March 20, 2006I fought SXSW and SXSW won
OK, actually I fought the limits of my own body’s endurance. In any case, nights that always extended too late and days that never began late enough have crushed me. But as I recuperate back at home, I have time to look over the past four days.
Basically, I was disappointed by none of the bands that I hoped would knock me out. Art Brut, Wussy, Giant Drag and Envelopes were all that I’d asked for. As for surprises, I’d like to hear more from the Grates, a more playful Yeah Yeah Yeahs from Australia, and the Brunettes, a young, adorable New Zealand band.
My weekend ended late Saturday night with a far older New Zealand band—the Bats. The stage for Habana Calle 6 is on an outdoor patio, and there’s a pavilion that stretches out past the club’s doors, where we listened to the band from a bench. And wafting up toward us, we heard a beat that’s insistent but never rushed, guitars that split the difference between chime and drone. In other words, music that was neither sleepy nor manic--the perfect soundtrack to my exhaustion.
And so, until next year, that’s SXSW…
Under the weather
I really planned to wrap up my SXSW coverage this afternoon, on my flight back from Austin. My immune system, alas, had other plans. The rain/mist/drizzle/downpour cycle the past few days has finally dampened by spirit. Tomorrow! SXSW finale! Be there or Bea Arthur!Posted by Keith Harris at 12:23 AM
March 19, 2006American music clubs
My SXSW had been largely twang-free before tonight. Not by design—I was simply more drawn to unknown quantities, and many of the rootsy singer-songwriters I might be interested in are regular tourers I've seen more than once.
That didn’t stop me from checking out Rhett Miller, the Old 97’s front man and native Texan, whose show turned out to be a minor revelation. Miller’s third solo record, The Believer has been a non-starter with me for months, but live, the tunes crept up on me, the newer melodies and phrases now charmingly familiar. Guess I need to give The Believer another spin—or whatever you do with CDs.
Like anyone who’s spent any time in Chicago I’ve seen Jon Langford aplenty—the Mekons’ and Waco Brothers’ gregarious beating heart seems to play out with one band or another at least once a week. But I wanted to catch Wussy, and Opal Devine’s was a hike, so I checked out the typically superb Langford set that preceded Wussy. (Afterward Langford dashed off to set up for a 1 AM Wacos show--lots of bands book at least a handful of shows at SXSW, but for Langford that's SOP.)
Wussy, the new band featuring the Ass Ponys’ Chuck Cleaver, got off to a rocky start, and wasn't wobble-free without. But the songs from the band's debut, Funeral Dress, revealed themselves in all their stark frenzy. And personality will hold a show together when all else fails--Cleaver is a bearded lump of melancholy humor, and coequal songwriter Lisa Walker burns through her gothic love stories.Posted by Keith Harris at 11:59 PM
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March 18, 2006There's sleep enough in the grave
"You know how when I close my eyes, it looks like I'm really feeling the music?" Giant Drag singer-guitarist Annie Hardy told the audience last night at Emo's. "I'm really just sleeping."
Hardy's supposed exhaustion didn't hobble the two-person band's set, or dull her spacey yet acute onstage humor. But hers were not the only tired eyes in Austin on Friday. With shows beginning noonish and after parties ending fourish or later, a dedicated SXSW'er has no choice but to press forward, through the weariness to the other side.
My long last night began with the Brunettes, an adorable New Zealand band who blurt and clang and pluck on all sorts of horns, xylophones, banjos and the like. Then on to the previously mentioned Giant Drag. After that The Fever, who used to be gawky and captivating but last night were, unfortunately, everything you might expect a band from Brooklyn to be -- hard-rocking in that pushy way that comes when a band's confidence overwhelms their personality.
Metric had no such problem--frontwoman Emily Haynes is as charismatic an indie gal as you'll find, and the Canadian band has taken to adorning the jagged bones of its sound with searing guitar excursions. And DJ Jason Forrest pushes "pushy" to rapturous extremes, pumping his fist as his own rockish techno compositions blare from his laptop.
