SXSW Music Festival: Austin, TX
The city is bursting at the seams with hipsters seemingly posing as conventioneers. Conspicuously absent are the embroidered-logo short-sleeve knit shirts tucked into frumpy, old guy jeans held up (just a little too high) by a belt which also holds a cell phone holster. Instead, you can't walk a block in any part of town without seeing a gaggle of young, hip-looking people with asymmetrical haircuts, Chuck Taylors, tight jeans, vintage park-and-rec t-shirts and hoodies, sporting badges around their necks.
The streets are also alive with exhibitionists of often-undetermined stripes, evangelists screaming through microphones and handing out t-shirts, a girl in an orange bodysuit dancing for a video camera as if her arms and legs were propellers, random indie-band photo ops in parking lots, gypsy bands set up on the sidewalks or wherever else they can catch peoples' ears, a muscle-bound guy in an Army Ranger t-shirt barbecuing on his porch to the strains of Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty."
There are shows in tiny indie record stores, barbershops, art galleries, restaurants, back porches, yards, museums, radio stations, coffeehouses, even at the Urban Outfitters. Walking down Sixth Street, Austin's tourist mecca and the home to most of its bars and clubs, the sounds of the bands blend together so as to be indistinguishable. San Francisco seems to be fairly well represented judging from some of the familiar faces I've seen, fixtures in the Bay Area music scene.
You learn some quick lessons at festivals like this. The venues are almost always behind schedule, guest lists usually go unheeded, supporting bands seem to have a curious and irksome habit of not introducing themselves to audiences who rarely know the name of every act. Emo's always has a line. Many of the day shows offer free drinks -- usually keg beer -- but one might also spot music fans drinking Rob Roys in Birds Barbershop while watching their friends get free mohawks.
The food options are myriad. So far, the standouts were a greasy and flavorful taco-truck crawl on South First St., incredible battered french fries and chicken and waffles at Tony's Southern Comfort Restaurant and extremely well-cooked brisket and a euphoric banana pudding at Ben's Longbranch BBQ (which also hosts bands down the hill from its porch on a cement patio).
But not everything is wine and roses, I endured weeks of planning and scheduling to make sure I could see the bands I want, and for the most part it helps, but not everything goes off as planned. The first afternoon, I manage to park our rented RV in what turns out to be a dingy, if centrally-located RV park and then get a ride back into town with the guy who is selling me a wristband. An early jaunt to the southern part of town results in Fort Worth's Nouns Group having cancelled at the last minute. My RV-mate loses her ID and we can't get into buzz-band Menomena's show at Buffalo Billiards at 1am on Thursday.
That brings us to the music. So far, I've made it to Big A Little A, Architecture in Helsinki, No Age, The Gray Kid, Malajube, Daniel Johnston, Charlie Louvin, Micah P. Hinson, The Black Angels, Benjy Ferree, Diplo, Datarock, Foreign Islands, Macromantics, Bone Box, Paris Motel, La Castle Vania, Yo Majesty, Apostle of Hustle, Lo-Fi Fnk, This Moment in Black History and Okkervil River, as well as a few others.
This is the rundown of the highlights up 'til now:
Aa (Big A Little A) -- How can you not expect the best from a band that carries three drummers. But these guys meld the extremely old (ancient) and the new remarkably well, creating a spacey tribal sound that hits you on a visceral and primordial level.
Daniel Johnston -- The former Austinite and soul-on-his-sleeve warbler delivers a loving cover of the Beatles' "Come Together" immediately following his own ode to the Fab Four "The Beatles." But just as moving are incredible a cappella versions of "Devil Town" and "Speeding Motorcycle."
Charlie Louvin -- I couldn't stay for all of the country legend's set, but I did manage to catch a rollicking version of the Louvin Brothers' hit "Cash on the Barrelhead." Some of his newer stuff feels more like a Vegas show covering country music, but when he performs the standards, you can still feel the genius that made The Louvin Brothers one of Nashville's greatest hit-making acts.
Architecture in Helsinki -- Flamingo Cantina on Sixth Street is one of my favorite venues in Austin. They book good music, they have a great patio behind and above the stage where you have a good (and less crowded) vantage point. Australia's Architecture in Helsinki got the kids jumping with their instrument-swapping, conga-tinged, hook-laden indie rock.
Benjy Ferree -- A singular songwriter with a dynamic voice and unique phrasing, Ferree trades in smart ballads accompanied by a cello and guitar, and bears the trademark songwriter's harmonica around his neck.
No Age -- The Los Angeles duo sound even better live than they do on their recorded material. They are comfortable and funny on the back patio of Miss Bea's, a small Eastside neighborhood watering hole during one of Brooklyn promoting icon Todd P.'s shows.
This Moment in Black History -- Their brand of all-out hardcore punk gets the crowd involved whether they like it or not. The singer ended up in my lap at one point...serves me right for sitting down at a punk show.
Yo Majesty -- This hip-hop trio from the Tampa Bay area really brings the noise. You could hear their blistering, hard-nosed old-school and Dirty South-influenced rap down the street. It's impossible not to get behind their energy and the dollar-store bejeweled crown.