Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Austin Translation

This is the report I wrote for The Hit Sheet

South By Southwest 2009

It’s Wednesday night and we’re walking down 6th street. It’s pedestrianised for the duration. Already the floor is littered with flyers, the street is busy and there’s a buzz of excitement. Regulars, for whom it’s the highlight of the year, are psyched for what’s to come; newcomers like me are thrilled in anticipation of how it will be. Everyone is smiling. Up and down the strip, there are random performances. Sometimes it’s to promote a show - with over 1,800 bands playing, you have to make yourself stand out somehow. But often it’s just for the fun of it, part of the spirit of the festival. We encounter a nine piece band: among them a double bass, a banjo and a hyperactive oboe player. They’re singing three-part close harmonies and it’s charming. The businesswoman in me thinks they should have a sign with their name or be handing out flyers. “Spirit of the festival, Marsh”. I keep my mouth shut and walk on

First gig of the trip is South Africa’s BLK JKS at Paradise Bar. They’re hotly tipped. All my cool friends think they’re amazing. I know I’m going to hate them. But I also know it’s good for me to expose myself to such things, so that I can have courage in my convictions when sup erior people sniff at some of my music choices. Twenty minutes late, they come on. They have fire and energy. The whole room is jumping and the friends are grinning wildly. It’s one of those gigs that makes me feel like a nan; I turn to Best Friend and say, “I can’t find a tune! There doesn’t seem to be a regular beat!”. After three songs, she concedes and we leave.

We’re off to see Charles Hamilton, a rapper she loves who she says is really interesting and amazing. As we’re so late, Best Friend pays for a rickshaw and we hurtle down the street. Arriving at the Back Alley Social, we push our way past all the achingly hip rap fans and try to look gangster, with our party frocks and diet cokes. The earlier delay means we’re incredibly late, but hey -it’s South By Southwest - everything runs a bit late, right? Actually, turns out, BLK JKS were the anomaly - we’ve missed Charles Hamilton. It only becomes apparent when Brother Ali takes to the stage. He’s actually very good, but not what we’re here for, so we move on.

I had always been under the illusion that it was all shows on makeshift stages in back gardens and car parks. In fact, a lot of them are no more exotic than they would be at In The City. Just with nicer accents. And lighter beer.

We wander down the strip, thinking we can maybe catch the end of something and encounter two fellows in costumes with cardboard. They tell us they are from the time-machine 7286 metablob which has broken down. One is from 8,000 BC, the other from 100,022 AD. Would we like to ask them a question about the future? We ask if we’re going to have a good festival. What else can they say but yes?

Inspired, we make our way to Brooklyn Vegan(hot US blog)’s Club De Ville showcase, where Phosphorescent are playing their To Willie album,(a tribute to Willie Nelson ) in full. There are beards. Lots of beards. It confirms my suspicion that the key look at SXSW 2009 is “Jesus: Through The Ages”. The band are rockin’, the beards all love it, and the show is wonderfully ended with a little dancing and a lot of smiling. Remembering that it’s a marathon and not a sprint, we head home for refuelling. On the way back, I pop in and watch the tail end of Mumford and Sons’ set headlining the Chess Club night at Friends. Their glorious, warm, indie- hoedown style works perfectly here. Another room fills with grins.

Thursday: up and at ‘em. My first task is to see a Hawk and a Hacksaw - a friend who knows me well says I will love them. I make my way up to the French Legation Museum. It’s bloody miles away, but when I arrive, I find one of the nicest spots I’ve seen so far: two stages, one indoors, one outdoors, lots of grass, beer in big bins of ice and happy people lolling in the sun. This is more festival! Before AHAAH can start, Camera Obscura - delayed - must finish their set. I’m worried about being late for my next appointment and trying not to get stressed. They play their sugar-indie-pop with energy and sweetness and the crowd is happy. Now for my band.! On they come with..oh. Strange instruments. Wooping,. It’s Klezmer gypsy-folk. Charming but not my thing at all. I’ve just realised I was thinking of Gregory and The Hawk. Who, it turns out, aren’t playing at all. I get up and run.

And run.

And run.

It takes me thirty-five minutes to get from that venue to my next.

