I’ve just started recovering from some 96 hours of live music and mayhem at last week’s South By Southwest Music Conference (SXSW for short, of course) in Austin, Texas along with a billion bands, business types, bloggers and brands. My fifth visit was as good as any I’ve had at the festival, packed with plenty of big moments and bite-sized discoveries. But how will the 25th annual festival be remembered in years to come? I picked up on a few pervading trends of the week — and one of them bodes very well for Music City.
The year of the awesome old-timers
Friday morning was SPIN Magazine’s big annual party at Stubb’s, and kicking things off that day were Chicago’s Smith Westerns, a group of fresh-out-of-high-school kids that couldn’t have looked less excited about being on one of the biggest bills of the week.
Following them were Off! — fronted by 55-year-old punk rock architect Keith Morris, who swiftly schooled the youngsters with a wide-eyed, commanding presence, screaming “I can’t stop!” — the most convincing statement of the week.
I’m a big fan of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who had a string of synth-pop hits in the ‘70s: “Electricity,” “Enola Gay,” and the inescapable Pretty In Pink anthem “If You Leave” — but certainly wasn’t expecting their live show to be so, well, triumphant.
But that’s the best way to describe their powerhouse set at Stubb’s early Saturday morning. Not only were the game to play those aforementioned hits in all of their dated electro glory, frontman Andy McCluskey looked like he was thawed out of 1985 about a week prior — and watching him employ the same dance moves he’d used back then without a hint of apprehension was downright inspiring. On top of that, one of the best performances of the set came from their brand-new album: an instant synth-pop classic entitled “History of Modern (Part 1).” I know I’m rambling on about this, but it was that much fun.
It wasn’t all inspiring, frozen-in-time moments from the musical legends, though. Bad Brains seemed about as into their set at Emo’s Thursday night as the shoegazers of Yuck did all week. The godfathers of hardcore punk had a couple of roadies that tweaked their gear for eons until it had all the sonic charm of Limp Bizkit’s Three Dollar Bill, Y’all. You had to really remind yourself of the band’s legacy to enjoy yourself for more than five minutes.
On the other hand, it was a real trip to see Yoko Ono do her howling atonal-rock thing — not such an unusual sound these days — in person with her son, Sean Lennon.
The year of super-sized concerts (and crowds)
Any other time, and at any other place, I’d be thrilled to be at a festival where the Strokes, Kanye West and Jay-Z were performing.
The problem with doing it at SXSW: it’s all free. And you’ve got a billion music fans in town, on top of all the Austin residents. If you were 17, and the Strokes were playing a free concert in your town, what would you do? You’d go, line up hours in advance and bring every single one of your classmates with you.
Which is how the Strokes — who aren’t anywhere near the headlining spots at this year’s Bonnaroo — ended up playing for an estimated 10,000 people at Auditorium Shores Thursday night. I was one of those 10,000, and the show was certainly fun, but it’s kind of jarring to go from staring straight up bands' noses in clubs all week to standing in a claustrophobic field, watching five ants in jeans and leather jackets play Strokes songs. But man, did those ants had a great set: tons of tunes from their first two flawless records, only the best nuggets of their middling new Angles, and hardly a peep from the abysmal First Impressions of Earth.
I didn’t even try to get anywhere near the Vevo bash that Mr. West was leading Saturday night. Details were confoundingly vague until after I’d landed in Austin, where I depended on a phone with spotty service for my up-to-date info. I only regretted my decision after learning Sunday morning that Jigga joined him. I have my suspicions we’ll be seeing a full, professionally shot video of the evening from Vevo in the near future, anyway.
The year of a few too many bad vibes
Mounted police came to the scene after fans knocked down a fence trying to see the reunion of Death From Above 1979. Pop-punk singer Ben Weasel apparently punched a few fans in the face and was pulled off stage by security. And that OMD show I was raving about earlier? It had been delayed after a camera rig toppled and injured four audience members, some of whom were carried out on stretchers.
These moments seemed to inch up over the fest's latter days, as crowds swelled, tempers shortened, and nobody was getting enough rest.
I’m saying it’s a total coincidence, but an interesting one that the act with the biggest buzz in Austin this year was rap group Odd Future, who have a decidedly un-cheery vibe about them. First off, I’m fascinated by these guys, and made a point to see it in person. But here comes my lame, responsible adult caveat: I was expecting a high-energy performance, but not one that was downright threatening.
Leader Tyler, the Creator was climbing the stage rig like a jungle gym and swinging from his legs. Others scurried up the speaker system and leapt some 20 feet into the crowd below — one of those rare moments at a live show where you hear an entire audience gasp simultaneously. Endangering yourself is one thing, but not caring if you make a stage topple or land feet first on someone else’s head — kind of not cool.
OK, safety notice is over. Let’s end on a high note.
The year Nashville skipped the reunions
It’s been nice to head down to Austin in previous years, pop into a club to catch a Nashville band and see a ton of familiar faces in the crowd. But it’s also kind of pointless, right? Hopefully, you’re making the 16-hour haul in the van to play for an audience of folks from around the country and the globe, who’ll head back to their little corner of the music industry with word of your greatness.
Luckily, the latter seemed to be the case by and large at this year’s fest. JEFF the Brotherhood held court at cavernous dance club Kiss and Fly, with a packed house of real-deal fans pumping their fists, and one particularly excited audience member hopping into a dancer cage at the request of the band. A nice bonus: they were sharing the bill with international indie names Yuck and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.
Similarly encouraging news of crowds for rising Nashville names Keegan Dewitt, Daniel Pujol, Tristen, Caitlin Rose and Turbo Fruits spread swiftly, as well.
But perhaps Nashville’s biggest moment at SXSW happened right as the whole shebang was kicking off — and I was still waiting at the airport.
Jack White’s Third Man Records debuted its new “Rolling Record Store” truck Wednesday morning, and Jack kicked off festivities with a surprise two-song set of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and the White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.”
I caught the Third Man truck later that evening, and it was definitely one of the coolest sights of the whole festival — way more hip to hang out by than the Monster Energy truck.