Goddammit, Austin: SXSW Recap

Can we call a whirlwind elephantine? No? Well, SXSW was huge, it was bewildering, and it went by fast, and I’m not absolutely sure here, but I think it liked peanuts.

Trying to get a handle on the whole thing from one solitary sleep-deprived person’s perspective brings up the proverbial blind men with the elephant. Alarm, of course, was holding an ear.

The weather gods, at least, seem to like the idea of SXSW; after a week of cold rain, the sun shone down on four days of festivities, sending the New Yorkers and Chicagoans home clutching real estate brochures in sunburnt hands. One local band wisely counseled the tourists to make a second recon in August before signing anything.

The most striking thing about SXSW this year was how much it seemed to be leaking: there are entire well-stocked auxiliary festivals happening out of bounds. Free day shows, unofficial showcases, renegade music in every little pocket of Austin.

Even a healthy number of the official happenings were wide open to the non-braceleted, un-badged masses. Without pay and with very little hassle, you could catch the Circle Jerks, M. Ward, Alejandro Escovedo, Explosions in the Sky, Cursive, Monotonix, Billy Joe Shaver, etc. etc.

Anyone with the entire festival thrown open to them was liable to end up a gibbering, indecisive wreck, wandering up and down 6th street with a schedule the approximate size and weight of the NYC phone book. Without the use of powerful computers, it was impossible to consider all of your options at any given time.

Luckily, we have powerful computers: the geeked-up site Sched.org would help you filter through 2,742 offical Music Events, as well as 2,427 unofficial, 488 panels, and 200 parties, to make a personalized plan, one that you would scrap as soon as your evening began. (Still this didn’t include events happening at SXSanJose, at the hipster hotel paradise in south Austin, where about forty acts played over the course of the festival.)

As usual, some big names showed up; PJ Harvey played Stubb’s (as part of a awkward lineup: Harvey, then the Indigo Girls, then Third Eye Blind; a evening designed to appeal to the massive demographic of frat-boy punk hipster lesbians), the Decemberists enjoyed another press coronation, the New York Dolls were around, (though making a smaller splash than expected), Perry Farrell, Devo, Kanye West, etc., etc., etc., all distracting to various degrees from the stated purpose of SXSW, namely, to provide a platform for the up and comers.

And there were lines: one of my major tactical errors occurred on night one, when I waited in line with some astonishingly pretty people to see the Harlem Shakes; their buzz ensured that they could be named the Stark Naked Emperors and we’d all try to enjoy them anyway. I couldn’t do it.

Phosphorescent‘s show at De Ville was another thing altogether: no line, but a deliriously happy crowd, loving the raucous, party-in-church treatment of Willie Nelson covers from their recent tribute To Willie. “Well, goddamn it, Austin,”

Phosphorescent/lead singer Matt Houck said, as close to beaming as the man can come, “they’re cutting us off.” It was true: he clearly would have stayed for hours, but he had to close right then, with a feverish version of “The Party’s Over”. “Turn out the lights/the party’s over/and tomorrow we’ll start the whole thing over again,” he sang, calling to mind Kurt Cobain wailing through “In the Pines”. It was too early to peak, but my SXSW didn’t get any better than that.

Although: Danish band Efterklang proved that sometimes buzz is justified, Rafter proved that he has yet to translate that enormous live talent to record, Mojo Nixon still brings a white trash party, The Gourds continue to be Austin’s best band who elsewhere hide beneath the shadow of their novelty cover (“Gin and Juice”), Ty Segall did something undefinable but wonderful to garage punk, Zoroaster‘s drummer is a god with a tattooed neck, M. Ward is still better than you think (even after you’ve heard eight million times how good he is), and Peelander-Z are as weird as they pretend to be.

And The Delta Spirit‘s song “People C’mon” will soon be as unavoidable as Snow Patrol‘s “Run”, and Deer Tick may be thinking he is Paul Westerberg, but he’ll find out those times are past.

Questions we’re left with: do bands still get signed from this? Has SXSW become the music equivalent of Sundance, a basically false indie parade, with buzz predetermined by dollars and star power? (Well: no. But isn’t it fun to ask?)

Why are bands slotted to play twelve times? How could Homeslice Pizza run out of pizza? Can we avoid saying “in this economy”? Apparently not.

Lesson for next year: make no attempt at understanding the elephant. Grip the ear and hang on.

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