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Best and Worst of SXSW 2011 (Part II)

Worst Day Party- Whoopsy Party

Slough Feg. The instant I saw this name on the SXSW 2011 roster, I vowed to myself that I would see them.  With only a couple of appearances, I knew I couldn’t afford to do like I do with most bands and figure I can see them at a show later in the week. No, I had to see Slough Feg again after discovering them two years ago at a show that still runs vividly in my memory.

After spending the day being pampered at the Rhapsody Rocks day show (read SXSW 2011 part I for more information on this “Spa Day for Drunks”), we hailed a cab and began the long drive over to Trophy’s Bar on Congress where Slough Feg would be playing in an hour. A 15-dollar cab fare just to see one band? You obviously haven’t seen Slough Feg before. Once at Trophy’s, we burst through the door, worried we’d missed the start of the show, but instead, we walked into a bar of zombies, sitting casually at the bar, not seeming concerned at all about the band that was about to blow the roof off the murky little crap-hole. To keep our Guinness buzzes alive, I ordered up a round of four-dollar cans of Lone Star. So much for being spoiled.

I then planted myself in front of the stage as the band set-up.  Soon after, the madness began. Slough Feg sounded as good as I remembered and put on a performance just as grandiose as the last.   The silly banter, the costume changes, the epic double lead guitar solos: it was all there as I recalled. Within five minutes, the once zombie patrons had turned into a raging mass of minions, crowding the stage and begging for more guitar solo insanity.

Slough Feg playing despite the dust storm inside Trophy's.

But then, as singer Michael Scalzi stepped backstage to change shirts one last time, the house music suddenly came up. The band shot confused looks towards the sound guy who made a cutting motion with his hand over his throat. Done? How could they be done? It seemed like they’d just begun! The now frothing crowd began booing and sending their own sign language toward the sound guy, but he stood like a mindless bobble-head, shaking his head left to right.  Soon a chant of “SLOUGH FEG! SLOUGH FEG! SLOUGH FEG!” filled every inch of the bar.  The band forsaw this riot with their album “Ape Uprising!”

Despite our efforts, he wouldn’t budge.  I couldn’t fathom why. They were the final band of the show! There was no reason to make them quit. Yet, he ignored us, exerting his power trip upon all of us and angering the Gods of Metal up above (somewhere Dio is plotting revenge on Trophy’s).  And how had he resisted the power of Slough Feg so easily? He must have been a warlock. It’s the only explanation.

How could anyone shut this down?:

Best Look Alike- Jon Koncak

In the early years, I had a category set aside for former MTV VJs I spotted (Matt Pinfield, Dave Holmes), but it soon after transformed into a look-a-like award. For a few years I had an award for the guy who looked the most like my high school basketball coach Jared Cecil, but that ended when I realized that Justin Vernon was not only the brains behind Bon Iver but that he also served as the bassist to The Rosebuds (I could have continued this tradition if I’d only caught a Gayngs show this year).

For SXSW 2011, the award takes another obscure turn as I name the biggest Jon Koncak look-a-like.   Who’s Jon Koncak? Well, from what I remember as a basketball card-collecting child, he was a power forward for the Atlanta Hawks during the late 80s and early 90s.  It’s not like I’m a huge fan, in fact, I probably haven’t thought of his name since I was 13. Then of course, while sitting around at the Rhapsody Rocks show, I spotted a hipster walking around in a retro Atlanta Hawks jersey, and that old NBA Hoops basketball card came rushing back into my memory. The combination of his quaffed hair and the bright red and gold jersey sent me back to my adolescence within an instant, and I couldn’t stop laughing for the next half hour.

Then, while writing about the Rhapsody Rocks show last week, I went to the Rhapsody Facebook for photos and I came upon a Jon Koncak goldmine:

 

Jon Koncak has never looked more douchey.

Best Solo Artist- Colin Stetson

I wasn’t expecting much from Colin Stetson. Don’t get me wrong, his latest release “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” has been in constant rotation on my i-Pod for the past month, but I just didn’t see how he could transfer the sounds he conjures up on the album to the stage.  If anything, I figured he had to use a loop pedal or at least have a back-up band of some sorts. You can imagine my shock when he walked out at the NPR day party with only a saxophone in hand.  No drum machine, no pedals, no back-up. Just Stetson and his enormous bass sax.

