SXSW 2010: Twin Cities bands head to Austin for a week of music and mayhem

Lookbook, Grant Hart, Gay Witch Abortion, Off With Their Heads, and many more blaze their own trails at the festival

ON THURSDAY AFTERNOON, a couple dozen Twin Cities musicians are gathered at a coffeehouse just south of downtown Austin for the "All Your Friends Are Here" day party. The atmosphere is calm, the coffee strong, and the weather a perfect 75 degrees and sunny. Compared to the mayhem of the main drag of SXSW, which centers on Sixth Street and takes on the atmosphere of an all-night, frat-boy-heavy Mardi Gras parade, the "All Your Friends" gathering is a welcome retreat.

Peter Wolf Crier kicks off the day at the crack of noon, playing to a small gathering of other local musicians at what's likely their lowest-profile gig of the festival—which, for the freshly signed neo-folk duo, included an official show at Emo's opening for Rogue Wave, a set at the highly publicized Rachael Ray day party, and a recording session with the taste-making indie site Daytrotter. Though the band is excited about the busy schedule, singer Peter Pisano seems relieved to play a smaller gig for a few rows of familiar faces, like an indie-rock version of a pep rally before the big game.

For other bands on the bill, however, Thursday's party is the main event. Eight-piece acoustic folk group Spirits of the Red City have brought seven of their members to Austin for the festival, and they play an unplugged, gripping, and joyous set for the growing crowd. Led by troubadour Will Garrison, the group sways and swells from the softest whisper of a melody to a bursting, full-chorus sing-along, combining banjo, mandolin, upright bass, squeeze organ, trumpet, and drums to create an ancient, organic folk sound from another era altogether.

Ryan Young of Off With Their Heads, amid the mania of Sixth Street in downtown Austin
Stacy Schwartz
Ryan Young of Off With Their Heads, amid the mania of Sixth Street in downtown Austin
Members of Bella Koshka and Dearling Physique and local writer Carl Swanson pause for a hometown huddle
Stacy Schwartz
Members of Bella Koshka and Dearling Physique and local writer Carl Swanson pause for a hometown huddle

After the show, the band members take a moment to talk about their completely unamplified setup and how it helped them to take a unique, off-the-beaten-path approach to SXSW.

"I feel like there's maybe some venues that aren't really appropriate to play for us with our current setup, but a lot more doors get opened that way," says drummer Anthony Poretti. "We sacrifice being able to play some very large, aggressive rooms for being able to play really anywhere. Right here, right now. I won't trade that for all the Marshall stacks in the world."

The band applied to perform as an official showcasing band at this year's festival, but when they didn't get in they decided to go the unofficial route instead. "We figured it's maybe smarter to just show up and see how it works," says trumpet and keys player Brian Voerding. "We have no idea. It's impossible to understand it from afar."

"We're just really curious to see how it would work," adds Garrison. "We walked around all day yesterday and went to a bunch of shows, just to see what it's like."

"It's incredible, controlled chaos," says Voerding. "It seemed like it would be really overwhelming, but for some reason it's not. It's incredible to see a whole town turn into music; everyone from around the world comes together in one place and gets to play for each other."

   

LATE IN THE EVENING on Thursday, Grant Hart, the former drummer and co-songwriter of Hüsker Dü, is perched on a low brick retaining wall in a leafy hedge, rolling an unlit cigarette between his fingers and staring off into the clear, black midnight sky, contemplating the festival.

"This is only the second SXSW that I've ever played. Last year was the first," he says. "I think of this whole festival as being the Midway of the State Fair, where you can get some shitty doughnuts, you can be exploited in 15 different ways per minute. It's great that there's an in gathering for music, but $600 for the pass? Who's making that money? Where does this money go?"

Hart just finished playing an avant-garde improvisational art show with two-piece rock band Gay Witch Abortion and Tom Hazelmyer of Halo of Flies, an oddball gig sandwiched between his two official showcases at the SXSW festival, and he is quietly and shyly celebrating his birthday with a smattering of friends at an art gallery on the east side of Austin.

The four musicians set up in a sectioned-off room of the gallery. Hart tinkers on an organ, Hazelmyer's on vocals, and a camera projects shoddy footage of the players onto a screen in the main room, disorienting the audience as the sound from the band shakes the walls of the poster-plastered art space. The quartet couldn't have played together for more than 15 minutes, but the audience ate it up, crowding into the small space to catch a glimpse of the rare collaboration of Twin Cities punk veterans.

Afterward, sitting in the hedge, Hart reflects on the challenges of playing at a festival filled with industry professionals and distracted concertgoers. "If you're demanding the attention of the audience, you have to break the audience, basically," he says. "You have to earn their silence. Because there will be chatter, people are talking about business, people run into somebody they know, they want to give them the business card. Erik Estrada walks in, or something."

When asked whether he thinks traveling down to Austin for SXSW is an important step for a young band, Hart waffles. "I guess the advice I would give that band would be to take the money that you would spend coming to SXSW and book yourself a tour, and have that money as security in case you lose money on the tour. And you're going to lose money on the tour, if you're a band starting out," he says, staring down at his hands and running an emery board over his fingernails. "But you can't deny—I mean, it's almost like the Pride celebration, except for music. In the sense that people have a certain musical commonality, and it is overwhelmingly progressive acts that are playing down here, or post-punk rock. I think it's good for people to go through an initiation of some sort at this time of their life.

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