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SXSW 2015


This was a year of many firsts for me at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. For the first time in 12 years, I didn’t get a wristband, didn’t attend the entire week of events, and didn’t have any friends join me for the week of music madness. All of these firsts were a result of another first for me – my spring break from work didn’t line up with the music festival this year. After spending my actual spring break in San Diego with a friend (great beaches, great weather, and great beer), I didn’t think I’d attend the festival this year due to money, work, and the lack of comrades.

Then, of course, the day of the festival neared and I got the SXSW itch – I had to go. I ended up calling-in sick to work two days (don’t tell my boss) and made the best of my three days in Austin. Usually the SXSW experience contains its moments of frustration (the goose chase that is buying a wristband, the annoyance of not being able to get into shows, and the insanity of 6th Street) but this year didn’t feature any of these issue. I avoided 6th Street for the most part, didn’t worry about the wristband rat race, and was able to get into every venue I walked to. Not only that, but almost every performance I saw was top-notch. Although I don’t have nearly as much experience to draw from for this year’s best of SXSW list, here were some of the highlights (and a few low-lights).

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Destroyer “To the Heart of the Sun On the Back of Vultures, I’ll Go”

A few years ago I read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, and I found the chapter on Dylan’s approach to live performances to be pretty polarizing stuff. Dylan discusses the boredom and monotony that comes with performing the same songs every night. On his 1987 tour, Dylan opted to change his live shows to a more organic experience, and he’s hasn’t altered his live show methodology since. Instead of giving the fans what they what, Bob and his ever-changing band take Dylan standards and flip them on their head.  Some tours have interpreted his songs within the style of blues while other times his touring band can resemble a bluegrass outfit.  I’ve seen Dylan perform twice, and during both shows I had the same guessing game experience where half the time I wasn’t quite sure what song he was performing.  It doesn’t help that his voice is almost unintelligible these days.

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To Film or Not to Film…

Technological innovations over the past 10 years have changed the entire concert experience. There was a time where filming or tape recording a concert were frowned upon. In fact, there was an entire episode of What’s Happening? in the mid-70s that focused on the perils of bootlegging concerts (featuring The Doobie Brothers!). But in today’s concert setting, people pull out their phones to live tweet, take pictures, and film with nary a glance from security or venue staff. I myself get annoyed by the iPhone Army present at most shows, many patrons spending more time checking their Facebook status update about seeing the band than actually watching them. I don’t mind patrons taking a moment to snap a picture, but when it turns into a photo shoot, I have a problem.

Several years ago I saw Broken Social Scene at SXSW and before even playing a song, front man Kevin Drew gave a speech along the lines of “Instead of trying to capture this concert through videos and photos, let’s just enjoy the moment and let our memories encapsulate it.” This was a big moment for me since I’d spent the past year filming a lot of shows for this blog (one look at my YouTube page and you’ll see there’s been a major falloff in video posts since that show). Up-and-coming British post-punk band Savages have taken it a step further, requiring all patrons to turn off their phones or the band won’t play.

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SXSW 2013

IMG_0926 covpy

Just moments before sitting down to write about the best and worst of the South By Southwest music festival of last week, I found out about the death of Jason Molina, the troubled genius behind folk-blues outfits like Songs/Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company.  This news would have been unsettling and heartbreaking regardless of what I was about to embark on, but sitting here trying to write about my 10th year at the music festival, I can’t help but think back to my first year in attendance and how I got to see Magnolia Electric Company perform at The Parish. 

A lot has changed since that night a decade ago when Molina first enchanted me with his fragile, somber voice. Over the years I’ve seen SXSW grow along with my understanding of the festival and all its nuances.  I think back to those performances from the first few years and wonder where the festival’s one time luster has gone. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a great week, seeing dozens of bands each day, but along with the growth of social media, SXSW has become more about the hype and less about discovering unpolished gems like my friends and I did 10 years ago with Jason Molina and his band.  Yes, Dave Grohl, Stevie Nicks, and John Fogerty played a surprise set together, as well as Prince and Green Day (badge only shows), but due to the influx of speculation and misinformation within the Twitter world, I was unable to see several shows I would have in years past due to the miles of sheep lined up in hopes of seeing MTV TRL darlings like of Usher and Justin Timberlake.

