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SXSW: Fuzzy, Buzzy Bands and Cheesy, Beefy, Cheese

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 3/26/2008

For me, this year's South by Southwest festival (my first) came with a high risk of terminal illness. Over the course of the two or three days prior to getting on that 5:30 a.m. plane to Austin, every time I looked at the schedule of bands online, I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

Eventually, my girlfriend, with whom I traveled to SXSW, and with whose friendly, boisterous Texan relatives I stayed, sent me this article, which is about how not to go insane when faced with so many really tempting options--for example, choosing your career, what to have for dinner, or whether or not you want to see TechN9ne, No Age, or Gil Mantera's Party Dream to close out Saturday night. That helped.

What we settled on was a roughly outlined plan to see a handful of bands that I had researched on MySpace, plus a few with legitimate buzz, based on a bunch of podcasts and SXSW survival guides gleaned from blogs, and a handful of bands that my girlfriend described as "pretty music," by which she meant bands that are less like the noisy punk bands I enjoy, and more like what would appear on the Six Feet Under soundtrack. Our rationale was, if we see enough of the over-hyped shows, but take in a few random ones as well, we'll be sure to have a good time, not miss out on some good stuff, and not spend our time seeing just one type of music or partying near one particular crew of people.

The plan worked. And I didn't have a heart attack. At least I was fine until I saw how many effing enchilada places and barbecue pits there were. Jesus Christ, Austin food is good.

THURSDAY: We arrived at 11 a.m. in Austin, picked up at the airport by the first (of many) of my girlfriend's boisterous Texas relatives. We registered at the Convention Center; got press badges and large bags of useless crap, plus a pocket-sized schedule. We ate ribs and brisket at the Ironworks, which were well-cooked, but not the meatiest of meats I've ever had--covered in thick, sweet, deep-South style sauce. That afternoon, we checked into the NPR VIP showcase party at Roux, because--well, because we're VIPs, of course---but also because Vampire Weekend, those reedy-voiced Columbia grads who love scarves, Afrobeat, and the Ramones, were headlining. The band was, in fact, unremarkable, and beyond a crazed look in the eyes of the bopping, smoking-jacketed bassist, its live show was like watching plants grow: entirely indistinguishable from the record. The openers were more impressive. Bon Iver, a three-man act led by bearded Wisconsinite Justin Vernon, played songs from For Emma, Forever Ago, a record whose story--he recorded the whole thing alone in a cabin in the woods! And got high and rode tractors all day when he wasn't jamming!--has outgrown the actual music on it, was surprisingly impressive. High vocal harmonies with a clear, icy sheen; strong folky shoegazer stage presence; even some stoner-rock outros that jolted the audience awake after all the prettiness. The ever dorky, ever hipster Swede Jens Lekman, surrounded by three blonde bombshells on cello, violin, and bongos--which added a strange, Warhol garage/ Project Runway type vibe to his show--played a few excellent songs from his upcoming album, Night Falls Over Kortedala. Yeasayer, a Brooklyn band that I don't quite understand--is it trying to be TV On the Radio with native American music instead of soul?--sucked, and the Shout Out Louds were a little boring. We missed someone called A.A. Bondy because we went out for grilled avocado tacos at Torchy's on 6th Street, which were delicious with the hot green salsa.

That night it was Man Man, who played a packed outdoor show at Cedar Street Courtyard, with plenty of people hooting along with their weirdness, My Morning Jacket trying to be epic at the Austin Music Hall, and a guilty pleasure for me, Dallas's Old 97's rocking tracks from their forthcoming disk--which isn't that good--at Stubb's. Oh, and dinner was at the incomparable Enchiladas y Mas.

