It's easy to hear a lot of music at SXSW and feel like you somehow missed it. That's because you did.
[Updated] It's easy to grouse about South by Southwest. Too many people. Too many bands. Too corporate. Too much everything, all of which is true. No matter how diligently you plan and stay at it, you'll miss bands you wanted to see. Then there are friends who you only see once a year, cool tips you hear about, and a sound you hear coming out of a bar that you have to pursue with no idea what it is. As such, your SXSW never turns out like you planned.
Mine started with one of the things that SXSW does well - create an event that would otherwise not exist. Last fall, I interviewed Gary Klebe of power pop band Shoes when they reunited to release Ignition; on Wednesday, they played their first show in decades at SXSW. A hundred or so people crowded into a West 6th Street bar, most of them of age to have seen Shoes the first time around, but the concentration of music fans in one place made the show exciting in a way that it wouldn't be in most cities if the band were to tour. As much as I'd like to think otherwise, I suspect 50 or so people would turn out to see them in most cities in America, whereas in Austin for a week in March, they're stars and the shows are rock star moments.
Similarly, Mojo Nixon has essentially retired from music to instead ply his gift for outrageousness as a DJ on Sirius XM's Outlaw Country channel, but walk into his yearly Saturday afternoon show at the Continental Club and you'd think he'd never taken a day off the stage judging by the intensity of the fans' response. His shows, like those by Chicago's Waco Brothers, are another kind of SXSW event - the gig that only happens once a year. The Waco Brothers' punk country doesn't travel much beyond the Chicago region, so for most of the world, if you want to see the band at all, you see it at SXSW.
In recent years, another kind of event has kicked in - the celebrity show. Bands too big to play club dates playing club dates in a city where all the world is watching. To help launch At War with the Mystics, The Flaming Lips played an unannounced show to 400 or so people, opening the set with a cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody." This year The Flaming Lips returned to promote the upcoming release, The Terror, complete with a show that involved Wayne Coyne performing with a disturbing, tubed and wired baby strapped to his chest, but sets by Iggy and The Stooges, Prince, Justin Timberlake, and Dave Grohl's Sound City All-Stars were bigger news.
The latter represented my SXSW sin of the year. I passed on the Daptone Revue - all the Daptone Records bands - to try to see the Sound City show working from the logic that I would never see that show in New Orleans, while I've seen a number of the Daptone bands. I stood outside waiting as Stevie Nicks joined Grohl's band to play a heavier version of "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," and wondered, "Do I really want to work to hear muscled-up '70s California rock? Does hearing Grohl play on it make it better? Did I really come to SXSW to hear songs that make me cringe if they come on the radio?" I moved on, but had missed the Daptone show.
This year, I hamstrung myself by not properly preparing for SXSW. In previous years, I've checked mp3s and band sites to figure out which of the acres of names I didn't know are ones I should hear. When I don't know what to do at SXSW, I see foreign bands that will likely not play the United States again. At a Japan Nite show, I saw an anime band come to life, Josy. The all-girl band's enthusiasm was over the top, making the show a bit of a sugar rush, but a lot of fun for a half-hour or so. There was an unexpected hint of New Orleans in their pop as the blue-jacketed piano player pounded out Domino-like triplets on her electric piano. Even more unlikely was their version of "What a Wonderful World," played with a perfect lack of piety. "And I think to myself," the yellow-jacketed singer sang at the end, "WE LOVE AUSTIN!" Before them, Pirates Canoe featured three women in gingham dresses and cowboy hats who played bluegrass and sang traditional Japanese harmonies with a lot of precision and not a hint of irony. As a result, sections were breathtaking.
