The Glowing Trough of Music: Five Days of South by Southwest
Tuesday: Welcome to Corvette Day, Basically
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Like many musicians in Austin this year, the Morning Benders love their neon Ray-Ban knockoffs.
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Washington, D.C.'s Le Loup: One of South by Southwest's great surprises
If you do a Google image search for “Austin,” one of the first things that pops up is a photo of two bikini-clad girls at the 1998 Austin Corvette Day. This probably has nothing at all to do with South by Southwest, yet judging by my initial impressions of this place — this is my first foray — I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the week, I end up seeing two highly siliconed and bleached women purring atop a sleek sports car. It’s shaping up to be that kind of trip.
SXSW is essentially a trade show, except instead of blond spokesmodels insinuating that they will be yours provided you spend $60,000 for a car that will make you look douchier than Steve Sanders on 90210, the festival (as well as the major corporate behemoths paying for it) attempts to ply you with nothing but free booze, free food and free music. As Dilated Peoples once aptly put it, “You Got to Rework the Angles.” (Jeff Weiss)Wednesday: Van Morrison — “Blah blah blah.”
Van Morrison’s pretty cool, wearing his trademark cap and sunglasses, holding a saxophone and totally nonplussed about SXSW. He’s got nothing to prove, seems like he could care less about “The State of the Industry,” the collapse of the label system, digital downloading. He’s Van Morrison, motherfuckers. He’s gonna do what he pleases. And if, when he’s scat-singing, he breaks off into, literally, a riff on the words “blah blah blah” — and he did this during the show — who’s gonna call him on it? He bellowed with half-assed conviction the phrase “blahblah blah blahhblahhhblah.” Which isn’t to say that it was bad; we were just more excited to see him than he us. Morrison’s dozen-odd band members filled the club with a variation on the cool jazz that he used to such great effect on early classics Astral Weeks and Moondance, cut it with a dose of country & western, and the crowd enjoyed it, though he most certainly didn’t bring the house down. He could have, had he dropped “The Way Young Lovers Do,” or “Sweet Thing” or “Brown Eyed Girl.” But Van don’t pander, has no time to give the people what they want. He gives them what they need. At one point between songs, he said, “I’m glad we’re getting somewhere, because I’ve got other things to do tonight.” Not many people can get away with saying such a thing onstage, but, well, this is Van Morrison, and his boredom is our medicine. (Randall Roberts)
Wednesday: It’s a Numbers Game
Walking down Sixth Street on Thursday, you had to wonder if everyone in the world somehow heard that Art Brut song “Formed a Band” and decided that if Eddie Argos could do it, how hard could it really be? I’ve seen telephone directories thinner than the official SXSW guide, with about 54,322 bands scattered over four days, each one playing an average of 3.2 shows. Even at the Red Roof Inn, 15 miles out of Austin, I’m currently watching two dudes with long, scruffy hair, goatees, porkpie hats and skinny jeans bemoaning that their van broke down on the way here and their keyboardist got denied entrance. As far as I can tell, they weren’t demanding a MySpace Music page as entry into the city limits of Austin this week, so the band must be Canadian. Or else very, very stupid.
If you aren’t in bands, you work for a newspaper, or you write a blog, or work for a music-related tech company, or in promotions or for an agency — something. Which goes back to my trade-show theory. To paraphrase Back to the Future: It’s like an alternate Austin 1998 Corvette Day. But things here actually look a little more ’88. There are a lot of mustaches running wild, beards, blazers, lame-head bands, ironic MTV sunglasses, accursed neon ensembles and cockeyed caps.
The thing about festivals like this: You’ve got to approach them with the mentality of a baseball player, where getting a hit out of 10 times at bat makes you a Hall of Famer. But there’s something about being surrounded by all this great music that leaves you impatient and fidgety. It’s the same iPod phenomenon as having thousands of songs at your disposal, none of which you want to listen to for longer than 90 seconds.
When the Cool Kids started rapping “88” during the Gorilla vs. Booze day party, things began to make more sense. This was the party hosted by infamous Dallas raconteur/blogger extraordinaire Chris Cantalini of Gorilla vs. Bear, who I can safely report looks like neither a gorilla nor a bear. As for the show itself, it kind of felt like I was watching House Party: The place was packed, the roof was low, everyone was going nuts. The Cool Kids have that golden-age era down pat, swapping vocals every two bars, gurgling analog beats, and the look is perfect vintage. Mikey Rox was wearing a pair of classic Jordans that I haven’t seen since the third grade. I don’t compliment men on their shoes very often, but sometimes you just have to say, Well played. (JW)
Thursday: Lest We Forget How Fortunate We Are
Okay, so I actually cried tonight. No sobbing, mind you, but a little snot and big tears. About five songs into Le Loup’s remarkable, thrilling set at Emo’s IV Lounge, they hit upon a combination of chords and chorus that — coupled with my joyful mood and the feeling of how lucky all of us assholes in Austin are to be here and not, say, Baghdad, or Darfur, or the Gaza Strip, or still living in the parents’ basement, or one of the many homeless people displaced by our good fortune — rushed from my ears to my heart and head and flooded my eyes with tears, beautiful tears. We’re so lucky.
