|Photos by Mark the Cobrasnake|
MY EYES ARE BLEEDING!
Attending SXSW is like having sex, running a marathon or smoking pot: The first
time is never the best. Gaffe #1: I forgot earplugs. Austin’s
soundmen are stone deaf, and the noise levels in the dive bars here will make
your eyeballs ache. This was fine on Thursday, my first day, when I was young
and the world was new. That day, it felt right to be drunk and walk the streets
in a throng of teetering indie rockers, dropping into random bars to pee. One
pit stop presented a full-bodied mixture of metal and punk with a melodic core
that said, “We’re humans, too” — which turned out to be Helmet, shooting a documentary.
Thursday also offered a winning Q&A with Robert Plant, who said
he’d donated to a Portland NPR station that promised never to play “Stairway
to Heaven.” Stopped in to see my L.A. friends Tsar at the TVT Records
party at the Hard Rock, where decibels matched the band’s
just-got-signed, arena-rock/punk-pop shock-and-awe agenda in a pleasing way:
This is gonna be a great festival!
I thought. Labelmates The Blue Van, from Danmark (that’s
Denmark to you and me), were also impressive, with Zombies-style organ, McCartneyesque
bass and all kindsa harmonies. And sorry for all the nepotism, but at the Village
Voice/L.A. Weekly party, a dark-haired boy-girl
guitar duo with a drum machine made everyone stop and go, “Who’s this band?”
(It was the U.K.’s The Kills. Watch out, Karen O: This girl is
just as hot, just as bothered — and she’s got an ax!)
Gaffe #2: Instead of seeing Robert Plant perform, I opted for
The French Kicks — who made a soothing lullaby for me and
another girl crashed out on an incredibly fluffy couch. This fortified me for
my mission: Tegan and Sara at 1 a.m. Alas, even the wonder
twins seemed SXSW-weary by then: After “Walking With a Ghost” Sara remarked,
“Thank you — I think.” The crowd lacked proper respect for the alien-orchid
rarity of T&S: With the acoustic/electric guitar fulcrum, the sibling harmonies,
the new-wave organ, the pop hooks and dark lyrics — these girls have it all.
By Friday afternoon, the street vibe had switched to post-debauched. At the
Aussie BBQ, The Panda Band were clearly pouring
out heartfelt power pop, but many festivalgoers were pooped out on the grass.
I tried to watch Ben Lee, but couldn’t get through a minute of
his sugar-folk before a dark and cynical voice from within declared: icky sticky.
While watching Radio 4, that same voice bitched: trendy bullshit.
Drums from The Strokes, clothes from The Knack, songs from Gang of Four and
bongos from T. Rex — is there one single original thing about this band? Is
this how it felt to watch the Swinging Blue Jeans in 1966?
Gaffe #3: I peaked too soon. Eventually, physical exhaustion destroys
musical appreciation. I couldn’t bear another Strat, but craved samba, jazz,
African music — anything played with animal parts. Three options: Beer, coffee
or hotel bed. I chose the last, missing Ian Hunter, The Crimea,
The New York Dolls, The Frames, The
Mae Shi, Dios Malos, The Like and
Nona Hendryx — all people I would pay to see on any other night.
Sometimes, you’ve got to say no to live music, and yes to VH1’s “100 Most Metal
PAYNE IN THE SXSW
At SXSW, there’s always too much choice, so I say screw the plan and wander
around. A drop-in at Los Manitos got me a set by somebody called Nels Andrews
and his band from El Paso. They’re typical of a lot of heartland indie types,
just real plain folkie-rock, dripping with frankness and looking like they just
rolled out of bed. These particular slobs were behind even the folkie curve,
where the very best of the songwriting sad sacks are messing with the form and
sound a bit. Sauntered into the Cedar Street Court to catch L.A.’s Anubian
Lights, which is Tommy Grenas from the more psychedelic
Farflung in his nuevo new wave mode. Anubian features an adequate female
singer, a guitarist-bassist and a synth/vocoder/drum-machine guy, in black-and-white
suits and ties, etc. The songs are perky, as required, early-’80s dancey stuff,
albeit with twists — like the singer yelling through an electric bullhorn on
a quirky ’20s/R&B hybrid.
Nordic Nite at The Drink was authentic fun: The Swedes in attendance
displayed much mojo circa 1973, all these vertical-striped loon pants and white
belts, Frampton shags and mascara. Finland’s The Crash bashed
out a stream of endearing but not cloying pop songs, made memorable by colorful
arrangements and sturdy melodies. Much-hyped The Ark evinced a
manufactured aura, and the lead singer, with his huffy little pouts and purses
and rouge, uh, he made you hate him a little bit. Crisp Status Quo riffage and
anthems, however, from this band, whose Nigel Tufnel–look-alike guitarist added
visual splendor to their Sweet/Dolls/T. Rex–style rock.
