By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
They did it so you wouldn't have to. Musicians, critics, and publicists the world over traveled to Austin, Texas, for the latest installment of South by Southwest, the four-day showcase of up-and-coming indie artists and a few bigger names. If you didn't go, you were spared the weeklong hangover. But you didn't escape this flippant A-Z guide.
ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE Everything hip is hippie again. This Krautrock freakout features Japanese guys who never once open their eyes while wringing out over-the-top guitar wank. Listeners either shrug about the overblown hype or tout the band as out-rock genius. The best AMT verdict I hear comes from an angry man who covers his ears while exiting the club where the band is performing: "Too loud! Too loud!"
BATS The best performance in all of SXSW: the winged rodents who sleep beneath Austin's Congress Avenue bridge, signaling the rock 'n' roll to begin every night. Around sundown, just when bands are gearing up for their gigs, a dark exodus of wee vampiric creatures floats up into the sky while pedestrians stop and watch with mouths agape. Humans muse: This is undeniably stirring. Bugs gasp: We're all gonna die!
THE CATHETERS Mudhoney-ish Seattle quartet made up of very young stoner punks. After getting tangled in his own microphone chord, lead screecher Brian Standeford launches himself face-first into the crowd. At which point the confused audience moves back and politely makes way for Standeford to plant his nose directly into their shoes.
THE DWARVES Does the world really need more gross-out grunge sloppiness? Does it really crave more song titles like "Let's Fuck," "Motherfucker," "Fuck You Up and Get High," and "Fuckhead"? Does it really want more opportunities to see frontman Blag Dahlia naked onstage? Yes. Oh yes.
FALL IN TICKET SALES This year, SXSW sold 15 percent fewer tickets than last year. My cabdriver tries to convince me that this year's crowd is different: Attendees used to be nice, big-business music execs and now they're just broke fans, she says. I fall into the latter category. The cabbie fails to milk a big tip out of me.
GOLIGHTLY, HOLLY Little white singer-songwriter (and former member of Thee Headcoatees) snarls the blues like a one-woman White Stripes. Somewhere, indie rockers torn between folk and garage are discovering their next big thing. Somewhere else, Son House is laughing his ass off.
HIP HOP While hip hop and electronic music currently seem like the last bastions of this country's musical experimentation, Austin's music is still practicing its harmonica. Yet even with the countless singer-songwriters and alt-country icons, there are still one or two performances at SXSW that surprise you. Aesop Rock, Anti-Pop Consortium, El-P, and Prefuse 73 get the crowd pumping their fists at Biz 3's hip-hop showcase. The MCs among them even freestyle in the street when the showcase is over. The lineup may not be an accurate sign of the times for SXSW, but it certainly is an indication of progress.
"I'M NOT GONNA BE A HOUSE NIGGER ANYMORE!" Thus spoke SXSW keynote babbler Courtney Love about her position within the music industry. This from a woman who once complained that her housekeeper did not serve tea with the correct milk-to-steeped-water ratio? Oh well. Ms. Love isn't too concerned about staying on-subject: When asked about her attempts to unionize rock stars, she points out which of her enemies wear toupees or stock their medicine cabinets with pharmaceuticals. Who knows if there was a larger point in there anywhere--but a woman's got to know where to go raiding in a pinch.
KAITO A friend of mine sees KaitO play at a midday Austin house party and reports back on the Norwich art-pop quartet's fuzzy guitars and sweetie-pie vocals--like Solex spazzing out in front of Sonic Youth. I am intrigued. And afraid.
LESSER AND BLEVIN BLECHTUMLive laptop burble. A collaboration between Matador's hip-blip-clip-clop artist and half of California duo Blechtum From Blechdom. A mythic film of Blevin in bizarre sunglasses, roaming forests and beaches with some strange calculator thing, accompanies the performance. Apparently the two electronic artists can do more with their hands than maneuver the Mac's mouse: After the show, they are spotted in some rather friendly embraces.
THE MENDOZA LINE Harmonizing preciously and shaking the tambourine in front of a large crowd at the Red Room, this Brooklyn group plays nothing more than capable indie pop. Yawn. But smile afterward.
NUMBER SXSW has yours. Check out these great bands with digits. The Stratford 4: sounds like the depressive My Bloody Valentine lightening up. Should we sob over the end of sobbing? Radio 4: like the Clash trying out urbane chord progressions and an Urban Outfitters wardrobe. America dances in protest.