Le Loup’s a relatively unknown D.C. group whose first CD, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, features pretty, rhythmic electro-acoustic sounds. But live? A whole other animal: seven players, including three guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, a keyboardist who doubled on French horn, lead singer Sam Simkoff on banjo and banging. They were a fucking blur of inspiration, starting songs slow and intimate, singing in glorious group harmony, gradually building to massive crescendos that filled Emo’s Lounge with complimentary and complicated waveforms that swirled around the room like John Hancock’s signature. On the brilliant “Sea Took Me,” they offered structure and melody that collapsed midsong into a mess of noise and French-horn blurts and moaning, only to reconvene into this monster chorus that prompted my unexpected rush of tears. I live for these moments. I had another one of those golden snapshots on the last day of the festival, when the Morning Benders from Berkeley loaded onto a cobbled-together outdoor stage, plugged in their two Stratocasters and bass, and the drummer sat at his kit. The band, whose members are in their late teens, is tight, strong and confident, delivering jerky post-punk. Like most musicians here, except for Lou Reed and Van Morrison, they’re working their asses off during SXSW, consumed and driven to prove that of the 54,322 bands here, they are to be paid attention to, have something interesting to offer. (RR)
Friday: I Fucking Hate People
This whole thing is a nightmarish clusterfuck that would do Hunter S. Thompson or Hieronymus Bosch proud. It’s oh so easy to get lost in the throng of tarted-up girls marketing Miller Light; young kids who will eventually take over their family’s insurance business handing you demos; bloggers capturing exclusive “content” on their cell-phone cameras; and drunk people.
For those who claim this thing is all about the music, I will — by way of contrast — offer my experience of SXSW point by point:
. Most of the bands here suck and are doing it for the wrong reasons.
. Most of the audience here has bad taste and is listening for the wrong reasons.
. Sponsors are a necessary evil, though that doesn’t lessen their evil.
. I fucking hate people. (This last point is actually an aside. Sorry for editorializing.)
I’m sorry I missed the Lou Reed covers extravaganza at the Levi’s (sponsored) FADER fort. The line ran around the block, and though I’ve heard reports from those who got in that it was underwhelming, Lou Reed actually showed up. Basically, Reed and Morrison get it. They, too, seem to hate people who think today’s dominant youth culture has anything to do with the kind of art they make. And Reed in particular understands that blogging about boxing has more to do with rock & roll these days than any youth-culture festival. (Alec Hanley Bemis)
Friday, Part 2: The Unifying Power of Devin the Dude
If the going hasn’t gotten weird by the third night of SXSW, you clearly aren’t trying hard enough. By now, you’ve surveyed the land and recognized certain unalterable realities: the crooked spine that needs to be snapped back into alignment, weary calves that feel like they’ve been slit open and filled with cement, and, most important, the surprisingly difficult endeavor of procuring proscribed narcotics that may or may not have been prescribed to you in California. Which would’ve all been well and good had I been taking a calculus exam tonight rather than seeing Devin the Dude, the legendary Houston rapper who has built a 15-year career around two themes: weed and women. Showing up sober to a Devin show is like reading Playboy for the articles.
It was a perfect Austin night as I took a long, slow stroll down Fourth Avenue. Eighty degrees, thick, clean air, and people buzzing every which way, flitting from show to show, the sun on its last legs and a weak March wind just starting to kick up under the cover of the inky, encroaching darkness. Thousands of people sprawled past, while I — alone and lost in thought — sipped an iced coffee and inhaled this frazzled energy. Creeping from behind, a slightly off-his-rocker but wildly likable homeless man sidled up to me, rattling off old jokes, asking what band I’m in.
He was good company so we kept talking, moving lazily, swapping sundry slurred philosophy about the beauty of this place, the people, the loopy, lovable vibe of a city with gift shops peddling tie-dye shirts with the slogan, “Keep Austin Weird.” Soon we drew near I-35 and the mess of shadows and abandoned train tracks zig-zagging beneath it. Friends had already warned me not to cross the interstate, but every so often life needs to be approached with an attitude best expressed by a little film I like to call Risky Business: Sometimes, you’ve just gotta say, What the fuck?