Next up is Sam Isaac -my charge - at Café Blu. No one knows where this is, and, trying to be a good manager, I field calls from confused industry invitees. He and his band play, and the sound is terrible (it’s a café - converted into a venue for the purposes of sxsw, but not used to being one), but everyone seems to enjoy it, and a photo of Sam from the show makes it onto the front page of the following day’s Austin American Statesman newspaper.

On to the next: Tricky at The Fader Fort. This is a non-official venue, on the outskirts. If you have rsvp’d, then queued for at least half an hour to get your wristband, it gives you access to a four-deep free bar and twenty minute- long toilet wait. It feels a bit like a rubbish central London festival. I have to confess to not being a huge Tricky fan -I’m there to meet a friend, so not too excited when he hits the stage. What I see totally surprises me. He is incredible live. In spite of my knowing very few songs, there is something chemical that means my jaw drops and I can’t take my eyes off him. Special stuff.

Afterwards, I head to meet Best Friend at the Secretly Canadian party at Mohawk, where Akron/Family are playing. As seems to be the theme of my evening, they’re another band who surprise me. On record, the songs aren’t my cup, but live they’re stunning. The effect on the crowd is astonishing; there is a tribal feel to it all that you can’t help but get caught up in. They are added to mental list of Bands Everyone Should See Live At Least Once.

I am summoned to rescue New Lawyer Buddy (we had met on the bus the previous day) from the worst gig of his life. The dude on stage looks like Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo (with less charm), and his band are playing tuneless, lifeless funk-rock. I drag NLF and his pal Industry Dude to Sam Isaac’s second show of the day at Fado’s Irish bar. They are both immediately smitten and I am drunk and parentally proud. Time to get a taxi home.

Seriously, don’t even bother trying. You’ll end up on the street for a full hour and a half.

Once finally home, I make a plan for the following day. With over 1,800 bands playing, I had thought I could employ the method I use every Glastonbury: just follow your nose, and see what you come across. However, South By Southwest has so many shows and the area across which they are is so vast, that purely leaving it to chance can mean you end up hearing a lot of terrible local rock bands and missing out on the special moment everyone else will rave about. The best method seems either to be military with your planning, or to stick by other people who are.
Friday: action day. By 12pm, I am back at the French Legation Museum for Dent May and his Magnificent Ukulele. This is one of my favourite moments of the week. What better way to ease your hangover than to listen to gentle, devastatingly charming songs in a beautiful location in the sunshine? Afterwards, Singer Chum and I sit on the grass and listen to a band, brand-new to us both: Virgin Forest. They explain that they usually don’t play acoustic, but it doesn’t matter, we are both enchanted. A chat with them afterwards reveals they don’t have anything to sell, so I add them to my list of post-festival must-buys.

Even the homeless are charming. Everyone smiles and is happy to help whenever they can.

We amble around the main drag and poke our noses into the Spin party. Free popcorn and Justin Hawkins’ new band. The former is more appealing to us, but the crowd there are cheering wildly for the latter. A little faffery later, we catch the end of Your Vegas at the Beauty Bar - a band I had thought I didn’t like, but I loved them live. Always good to be proven wrong from time to time. Then I find New Lawyer Friend and Industry Dude and we go to watch UK new pop band Honey Ryder.

Before the gig, I meet the band’s manager, who is tasked with handing out Honey Ryder wristbands. Over the few days, I have had several discussions about how interactivity in a gig can make an enormous difference to the enjoyment of the crowd; if you’ve ever seen Scouting For Girls, Dashboard Confessional or Get Cape, you’ll understand what I mean. Inspired by this, I convince him to get the band to play hoopla with the crowd’s beer bottles. Happily, everyone goes for it, most of them are caught and Honey Ryder’s wristbands will now be proudly worn and talked about. The daytime finishes with Rod Thomas’ set in the reception of the Hilton hotel. For me, the highlights of this week are increasingly quirky gigs like this. His emotional but engaging beats and acoustic tunes are perfect for the grand, slightly surreal setting.

The sun goes down and Sam Isaac’s keyboard player Jose convinces me to come to the 18th Floor of the Hilton to see Sam Amidon. I know nothing about him, so go to the bar for the first song. On he comes, singing gentle folky tunes accompanied by his banjo. Then, with no warning, he starts making a vocal noise that sounds like metal being crushed. Everyone at the bar bursts out laughing. I sit back down and he gets better and better. One song is stopped while he does twenty push-ups. Another is interrupted so he can tell us about the dream where is his mom was two foot high and chasing him through the house. His chat reminds me of David Shrigley art - the sort of thing that confuses some, inspires others to stroke their chin, but always makes me laugh deep, throaty laughs. In-between his mischief, the songs and singing are beautiful. He is my favourite live spectacle in months.