FRIDAY: I woke up full of meat and cheese. It isn't the first time, nor would it be the last of the weekend. The Boisterous Texans took us to Cisco's for some increíble huevos rancheros, and then it was off to Minnesota Public Radio's "The Current" showcase near Emo's on Red River Street. There, between annoyingly long sound checks and even more annoying intros by DJs from Public Radio Paradise, we heard a few tunes by M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, known collectively as She and Him, and I can report that not only is the Elf starlet also extremely cute in person, but her Carol King vocals are like peas and carrots with Him and his lazy, reverbed slide guitar. Darondo--a septuagenarian soul singer from San Francisco who once opened for James Brown--was an absolute highlight of the festival. The rumor about him is that he was once a pimp, and his gross, sex-crazed persona does nothing to dispel it. Toothless and wrinkled, he writhed around stage, his pelvis pumping wildly to grooves by Bay-area funk band Nino Moschella, singing songs such as "That's How I Got Over," and "Didn't I?" from his 2006 reissue collection. By the end of it he was on his knees, his narrow chest heaving, and it was awesome.

Billy Bragg's solo show--his ninth of the weekend--with its tiresome anti-war protest songs and platitudes about his self-proclaimed "Johnny Clash" style, was enough to drive us over to a park near the Convention Center for the "Aussie Barbecue," which was conveniently without barbecue, but had plenty of free dark beer. We caught the Panics, a decent straight-ahead punk-rock band, and browsed the trade show, which was full of recycled air and Guitar Hero displays.

Dinner at Paradise on 6th Street was awful, but we filled up on cheap Shiner, watched a bit of the Big East Tournament, and went to that same parking garage where music editor Michael Byrne caught Blaq Starr, Diplo, etc. We got there in time to watch two hairy dudes, who were obviously on happy pills, rubbing their necks all over each other in between spastic dancing to Simian Mobile Disco. Then, after some three-piece suit with a list refused to let us into Nylon magazine's VIP party with the Death Set and Scottie B, we decided that it was time to go see some screamo at La Zona Rosa. Chiodos told the moms in the audience, "I don't give a fuck who's here tonight, because music is music"--and then howled into the mic until half the 13-year-olds there were round-housing and smacking each other. Paramore headlined the event, which was sponsored by mallrat rock t-shirt store Hot Topic, and despite the music, which was predictably giddy and fun and loud, impish lead singer Hayley Williams managed to offend me by giving a bunch of stupid stage speeches about how being a rock star "isn't about acting cool all the time," and that you have to work really hard on things like, oh, I dunno, dying your hair orange.


SATURDAY: This was a day for kings. After watching Australian folkster Chris Pickering play an excellent set of Dylanesque tunes outside of Whole Foods, the Filter magazine showcase at Cedar Street Courtyard was brilliant. We saw Castledoor, an Arcade Fire knockoff from Los Angeles that was actually a lot of fun, then gypsy punk Devotchka rocked some tubas and indie rockers Sea Wolf played another highlight set. Dinner was a serious burger at Dirty Martin's, and then onto the DirectTV Live show featuring Carbon/Silicon, the latest venture from Clash guitarist Mick Jones. For some reason, our press badges got us backstage access to this show, but there was no beer--we heard later that Mick doesn't really party--and we got kicked out of the band's trailer, where we were playing gin-rummy and watching the live feed of Liam Finn playing some autoharp rock next door. Jones and the boys were great--just a really crunching set of cool garage rock that included "War on Culture," and ended with an extended version of their fist-pumping single "The News."

After that, it was all Austin music, all night. Patrice Pike, who we were told is "the next Janis Joplin," was no such thing at Antone's, where she played a set of mom-rock straight from the Ally McBeal soundtrack. But over at Habana Calle 6 Patio, however, we made up for it with a three excellent local bands: Lemurs, Brazos and White Denim. The latter was a definite treat. Featured February in Rolling Stone, the trio plays a type of spastic prog-punk with looped, melodic guitar lines, tortured blues vocals, and really charismatic, thunderclap drumming from Josh Block. If it sounds just a tad like I'm describing Baltimore's own Ponytail, it might be because they reminded me of one another, only White Denim has less chirping from its singers and more Oi band shouting. I couldn't hear much by the end of it.

Before we left the city, we had burgers at Hut's, terrible barbecue at County Line, delicious "Elvis Special" enchiladas at Chuy's, superior ice cream at Amy's, the best barbecue I've ever had at Coopers (in Llano), and misread the schedule for a Wye Oak radio appearance on Sunday. Now if I can just confirm that I don't have colon cancer.

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