Don't Mess With Excess
By Melissa Maerz and Peter S. Scholtes
Call it survival of the fattest: Every year in mid-March, thousands of bands, publicists, record label execs, critics, and fans from around the world bloat their beer bellies with strong drinks during Austin, Texas's South by Southwest music festival. And some of them even listen to bands!
Now, City Pages is bringing a full account of the four-day orgy to you. In the next few pages we watch aging indie bands stick it to corporate media, we witness white-robed hippies ascend to a higher plane, and discover a dude in a headband who seems to be stalking us. A caution to younger readers: Putative adults will become stoned, naked, and exceptionally stupid in the course of these chronicles--especially the writers themselves.
Wednesday, March 12
Oxbow at Privilege, 11:00 p.m. Eugene Robinson's got balls--and he's not afraid to show them to you. Wearing nothing but a pair of grayish tighty-whities, the California boxer-cum-Oxbow frontman looms over a packed crowd of emaciated punks whose fresh black hair dye runs down their sweaty necks. With fists clenched, he looks like he's ready to shatter the jaw of anyone brave enough to throw the first punch. The punks are smart enough to keep their hands in their pockets. Robinson is smart enough to shove his hands down his pants, making the punks go wild. He pulls up his goods, hanging brain in full view of everyone. Cough-syrup-fueled guitars swirl in dizzy fury, the Birthday Party basslines rattle Tracy Pew's bones, and then Robinson opens his mouth and lets out a mournful yowl that could break your heart and your eardrums at once.
Best moment of the night: When the squall slows to silence and the crowd pours out of the bar, a stark-naked Robinson dresses himself in the middle of the stage. The heavyweight titan suddenly looks vulnerable and small. You can still see the elastic marks from his underwear circling his middle. (MAERZ)
Thursday, March 13
Electrocute at Emo's Main Room, 1:00 a.m. This Berlin electroclash band is too cute. Really. Please, no more cuteness. Any more syncopated sock-hop dance moves or lyrics like "I love my daddy!" and the audience is going to vomit Care Bears. Two young girls--a brunette in camouflage and a blonde in what looks like a nurse costume--proceed to sing over prerecorded samples in voices that smart people reserve for babies and puppies. The Peaches-wannabe beats are so bad that the performers end up apologizing in English that's probably learned from the French exchange students on Married with Children. "We fly zee 30 hours to be here, so please, you dance!" the brunette insists.
"Forget 30 hours," huffs one dissatisfied man in spectacles. "If in two minutes I don't see boobs, I'm leaving."
Sixty seconds later, the blond grants his wish. (MAERZ)
The Dicks' "No Fuckin' War" on my CD player at W. Fourth St., 3:00 p.m. I'm torn about the current war, but this '80s Austin punk band takes care to emphasize that wars are routine and that the routine itself is evil: "Where is it we're going now? It doesn't matter anyhow!"
I look in vain for this kind of passion among the SXSW bands. Later tonight, opening for Blur at La Zona Rosa, the Rapture scream because it seems like a cool idea to scream over a house beat--and it is. But the Dicks are like a guy throttling you on the bus: Listen to me! There's no driver! We're headed off a cliff! (SCHOLTES)
The Dirtbombs at Opal Divine's, 5:30 p.m. Nobody in his right mind over the age of 19 should be rocking this hard. It's just not healthy. Mick Collins is probably twice that: He looks like the sound guy at a blues club. And he's not just sweating; he's squirting. With two drummers and two bassists backing him, the singer plays like he has two guitars himself. Note to self: Detroit hype entirely justified. (SCHOLTES)
Friday, March 14
Har Mar Superstar and the Sugar Hill Gang at an undisclosed address, 2:00 a.m. The Dirtbombs played a private party held by Village Voice Media, our "parent" company--yes, a private party held within an already paid-entry festival. Later, at the Spin outdoor barbecue, my friend points out that the upper level of the restaurant is a designated "V.I.P." area--a party within the party within the party. I wonder if there's a closet for extremely super-important people.