For the next 20 minutes I was transfixed on Stetson, honking an endless stream of notes out of his saxophone while howling out humming parts via his vocal chords. In all my years of going to shows, I’ve never seen one musician exert so much effort, focus, and passion within a performance. You could see his muscle tensing, every vein straining, his lungs constantly heaving for air as he continued a flow of endless cascading melodies.  The fact that he only played four songs didn’t even bother me; the man deserved a break after putting on what would be the best show I saw all week.

Unfortunately, I probably captured his worst song of the set, and even it is pretty impressive:

Biggest Surprise- tUnE-yArDs


The NPR party had even more surprises in store with tUnE-yArDs breaking the mold I’d set for who and what they were all about. I enjoy Merrill Garbus’s album “Bird-Brains” for its intimacy and raw energy, so I expected a show that was barebones and delicate. Wrong again.  Garbus and her band, composed of a bass player and two saxophonists, put on a spirited show filled with head-thumping beats created via loop pedal, live on the spot, all banged away by Garbus herself. Who knew that she is an 808 in human form? For each song, she’d start off with what sounded like a mistake, off-beats and strange clicks and clacks – everything out of place.  Then, right before all our eyes, one beat at a time, layer upon layer, it suddenly turned into the freshest beat south of the Canada (we all know that Canadians can rock a fresh beat).  Her music also took a turn toward a more dub-reggae direction while her unpredictable hooting and hollering that reverberated off the walls like a pinball.  If her performance means anything, her next album should be a boisterous affair.

This is from a different SXSW show, but you get the idea:

Biggest Let-Down- Cloud Nothings

I probably set myself up for this let-down. Since first hearing Cloud Nothings last November, I’ve been gushing about Dylan Baldi’s irresistible pop sensibilities and listening to his three official albums constantly.  I should not be shocked that after such hero-treatment for an 19-year-old kid that he wouldn’t live up to my expectations. I thought his brand of pop-punk would be perfect for an afternoon show at SXSW, but something was missing.  The guitars seemed weak and trebly, the vocals strained and lost, and the songs lacked the fun that I’ve always found while listening to the albums. But probably what hurt the show the most  was Dylan’s complete lack of confidence as the front man.  It felt like watching a 10-year old kid play his first piano recital. Then again, he’s only 19. I’ll give him a few more years before I write off his stage presence.

Best Band- Pete & the Pirates

A few years ago PtheStudP introduced me to Pete and the Pirates, and I really haven’t been the same since.  There pop-melodies have the playfulness of Pavement with the British swagger and sensibility of early Blur.  Thomas Sander’s vocals take their already brilliant riffs and songwriting to a new level, his falsetto childlike and his anthem’s feisty.  Of all the bands that were “must-see” for me this year, Pete & the Pirates topped my list because:

  1. I’m obviously a fan-boy
  2. They rarely tour in the U.S.

Not to toot my own horn too much, but of everything I saw during the week, it truly was the “must see performance”.  They somehow sounded better than they do on “Little Deaths” with the guitars crunching out a little more attitude to take their already stellar set list to another level.  Throughout most of the show I found myself lost in the music, but during one song break I took a moment to think about my old SXSW buddy PtheStudP and how much he would have loved their performance.  For a show that didn’t seem like it could get any better, having my pal PtheStudP would have made it just a little bit sweeter. Here’s to hoping the Pirates find their way to Austin’s shores in 2012.

This clip is for you PtheStudP:

 

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Best and Worst SXSW 2011 (part I)

Once again, South By Southwest was a much different experience this year. The past six years I’ve always had one of two people by my side, and usually both: PtheStudP and Johnny Goodyear.  For the first time, our SXSW pact was broken due to circumstances out of their control, leaving me reeling and unsure whether I could do the festival all by my lonesome.  Fortunately, after making a phone call to my longtime friend Sewer, I was able to coax him to join me for the week, and as an added bonus, my other friend Doon would also be along for most of the festival.  After a week of great shows, free beer, and nightly stops to the Sausage King, here is my list of the best and worst of SXSW 2011.