Yet as much as these moments of frustration tainted my week, I still relished my chance to see up-and-coming artists pour their hearts out on the stage.  Within the past ten years I’ve seen unknown artists perform at SXSW that went on to big time success (Bon Iver, The Fleet Foxes, and TV On the Radio), and I expect that many of the artists seen this week will go on to do just the same. Who knows? Maybe in ten years folks will be lining up for miles to see some of my favorites from this past week while I roam 6th street, 10 years older and wiser, in search of that next great unearthed treasure.

In memory of Jason Molina, I present to you my list of the best and worst of SXSW 2013.

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Posterized: Elliott Smith / Steamboat / Austin, Texas

posterized n  – 1. North American slang derived from an action in the game of basketball in which the offensive player “dunks” over a defending player in a play that is spectacular enough to warrant reproduction in a printed poster  2. to be humbled, shamed, and exposed as an inferior athlete   3. a blog series on BDWPS.com that revisits various concert posters collected over the past ten years by contributor Android50

To be posterized is to be remembered – whether it be Tracey McGrady over the towering Shawn Bradley, Malik Rose humbling the finger wagging Dikembe Mutumbo, or Vince Carter shaming every unsuspecting European that got in his way during the 2000 Olympics.  The concept of being posterized began with the Airness himself, Michael Jordan, victimizing NBA rosters throughout the late 80s and early 90s. Guys like Patrick Ewing, Kevin McHale, and Hakeem Olajuwon will forever be immortalized thanks to their inclusion on iconic Jordan posters that adorned the bedrooms of every warm-blooded teenage boy between 1986 and 1993.   My childhood bedroom would be one of these many Meccas to Jordan thanks to my older brother who shared a room with me. I tried countering my brother’s yearning to be “Like Mike” with as many David Robinson posters as I could find in Northwest Iowa (as difficult as you would imagine).   I eventually held a dominate Admiral grasp on the room once my brother and his Jordan posters went off to college.

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Lou Barlow Hates Me.

Lou Barlow hates my guts. This I know is true. I’ve seen him perform three times (solo, with Dinosaur Jr., and with Sebadoh) and on each occasion his hatred was made apparently clear. My recent behavior at a Sebadoh show proves I haven’t learned my lesson.

It all began back in 2005 when PtheStudP, Johnny Goodyear, and myself saw Lou Barlow perform a solo performance during SXSW at The Parish.  As I remember it, he put on a fabulous, intimate set, highlighted by a performance of the song “Mary”, a song questioning the true origins of Christ.

Afterwards we went off to catch more shows and drink more beer. By the end of the night our merry crew of mischief-makers were stumbling up the sidewalk of 8th street in search of our parking garage when we saw Lou Barlow, in the flesh, up ahead, walking towards us.  He was close enough that none of us dared to notify each other in case he’d hear us, yet far enough away that we had the awkward, silent walk ahead of us.  As we neared the face to face walk by with Lou, I scrambled to think of what to say.

By the time we stood feet away, I only lowered my head and avoided eye contact with the Almighty Lou. He passed by us, and not a word was spoken by any of us.  Within my head I awoke, realizing something had to be said: a thank you, a “we’re big fans”, or even a question like “Will there ever be another Folk Implosion album?” With each step forward, our opportunity to speak to the great one moved further and further away. I quickly turned around to see Lou’s back walking away and blurted out, “GREAT SHOW LOOOOOOOOOOOOU!”

Lou stopped in his tracks and turned his head back toward us. Upon his face sat an annoyed scowl, followed by a disappointed shake of his head.  I had angered the Gods.  He turned away and not another word was spoken.

Once we’d retreated from the scene of embarrassment, Johnny and P railed into me for mocking Lou. I had no intentions of making fun of Mr. Barlow, but PtheStudP’s retelling captured the complete obnoxiousness that was my shout of, “Great show LOOOOOOOOOOOOOU!” To this day I haven’t lived this moment down.

So when the opportunity to see Sebadoh at Emo’s in Austin arose a few months ago, I was tentative. Did I dare tempt fate?

Of course I ignored my uncertainties (it is Sebadoh after all), and went to the show, vowing to myself that even if the opportunity came up to talk to Lou that I wouldn’t take it.  My friend Doon and I arrived in Austin early in the afternoon, so we decided to visit 6th street for a few pre-show drinks. Not a good idea, especially when you start at four in the afternoon. After burgers at Casino El Camino, we hit a few more bars, eventually watching the NBA Dunk Contest which only caused me to drink at an even faster rate (a pseudo-dunk over a Kia won? Really?!).