After him, Tom Brosseau comes on, looking like someone has pulled him from a photo of the American Mid West in 1929. He seems a little frightened and sings us enchanting song-stories that sit nicely with the incredible view and pot plant-covered stage. Afterwards, we amble across town to the Central Presbyterian Church, an enormous building that Laura Marling is playing in. A tiny slip of a thing, she is dwarfed by the 50 foot-high cross on the wall behind her. She plays with Marcus Mumford, who both accompanies her on various instruments and sings harmonies. The quality of the two of their voices together almost makes a new one. It’s an extraordinary and utterly wonderful thing, which reminds me of the effect when Gram Parsons and Emmy-Lou Harris duet. This must be the tenth show I’ve seen Laura Marling play, and each time I am struck by how incredible and timeless her voice is. This is the beginning of a very long story. I am absolutely certain that, at the very least, people will be writing about her for decades to come. Moved, we head home.

The final day of SXSW begins in the best way it could: Sam Amidon and pancakes. I am at the Hometapes Friend Island festival. After only four hours sleep and on my own, I have hauled myself out of bed to come and see him play again, so taken was I last night. And pancakes! There is a brief period where I am sitting on the ground in the sun, eating them with maple syrup and watching Sam Amidon play, where I think I might actually pass out with joy. This moment was not only my highlight of the festival, it is one of the highlights of my decade. What a treat.

Having poked my nose in to the PACKED Sky Larkin show at Latitude 30, I head with LA Friend to the Q party at The Parish. We watch Delta Spirit, young, bluesy-rock dudes from San Diego. It is yet another example of a band I wouldn’t have thought I’d be into, but who captivate me live. They have amazing chemistry onstage, all looking so pleased to be there. The front man, Matthew Vasquez, does something I’ve never seen before, but love: whilst singing, he appears to pick a person in the crowd to look at, then sings, really sings, the song, just to them. As it’s different people at different points in the tune, it has an amazing effect of making you, as an audience member, feel like you’re inherently a part of the gig.

LA Friend then takes me to the Smell party. Smell is an all-ages punk club in Los Angeles, famous for being a home-from-home for bands like The Mae Shi and No Age. LA Friend gives me some ear plugs and we settle down in the back yard of hipster art bookstore Domy to watch awesome, loud, (mostly) girl punk band Mika Miko. After them, No Age themselves (Grammy-nominated and used to playing to enormous crowds) come on. Kids squeeze around the fence, filming on their phones what they know is a special, once-in-a-lifetime show. I stand grinning wildly. This is my South By Southwest! This is what I expected! Secret punk gigs on shonky stages set up in back gardens, watched in the burning sun! Another best moment is noted.
After a brief stop for pizza and frozen margaritas, I make my way to see Boston’s Magic Magic. They live up to their name; their feisty, rocky, interesting-but-accessible and inherently American-sounding indie is brilliant, and between the five of them is the kind of chemistry that is a delight to watch. Some bands just Are Great Live. They’re one of them.

As soon as they finish, I run down to the Dirty Dog Bar to catch Hypernova. Although such things shouldn’t affect one’s appreciation, their back story is hard to ignore: they are from Iran, a place where, I’m told, you can be thrown in prison just for owning an electric guitar. The government won’t allow broadband, so they have had to download any music they get over days on dial-up. As such, you’d expect them to sound like some kind of eighties throwbacks. In fact, they are more like gutsy, rocky Killers, with some “Juicebox”-era Strokes thrown in. The music speeds along at breakneck pace, and singer Raam’s deep semi-growl sucks you right in. Afterwards, I’m breathless.

Finally: Sam Isaac’s showcase set at Latitude 30. The band play brilliantly, the crowd are enthusiastic and appreciative and I am, again, proud. Afterwards, there is talk of sneaking into Perez Hilton’s party, but the draw of more margaritas and new friends proves too much, and so the end of our last night in Austin in spent laughing, drinking and occasionally pausing to bite a bottom lip, widen the eyes and breath in with excitement at what fun it’s been.

South By Southwest was full of surprises. But one thing I knew for sure was that I’d fall in love with it. See you there next year.