I'd have liked to have been among the frantic up-and-down jumpers near the stage during Forrest's set, but that would have involved standing, which was an option only of last resort by the end of last night. In fact, I sat through much-blogged locals Tapes 'n' Tapes. The bits that penetrated my late-night haze sounded promising. I just hope that if the people around me glanced at my drooping eyelids, they thought I was "really feeling the music."Posted by Keith Harris at 5:00 PM
I'm convinced there are more day parties in Ausin this year than ever before--there is practically no moment of the day you can't walk down Sixth or Red River and hear one band's blare bleeding into another from some tent or pavillion. My daytime entertainment, however, took place in hotels.
The Driskill is an old swank hotel lodged in the heart of Sixth Street, too classy for the likes of us. We soon located some equally out of place indie rock types and made out way up to a natty conference room. Here Ranier Maria would play a sharp acoustic set, and their progression--from earnest kids who sought a big, shimmery enough sound to reflect a vague swath of emotion they couldn't get a handle on, to writers of smart relationship songs that recognize the interconnection of regret and affection--was never clearer. Nice Dylan cover too--"I'll Keep It With Mine."
The Living Things played three songs before them. By all accounts the three Berlin brothers are raucous, knock-down blur of punk and politics ordinarily, but this set was gentle and twangy, highlighted by a moving (and neither sanctimonious or sententious) rumination of Iraq. OK, actually Lilian Bosh's tight white cowboy suit, which made him look a cross between Prince and Annie Oakley, was the real highlight.
From there, it was off to The Current's hotel-broadcasting set-up, where Mary et al were just about wrapping their Austin visit up. I caught the Mystery Jets, who were likeable lads--one of 'em's dad even plays guitar with the band. I could've done without the proggy, mostly instrumental "Zootime," but the bounding "You Can't Fool Me Dennis" lodged itself firmly in my brain.
And that was my Friday afternoon. Friday night was a whole 'nother story.Posted by Keith Harris at 9:06 AM
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March 17, 2006A matter of timing
It's good to keep moving at SXSW--the more ground you cover, the less likely you are to miss the odd occurance. Had we not loitered at the Soho Lounge a little longer than planned, for instance, we wouldn't have seen Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips moving along Sixth Street in a giant plastic bubble, leading a procession that included Santa Claus and an alien.
That one was hard to miss, but generally I have a bad eye for celebrity-spotting. Not that I think I'm too cool to gawk--I just have a hard enough time recognizing my actual friends on the street. That's why it had to be pointed out to me that the guy we passed on the street--the guy who was having his picture taken by a bunch of other people--was Ad Rock. Aw, c'mon--do you know how many skinny fortyish dudes there are down here this week? How am I supposed to pick out the famous ones?
The Beastie Boys played a "surprise" show yesterday afternoon--that's in quotes because everyone I ran into knew by noonish, meaning the venue was mobbed. But I didn't hear about another surprise till this morning. Seems four members of the Wu-Tang Clan put on an unannounced performance at Stubb's. But here's the unfair part--we'd passed that place about fifteen minutes before the Wu show apparently happened, and all we heard was a wailing trombone, which I'm fairly sure wasn't being blown by RZA or Ghostface Killah.Posted by Keith Harris at 3:11 PM
A good day to blog
This may be a small consolation to the snowbound, but today it's overcast and chilly (for Austin, that is--still over 60). I've set up camp, for now, in the Convention Center, where I've taken in a couple legal panels that it's entirely unlikely a) I understood or b) you care about. So instead, let's continue with the Thursday night recap.
Saw the Fiery Furnaces at Stubb's. Now there's a band that makes unconditional love difficult--especially live, where they hammer their tunes into unrecognizable shapes, cram bits of one tune into another, and, in general, screw with your expectations. A comparison that comes to mind is Dylan, who's deliberately and creatively mangles his songs in concert.
Except we all know those songs--they've been allowed to live and breathe in the public consciousness for years before the manhandling. The Fiery Furnaces' tunes have barely peeped out of the womb before they're ingeniously misshapen by the band. The art-pop band that had remade itself as a twitchy prog band reemerged last night at Stubb's as a piledriving hard rock band, noisy and heavy and given to unexpected rhythmic sprints. The large outdoor venue added to the band's new arena-rock aura.