Best Showcase- Vans

At first glance, you would think that a Showcase held by Van’s would be an emo-scream-o nightmare based solely off of the rosters they’ve organized for the Van’s Warp Tour the past few years. But the likes of Bad Brains, OFF!, Trash Talk, and Black Lips made for a pretty impressive, multi-facted line-up, running the gamut of what punk rock can be.  Whether it be Trash Talk’s rage against melody, OFF!’s resurgence of Black Flag’s crunch, Bad Brain’s fusion of reggae-punk, or even Black Lip’s punk rock take on the 50s and 60s – there was something for everyone in this  punk buffet.

 

Yes, THAT Bad Brains...

Trash Talk took their act to the crowd.

Trash Talk impressed with a rip-roaring show filled with sweat and stage dives.  Their fill-in bass player deserves recognition for stepping into the slot of an injured Spencer Pollard who was stabbed last week in a hate crime.  Black Lips sounded as jangly and fun as ever, although singer Cole Alexander was tame in comparison to the legends I’ve heard of their performances.  Bad Brains seared through classic after classic, and I would challenge to say they sounded better than they did on classics like “I Against I” and “Rock For Light”. Okay, I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but they were pretty damn great for a bunch of old dudes. The highlight of the show though was OFF! with Keith Morris growling and roaring complaints and allegations. He stalked the stage, back and forth, like a man possessed, and if it weren’t for the giant bald spot hidden beneath his five dreads, you’d think they were a group of teenage punks transferred from 1979.

Here’s a clip I took of “Now I’m Pissed”:

Worst Band- Stripminers

She looks excited, doesn't she?

To say the Van’s Showcase was perfect would be a lie.  While I can’t speak for the closer Talib Kweli since we left to go see Pete and the Pirates (more on them in the next post), the opening band The Stripminers were possibly the worst band I’ve ever seen in SXSW history.  Being a “side-project” for The Donna’s Brett Anderson and the Radishes Paul Stinson, The Stripminers not only sang milk-toast-pop-rock fit for the Jonas Brothers, but they were so devoid of charisma that they came across as a vacuum for all that is fun.  I understand that this was one of their first shows together, but you could feel so much tension between the members on the stage that you would swear they are a band of veterans on the verge of a break-up after years of touring.  Nope. They announced their new project in February.

It became obvious quickly that Anderson was the alpha of the group, and the others stayed away from here and avoided eye contact as to not to disturb the sleeping dragon (she didn’t even help the band break down the stage after the show). Mid-show, we tried heading next door to Emo’s Jr. to see a better band, but we were greeted by the rap-metal band Skrew – proof that the curse of Fred Durst still lives.  We decided to return to The Stripminers because at least their miserable performance was funny in a “Piranha 3D” kind of way while Skrew were bad in the vein of “Grown-Ups” (has there ever been a more painful film to watch?).

When we came back to The Stripminers, their crowd had completely evaporated, and Anderson’s request for clapping resulted in only the sound of crickets chirping.  At one point she looked right at Sewer and I and scowled when she saw the two of us laughing directly at her lackluster performance.  I should probably feel bad about that, but for some reason, I don’t.

Best Band Discovered- Davila 666

On Thursday night, when the opportunity to see OFF! arose, Sewer wanted to check them out a second time (plus, Doon had joined us and we both agreed he had to see them). With Megafaun playing next door at the same time, I figured I had an obligation to pay my respects to the guys who wrote and recorded “Gather, Form, & Fly”.  Worried I wouldn’t get in, I left my friends around nine and arrived just in time to catch the Minneapolis band Leisure Birds. I enjoyed their set, but between songs I’d catch a glimmer of punk rock anthems echoing from the “neighbor’s” yard.  After four songs, I decided I had to revisit my friends next door to see what all the commotion was about.

When I walked through the entrance I found what looked to be five Puerto Ricans hopping around while the singer howled out unintelligible lyrics.  Despite the language barrier, the riffs spoke straight to my gut, rumbling for more and pushing me toward my friends who were already taking in the lively set.  Without my old partner PtheStudP around, I didn’t expect to find many new bands, but fortunately I waltzed into the Club DeVille to catch the last half of Davila 666’s set (and I still even got to see Megafaun).

