SXSW 2011: Five nights in Austin
The exponential growth of South by Southwest over the past 25 years has been simply stunning. In honor of this, and just in time for SXSW's silver anniversary, the festival's organizers opted to extend the music portion of the festival by offering up a few sanctioned showcases the night before the whole shebang is officially underway, and it paved Sixth Street with more than a few surprises.
Of course there was the big "secret" Foo Fighters show at Stubb's (in this town, and in this Twitter age, it was practically old news by sundown)—but I opted to roam the streets and see what other kind of trouble I could get into on opening night.
This may sound like an exaggeration, but it's not, I swear: Within 10 minutes of leaving the press check-in at the convention center and walking into downtown Austin, I ran into five different people from the Twin Cities, including most of the Burlesque of North America troupe and music writer Cyn Collins. And the next time I took to the streets to head to another venue, I ran into about a dozen locals, including half of Gayngs. I jokingly titled the SXSW preview in the March 9 issue of City Pages "Minnesota Invasion," but it was turning out to be a very real thing. By the end of the night, I stopped counting how many Twin Citians I had encountered, but it was easily two dozen. We may have been in a different city, but the city was ours.
To wit: After waiting in line to get into the at-capacity ART DISASTER party to see Dearling Physique's only SXSW performance of the year, I high-tailed it down Sixth Street and waded through a mob of shrieking gawkers to watch Michael Cera play bass in Mister Heavenly—and get this, they were opening for Trampled by Turtles. Seriously.
There's nary a music-related (or even tangentially music industry-related) corporation that hasn't jumped on board this week's SXSW festival, so it's no surprise that MTV leapt at the opportunity to smash their MTVu Woodie Awards in between all the other myriad events happening in Austin.
Prior to the live broadcast of the show, MTVu hosted a red-carpet reception. Here's a rundown of what we learned during our stint on the red carpet:
Sleigh Bells: When we asked the duo whether they have new material in the works, Derek Miller chimed in: "Yeah, we do. But I don't really want to perform them until they are ready, because right now they are just demos. We're going to be in the studio in August, though, for a couple of months.... We'll put it out probably in the first quarter of 2012. Definitely by March or April for sure. That's all I want to do right now is make a record."
Theophilus London: The rising MC recently partnered with Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara for a duet. "I went to see a show she played and I thought she was really amazing," London said. "I was begging my label guys, can you please introduce us? We met in the studio, and she loved my record and wanted to jump on it, and it instantly worked."
Cateracs: The skyrocketing hip-hop duo behind "Like a G6" told us all about the origins of their hit single. "I mean, you have Shakespeare and then you have 'Like a G6,'" songwriter David "Campa" Benjamin Singer-Vine explained, laughing to himself as he spoke. "But really, feeling 'fly like a G6,' it's supposed to symbolize, like, an über-confidence inside of you. Even if you do go for the straight literal sense, a G6 jet made by Gulfstream, you know, I mean, Jesus—you gotta be pretty fly to get in one of those, you know what I'm saying?" Totally, dude. Totally.
Our parent company, Village Voice Media, went whole hog with its annual SXSW bash this year, moving it from its previous home at La Zona Rosa into the Austin Music Hall, stretching the event into the late-night hours, and doubling the number of bands on the bill.
The lineup for the evening was almost jarringly diverse at times, but it also gave the event a sense of momentum as the audience waited to see what would happen next. A clear highlight of the first part of the show was a set by Wild Flag, a relatively new act that features former Sleater-Kinney bandmates Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, and the women leg-kicked their way through an amazing set of churning rock songs that hearkened back to their days as riot grrl pioneers.
Meanwhile, across town, a line wrapped around the Central Presbyterian Church for an intimate show by James Blake, who was headlining Pitchfork's SXSW showcase. The performance was really beautiful, and the stoic nature of the church commanded a certain solemnity (and, thankfully, silence) from the at-capacity crowd. My only complaint toward the beginning of the show was that I wanted it to be much louder, and was wondering if the church simply wasn't set up to accommodate a wall-shaking show. But once Blake and his two backing musicians adjusted to their surroundings a bit, they cranked the bass up several notches, letting it rattle on "I Never Learnt to Share" and boom triumphantly during the set's closing song and highlight, "Fallin."
Of the "buzz bands" I caught at this year's SXSW, Blake is by far the one that best lived up to the hype.
