This year, my SXSW experience felt a bit like a walk down memory lane with performances by such 80s and 90s legends as Jesus and the Mary Chain, Corrosion of Conformity, Built to Spill, and Pennywise. All these bands, although aged and weathered, put on inspired performances that were highlights of my week. Despite the daily rekindling of my youth, I also discovered more bands this year than I have in years past. As with every year, below you will find some of my favorite performances, showcases, and the less than stellar experiences of the week.
Best Showcase- Merge Records
Although I didn’t catch much in the way of showcases (most nights involved jumping bar to bar like a real life game of “Frogger” in the streets of Austin), I did end up at Frank’s hot dog bar to catch a few artists for the Merge showcase. My recent obsession with Merge Records has been a result of my reading of Our Noise: the Story of Merge Records. None of the artists chronicled in the book were playing on their showcase, but a line-up that featured M. Ward, Eleanor Friedberger, The Love Language, Imperial Teen, Bob Mould, and Crooked Fingers was still one of the best of the week (although I was disappointed by the absence of Lampchop, having hoped they’d appear in support of their critically acclaimed album “Mr. M”).
Above the stage there sat a VIP room where a dozen or so people sat and looked down upon us like peasants. I kept trying to spot Mac or Laura, the founders of the label and members of the influential pop-punk band Superchunk, but I had no luck. It wasn’t until I took a trip to the bathroom that I realized Mac was standing right next to the stage bouncing his head to the music. “How cool?” I thought. Instead of hiding out up in the green room, the head of the label was still down with the commoners, digging the music his bands put out and showing his support. There’s a reason Merge is thriving amidst this unstable time in the music industry.
While all the bands and artists put on stellar sets, the one performance that stood out the most to me was by The Love Language. I own and am a fan of Love Language’s 2009 self-titled release, but I never saw much in it beyond a series of lo-fi fuzzy-folk songs. I now realize I was missing something in the music, that something being the youthful angst and desperation buried in each melody and guitar riff. My recognition of these qualities was illuminated by their performance, a 40-minute set of energetic frustration and furor on display. The newer songs showed a band that had matured and now sits on the brink of becoming the next great discovery of Merge Records. At one point an amp started to buzz and make a strange noise, at which point singer Stuart McLamb quipped, “Unfortunately, Arcade Fire borrowed our back-up amp,” a dig at Merge’s monolith. If my calculations are any indication, The Love Language may very well become Merge’s next generation of amp borrowers.
I dropped the ball on filming this week (tons of excuses, no time to explain), so most of the videos this year are from what I could lift off YouTube. Sorry. Here’s a clip of a Love Language song…I know, lame, but it’s something, right?:
Best Solo- Eleanor Friedberger
I was never much interested in the music of Eleanor Friedberger. Her work with Fiery Furnaces never captured my curiosity and the idea of a more barebones Friedberger with her solo work made me even less intrigued. In the words of Superchunk, “Like a fool” I missed out on what I now realize is one of the best singer-songwriter in recent years. Taking the stage with only an acoustic guitar and no back-up band, Eleanor played a straight-forward set that was both intimate and entrancing. While many in the audience continued their conversations, she barreled through her set like a tanker, somehow blocking out all the industry hub-bub echoing around the room and making her delicate songs somehow sound aggressive. Her personal lyrics captured my attention right away, and her smooth alto voice kept me hooked in on each song. In a week where I saw over 40 bands, it takes a lot to get my focus, especially for the entirety of a set, but Eleanor had a firm grasp on my heart from start to finish.
Eleanor performing a show in 2011:
Best Solo Artist Discovered- Chad Valley
It has inadvertently become a tradition that I make an appearance at Insound’s yearly day party. This is due in part to the five-dollar endless cup of beer that has been a staple of their shows for eight years running, but it also has to do with the collection of surprising artists they’ve always featured. I didn’t stay at the Insound show for long this year, but I did stick around long enough to catch the opening performance by one-man electronica artist Chad Valley, hailing from Oxford.
While I rarely find a live performance of electronica music to be very entertaining (“Hey! That guy just pushed play on his laptop!”), Chad Valley was able to pull it off in fascinating fashion. Like a little kid playing a game of “Battleship” by himself, Chad Valley was able to create a battle on his own, slowly building synth lines and drum loops from the ground up and then tossing them into the pandemonium within his loop pedals. And as the tropical dance battle ensued, he’d grab a microphone, and like the God of War, echoed over the hills and valleys of soundscapes with a commanding voice that spoke to the soul soldier within all in attendance. Unfortuantely, there were only a dozen or so of us there to hear his gospel, but damn if we didn’t all leave his set like Tom Revere, spreading the news that “The British musician Chad Valley is coming, and he’s determined to make you drop your muskets and dance!”