What's that? Did I like it? Uh, still processing that--check back with me in a week or so. But they've definitely kept me intrigued.Posted by Keith Harris at 2:59 PM
Support local rock?
Minnesotans love Minnesota music. This is, by and large, a good thing -- local support helps bands thrive. And when you're in Austin, it means that any performance by a Twin Cities band is likely to attended by a sizeable flock of Twin Cities fans. Case in point: the Plastic Constellations, who ripped through a great set at the Frenchkiss showcase last night. The audience was by no means MN-exclusive, but let's just say I got to catch up with a bunch of old acquaintances.
One of 'em was fellow former Minnesotan Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, who hopped up on stage to join TPC for "Sancho Panza." Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler were both in town merely as civilians this year -- the band played enough shows for three SXSWs in '05. He did have a curious news announcement though: On Wednesday, the Hold Steady signed with Vagrant Records, known for pop-emo phenoms like Dashboard Confessional and Senses Fail--an odd choice, that.
Then again, the Cities aren't the only cities with rabid local boosters. Earlier last night, we caught The Catch, a pretty decent new wavey power-pop band from Seattle. And judging from the crowd, plenty of Seattleites had turned out for their hometown heroes as well. Again, not sure what to make of this phenomenon--on one hand, it's great that everyone wants to back up their local faves. On the other, it kind of defeats the purpose of these showcases, with bands' exposure limited to already converted fans, and fans failing to expand their horizons.
OK, breakfast is calling out loud to me now. More about last night in an hour or so...Posted by Keith Harris at 11:51 AM
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March 16, 2006Beats & rhymes
I am in the Austin Convention Center. In the other room, a marching band is playing the theme to Fat Albert. This is not necessary.
Just left The Current's set-up over in the Capitol Place hotel, up on the 18th floor. That's where Maria Lucia's broadcasting from, and performers will be trooping in and out today and tomorrow. I caught a two-song set from Blackalicious, the California indie hip-hop duo of MC Gift of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel. Like the rest of the crew from the old Soulsides label (Lateef, Lyrics Born, DJ Shadow), they're some ingenious guys, and it translates live.
Gab's a husky guy, the sort of tall man who compensates for his height by stooping a little--he doesn't command the stage so much as accept the responsibility of taking it. They closed with a terrific showstopping gimmick he's had in his arsenal for years, rattling off a set of rhymes alphabetically. (You know, first line mostly all the words start with A, second line with B, etc.)
I realized during this set that I haven't mentioned the hip-hop showcases down here yet. With Texas rap having taken off commercially last year, SXSW has made even room this year for more hip-hop of the non-alt/indie variety. Problem is, the shows are out at the Back Room, which is off the SXSW beaten path--you need to take a shuttle to get there. Still, I'm tempted to make it out tonight to see Houston talent like DJ Chill and Devin the Dude, not to mention hometown Austin DJ Rapid Ric. We shall see.
The marching band's destroying the Jackson Five songs now. I gotta go.Posted by Keith Harris at 1:20 PM
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We had to set up camp early at the Parish to make sure we weren't shut out of Art Brut, but the wait was worth it. First off, there were some good-to-great bands to help pass the time. In addition to those acts mentioned in my last post, the Young Knives turned out some decently arty Futurehead-y pop-punk. And the Ponys were simultaneously more atmospheric and harder rocking than I'd seen them in the past--not so much a change for the better (I already liked 'em) as a change for the just-as-good.
But the real pay-off was that Art Brut themselves. Singer Eddie Argos has a face that's half straight-man, half comic--ordinary features, but soulful eyes shaded by bushy eyebrows and a thin, gentlemanly moustache. His button-down shirt was a size too small, his pants a size too tight, and he kicked off his shows when he walked on stage.
Plenty of Art Brut songs are little more than extended sets of one-liners, but Argos has the timing to keep them fresh. He's also got great one liners--"Good Weekend," about some private time with a "brand new girlfriend" builds up to the ecstatic shout "I've seen her naked! Twice!" After "Rusted Gun of Milan," a harrowing tale of erectile dysfunction, he cautioned us, "I'm not glorifying bad sex here."