Other foreign highlights: Panorama (or maybe Siddhartha), a Columbian power pop band (who knew) that recalled The dB's, and The Holydrug Couple, a Chilean space rock trio that droned beautifully. Space rock ended up a preoccupation for me this year at SXSW, where I also saw Austin's ST 37 play on an unlit stage while a topless woman rode a timid mechanical bull off to one side, completely detached from the band. Nik Turner of Hawkwind underscored the band's place as the bridge between metal and punk, performing 1973's Space Ritual with a band that included members of The UK Subs and Chelsea on guitar. I'm sorry I missed the krautrock of Chile's Folkazoid, but I got caught up at Robyn Hitchcock's 60th birthday party, one of a number he's performing around the country this year. He was joined by Scott McCaughey, Bill Rieflin, Ken Stringfellow and others to perform his own music, Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue," and a few late Beatles numbers. A reminder of what a Beatles fan he is (if it isn't obvious): "The demo tempo," he reminded the band before leading them into "One After 909."
I didn't entirely turn my back on the new music marketplace. One afternoon, I walked in on a set by New Jersey rapper Kosha Dillz, whose good-natured set gave rhyme and rhythm to everyday life. His cool new track? "Hanging Out." His set-closer? Freestyling about stuff that people set on the stage, including a condom, a shoe, and a half-eaten bratwurst. Across the street, Pokey LaFarge applied his sweet voice to western swing in front of Third Man Records' mobile record store. Later that night, Los Angeles' Spindrift played spaghetti western soundtrack music and gave me The Line of SXSW when the keyboard player asked, "Can I have more maragrita in the monitor?"
I started my SXSW with a very good Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds that showcased material from the whole of his lengthy career with The Bad Seeds. He spent a lot of time with his recent album, Push the Sky Away, starting with "Higgs Boson Blues," which includes the lyric "Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake / And you're the best girl I've ever had."
I retreated to the Fuse party partway through the Los Angeles-based Haim, whose sister act (plus guy drummer) was earnestly professional without being much fun. It's nice to know that they mean well and really want to entertain, but that doesn't mean they're entertaining.
Haim was followed by Vampire Weekend, who remain more compelling to me live than on record. They were previewing material from an upcoming album (Modern Vampires of the City, due out May 7), and it fit comfortably into a set of the band's favorites that kept the crowd dancing all the way to the back wall of Stubb's outdoor amphitheater. The band's not particularly dynamic live, but the combination of Chris Baio's nimble, scurrying basslines and drummer Chris Tomson's light, agile touch on drums kept a few acres of people in motion. For me, the key to the band's success is that Vampire Weekend makes the world music elements integral parts of songs that get done in three or so minute songs, so that no idea or groove hangs around too long and shows its ass.
I was disappointed that I missed Big Freedia at a non-SXSW day party because I wanted to see her in front of the audience she likely gets on the road. Life got in the way, but I did see her set at the Austin Convention Center as part of SXSW's official activities. There, the industry-heavy audience was into it, but as much for the spectacle as the music. Freedia has a dancer (I think introduced as "Mr. Flash") whose moves were an effective counterpoint to the ass-shaking dancers, who were themselves relentless and impressive. I caught Houma's Baby Bee in a punishing venue on 6th Street. The guitar and drums duo was wedged in the front corner of what is normally an Irish pub, but they hammered through the obstacles between them and the audience. The band's not a particularly original concept - two-piece hard-rocking blues - but Busy Bee succeeded through energy and touch, finishing with a great, driving version of Cleveland Crochet's "Sugar Bee."
In some ways, SXSW is made for the small bands. The biggest bands don't need it, and the touring bands will have a lot of chances to find their audiences. For truly emerging bands, it's an occasion when some will have a moment that could easily outlive the band. On Friday night, writing friends suggested I meet them to see Ketchy Shuby, a band I'd never heard of. When I got there, I discovered that they hadn't either. They'd picked the band for its name as a way of seeing something unexpected - and it was. The Miami-based group turned out to be a Latin soul band with what looked like a Samoan singer/guitarist who has a sweet, Curtis Mayfield-like voice. In my mind, they were fun but the arrangements weren't done yet, but writer John Swenson walked away excited by them and talked about them for the rest of the weekend. That may not do anything in terms of helping the band break through on a national level, but when/if they see him rave about them in print, they'll know they really reached somebody, which is all most bands can ask for.
Updated March 22, 2:06 p.m.
The Houma-based band is Baby Bee, not Busy Bee as first reported. The text has been changed to reflect this correction.