An actual video of Chad Valley performing at the show I was at!:
Best Venue- Hotel Vegan
I’m not sure what the venue known as “Hotel Vegan” is when SXSW isn’t in town (all the shows at it were for the music blog site Brooklyn Vegan), but of all the new venues I visited this year, it offered the perfect setting for seeing multiple bands within an intimate setting in a short amount of time. Sure it was a long walk down Sixth Street to get there, and it may not have been the most well kempt venue (I’ll be honest, it was a shit-hole), but the three stage set-up provided for prime SXSW day party viewing. I had the pleasure of seeing Chelsea Wolfe, Japandroids, Frankie Rose, Deaf Heaven, and Japandroids all within the span of a couple hours. All of these bands were on my list of bands I wanted to see, and thanks to this venue, I was able to cross more bands off my list than past years (although, how I missed all seven of The War On Drug’s performances still haunts me).
Best Metal Band- Pilgrim
Not since the days when SongsSucks would join me for SXSW have I seen as many metal bands as I did this year (keeping fingers crossed on a welcome return to Austin for SongsSucks in 2013). In fact, the first band I saw all week was none other than Pilgrim, the band I reviewed the week prior on their album “Misery Wizard.” I wasn’t quite sure how doom metal would translate to the stage, but the band didn’t let me down. Like the brooms in “Fantasia”, the audience slowly followed the music’s lead with each powerful stroke of the Wizard’s spell-wielding guitar, putting us all in a hypnotic trance. And really, who wants to hurt their neck from head banging within the first hour of SXSW?
Best Day Party- Brooklyn Vegan/BBG Metal Show
I saved my serious head banging for the final day of SXSW at the Brooklyn Vegan/BBG metal show. While most Austinites wandered the streets in a drunken, St. Patrick’s Day stupor, we made our way into the cozy confines of Lovejoy’s for a metal lineup that would make Toni Iommi blush. We arrived just in time to catch the end of Hull’s crushing set. The scene within the little bar was pretty intense, a sea of black shirts and long hair all violently convulsing to the crushing drums and deafening distortion. From there, Denver speed metal band Speedwolf took to the stage, finishing with the song “Denver 666” and ending with the proclamation “Fuck Tim Tebow!” From there the big names began to take-over where the youngsters had left off – Pallbearer, The Atlas Moth, Nachtmystium, and the only SXSW performance by French black metal artist Alcest.
And to make matters worse, all these crazy metal heads were chugging down glass after glass of the free beer on tap, Jester King’s Black Metal Imperial Stout, a 10% alcohol beast that only stirred the crowd into an even more raging fervor. Who needs the amateur hour of Irish music and Guinness when you can soak in some raw drunken dirges while gulping down a real vicious stout.
“Denver 666″ by Speedwolf at the Brooklyn Vegan/BBG Show (this is for you Tebow!):
Most Disappointing Band- Mr. Dream
As discussed in my “Top 40 Albums of 2011” list, I originally didn’t want to be a fan of Mr. Dream due to the fact that they’re comprised of two Harvard grads who went on to write for the Village Voice and Pitchfork. I of course went on to love the album, placing it at the 17th spot on my list due to its borrowing from past indie greats and melding them into a new creation. As a result, they were near the top of my list of bands I had to see this year.
After missing their performance at the 512 Bar on Thursday, I made sure to catch their show at Lovejoy’s the next day. Now, I’m not sure if it had something to do with the lackluster crowd that afternoon, or if the band was exhausted from a couple days of endless performances, but they took the stage and put on one of the most uninspired performances of the week. They stood at their microphones, robotically singing and playing their instruments, all the while staring lethargically at the crowd. I’m not ready to jump off the Mr. Dream ship just yet, but I can’t help but wonder if these music critics are masters of the recording studio and still amateurs of the stage.
Best Band Discovered- Diarrhea Planet
While Mr. Dream seemed to loath the small crowd before them, Diarrhea Planet thrived off it. To a crowd comprised of around a dozen people, Diarrhea Planet took to the Beerland stage on Saturday afternoon and put on a blistering performance meant for arenas. The little stage couldn’t contain the band and its ensemble of four guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer. The four guitar attack seems a bit much on paper, but on the stage each six string shrieked out its own unique riff, all crashing together into one harmonious mix of punk rock and early 80s finger tapping. If Thin Lizzy created the double guitar lead, then Diarrhea Planet are the originators of the quad-guitar solo. Like a hair metal barbershop choir, the four distorted guitars complemented each other, all ringing out joyful songs of childish bliss. By the end of the show, there wasn’t a dry pair of underwear in the house (yes, I made a diarrhea joke…I couldn’t resist).
