I’d decided to make my semi-semi-annual visit down to Austin, Texas, to witness for myself the overcast days and muggy nights of the South by Southwest “indie music” conference, now in its 18th year of partying down, pressing the flesh, talking trash and getting the word out. SXSW is a huge affair these days, showing no signs of diminishing in attendance or impact; in fact, it’s thriving on the recent trials & tribulations of the mega-corporate major labels. So the streets of Austin simply flowed with antlike swarms of fans, musicians, lawyers and the merely curious. In the city’s central area, which hosts something like 100 different live music venues — each one a sweltering, humanity-packed hellhole of drinkin’, stinkin’, talking-talking-talking music lovers — seemingly everybody on the planet who liked music, or at least liked the idea of it, showed up to show their support.
Along the pretty blossom-lined streets in Austin there are few street signs, so that makes things a bit confusing but allows you to chance-encounter musicians you wouldn’t cross the street to see. First item on the agenda was the Polyphonic Spree. The white-robed clan, some 25-strong tonight, waded through the audience, their messianic leader Tim DeLaughter hailing the congregation while gripping two oranges. DeLaughter has those fatigued eyes and feverish grin required of the faces of our timeless cult leaders; onstage the demented upbeatness of his orchestra seemed totally authentic. I checked out each of their faces very closely to see if I could detect a little cynicism — nope. Call it post-irony, or say that DeLaughter has chosen and brainwashed his disciples very well. In any case, this was a happy and very funny performance, but what’s just as uplifting is the group’s vaguely prog/’70s English pop ’n’ Partridge Family roots. It’s harmonically sophisticated stuff that is incredibly well-arranged and punched out with appropriate super-zeal. I looked around me and have to say I’ve never seen so many smiling faces at a “rock” show. Yes, as several old hack reporters noted, the Spree don’t seem to have many actual songs. Along with a fitting cover of the 1970 Blues Image nugget “Ride Captain Ride,” you could argue they played one song over and over: a swelling, majestic build into further exhortations to . . . be happy! You could argue that, but I doubt it’s worth arguing about.
I go on a bit about the Spree because of a realization their performance sparked a couple of days later, after witnessing scores of bands who really do, at least judging by their records, have bona fide songs of great craft and variety but who reduced them to a bludgeoning blast of noise when time came for them to demonstrate them live. While a live performance is an entirely different proposition than a recorded facsimile of a song, I was repeatedly struck by how so many bands seemed desperate to demonstrate their sheer brute strength and energy at the expense of any kind of textural shading that would have shown the real difference in their material.
Australia’s the Sleepy Jackson is an example. The recently re-organized band (whatever bunch of blokes charismatic leader Luke Steele has talked into backing him on his panorama of trash rock ’n’ pop encyclopaediana) completely kicked the bejeezus out of the deftly crafted songs from their album Lovers, plus odd bits from their two EPs; Steele was a humorous eager beaver in smeary powder-blue eye makeup and had cryptically anarcho words written on all his guitars, and he made a lot of great wisecracks. The whole thing threatened to collapse under the weight of its own ambition, like they were going for something really magnificent that required utter chaos. Unfortunately the songs’ colors melted down into a muddy pool of madness.
There’s something to be said for not turning every rock show into a mere athletic event, unless you clearly state that purpose right up front, as did Dillinger Escape Plan’s beyond-hardcore rite of savagery at Emo’s. Introduced by the bad old-joke Andrew W.K., Dillinger’s mission was to thoroughly pummel their like-minded jock-o hordes into a bloody heap of acceptance. I was disappointed in this regard when I saw Atlanta’s the Hiss, too. They’re a band that has now made two simply great records (new one called Panic Movement out on Sanctuary last week) by artfully updating garage rock and Led Zep with a surrealist twist. Onstage, however, the desire to rock harder than most meant that they too eliminated the dynamics and nuance from their songs, reducing their distinction by about 76 percent. (Though I should note that most SXSW events seem just as much designed to showcase the hubris of state-of-the-art P.A. systems.)
Midnight at Antone’s and I’m watching the Black Keys. Here we have a hype problem and another puzzling example of the perils of live performance: I knew they made great records, but I walked away thinking what I’d seen and heard was just a tad bogus. Drummer was fucking sloppy, not loose, and the guitarist’s blues guitar and gruff “black” howls were hokey. It came off pretty weak, though the crowd ate it up (indeed the crowds at every show I saw were ecstatic about most everything they heard). Funny, though, next day I happened upon an obscure band from Western Australia called the John Butler Trio, playing some truly hair-raising blues-related stuff on electrified lap guitar accompanied by an ethno/jazz power-drummer and a standup bass — just extraordinarily jolting grooves that kicked the Black Keys all the way back to the bungalow.
By the time I’d witnessed the Japan Girls nite at Elysium, where I saw Noodles, a competent Ramones-loving band of young women (good players — it’s fun to be in a rock band, I know, it’s like Little League baseball), I ’d grown tired of watching this “indie” idea of tearing down the wall between performer and fan, and strolled about in search of real rock stars. I stopped by the Emo’s adjunct tent to hear Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, that ferociously hyper trio from New Jersey who put the power back in pop and seemed happy hearing their puffy new-wavy offal blasted at deafening, cartilage-dissolving volume. The drummer beat all holy crap outta his kit. Ted bounced around a lot and hashed at his guitar. The songs? On record they’re perfect; live, the soundman mixed ’em like Ted was a death-metal band, and it just sounded ludicrous. What’s going on here?
Well, I did say I wanted to see real rock stars, and I believe I did, of two very different white stripes. Sweden’s the Hives parked their monstrous tour bus outside Emo’s and jumped on a stage adorned with a neon THE HIVES sign aglow and, in their matching white suits, proceeded to move the masses with some good old-fashioned Big Rock Show. Their classic rock-punk-garage trash messes were thrashed out with wicked abandon and, crucially, extreme precision. Lead singer Pelle Almqvist is a new, improved David Johansen, full of hilarious American-accented bullshit, full of himself and radiating supreme confidence in the godlike supremacy of his band. There was no room in the house for any other stars, in other words.
The most purely inspired and musically rich performance I caught at SXSW was a set by the Thrills at the Filter mag/ Virgin/ KCRW party off Fourth Street. Whether the cool breeze that came through as they played had something to do with it, I don’t know, but a kind of true stardom seemed to pour off the stage as the Irish band delivered a short, sweet and very no-B.S. set of the glorious West Coast/country-inspired stuff from their justifiably raved-about So Much for the City album on Virgin. They seemed very intent on playing their music correctly, keeping an ear on the volume and dynamics and keen harmonies while playing in the studiously rough and unfussy vein of, say, The Band. The lads looked very focused, and calm, as if they knew they were on the way straight to the top — and you knew it was true.