This is the only clip I could find online of their set and it’s cut short, but you get the gist:

Best and Worst Crowd Interaction Moment- Screeching Weasel

I’ve already written a blog on this (see Sunday’s “Video Clip of the Week”), but I can’t deny that Ben Weasel punching two women during what may be Screeching Weasels last show ever will forever be tied to this year’s SXSW.  Looking back, I can’t decide whether it was a horrible moment or punk rock at its finest (hear me out…).  Ben spent 50% of the set complaining about money, SXSW, bloggers, their label, YOU NAME IT. He alienated the majority of the audience by the show’s end, so it’s no wonder that the crowd began tossing beer and ice toward him. In the end he punched two women, something I would never condone, yet I can’t help but feel he pulled an Andy Kauffman on all of us, playing our emotions and leading us toward the type of lowly, unrestrained behavior that punk rock has been missing for a while now.  I bet even he realizes he took his angst just a little too far.

It’s fascinating to watch each time:

Worst Venue: East Side Drive-In

A few weeks before SXSW 2011, a new venue began popping up on all the day showlists – East Side Drive-In.  At first I figured it was just another dude letting bands play at his house a la The Church of the Friendly Ghost, but then suddenly I saw a shocker: Pitchfork was breaking their tradition of doing their parties at Emo’s, opting for this mysterious East Side Drive-In.  It had to be more than just a house, and unfortunately, it was.  I didn’t make it to the Pitchfork show, but I did head out to the east side of the interstate to check out the Fun Fun Fest show at the Drive-In.  When we arrived, we came to find a desolate, dusty field with the type of stages you’d find at a Warp Tour. It looked like a music festival with a food court area, and tents for beer and liquor.  The fact that it was also a free show on a Saturday resulted in a crowd of undesirables. Large crowds, sprawling venues, and food courts: this is exactly what SXSW is not about.

Best Venue- Lovejoy’s

There is not much I can say other than I still adore Lovejoy’s.  It may not have the best stage, but everyday you can guarantee that they will have great free beer on tap. There’s no better way to start each day then with a beer by the likes of Dogfish Head, Flying Dog, and Left Hand.  Not bad in comparison to NPR’s day show offering of one free PBR.

Best Day Party- Rhapsody Rocks

Shockingly though, Lovejoy’s didn’t have best free drinks of the week. The Rhapsody Rocks show at the Club DeVille take that honor, offering up an endless supply of free Guinness, Red Stripe, and Jeremiah Weed. But the free stuff didn’t end there: free posters, t-shirts, bottle openers, pancakes…it seemed like each time you strolled to the port-a-potties a new goody would appear on the table.  Oh, and the show was pretty damn sweet as well. Anytime you kick your show off with Ty Segall, there’s no doubt that someone knows what they’re doing.

Ty Segall woke me from my Guinness haze:

How do you follow Ty Segall up? Kurt Vile and the Violators isn’t a bad choice.  In fact, ever since seeing Vile and his band put on a mesmerizing set, I’ve listened to “Smoke Ring For My Halo” a total of seven times.  With his mellow melodies, I swear he put a trance on me (but I don’t mind).  Starting your day party with Ty Segall and Kurt Vile is like having Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay as your starting pitchers; no need for a bullpen.  I returned to my friends after Vile and we half listened to Small Black and Glasser for the next few hours, although our main focus was on that magical black concoction known as Guinness and conversation that led to excessive laughter.

Around four, the venue began to fill up quickly, signaling the sign that the monsters of indie rock were about to close the show out: yes, my friends, this would be the only Deerhunter show at SXSW 2011, and we were there to see Bradford Cox and company do there thing.  Despite the excessive crowd, we were able to get up pretty close and catch the band under the shade of the tent canopy while all the other onlookers sweated away in the warm Texas sun.  The band took their constantly morphing guitars to a new level, bringing classics like “Desire Lines” and “Nothing Ever Happened” to uncharted territories. At home, I play Deerhunter and focus on the lyrics of loneliness and desperation, but on this day of great music, great beer, and great friends, I listened to them and felt strangely happy.

The Guinness had an affect on my cinematography:

 

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