Suddenly, my new associate stops dead in his tracks and whips a joint out. I produce a lighter and his eyes light up, and right there, in that weird window between darkness and light, we blaze.
“Are you sure this is a good idea? What about the cops?” I say, with visions of newspaper headlines reading, “Alternative-Weekly Writer Arrested for Consumption of Drugs With Vagrants.”
“Relax, ain’t no cops around.”
We smoke. When I mention my previous inability to obtain the sweet chiba, he stubs the joint out and hands me the roach, telling me to save it for later. I slap $5 into his palm, thank him profusely and inquire how and where I can get more. My new friend snaps his fingers twice and a menacing-looking guy on a bike emerges from the shadows and zips over. He asks me how much I need, and I tell him I only have $10. He tells me to wait here and zooms away.
The two of us are left there again, posted up like the two sketchiest dudes in the universe: I, longhaired and red-eyed; he, poised somewhere between Red Foxx and a homeless Eddie Murray. He introduces his girl, who waits at the bus stop with sad, round eyes. She gives me a polite wave and he explains their story, about knowing each other since high school, looking out for one another despite the increased costs of Austin life, and how despite everything, “it’s still paradise.”
Finally, our man shows up and informs us his woman has sold their last two bags. He tells me to meet him back here in an hour.
“I can’t. I’ve got a show to go to.”
“Devin the Dude.”
“Devin the Dude? That’s my n—a.”
“You wanna come?”
“No doubt. I’ll meet you there in an hour.”
We all say our goodbyes and I navigate the run-down stretch fully expecting never to see either of them again. But lo and behold, an hour and a half later, with Devin and the Coughee Brothaz midway through an incredible set, I turn around to see my man on the bike waving his arms in front of the entrance. Exiting, he follows me high up on a hill overlooking the show and we perform the transaction, watching for free along with others who couldn’t get in.
Then Devin screams to the crowd, “How many of y’all smoke weed? If y’all like smoking weed, throw your blunts in the air!” Lighting up a bulky J, my new friend and I bond under the mutual agreement never to argue with a man nicknamed “The Dude.”
“That man is the truth,” he says, passing the joint.
I agree, and we watch and talk and smoke until “Doobie Ashtray” ends the set. Bobbing our heads to the beat, we consider for a moment what a strange and wonderful place this is. Then we walk down the hill and say our goodbyes and he bikes back out into the riot of the Austin night and I walk back into the party. (JW)
Saturday: A Sound to Explode John Cage’s Head
There’s a feeling that arrives at the climax of SXSW, which for me always takes place on Friday at midnight rather than Saturday. The vibe doesn’t hang so much on the Sixth Street jugular, which at the festival’s peak is more like a celebration of stupidity than of tapping into the creative wellspring. Down Red River at 1 a.m., however, the beats float into the street from a hundred different bands in a hundred different bars and combine to create this unplanned symphony of competing rhythms in different time signatures and dozens of bass lines rumbling our innards, and screamers harmonizing with folkies competing with rappers eclipsed by the jumbo sound of Blue Cheer riffing on “Summertime Blues.” It all touches the eardrums, all enters the same two holes in opposite sides of our head, each note swimming through our ear canals like spermies on a mission to fertilize our minds. On Red River, as I walk past Emo’s and Stubb’s and Club de Ville and Mohawk, lines tangle down sidewalks and people march from here to there and back again, while this big-ass accidental symphony rises from the street and fills the world with music, music, music. It’d make John Cage’s head explode.
In the distance, I hear the faint melody of a favorite song from last year, “Kid on My Shoulders” by the White Rabbits. I follow the sound, possessed, until I find the band in the last round of the verse, the crowd bobbing their heads, the band sweating with glee, all of us consumed by rock & roll.
Next door, Thurston Moore and band are playing on an outdoor stage. After watching them from inside the courtyard, I wander out. It’s 1:15, and you can still hear the music. Inside the chainlink fence (the kind with plastic, red crisscrosses to prevent cheapskates from getting a free show), you can barely move. Outside, however, just as many people are standing in the street listening. Fifty feet above, on a roof overlooking the stage, dozens of people line the rail. Stage right, a bevy of fans has figured out a view of the show from another property. Across the street, people sit on a wall that offers a good sight line of Moore and his great band, and they listen. And along that red chainlink fence that separates in and out, people peer through peepholes like Norman Rockwell boys outside a baseball stadium eyeing Mickey Mantle at bat. We are drawn to the action, the skill, the sound, the excitement like pigs to a trough: the beat, the rhythm, the pounding, pounding, pounding. Whine all you want about the state of the business. Who cares when you’ve got so many people rapt, feeding at the Glowing Trough of Music? We lap it up, starving, insatiable. (RR)
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