Argos can upstage the band, but their two-chord attack, equal parts Wire and the Fall, deserves notice. No music this simple is as easy as it sounds. Not to mention the fact that Argos keeps 'em on their toes--instead of counting off to start a song, just shouts "Art Brut! Go!"
Art Brut will be at the 7th Street Entry in a week or so. Go.Posted by Keith Harris at 11:59 AM
March 15, 2006Equal opportunity rock
I always forget how tired of watching a band of skinny, skanky boys in their girlfriends' jeans rockin' out till I pop across a co-ed group. (I forget, I should add, because bands of skinny, skanky boys in their girlfriends' jeans often actually do rock out as advertised.) I always feel old and nostalgic and cranky when I notice it, but there do seem to be fewer gender-integrated combos these days than there were a dozen or so years ago. But tonight, I've happily run across several boy-girl combos. Such a set-up works best for me when the band doesn't make too much of it, as was the case with Envelopes, who I mentioned last week. They played with the offhanded camaraderie their songs required, and I wasn't disappointed. The Chalets, however, didn't quite snare me. Maybe it was the kitty ears one of the two women singers was sporting, but something in their winking sexiness didn't gel for me. But I am happy to report my first serendipitous SXSW find. I'd heard nothing about the Grates prior to tonight (well, maybe I'd heard the name, or maybe it's just so similar to so many others. Their myspace page describes the Australian band as "3 best friends that play music for 1/2 an hour," and aside from the fact that the addition of a keyboard player (and perhaps mere aquaintance rather than old chum?) made them four, that pretty much sums them up. Except it doesn't give you a sense of what a star Patience Hodgson is. In red dress and striped socks, the singer bounced and bounded with crazy energy, grinning the whole while. Her between-song banter was excited, engaging, and often not entirely possible to follow--though she had a funny bit about how she was going to stop drinking water between each song, because that was evidence a band is nervous. Drummer Alana Skyring--meticulous yet hard-hitting--also stood out. And I should add, whoever handles sound at the Parish sure knows how to mike a bass drum so it kicks you square in the gut, the way it should. Posted by Keith Harris at 11:45 PM
"Taylor Hawkins is a fabulous personality!"*
Or so some guy was proclaiming into his headset in the lobby of my hotel, apparently trying to convince some recalcitrant promoter or manager or other industry type. (He's the drummer from the Foo Fighters, has a new CD out--don't worry, took me a minute to remember too.) So yep, the SXSW Music Festival is now in full effect.
I checked in at the Convention Center, got my bag and, less importantly but more interestingly, my big bag o' promo crap. This year's haul included a lighter, a condom, a Clif bar, a bunch of magazines, and, for some reason, a cassette of Roy Orbison's Greatest Hits. And now, I'd better catch a nap before the night kicks in.
*May not in fact be an exact quote. I'm working on four hours sleep here.Posted by Keith Harris at 5:04 PM
March 14, 2006Gone!
I finally leave for Austin tomorrow and I've been scurrying around all day, finishing up last minute chores, errands, and preparations (pack, stop newspaper delivery till Monday, take out the garbage, write less-informative-than-usual blogpost for The Current). My flight's at 8 AM, which means I'll be out of bed at an hour that's all but unknown to freelance writers. It also means I'll be in Austin tomorrow afternoon and ready for some SXSWing.
OK, actually it means I'll need a nap before taking my place in the endless registration line at the Convention Center.
Anyway, that's my last post from Philly. Tomorrow, I'll be in the thick of it. I'll also be posting more often, so be sure to check in. I promise not to mention the weather too much--unless it really is as rainy as the forecast predicts.Posted by Keith Harris at 6:03 PM
March 13, 2006Hey hey hey--old people are A-OK
I’m glad we’re finally closing in on the Music Conference--I’m just about previewed out and ready to see some shows already. But the idea for today’s entry came about as I scanned the SXSW schedule for the eleventy-billionth time and noticed that Th’ Faith Healers will be in Austin. That band of noisy Brits, you may (or may not) recall, recorded two exceptional discs of Krautrock-informed tunes ‘n’ drones ‘n’ forcebeats in the early ‘90s. They were gone by ’94, but it turns out they’re on a short U.S. tour to promote the late 2005 release of their Peel Sessions. Good for them.
Now, SXSW never has a shortage of aging veterans—Neil Young delivers the keynote, after all, and he’s rumored to be quite old. But I was more interested in scouting out performers you don’t get to see every day. Or every night, I guess. And these are those.
James Talley was a particularly bright, politically astute folk singer in the 70s—he even performed at the Carter inauguration. The re-release of his classic Got No Bread, No Milk, No Money, But We Sure Got A Lot of Love makes this Wednesday show an excellent time to check him out. Come early and catch indefatigable local troubadour (and far from ancient) Dan Israel; stay later and catch onetime Meat Puppet Curt Kirkwood.
On Friday, “The Ponderosa Stomp” is an event featuring a gaggle of old-time R&B stalwarts calling themselves the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau. Archie Bell (as in “& the Drells”) will be there, as will Eddie Bo and Barbara Lynn, and longtime Elvis drummer DJ Fontana will anchor the set.
And then Saturday night, you've got the Bats. I don’t suppose it would help much to ID that band by saying they were an offshoot of the Clean. Either you’re down with 80s New Zealand post-Velvets jangle-pop or you’re not. (In either case, you should be.)
And finally, also on Saturday, a collection of musicians who tour plenty, but who you’re unlikely to see all in one place like this. There'll be an all star New Orleans tribute with Alan Toussaint, Sam Moore, Ivan Neville, Buckwheat Zydeco, BeauSoleil, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and the New Orleans Social Club.
Is it Wednesday yet?Posted by Keith Harris at 2:56 PM
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March 10, 2006My personal best
There are two schools of thought when it comes to SXSW planning. Some map out their weekend as thoroughly as a military campaign, singling out each show they hope to attend, circling it in their schedule booklet beforehand, and following their preparations to a t. Others allow themselves to be guided by whim, by friends’ last minute suggestions, by the length of lines outside the clubs, by serendipity. I belong more to the latter category, but here are a few bands I’m planning, if tentatively, to catch next week.
As for the Fever and Metric, they have nothing in common other than the fact that I’d go see either of them any night of the week. The Fever’s Sanchez Esquire is my favorite Robert Quine-weaned guitarist working today; Metric’s Emily Haines is the most charismatic frontwoman ditto.
March 9, 2006Less rock, more talk
And now, on to that part of SXSW I’m fuzziest about. Every day of the Music Conference, the Austin Convention Center fills with hopeful musicians, managers, publicists, writers, label heads, radio reps, and every other manner of industry and/or artistic type hoping to find a break, make connections, or just learn a little something. The schedule is crammed with “Mentor Sessions,” “Demo Listenings,” and countless panel discussions and tutorials.
The celebrity interviews are even bigger draws: this year, the Beastie Boys, Sam Moore, k.d. lang, Kris Kristofferson, Morrissey, Ted Cohen (of EMI), Mathew Knowles (Beyonce’s dad), Ray Davies, Billy Bragg, and Judy Collins will all speak and be spoken to. Neil Young & Jonathan Demme will deliver the keynote address.
And me? Well, between a) sleeping late, b) enjoying the Texas weather in March and c) hitting the circuit of daytime, outdoor parties, I’ve rarely ventured into the Convention Center in the past. But this year I’m curious to see what I’ve been missing. Discussions on the role of media both new (blogs and podcasts) and old (radio and print) have the potential to be enlightening. And given the up-in-the-air relationship between Intellectual Property law and technology, I’m especially interested in the Continuing Legal Education (CLE) portion of the Conference, featuring representatives from Minneapolis’s own Lommen Abdo Law Firm.
Oh yeah, and apparently some radio station that’s broadcasting live from Austin has invited a bunch of acts up to its hotel suite for a series of public performances too…
Anyway, I'd be curious to hear if anyone has learned anything useful about the business from past panel discussions.Posted by Keith Harris at 2:12 PM
March 8, 2006No place like home
Over the past decade, I’ve somehow managed to scatter some of my closest friends across the country, including (oops, grrr, sigh) my girlfriend. For me, then, South by Southwest is, among other things, an opportunity to catch up with people from all over, especially Minnesota.
It’s also a chance to catch-up with MN bands, some of which were just getting on their feet when I left town. Here are six I’m especially curious about, listed alphabetically so as not to hurt anyone's feelings.
Coach Said Not To
Tapes n' Tapes
Oh, and for those of you haven’t checked out the SXSW site yet—well, you should check out the SXSW site. Streaming and downloadable tracks for many bands, links the websites of many more, and a complete schedule.Posted by Keith Harris at 11:10 AM
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March 7, 2006Hype is such an ugly word
Sooner or later, my discussion of SXSW would fall upon those two dreaded words: “hype” and “backlash.” So let’s get ‘em out of the way now. We all know the drill. A new band generates excitement, and their admirers absurdly overpraise them. Their detractors, in response, absurdly overcriticize them.
Fortunately for those of us in the middle, these opinions balance out and we eventually reach some sort of consensus. The merits of the following acts, however, are still open to fierce, nerdy debate, and lots of festival-goers will be looking to form their own expert opinions on each.
A better bet than either is Art Brut, a hilarious crew of British three-chord ranters lead by the wiry Eddie Argos, whose hype I’ve done a bit to cultivate myself.
I'm impressed that CYHSY have put a new twist on two old indie rock trends not much in fashion these days--geeky David Byrne-style vocals and on the driving, flat Velvet Underground rave-up. The support of online indie-rock boosters Pitchfork ensured that the backlash would be just as intense as the praise, though. Dr. Dog, who smartly tweak the pleasant feel of 70s pop-rock, were lauded in the New York Times before most folks in their native Philly had caught on to them. I hope everyone hasn't forgotten them already.
More Brits elsewhere: Songstress KT Tunstall will loop her guitar stylings to perform as a full-fledged one-woman band, and the mopey chic Cure fans in Editors will endeavor to prove that 80s new wave is an inexhaustible well of musical influence. The Boy Least Likely To, meanwhile are fey, weedy lads with childlike obsessions and cute tunes to match.
So that’s it for the headline-grabbers. I’m sure I overlooked a few, so feel free to remind me (or argue with me) in the comments.
Oh, and it’ll be a helluva hassle to get into any of these shows, but that’s a subject for another day.Posted by Keith Harris at 12:11 PM
March 6, 2006By way of introduction...
I have a predicament. Here I am, blogging about South by Southwest for The Current, and I don't know what to talk about first--myself or the festival. After all, this is a blog, and blogs = self-indulgence. (Blogs also = the kind of typographical cuteness that no copy editor would allow into print.) Besides, if I hop right into explaining what makes this annual Austin round-up so special an event, you might think “So? We know all that. Why do you think we're reading this? Who is this guy and why should I trust him?”
So quickly, my credentials: I live in Philly now, but I spent a half dozen years writing about music in the Twin Cities, and served for a while as music editor at City Pages (where I still write sometimes), back when it wasn't clear whether anyone outside of Minnesota would get as excited about Atmosphere or Craig Finn as they should. For further info, I refer you to my bio over on the right column.
As for SXSW, well, the Music Conference has changed over the years. In the alt-rock salad days of the early 90s, Austin was the place to be seen and signed every March. Nowadays, major labels are less hungry, and the Internet has drastically accelerated the hype process. The festival has grown into more of a coming out party for the year's buzziest bands, as well as a preview for the rest of your concert-going year.
In the days leading up to the Music Conference, I'll offer you a preview of that preview, a run down of Twin Cities bands in Austin, the biggest hypes, veterans both obscure and overexposed, and a few personal favorites. I'll also point you toward some special SXSW events, including a series of live performances sponsored by the Current, which will be broadcasting from Austin for two days.
And then, from March 15-19, I'll document my experience at the Music Conference in vivid, graphic, grueling detail. That way, you'll have some advance warning about which bands everyone will soon expect you to be excited about. And hopefully, I can give you a sense of whether or not it'll be worth your while to oblige 'em.Posted by Keith Harris at 1:40 PM