or at least similar) black jackets, shaved heads, and an all-business attitude. From what I’ve read since, they’ve been together for several years (two of the trio are brothers), and that experience showed on the stage as they energetically ripped through one angular riff after another, the two guitar assault conjuring up memories of Andy Gill’s metallic tinged sound. As I watched them bounce around the stage, performing instantly memorable punk melodies, I kept thinking, “If I had a label, this would be the first band I’d sign.” Come to find out, John Dwyer’s Castleface Records recently signed them; I’d like to believe that this mean’s Dwyer and I think alike. A man can dream.
BEST ARTIST- Cate Le Bon
Back in December, I made a HUGE mistake. Let me explain. In preparation for my year-end list, I tried to make a last-minute listen through anything and everything that had failed to reach my ear waves up to that point. One of these artists was Cate Le Bon. In November, I’d given her album Mug Museum a sample listen on iTunes and jotted her name down as something I probably needed to check out. With the end of year list looming, I finally purchased her album and discovered the spectacular album that I had been missing out on. She ended up making my year-end list (number 23), but the low number was due simply to not being familiar with the album enough to deem it too high. Mistake.
Mug Museum is an incredible album of infectious melodies and joyful guitar licks. Her performance only solidified my feeling of failure with Cate and her highly talented band putting on what I would deem the best show I saw all week. She stood at her mike with confidence and grace, singing with that haunting voice reminiscent of Nico, all the while her fingers working tirelessly up and down her fret board, cascading melodies washing over the crowd endlessly. It wasn’t only Cate working her magic. The positive energy oozed from the ever-present bassist Sweet Babboo (that’s what it says his name is on Wikipedia; I’m not making this up!), and Guitarist/keyboardist H. Hawkline multi-tasked, moving from one instrument to the next, all the while singing in a falsetto that created the perfect back-drop for Cate’s unique voice. I was tempted to name Cate my favorite solo artist of the week, but her band really took her performance to another level. Hopefully she’ll release another album soon so I can pay it the respect that I failed to with Mug Museum.
WORST BAND – Emily’s Army
It wouldn’t be a complete SXSW without a few bad bands in the mix, and Emily’s Army takes the cake. It wasn’t so much that they were talentless, it was just that they stunk of affectation. This group of teenagers (think One Direction with spiked hair) came out onto the stage wearing matching outfits comprised of dress shirts, ties, and board shorts. It was the most blatant display of “business up front and party in the back” since Billy Ray Cyrus’s days of “Achey Breaky Heart.” Their songs were just as manufactured, a congealed mush of saccharine pop-punk. They are groomed for mainstream success with young teenage girls, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their drivel ends up making it big soon. You may be wondering why I wasthere in the first place? Answer: free beer. Unfortunately, not even guzzling three free beers in 30 minutes could make their performance tolerable.
BEST METAL BAND- Power Trip
I listened to Power Trip’s 2013 album Manifest Decimation earlier this year, and I didn’t think much of it. I would learn this year at SXSW that in order to truly appreciate this band, you have to see them live. At that point on Friday afternoon, we were pretty drained, sitting on the leather couches in the back corner of the Empire Control Room. My friend Sewer and I were staring listlessly at the floor when Power Trip played their opening riff. Both our heads shot up and looked at each other – they had played a Slayer riff! Like two snakes in a basket, Power Trip’s music made us both mindlessly rise to our feet and approach the stage. The quick nod to Slayer served as the perfect introduction to the band as they blasted through a set of scorching hot thrash metal, hardcore de jour. Frontman Riley Gale served as the resident mad man, wailing out from what sounded like the pits of hell as the pounding drums drove the rest of the band into a frenzy. By the end of their set, there was a stiff neck in the house.
WORST SXSW TREND – Celebrities
In closing, I’d like to discuss a discouraging trend that I’ve seen in the past few years at SXSW, but never worse than this year – the influx of celebrities. When I first started attending SXSW 11 years ago, there weren’t any big names to be found. It was a festival for up-and-coming indie bands and all of the shows held that same DIY spirit. This year though, the celebrity influence became worse than ever. Since returning from Austin last week, I’ve had a handful of people ask me questions like: “Did you get to see Lady Gaga perform?” “Did you go to any of Jimmy Kimmel’s live tapings?” “Please tell me you got to see (insert bands like: Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, and Keith Urban)?” I’d keep my composure and simply answer “No.”
I’ve witnessed this one time lo-key festival become a corporate destination, partly as a result of the addition of both the Interactive and Movie festivals the week earlier. Now the streets of Austin are more packed then ever, the majority of the folks roaming around not even attending the shows, rather people watching in hopes of a chance run-in with Ryan Gosling, Ethan Hawke, or Kanye West. One of my friends said he wouldn’t come again due to the skyrocketing prices and the zombie-like crowd of people searching for movie stars to fawn over. Despite my gut feeling, I still hold on firmly to my allegiance to SXSW. Maybe it’s getting more media coverage and maybe there are more people cramming onto 6th street, but I’m still seeing great performances and discovering promising young acts. From now on when I’m asked if I saw Lady GaGa, I’m simply going to respond gleefully, “No, but I did get to see Diarrhea Planet perform!” That should shut them up.