A clip from a show last year:
Most Surprising Performance- Shearwater
If put on the spot, I would call myself a Shearwater fan. I have three of their albums, and I generally enjoy their music, specifically Meiburg’s syrupy voice. But to say I expected much from their performance on Friday night at the SubPop Showcase would be a stretch. I almost didn’t go to it, deciding between making the trek across town to the Red7 or stay for the entirety of the already discussed Merge Showcase. I often think of Shearwater as “reading music,” a designation given to albums that I can put on while enjoying a book because of their nonintrusive approach. The idea of seeing a relaxing set didn’t entice me much, but I followed my gut and made the 10 block journey due simply to the fact that I’d never seen them before.
Fortunately, Shearwater made the long walk well worth it. While their albums can be a bit ambivalent, their performance was in your face. Meiberg’s usual sleepy voice was wide awake, screaming out with a clear tone that made every half empty beer bottle in the joint rattle in unison. The guitars, usually a shadowy back-drop to Meiberg, were on full display, loud, brash, and distorted (yes, distorted!). It all added up to the type of performance that proves music is meant to be heard live. You can’t truly experience Shearwater and Meiberg’s incredible chops without standing before him and the band, listening to their arousing collection of songs.
A clip from the Waterloo Records show Shearwater played this year:
Best Band- Future of the Left
I saw Future of the Left on my first day, and this may have been a mistake. No other performance of the week could live up to the pure muscle and madness experienced at the British Music Embassy Day Show. As expected, the bar was filled with a bunch of Brits sipping on their tea. The entire set, Andy Falcous had them all eating out of his hands like he had fistfuls of crumpets. After starting off with crowd favorite “Arming Eritrea,” the band tore through a series of new songs, each being instantly gratifying. Usually when a band plays a set comprised of mostly new songs, it can be a bit anti-climactic, but Future of the Left’s offerings were some of the best to ever come from these blokes from Wales (their upcoming release should be of epic proportions). And for anyone not satisfied with the new material, Falcous finished the set with McLusky’s “Lightsabre CockSucking Blues.” Anti-climatic? Quite the contrary (“Are you coming!? Are you coming!? Are you coming!?”).
A new song taken from the show I was at:
Worst Band (or Best)- Supreme Dicks
We went to the Dead Oceans / Jagjaguwar / Secretly Canadian Showcase because I thought we might hear a new band. We definitely heard some otherworldly sounds, but not from a band on the rise. Instead, we wandered to the indoor stage at the Mohawk to discover the Supreme Dicks, a Boston-based experimental band who first got their start in the 80s. They gained their notoriety in the early 90s and then disappeared, only to resurface this past year to help support Jagjaguwar’s release of the retrospective album “Breathing and Not Breathing.”
What we witnessed that night was one of the worst and best performances of the week – let me explain. The music was a garbled mess of off-beat drums, mumbling-out of key singing, a strange squawking electronic feedback, and a lost guitar strum that always seemed to be searching for the rest of the band. It sounded bad. Really bad. Yet I struggle to name them the worst band of the week (hence the mixed signals of best/worst).
The performance was a sight to behold. Front and center stood a tambourine player. This may not seem strange, but the fact that she was wearing a banana peel on her head and raising her tambourine up and down like it was a false idol made for quite a scene. Every few minutes she’d stop, put her idol aside, and stare up at the sky like God was about to smite here. Beside her stood the guitar player, a middle age guy, looking at her the entire set with a look of humor and bewilderment. Next to the stage is a stairwell leading to the green room, and the band made sure to make use of it with one of the members running up and down it with a hunter orange stocking mask on as he spastically played on an instrument that can only be described as electrical chaos.
When my jaw wasn’t dropped, I was laughing. That is until I looked to my left and realized J. Mascis was standing next to me, seemingly enjoying the set like he was witnessing the coming of Christ. And maybe he was, in the form of a shiny tambourine (or maybe a banana peel wearing Goddess).
Is it weird that one of the only peformances I recorded this year was one I deemed the worst? I’m beginning to lean more toward best as I type this:
WorstVenue- The Main
As a final thought, I just wanted to express my sadness and disgust at the demise of Emo’s. I’m not sure why or how this staple of the Sixth Street music scene closed down, but I can’t recall a year at SXSW that didn’t include a show at this venue. Oh, I suppose the building is technically still there, and they did still have shows at the venues now known as “The Main” and “The Junior,” but the ambiance that was Emo’s has all but vanished. No more bleachers. No more outlandish artwork on the walls. No more picnic tables for taking a break.
I’ve been attending SXSW for eight years, and I guess it was bound to happen someday. Mortality and all that good stuff. Over the years I’ve seen so many bars on 6th Street change their name, but it has never meant much to me (as long as they had beer on tap). The death of Emo’s; this was something I never thought I’d see. Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Les Savy Fav, Dinosaur Jr…some of the best performances I’ve ever witnessed all now just ghosts haunting the shell of a building that once was called Emo’s.
How quickly our memories can disappear into the ether.
Here’s one of my last shows at Emo’s, Sebadoh’s “Too Pure” – great show Lou; great show: