South by Southwest 2007
My 2007 South by Southwest experience is finally underway. Honestly, I wait all year to hit Austin for just four days, so it's tough to not spend several weeks before it just fanticizing about breakfast tacos, free beer, and more schwag than even my monkey arms can carry. And the rock! Don't even get me started on all the music. Wait, this is a blog, so, yes, maybe I should get on to the talk of what I did today…
SXSW: Wednesday (Day 1)
There may be no more welcoming airport in the world than Austin Bergstrom International, especially during SXSW. The place is clean, the people are friendly, and there are bands playing everywhere -- yes, even in the terminals. It's as if the city turns the keys over to the rockers invading from out of town, but agrees to chaperone the freaks and weirdos for the week. My first move was to procure my purple Chevy Cobalt from Avis, which at 18 bucks a day pretty much embodies my other reason for being here: cheap-to-free is the name of the game. In addition to hearing as much good music and seeing as many good bands as I possibly can, I completely intend to grab as many goodies as I can possibly manage to carry back to Washington, D.C. All told, there's really no better equipment in the world than a dirt cheap rental car for completing that mission.
Unfortunately, the whole registration process for SXSW badge-holders is a bit of a chore, since it takes hours to reach the front of the line and the volunteers staffing the event are more-or-less useless. The only effective way to unwind after an afternoon of waiting in queue is booze, so I headed straight for the Fader Fort, an empty space that's converted to a free clubhouse for partygoers (assuming you're on the list, and I was) at the expense of Levi's, Coke, and Cartoon Network. Yeah, I know, but whatever. It's always a weird scene, since free booze and live music will often bring out the riff-raff, but it sometimes also draws the cool kids. It's not like I hoped to catch a glimpse of Courtney Love baring her boobs to a homeless dude or anything, but I wasn't surprised to find Har Mar Superstar wandering around shirtless at 7:30 PM, either. The crowd was still small on Wednesday evening, so I was able to grab a couple SoCo's and a copy of the newest Fader without much trouble before I set off for my first night of showcases. By the time I left, though, kids without badges or wristbands had already started lining up for the night's Stereogum party, which would feature the [temporarily] reunited Meat Puppets, but not until after midnight (more on the Pups on Saturday).
I booked my way over to SXSW's most limited-capacity venue, Central Presbyterian Church, to catch a set by one of my all-time favorites, Donovan. Unfortunately, the seated-only space had already filled up by 7:55 PM, so I was out of luck on my first try. I guess Mr. Hurdy Gurdy Man has fallen back into style. Maybe this was just the crowd that was hoping to get in some classic folk and protest songs since SXSW's annual Hootenanny -- last year featuring Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Marty Stuart -- wasn't on the schedule this year.
I cut my losses and headed to the other side of downtown (honestly, like a 10 minute walk) to catch the end of the Pipette's first of several appearances for the week. I'm a fan of We Are the Pipettes and think their combination of innocent girl-group bop and pro-fem kiss-off chants is generally winning, but my worst fears for their live performance were confirmed: the three pretty, young Brits had been replaced with animatronic robots. Their choreographed send-ups of the heavily svengalied 1960s pop groups didn't come off nearly tongue-in-cheek enough and actually reinforced the notion of manager-created identities for women in rock, rather than confronting it.
Lucky for me, New York's The Rapture were up next at La Zona Rosa. Although DFA seems to get all the credit for orchestrating the rise of disco-punk over the past couple of years, I find The Rapture's performance actually transcends the genre. The band is just so good at what they do and seem to have really good intentions -- all smiles and cowbell and saxophone-backed house burners. Luke Jenner's voice sounds as weird and compelling live as it does on record, and the rhythm section knows how to manage a groove to keep the audience engaged and moving asses. They're even a little cheeky with the between-song banter, going as far as insisting that audience neighbors kiss and get to know one another, not focus on the band so much. Which worked out well, since my musician friend The Shanz had shown up on the scene and was puckered and waiting.
As soon as the set ended, The Shanz and I set off to catch Beirut at Emo's (by far, my least favorite venue in Austin -- the sight lines are all god awful and the sound is muffled by walls built too close to the patio stage, a bar in the middle of the floor, and an alley of risers set back a distance from the sound system). Any hipster worth his salt knows that Beirut is a tough ticket in most cities, so this was needless to say a priority showcase for the week. Unfortunately, we rolled up on a really, really long line at the venue, from which only badge-holders (i.e., me but not The Shanz) were certain to enter. The crowd gathering outside the venue looked pretty familiar, though, with some of the skinniest jeans and unfashionable leather jackets I had seen in ages. The Shanz to me: "Why so few mustaches this year? Dudes are seriously not bringing their A-game in the oh-seven."
Zach Condon appears a lot younger in person than he does in press photos. All the booze probably didn't hurt in showing how youthful and enthusiastic a 20-year-old pop prodigy can be, even when he's going on about all the bar mitzvahs in New York. If anything, Beirut reminds me of why Bright Eyes was so exciting a decade ago. Friends of Beirut spent the set pouring the innards of hundreds of old cassettes on the heads of the band members, which really should have made me mad, since my last name is Mixtape, after all. Still, I can't think of a better way for Maxell 120s to end their service to mankind than to have their tapes worn as a crown on the head of this year's indie rock darling.
Then I saw Lily Allen at Stubb's. The less said about this, the better. Despite the gigantic crowd, she drunkenly performed only five songs, all the while chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes and cursing out New Musical Express, the sponsor of the evening's showcase. I can understand her beef, since NME is a gossip rag these days anyway, but "cunt" and "puffer" is no way to convince fans or industry types that you're worth their time and money. Classy lady, that one.
After a brief wait in another badges-only line, I managed my way into a great little venue, Red Eyed Fly, to catch the last two sets of the Frenchkiss Records showcase: Thunderbirds Are Now! and Les Savy Fav. TAN! lived up to their reputation for leaving it all on the stage, more or less whipping the audience into a dancing frenzy that made it easy to forget that the band is pretty much built from the same template of angular riffs and loud-soft-loud transitions as some of America's worst emo bands. On the other hand, they're the perfect thing for anyone who hasn't quite gotten over the demise of Q and Not U (R.I.P.) and Pretty Girls Make Graves (not dead yet, but getting there).
By the time Les Savy Fav took the stage, many of the comedians that were slated to perform over the course of the week (e.g., Aziz Ansari, Eugene Mirman, some of the Best Week Ever guys) had joined the audience. The band's plus-size lead, Tim Harrington, took the stage dressed in a black bodysuit, Superman-style underpants, sunglasses, and mortarboard, asking the audience to "follow Professor Sexy into the night." By the time the band kicked into "The Sweat Descends", the audience inside had started climbing up on the bars and fans who had been denied admission were scaling the fences to get a peek at the craziness. Seeing the peeping heads, Tim played shy with a blush and coquettish grin before grabbing the mic and jumping through the venue's window into the woods, where he performed the next several songs as a disembodied voice. He reemerged on stage hairier and dirtier and had lost most of his clothes. By the last couple of songs, even the stodgiest record execs couldn't help but move something. I think I even saw a suit or two bumping nasties in the crowd with David Cross. Hotttt!