The reason I note this "velvet rope" effect here is because somehow, miraculously, the puckish St. Paul singer Har Mar Superstar has wormed his way into this metaphorical level of desirable exclusivity--the inner circle, the velvet rope behind the velvet rope. On Thursday, "everybody" is talking about the Har Mar party with the Sugar Hill Gang taking place that night. It sounds like a hoax to me, and people, come on: It's only fucking Har Mar Superstar, an entertaining R&B parody, and the Sugar Hill Gang, a few guys who are hip-hop legends only because they were lucky enough to crib the right lyrics from Grandmaster Caz at the right moment in history.
Of course, you can smell the sour grapes: I'm one of the poor souls who goes to the wrong address announced early on, where a note informs me that the party is taking place at a "nearby, undisclosed location." The next day, I talk to people who went to the right address and didn't bother trying to get in, as well as people who went there and made an attempt but failed--some even considered rushing those beefy security guards with the radio headsets. (SCHOLTES)
The Black Keys at Stubb's, 1:00 p.m. Spin columnist Chuck Klosterman once wrote that the Black Keys' singer Dan Auerbach "sounds like a white dude trying to sing like some other white dude who's trying to sing like a black guy." In other words, imagine Joe Cocker wailing while your little brother plays drums--and then think of something a million times better than whatever crap is blasting through your head. Playing the slot right before the D4 ruin Stubb's Spin party, the effortlessly soulful Black Keys are so snark-free that when Auerbach's uncle appears onstage to play the saxophone, no one cracks any jokes. Irony be damned--we want our Kenny G.-style interludes. (MAERZ)
The D4 at Stubb's, 2:00 p.m. With a trail of garage bands all cashing in on Andrew W.K.'s skull-numbing headbanger routine (see "Garage Sale," p.54), it's smart to sound stupid these days. But only the D4 seem to have mastered that special kind of idiocy that causes involuntary drooling from the rock-crit press. Watching the bombastic lugs stomping around the stage at Spin's BBQ party, grunting about "getting loose" with "the ladies" while the audience chomps on the hunks of meat they hold in their hands, you can feel your I.Q. drop a point with every power chord. A lone, drunk man in a white undershirt with "I Hate Hipsters" hand-scrawled across the front stands in the center of the crowd, rocking his own Casbah. The praise erupting around him begins to sound as if it were nicked from Encino Man. "Ugh! Hear the Aussie cavemen grunt! Agh! Drummer beat with sticks like Thor! Garr! Them play rock that break the gee-tar!" Garage never sounded so conventional. "From now on," a friend says after the show, "I have a four-chord minimum." (MAERZ)
The bassist from Sahara Hotnights at Stubb's, 3:00 p.m. Before she goes onstage, she looks like Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club--her hair strategically mopped to keep people out, her X-Men T-shirt signifying nothing more than her fandom for said comic book. Onstage with her bass slung low, she turns into an L7 goddess; her tee becomes a fashion icon. She blows her hair outward so you can see her face, but doesn't smile, not once. Later on, when I'm wandering around town, I happen across the band with their arms around one another, crossing the street. Not rock stars anymore, just a bunch of girlfriends in a strange city. (SCHOLTES)
Female singer with open guitar case and hype man at W. 6th St., 4:15 p.m. Even the buskers have barkers at SXSW. As I walk by, a graying guy comes up to me: "Sir, the woman you just passed is a very talented singer named [blah blah blah]. She has a performance tonight at [blah blah blah]. You'll be hearing a lot about her, so don't miss her show. Here's a flyer." I lose the flyer. (SCHOLTES)
The Rapture at Roxy, 9:30 p.m. Some parties at SXSW are so disgustingly exclusive that you feel like you need a V.I.P. pass just to use the bathroom. (Just don't relieve yourself in the stalls--rock stars need those private spaces for shooting dope.) I wait in line for more than an hour to see the Rapture at a party for Vice magazine and only manage to get inside because a) an exhausted music critic who just collapsed is rushed out of the club by his friends and escorted into an ambulance, leaving space for three more people to go inside; and b) while the rest of the queue turns to gawk at the poor guy, I cut in line.
