Often when you eat so much that you are uncomfortably full (my most frequent experience with this is at Fogo de Chao) it takes some time to digest. Such is the case with my first experience going to the Music portion of South by Southwest here in Austin, which ended over a week ago. The Music festival follows closely on the heels of the Interactive festival, and overlaps with the back end of the Film festival, starting up on Wednesday and heading straight through to Saturday night.
Not only was I already a little worn out from the Interactive festival to start with, but I dove right into the Summerbirds in the Cellar on Wednesday at 8 p.m. and didn’t stop until I watched a bleary-eyed Nada Surf set at midnight on Saturday night.
But much like the aforementioned meat overdose you experience when you go to Fogo, the live music binge is so tasty that you don’t really recognize the cost until you collapse on the couch and sleep all day Sunday. I remember descending into downtown on Saturday for the last day with as much excitement as I did on the first day, hearing the blend of music from the nearest venues wafting toward me with as much allure as ever.
So what did I find at South by Southwest? Well, here is a blow-by-blow summary of all the bands I saw and my post-mortem on their sets (I included live tracks/video where I could find them, though they aren’t sometimes from the exact shows I saw – if you have your own please post in the comments):
Summerbirds in the Cellar (Stubb’s): These guys were good, solid rock. Nothing groundbreaking but a good way to start the festival. One of the guitarist’s amp blew out halfway through, but they forged on. (3 of 5 stars – listen)
Papercranes (Stubb’s): Solid performance by a good rock band fronted by a goth-lead songstress (wait a minute, that’s Rain Phoenix!) whose vocals added softness and form to the fray. (3 of 5 stars – listen)
Dead Confederate (Stubb’s): Ear-splitting straight-ahead angst-rock that is hard without becoming metal. Reminded me of Brad Pitt saying “I want you to hit me as hard as you can.” Drummer destroys drum kit with no mercy. (3 of 5 stars – listen)
R.E.M. (Stubb’s): It took lots of standing in place to get to see an R.E.M. show from about 20 feet away, but it was worth it. They played a lot of new stuff, the band was super-tight, and you understood why they’ve done as well as they have for so long. (5 of 5 stars – listen)
Body of War (Stubb’s): I didn’t really know what this was when I got in line, I just knew who was going to be there – Tom Morello (from Rage Against the Machine), Ben Harper, Serj Tankian (from System of a Down), and Billy Bragg. It turned out that Body of War is an anti-Iraq-war documentary made by an ex-marine who was paralyzed in combat, and these notable musicians all contributed songs to its soundtrack. Each of these songs, most of which were soulful and heartfelt, some of which were angry and rebellious, were fantastic in their own right. The stand-outs were Ben Harper, who sat and played a solo steel guitar while the sun went down while his soaring voice took the crowd to another place, and Serj Tankian, whose highly creative musicianship on the solo piano and unique, plaintive voice is even more striking when it’s not laid over System’s typical speed-metal. I also really thought a lot of Mason Jennings. The rousing and memorable ending was led by Tom Morello, who got all the musicians out on stage to sing “This Land is My Land” while the crowd jumped up and down mosh-pit style. (5 of 5 stars, the most “this will never happen again” event of SxSW for me – summary video – movie review)
P.S. Apparently Eddie Vedder was supposed to make a surprise appearance, but didn’t make it at the last minute. That really would have blown the lid off the place, but as it turned out Eddie’s services weren’t needed.
