THE FIRST STAGE: DENIAL
When you first arrive at SXSW, you are invincible, impervious to such forces as bad luck, bad vibes, laws pertaining to room capacity, and scheduled set times. You think: I will see every show. I will get in to every show. I do not need to get on any snobby guest lists. I barely even need a schedule of shows! I will travel among the people, with good will as my badge and Kismet as my guide.
And so it was on Thursday, my first day at the annual music-industry hoo-ha held (largely) in the spooky beer dens of downtown Austin. (Okay, yes, I did have a fancy get-in-everywhere badge — get in everywhere, that is, except the creepy, parasitic underworld of “unofficial” SXSW parties. More on that later.)
With Kismet and good will on my side, I found myself at a show where The Spinto Band, a hip/MySpace-y group the girl from Giant Drag had told me about a while ago, were playing. They’re better live than on MySpace, for sure — hookier, more harmonic, more accessible. You get the feeling they only sound lo-fi because they’re too young to know any better, and sometime down the road may be staring down a Jeff Lynne/ELO revelation, which will either destroy them or make them stronger. U.K.’s Boy Kill Boy gave a pleasingly energetic show of unpleasingly generic post-punk, haircut, Strokes music. (Really, though, energy does count for something; I only wish all the shoegazers in Silver Lake had an ounce of their high-hopes chutzpah.) Then Kismet kissed us all with a surprise gig by The Flaming Lips, who opened their set with a note-faithful rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” urging the entire tiny club to sing along full-volume, which we did. Giant balloons everywhere, of course. And so much genuine love of Queen.
Like an idiot, I left the show early to make it to the Beauty Bar for my first unofficial party, and this is where it all went wrong for me, and nothing would ever be the same. There’s a huge crowd and a big bouncer saying, “NO ONE is getting in.” I text my friend who’s inside, and she says, “go roundbak.” Roundbak, it turns out, is the alley where the bands actually play. D’oh! A mere chainlink fence separates the “ins” from the “outs,” and considering that half the “ins” are look-alike faces I vaguely recognize from Cobrasnake shots, I’m happy to be on the outs with Mark Sovel and TK from Indie 103.1 FM and members of The Prix. Nevertheless I am drugged and dragged inside and suffer through ALMOST AN ENTIRE SET by She Wants the Revenge, a band whom I have decided I completely love, because they are hilarious. Hilarious. I want a T-shirt so bad. It’ll go perfectly with the Limp Bizkit shirt I just made at Kinko’s. (They don’t even make them anymore.)
THE SECOND STAGE: ANGER
On Friday, Ray Davies is giving a talkie-singie thing where the sober old people go: the Convention Center. I’m all hopeful and shit. This is truly the only SXSW event I knew I could not miss. He comes out in cool shades, looks great, younger than Bono somehow. Voice sounds great, all freakishly boyish, and he begins strumming the opening chords to “Waterloo Sunset.” Everyone goes “awww . . .” and claps lightly, like people do, me included. Then he stops, and that’s the last time he plays anything old and good. He shows a lengthy, lengthy home movie he made of his post-9/11 U.S. tour. At every whistle stop, he mentions how far his band has traveled that day, as if it’s some big deal. 400 miles. 345 miles. As if every single musician in the room hadn’t traveled much farther in one day, many times, with much humbler accommodations.
Obviously, the Kinks’ banishment from touring the U.S. in the ’60s prevented Davies’ learning that, indeed, the U.S. is rather large. (As the T-shirts in the tourist shops here read, “Texas is larger than France.”) Some of the new songs are okay but not nearly as attentive to the details of “Other People’s Lives” as he seems to think. I love his music forever, forever, forever, but I know he can do better.
Of his old stuff, he says, with a degree of loathing, something like, “You can avoid ex-wives, but you can’t avoid the back-catalog.”
(Thankfully, I can’t avoid his ex-wives, as I heard The Pretenders sound-checking the next day outside Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. Went round back to get as close as I could, but could only hear Chrissie Hynde’s beautiful voice stop and start. Sounds like she doesn’t smoke.)