Friday was insanely fun, as I spent the afternoon throwing the first ever Gimme Noise day party in Austin in partnership with First Avenue. The party was hopping from the get-go, thanks in part to the free beer offered up by Tiger, and we were thrilled to see a huge contingent of Minnesota natives come out to show their support, including recent L.A. transplant Dan Wilson, Lori Barbero (who spends her winters in Austin and summers in her hometown of Minneapolis), and Twin/Tone founder and former Replacements manager Peter Jesperson.
All of the bands on our bill put on killer shows, too. The Goondas started things off strong by playing like it was their only show at SXSW (which it was), delivering an aggressive and raw set; Marijuana Deathsquads played a scaled-down two-song set without their drummers; Sick of Sarah reminded Jeremy Messersmith how much he loves to RAWK; and Messersmith brought a full string section. Sims of Doomtree (who overtook the festival, gigging as a crew and separately about three times each day) got the crowd dancing, while Solid Gold debuted several new songs. By the time Tapes 'n Tapes took the stage, we were at capacity and the whole room had a sing-along to "Insistor." Success!
As was to be expected, Saturday was the busiest night of the festival so far, as several unannounced gigs sprouted up amid the already-packed itinerary that included a massive Kanye West show at an abandoned power plant, a reunion show by Death From Above 1979, Yoko Ono, Snoop Dogg, and more.
My first priority for the evening was catching a reunion performance by DeYarmond Edison at hipster compound the Fader Fort, one of those only-at-SXSW moments that unfairly happened about 1,200 miles away from the band's core fan base in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It's hard to say what prompted the quartet to play a one-off reunion show, but all of DeYarmond's members (Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, plus Megafaun's Brad Cook, Phil Cook, and Joe Westerlund) have been gigging and touring together recently in Gayngs, so it wasn't much of a stretch for them to get together for the gig.
"Hi, this is our college band," Vernon said after they finished their first song, a cover of Bonnie Raitt's "Lovers Will." "We haven't played a show in seven years until right now."
For the second song Vernon asked how many Donny Hathaway fans were in the crowd, and explained that they were going to do Hathaway's version of Carole King's hit "You've Got a Friend." Their cover was beautiful, and it didn't take long for the whole place to start singing along to the chorus. And to close it out (yep, they performed only three songs), they played a DeYarmond original, "Set Me Free."
DeYarmond's set was oddly sandwiched between several hip-hop acts, and next up on the bill was the night's headliner, Lil B, who was introduced by surprise guest P. Diddy. Following Lil B's show, Diddy stuck around to play a surprise three-song set. After his performance he brought out Odd Future, who he proclaimed to be the "future of hip hop," and let the crew take over with their hit "Sandwitches."
The crowd was even more amped for Odd Future than they were during Diddy's set, and within the first couple of verses an overexcited crowd member wound up and threw a water bottle on stage, hitting Tyler the Creator squarely in the eye. I had the chance to see two different one-song performances by Odd Future this week, and their energy is incomparable—I've never seen a group of rappers look so pissed off and elated simultaneously.
For the last show of the week, I booked it over to small club Elysium to catch an intimate performance by Yoko Ono. The iconic professor of peace did her best to reach out to the tired audience, peering out over a pair of dark oval sunglasses into the eyes of the people standing in the front rows while smiling a sweet smile.
She was backed by her Plastic Ono Band, which for this show included her son Sean Lennon (who also acted as a sort of ringleader for the evening, emceeing between acts decked out in top hat and long black marching band jacket), guitar player Nels Cline of Wilco, and drummer Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, among others. Ono gave a performance that was raw, primal, and unnerving, yelping and stuttering into the microphone in an abrasive style that clashed sharply with her demure, cute stage presence.
Prior to Ono's set, Lennon invited Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner of tUnE-yArDs to perform a rendition of Ono's "We're All Water," complete with their signature vocal loops and tribal, syncopated drum beats. "I feel incredibly blessed and lucky; this is one of my favorite bands on the planet," Lennon stressed both before and after tUnE-yArDs played, and they surely gained a few new fans with their righteous cover of the song.
The Plastic Ono Band invited tUnE-yArDs back to the stage for the first encore along with the other openers from the evening for a huge love fest to "Dream #9," with Ono dressed in a teal blouse and top hat.
"I love you, I love you," Ono said to the crowd. "Just remember we're all together."
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