The Wilders (The Ale House): I came here for Liam Finn but caught this set as a happy accident. This honky-tonk bluegrass quartet out of Kansas City absolutely got down Oh-Brother-Where-Art-Thou style, and I was loving it. (4 of 5 stars)
Liam Finn (The Ale House): Liam is Neil Finn’s (of Crowded House fame) son, and immensely talented. Great songs, and it turns out he is a superior drummer on top of his talents at vocals and guitar. The big problem with Liam is he needs a band. He played using a loop station (in case you don’t know what that is, it allows a musician to play a riff and have it looped back while he or she plays over it – a modern one-man-band crutch) and had just one woman there backing him and playing some percussion. The impact his music would have had with a full band made me mourn that shortcoming. If you are a drummer or bass player please call Liam immediately. (4 of 5 stars, 5 of 5 with a full band – listen)
Jens Lekman (Mohawk Patio): I am going to go ahead and call Jens the Swedish second coming of Morrissey. His band was decked out in matching ABBA-esque robes with key-shaped pendants, and his vocal and songwriting style is that same whimsical, nasal-mellow crooning. I’d like to say that it didn’t work, but it did. As much as you wanted to mock the guy, he was supremely confident and had a panache all his own. (4 of 5 stars – listen)
Black Mountain (Mohawk Patio): It was 1:30 a.m. before these guys went on, but I had stayed up late for them even though I was looking zombie-like. They rocked. With rare exception the rock was droning and textural, sprinkled throughout with some great driving riffs. The one thing that bothered me was their woman lead singer, whose stage presence was so bad that it detracted from the musical performance. She looked like she had gotten lost and wandered on to the stage. Oops, I’m the lead singer. (4 of 5 stars, 5 of 5 if they get Rain Phoenix of the Papercranes to replace their current lead)
White Williams (Emo’s): Cool set from a solid rock band. I’m starting to notice that every band has a keyboard of some kind now, which is something you would never have seen even 5 years ago. “New Violence” is a great song. (4 of 5 stars)
Film School (Red-Eyed Fly): Good Cure-influenced rock, but didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. The Heidi-Klum-look-alike bass player is downright distracting. I spent less time listening and more time trying to figure out which of the other geeky band members had the good fortune of calling her his girlfriend, if any. (3 of 5 stars)
Rogue Wave (Red-Eyed Fly): I love Rogue Wave’s new album and really had high hopes for this set. It was absolutely great. The band is very tight, and the built-up end of “Lake Michigan” had all five members of the band singing harmony that made the back of your head tingle. (5 of 5 stars)
Shine a Light (the Rolling Stones Scorsese-directed Rockumentary Debut): Tired from all the standing, I took a suggestion from Dave (a friend I made at SxSW, who says you just get live music for your trouble?) and we went to see this at the Austin IMAX. It was absolutely great, although it spends most of its time covering a recent concert by the Stones at the Beacon Theater. Don’t get me wrong, the Stones are still great, but the periodic cutaways to older Stones footage and interviews made you want more of that. Appearances at the concert by Buddy Guy, Jack White, and Christina Aguilera were highlights, and the IMAX experience really makes you feel like you are at the show (many people in the audience were clapping at the end of songs). Also telling was when they filmed Keith Richards up close and you could hear his guitar – that guy is barely holding it together. Dave made the good point that Keith has been barely holding it together from day one. (4 of 5 stars)
Vampire Weekend (Antone’s): This show was probably the most hyped of the festival, and I’d have to say it lived up to it. These guys, who all look like they just got excused from a long day of class at an expensive prep school, put out contagious music that just makes you smile. Very inventive songs and lyrics, ska beats, and reggae vocal influences make for a live show that just kicked butt. I predict great things here. (5 of 5 stars – listen)
Sea Wolf (Cedar Street): I had heard a couple of Sea Wolf’s songs, and wanted to hear more. They didn’t disappoint. Mixing good keyboard work and cello over a pretty traditional rock arrangement made for some non-traditional results. (4 of 5 stars)
Kate Nash w/Billy Bragg (Cedar Street): I was going to leave after Sea Wolf to catch the elusive Yeasayer clear across town, but I ran into a British guy (Rick) who seemed to know what he was talking about (he knew a lot about beer, at least) and told me that the word on the street was that Yeasayer had been terrible live thus far. Then the Cedar Street folks announced that Billy Bragg would be making a surprise appearance with Kate Nash and I was sold into staying. Kate is a British solo songstress whose striking and occasionally profanity-laden songs are so honest and well-acted (she’s not just singing them, she’s in character) that you get sucked in. I totally dug it, and then it got better when Billy joined her. Another nice surprise. (5 of 5 stars)
The Redwalls (Rio Grande): I stumbled downtown for the final time to catch the back half of this set from a solid Chicago group. Blues-inspired but not too bluesy, it was a hearty helping. (4 of 5 stars)
Nada Surf (Maggie Mae’s Rooftop): I made it into this club after standing in line for awhile, as the band schedule in general had gotten uncharacteristically weak and Nada Surf was getting mobbed. To my disappointment, Nada Surf was playing an acoustic set. Under normal circumstances, this would have been cool, but not in the middle of sixth street where the sound bleed from other clubs nearby was pretty bad. The bar just next door appeared to have a death-metal band going. The Surf was still good though, with some new songs that are pretty strong. (4 of 5 stars)
My South by Southwest experience overall was great and unforgettable, and although in future years I may choose my spots more carefully instead of submerging myself as I did for this one, I plan to come back, year after year. One impression that came home to me again is how powerful the live music experience can be when compared to recorded albums. So many artists showed how they can transcend your music collection and become a living, breathing, rocking experience. South by Southwest is truly a music lover’s paradise.