OK GO Left brain says: Disgustingly generic pop! Right brain says: But me like shake booty!
PINK AND BROWN I'd pay good money to be harassed by Pink and Brown. The San Francisco noise duo grab audience members, scream, flail around, and make flying leaps off the speakers, which quiver with their bluesy, art-punk sound. Oh, and did I mention that the guitarist and drummer perform in full-body suits (with holes for the eyes, mouth, and armpits, of course) in the titular colors? If John Waters ever directs a musical about spastic bank robbers, he'll know whom to cast.
QUINTRON AND MISS PUSSYCAT By far the second-best show at SXSW. (See Bats, above.) The New Orleans duo enacts a puppet show about a female squirrel who decapitates Death, then pops his head back on so that she can smooch him. Quintron jams out circus music on his organ and "drum buddy" (a photo-electric oscillator circuit that, uh, makes beats and stuff) while Miss Pussycat shakes her maracas and looks cute. Quintron chants, "Get fucked up! Make out!" while the audience proceeds to, er, get fucked up and make out. (Of course, I might not remember that quote exactly, considering I was a bit inebriated myself.) Last scene of the night: Two slovenly people rub each other on the dance floor.
RUMORS Overheard: Paul Westerberg will play a Vagrant Records gig. Truth: Good publicity stunt for lesser-known Vagrant bands. The head 'Mat must still be in hiding. Overheard: The Courtship of Eddie's Father's Brandon Cruz is now fronting the Dead Kennedys. Truth: When the actor performs, fans throw Jell-O shots in honor of former DK frontman Biafra. The new lineup is now being tentatively called The Ed Kennedys. (I say, why not the Ted Kennedys?) Overheard: Quintron declares that SXSW is his last show ever. Truth: Nah, say members of noise pranksters and Quintron collaborators XBXRX. He's playing in Dallas next week.
SHAMELESS CHEATING Countless industry execs/editors/fans who are married/dating seriously/"partnered" come to SXSW to kiss/grope/shag one another. Inbreeding between journalists and publicists is slightly sketchy, no? The ever astute Courtney Love quips, "I had always heard that SXSW was where you guys all came to cheat on your husbands and wives."
TO WATCH FOR Other buzzworthy bands. The Walkmen: The old Jonathan Fire*Eater as the new Strokes. Gold Chains: Beck-ish raps over techno beat, sans heavy irony. Knife in the Water: Alt-country with a Nick Cave-style sneer. True American gothic. The Von Bondies: Detroit garage can now afford its own parking space.
U2 Band most ridiculed for being sellouts by Courtney Love during her keynote speech. For the record: Love's imitation of Bono's accent is, as the Irish demigod would say, even better than the real thing.
THE VENUE Was that Sean Connery playing drums for the Small Faces? It seems strange that this Swedish Sixties pop group pairs four youngsters with an older dude who has enough years on him to know who the Pretty Things are and what elementary schools they went to. Still, their soccer anthem "Mmm-hmm" is the catchiest power-pop single I've heard in recent times.
WEIRD DUDE DOING THE HERKY-JERKY DANCE His name is Beatle Bob and he's your private dancer. The middle-aged St. Louis native/music groupie has been shaking his overgrown mop of hair at every music festival across the country for the past few decades. If you find Bob at your band's show, consider yourself blessed: SXSW performers consider him to be a harbinger of good luck.
XBXRX Then: Alabama discordant rockers/ dance partiers who were once banned in Canada after mouthing off to border officials. Now: The band broke up. Two members are currently acting as Quintron collaborators. One was spotted filming Skin Graft Records bands while at SXSW. No word yet on whether Celine Dion's homeland has forgiven them.
YEAH YEAH YEAHS Bikini Killed the radio star. At the much-hyped Brooklyn trio's show, Yeah Yeah Yeah's riot grrrl Karen O. howls her lungs out, spills beer all over the stage, and shakes around in a corset that covers her business with two giant, fake flowers. The poor boys playing Blonde Redhead-ish guitar and drums in the background don't stand a chance.
ZZZZ Forty shows in four days. If I never see another one, I'll die a happy girl.
Hey, wait! Aren't the Walkmen, Knife in the Water, and the Mendoza Line all playing in Minneapolis this week?