Once inside, there are free drinks (strong ones!), free magazines (with photos of cats dressed in fancy clothes, making the drunk people laugh their fool heads off), and (despite the gross scenester crowd) some of the best free music around. The Rapture play their post-punk pogo anthem, "Out of the Races and on to the Tracks." And amid this perfect dance party for awkward kids, all the cool kids forget the show no emotion rule long enough to stand in place, purse their lips, and move their heads like chickens. Behold: the hipster equivalent of the Bill Cosby dance. (MAERZ)
Chicago Reader music editor Keith Harris on Cat Power playing at Stubb's, 10:45 p.m. "I would slit my own grandmother's throat if I thought it might make Chan Marshall shut up." (SCHOLTES)
Incredibly slow country band #4,256 at an unknown bar on Red River, infinity p.m. The 20 minutes the band spends tuning its instruments seem like hours. Maybe this is performance art, I think. Then again, I'm stoned: A half-hour earlier I wandered into another bar because I heard some metal-punk noise coming out of it and thought, in all seriousness, "This Is the Single Greatest Guitar Riff I've Ever Heard!"
I'm tempted to leave now before the country band begins playing: The tuning is entertaining enough. Why ruin it? Each member has her specific tuning face. Each has little habits, like smiling to herself, or fiddling with her instrument. But I stay because somebody with sparkles on her face has walked in and we're talking about--honestly, I have no idea what.
When the band starts, the music is like Low doing country. Epic verses. Choruses that arrive late, like the next stop on an Oklahoma highway. Time passes, the world turns. A sunset later and the song still isn't over. I turn to the sparkle woman, about to say, "Isn't this great?" She has that apologetic look that says, "I can't take this incredibly boring music anymore!" But what she actually says is: "I've gotta go!" (SCHOLTES)
Saturday, March 15
El-P at Venue, 12:15 a.m. The only performer I see who mentions the war. (SCHOLTES)
Fuck By Fuck You (FXFY), somewhere on E. Sixth St., 2:00 p.m. Held completely apart from SXSW, this free punk festival lures me into something called "the Chicken Wire Ranch," which looks sort of like a junkyard with no junk. What can be found, though: free beer, lots of punkers, and friendly dogs with long spikes on their collars.
Like the Dirtbombs, Minor League have two drummers, but also two screaming vocalists--this is hardcore, I gather, and from Japan. But it's so tight, even funky, that I'm immediately rapt. Later on, another Japanese band, Howling Guitar, sticks mostly to instrumentals, but the shirtless, tattooed, muscularly skinny singer takes the mic long enough to play "I Wanna Be Your Dog," possibly in tribute to the only audience members who are panting. (Scholtes)
Iron and Wine at Urban Outfitters, 3:00 p.m.By far the best concert I've ever seen at Urban Outfitters. (Scholtes)
Camper Van Beethoven at Antone's, 3:00 p.m. The New Times alternative-weekly chain pays Camper Van Beethoven to perform at its SXSW party. The absurdist janglers happily take the money, and their bassist shows up on stage with a "Corporate Weeklies Still Suck" T-shirt. Yes! I say when a punk rocker gives me this fashion-police report, Stick it to the Man! And then I quickly hide my ID badge. (MAERZ)
Polyphonic Spree at Austin Music Hall, 8:00 p.m. A mass of smiling musicians in white robes float in, looking like an assembly line of Jesus Christ nightlights. The crowd cheers! Frontman Tim DeLaughter belts out Flaming Lips-ian hymns while his backing chorus bounces like Jim Henson himself has a hand up their habits. The crowd cheers! Cult icon/concert veteran Beatle Bob hops on stage, joins hands with DeLaughter, and the two embrace like lovers. The crowd cheers! The concert ends. The crowd cheers! The band leaves. Some bartenders go home. The house lights dim. No one is left in the room but the crowd, still cheering. Spotted the next morning: a lone straggler, sitting on the steps of the AMH, brow furrowed, smiling as if his face is stuck that way. (MAERZ)
Yuppie Pricks, now appearing everywhere The Yuppie Pricks frontman--he's there at every single show, watching everyone. Always standing by himself. Always wearing his tennis outfit with a white headband that says "I LOVE COKE." (And I don't think he's saying that he's a soda lover.) Always carrying his briefcase. Never speaking. The fear rises in everyone who sees him: This dude is not really a rock star. Bret Easton Ellis has sicced American Psycho's preppie-killing, Huey Lewis-loving lunatic Patrick Bateman on the SXSW crowd. If someone doesn't play "Hip to Be Square" soon, we're all doomed. (MAERZ)
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