That night, I find myself waiting on a friend to go out. Around 11:30 we realize white-hot-hipster-fuckin-buzzband-du-jour Arctic Monkeys go on in a half-hour — across town. We trek on out into the night and text the Cobra, who texts back that the show is packed, he barely got in, huge line, whatnot. I’m feeling under the weather as it is, and the prospect of walking miles to see some overrated MySpace band just so I can, I don’t even know what — live forever? — makes me want to vomit. It’s impossible to get into any shows here. The lines and the lists and the badges and the buzz — all of it seems so at odds with what I thought this was supposed to be about. Fuck this, I decide, and perform a one-woman bed-in protest all night long.
STAGE THREE: BARGAINING
I have a breakthrough moment on Saturday, surrendering to pragmatism and managing to actually get on the list and arrive in time for Art Brut’s very last show of the festival. I am rewarded with the best set by a new band I can recall. Before almost every song, singer Eddie Argos says, “Ready, Art Brut?” The female bassist is like a more feminine, less drunk Kim Deal, the new guitarist is like a comic send-up of Interpol, complete with a paranoid sideways stare, and the general approach is tight/loose; pretentious/unpretentious; alternately heavy on complex verse lyrics and mindless gang-vocal choruses. Perfect. So glad they “Formed a Band”! Art Brut, Art Brut, Top of the Pops!
Next I check out Nine Black Alps for about four black minutes (musta been the drony/boring part of their set) and instead opt to taste-test the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Wow. Talk about a band that have been fooled by their own hype. I foresee a long post-hipster career for this group on the jam-band circuit, where people are too high to realize how astonishingly tiresome they are.
So I figure, hey, why not forget the cool young buzz bands and just go for the melodies, the key changes, the timeless romance? I decide to check out weird ’70s singer-songwriter-Lindsay Buckingham-look-alike enigma Andy Pratt, followed byMatthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, doing their tribute to ’60s beauty-pop. This ain’t cool-buzz shit; I’m sure to get in! Foiled again, dude. The line is halfway down the block, even for people with badges, and a so-called friend refuses to let me cut in line. Fair enuf, dude. I’m out.
I decide to wander the streets like one of the many unwashed untouchables without connections or party invites. Hey! The Living Things are playing at Buffalo Billiards! Oof! They’ve canceled! A mess of Athens bands are at some coffeehouse! Blammo! It’s packed! A buncha bands from Manchester are at another bar! Zowee! I wait 40 minutes for something called Longcut to play, then fall asleep within the first minute of their set!
Finally I surrender and call my girl Lina, who has all the passes and parties and connections. I fake my way into a private Gang of Four show, and spot the elusive yet ubiquitous hobbit, Elijah Wood. Unfortunately, I arrive just as GoF are entering the self-indulgent/audience-punishing part of their set, torturing their newfound fair-weather fans with endless swords of feedback and non-melodic, arrhythmic goo. They sound amazing; I know they’d be amazing if they were playing songs.
STAGE FOUR: DEPRESSION
We end Saturday night at some Dim Mak/Cobrasnake thing, who seem to be hosting half the underground events here. The Outsiders is being projected silently on giant walls — we’re at some sort of half-outside loading dock. It’s raining, and I find that in Texas, apparently, two girls sitting under an umbrella is considered a conversational invitation for the most annoying of Texas’ college boys. I kill them with silent arrows, as I kill the drunk blond girl who keeps bumping into me, as I kill Steve Aoki himself, up on his DJ booth like some self-appointed royal, poorly mixing Neil Diamond. Yeah, I got a little cynical. Depressed, some might say.
Sweden’s The Sounds brightened things up, though. The female singer is the femmiest androgyne I have seen since the drugboys of ’80s hair metal (or, possibly, Hedwig). Her voice ain’t much but she Cherie Curries it up real good; likewise, the songs are forgettable, much like cuts off some Patty Smyth album. All this is proof of how interesting the singer is, because despite it all, I got much respect! I think she may actually be a possibly dangerous lead singer very soon.
Thank you, dear, for ending my SXSW on a positive note.
STAGE FIVE: ACCEPTANCE
By Sunday, I realize that SXSW is a microcosm of life: You get back what you put in. If I’d planned better, felt better, been kinder and gentler, I might have had a better experience. I wish that Flaming Lips moment had lasted forever.
I spot Art Brut in the airport, and am happy not to say hi. It’s barely noon.