By the time we arrived at Emo’s, I was three sheets to the wind. As we strolled through the entrance, the first thing I saw was Lou “mother fucking” Barlow running the merch booth, all by himself. There were no patrons, just Lou, leaning on the counter, smiling at the passer-bys.

As I neared him I felt his eyes moving up toward my face and I realized I had to retreat. What if he remembered me as the “Great show Loooooou!” guy?! I made my way into the crowd, found a hiding place up by the stage, and spied the merch booth from a far.  Part of me wanted to correct my wrongs, to prove to Lou that I wasn’t a gigantic douche, yet I restrained my drunken self.

The girl standing next to me must have noticed me watching Lou because she interrupted my stakeout asking, “You ever seen Sebadoh before?” I awoke from my haze and answered her question, feeling like a creeper. But then she one-upped me. “Yeah, we’ve seen them play the last three nights starting in Norman, then Dallas, and finally here.” I love Sebadoh, but following the band for three straight shows? She was either a Lou Barlow groupie or stalker – or both. “You ever talked to him?” she asked.

“Um…no,” I replied, hiding the shame of my one Lou Barlow interaction.

“Yeah, we talked to him last night. He’s so chill. Real nice guy.” Crap. The one time I interacted with the guy he was neither cool nor relaxed.  Was I that big of a dick that I could melt Lou Barlow’s “chill” personality into burning anger?

Eventually Lou and crew took the stage for sound check, and as I stood stage side, Lou bent down in front of me to adjust his pedals. “Don’t say anything, don’t say anything, don’t say anything,” echoed in my brain.  Somehow my inner-monologue squelched my urge to speak.  The girl next to me didn’t have the same restraint. “Are you playing all of ‘Bubble and Scrape’ tonight?” she asked.

Lou looked up through his horn-rimmed glasses and grinned, “Yep, we’re playing stuff from everything. ‘Harmacy’, ‘Bubble and Scrape’, ‘Bakesale’, you name it.” He was so nice! So congenial! How had we started off on such a bad foot?  Yet I remained stuck to my position as a “viewer”, no interaction necessary.

As with most  sound checks, I checked out for a bit, staring blankly at the drum kit as thoughts of shitty dunk contests danced in my head.  Lou bent down in front of me once again to tweak his pedals some more. The headstock of his guitar sat right in the line of my vision, and I noticed something strange: a 12-string guitar with only four strings. Without even thinking, the alcohol took over my brain and I said without any filter, “That 12-string only has four strings.” I don’t know who I was talking to, or why I was talking – I was simply talking for talking sake.  Lou looked up to me and smiled. Crap! He’d heard me!

“That’s right,” he replied in a tone that implied I was a four year old. I’d broken my code, and now I didn’t know whether Lou was mocking me or if he regularly spoke like Ms. Lippy to his fans.  I had to add a follow-up question; I’d already broken my code of silence, might as well try to redeem myself from sounding like a complete tard. “Um, what song do you play that guitar on?” I asked. In hindsight, this was a horrible question, but for some reason, in that moment I figured he was like Sonic Youth and had a guitar for each song.

My friend realized I was talking to Lou and captured this momentous occasion with his camera phone (I'm the bald dude staring at Lou's guitar).

Once again, his nurturing voice responded, “I play it on a lot of songs.” He gave me another friendly look that could have been read as either mocking or grateful. To this day I’m not sure if it was a “Wow, that guy’s a drunken fool” smile or if it was a legitimate “He’s a fan and I care about that guy” smile.  I didn’t have time to mull over his response because only seconds later the first chord rang out of the speakers and all my inebriated thoughts were on the music.

He could have answered “Beauty of the Ride” with him playing his mystical 12-string here:

The band went on to play for two hours. TWO HOURS! Usually when a show goes this long I get bored, but I actually had no idea it had gone this long. I figured it was a 45-minute set until Doon informed me later how long they’d played.  It was literally one classic after another. Like putting your i-Pod on shuffle through your Sebadoh folder (translation: fucking well time spent).

Only later did I realize that I’d made a fool of myself in front of Lou once again.  First time I was an ass, second time a fool.  Third time’s a charm, right?  I guess I’ll just have to wait for the Folk Implosion reunion tour to make things right.

A clip I took only moments after being talked to like a child by Lou:

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