John Cale played La Zona Rosa to a packed
house of reverent cultists and their clones, with Cale, as always, tense and
wry as he set about cudgeling his songs. He grabbed his viola for the Velvets’
“Venus in Furs,” and “Fear” ended once again with Cale descending into madness,
that shtick where he pummels his keyboard and his young, tough band gets violent.
Up next, Austin’s own Spoon, whom I’ve long resisted because of the seemingly
uncritical raves they’ve gotten but whose singer-guitarist, Britt Daniel,
I concede, has written at least one song that completely does the job on
me, called “Me and the Bean,” a ruff-tuff heart-tugger that makes me wanna bawl
like a baby. Isis at Emo’s annex were like a black-metal
band playing the Hawkwind songbook, and they did this eerie thing with extended
passages of “interval music,” like you’ve got to travel through space a bit
to get to the next song, broken into by peculiar riffs and the infrequent cookie-monster
vocal. They stand out ’cause they’re twisting the genre, in fact presenting
a kind of high-art music subtly disguised as goth/metal.
“We are all-girl band from Japan” dept.: At the stinkily crowded Beerland,
another extremely irritating but in this case awesomely precise group called
Gitogito Hustler screeched and bashed their mosquitolike punk rock
and milked their theoretically charming lack of English for all the geekboys looking
right up their skirts. The Music at La Zona Rosa:
no discernible music as such. Way overpraised and promoted, their “intense”
emotion-ladling in front of an MTV banner over two-generations-removed riffing
and flailing was just NUMBING. The crowd whooped and hollered, but what are they
gonna do, boo? Not at SXSW.
I ♥ SATAN
Forget about showcases. If you wanted to see your future favorite band at SXSW,
all ya had to do was slip on party shoes — and snag one of the super-insider-unofficial
lists being passed around like high school slambooks. Yours truly played DJ
for a day at Thursday’s Heidi's Night of Beauty/Spaceland/Ticketwebdo, where gals got metallic green manicures
(it was St. Patty’s after all) while estrogen-spiked rockers Gram Rabbit,
Pony Up!, Erase Errata, and bidding-war babies
Be Your Own Pet provided their own ballistic variety
of beauty and the beat. The girl theme took an unexpected turn when a posse
of Welsh blokes called Goldie Lookin’ Chain showed up in
tracksuits (think the Beastie Boys meet Monty Python), rapping about Afrosheen
and smoking “soap bar,” whatever that means. Next day, Filter and
Spin mags offered battling bashes: Filter’s party, headlined
by Kaiser Chiefs, may have seen more creative haircuts, but it
couldn’t beat Spin’s shindig, where Louis XIV, The Futureheads
and The New York Dolls made for a wonderfully
bizarre combo. The Dolls in daylight weren’t exactly a pretty sight (were they
ever?), but they sounded spot-on, with a withered but commanding David Johansen
chugging St. John’s Wort while crooning “Pills.” Bloc Party, also
on the bill, lived up to its misspelled moniker, and also showed up everywhere
else all week, from Vice magazine’s gathering (had to beg a cabbie
to take me to the space out in some backwoodsy bumfuck ghetto . . . so Vice)
to Urban Outfitters. Speaking of U.O., they helped turn an old storage space
on Sixth into a makeshift boutique full of faux-vintage threads and rock shots
by L.A. photog Piper Ferguson, while in the backyard, hottie hopefuls
including Maximo Park (hooky tunes but suits are so tired, boys)
and neo-glamsters S’Cool Girls swaggered and swayed near the port-o-potties.
I passed on getting in a hot tub with Joel Gion — formerly of
the Brian Jonestown Massacre (who was promoting Dig!, the BJM
doc) at the Spin house to pop into the Take Action party
pit, where a group called Underoath almost won me over — till they started
talking up Jesus Christ. I wanted Satan’s music, man. And
that’s just what I got following my nose, much like Toucan Sam, to the least
fashionable but most friendly powwow of the week: the High Times party,
where, of course, the barbecue wasn’t the only thing blazing.
GOSSIP & SHIT
Spotted cinehobbit Elijah Wood hiding in a corner at the Vice
party. Lyle Lovett in comfy shoes outside the Four Seasons
hotel, cowboy boots in hand. Distillers diva Brody Dalle
and Stone Age king Josh Homme lovey-dovey in
the lobby of the Embassy Suites. Drea De Matteo
and back-again beau Shooter Jennings rushing though Austin
airport. “Only at a Billy Idol show would you see a guy in Chanel shades and
a fur coat in Austin”: a bewildered local at SXSW’s opening night gig, who happened
to be talking about Cleopatra Records prez Brian Perera.
“I’m supposed to be representing these guys, and I don’t know anything about
them”: random record-company minion ( yes, we really overheard this) at the
Fader party. “You rock folk all come back now, ya hear!”: pilot
from flight 407, from Austin to L.A.