Whither Festivus: (Much Belated) SXSW 2009 Recap

So it's been almost two months since I wandered down to Austin and joined piles and piles of writers and scenesters and musicians in partaking in South by Southwest 2009. I've already written not one but two lengthy recaps of SXSW '09, so instead of insanely writing number three I've decided to post here the review I did for the super scrumdidlyumptious RVA magazine website relaunch last month. (Shameless self-promotion: make sure to check out RVA for yours truly, as well as the fact that it's a great mag.) And now, friends, my take on SXSW. Enjoy. Oh, and you can see the article in its entirety here, along with awesome accompanying photos shot by the wonderful Laura O'Neill.

"South by Southwest. South By. SXSW. Whichever one strikes your fancy, it’s been going on for decades now, and is pretty much the granddaddy of American music festivals. Increasingly, industry types have been flocking to Austin en masse, chomping at the bit to find the Next Big Thing, or some approximation thereof, and have themselves one hell of a good time down in the Lone Star State.

And this year, I wanted to join them.

With my bestest of friends by my side, I prepared for a week of all music, all the time. Laura and I prepped hardcore, and by the time we left Richmond we figured we had a pretty strong grasp of the situation. Flying over the flat, wide expanse of east Texas, I was pretty sure I had a good idea of what SXSW was going to offer. But like many things in life, the reality was so much different than what I’d concocted in my imagination. Luckily, the reality was even better, despite the 7 am flight and all-nighter I had to pull getting my packing taken care of [SXSW tip #1: do not wait until the last minute to pack. It is a very, very bad idea.].

As a SXSW attendee, you’re surrounded by music from the minute you step foot in the airport (literally, there are bands playing in the airport). After disembarking in Austin, I moseyed along with hundreds of festivalgoers to the baggage claim to pick up our gear. Since I had time to kill waiting for Laura’s flight to arrive, I made myself comfortable and started checking people out. Every group that glided down the escalators seemed to be full of young, be-sunglassed band members, and the industry folks who love them. I thought I recognized nearly all of them, though of course I couldn’t name but a few. One of my favorite moments of the whole week happened while in baggage claim: I finally saw a band I knew I recognized, the white-hot New Zealanders Bang! Bang! Eche!. A band I didn’t recognize saw them, too, and one of the dudes mock-squealed, and in a girly voice screeched, “Bang! Bang! Eche! Ahhhh!”. There was much giggling, and the bands shook hands. It was the first of many times I would see Bang! Bang! Eche! in Austin, and led to the game “How Many Times Will I See B! B! E! This Week?” (the answer was five or six).

After getting a taxi (far) out to our hotel [SXSW tip #2: stay downtown, or as close to downtown as you can get. We did not, and it was more often than not a huge pain in the ass.], we unwound for a bit before venturing out into the inky black Texas night for the first of many shows. New friends Your 33 Black Angels were playing a show at the venerable Austin venue TC’s Lounge, a place more authentically divey than just about anywhere I’ve ever been. The floor slants, the bathrooms don’t lock, and the building itself is so nondescript you’re likely to drive past it, what with its’ peeling boards and lack of any kind of marquee. But it’s legendary, and rightfully so. Your 33 Black Angels knocked out a great set, as did transplanted Austinites Cartright, Slick (of NYC), and TK Webb & the Visions. Much rock was heard, much beer was had [SXSW tip #3: many places do not serve PBR. In fact, several places do not know what PBR is. And the places that do carry it do not have the tallboys. Lone Star seems to be the Texas equivalent.], and much pool was played, Laura and I teaming up with some of the Cartright boys for some sloppy games (I’m pretty sure Joe and I won, but perhaps Laura and Lou would tell you differently). So convivial is the vibe in Austin during SXSW, that a complete stranger offered us puffs on his joint. But eventually, my early morning/no sleep caught up with me, and we called our personal driver (aka our Guinean cabbie) to take us home.

Day 2 began rather auspiciously, waking up with a throat so sore that I had to cringe to swallow. It’s a day I remember very little of, but what I do remember was fantastic (apart from the whole illness thing). We got up pretty early [SXSW tip #4: if your hotel offers free breakfast, as ours did, take full advantage. Stuff yogurts into your pockets. The best thing about our hotel was undoubtedly the waffle maker that made huge, fluffy waffles in the shape of the state of Texas.] and attempted to wade through the various RSVP information to plan our schedule for the day. After stopping by the Convention Center to get our wristbands, we started off at Maggie Mae’s, and saw some of Future of the Left’s raging, pulsating set before heading indoors for the much calmer, sweetly soothing sounds of Juliette Morneau. While killing time before Yelle, Laura and I stopped to get some tacos and sangria. My throat was so pained I couldn’t drink but more than a few sips of what seemed to be delicious sangria (o, the humanity), and my fever was making me miserable. My friend Joel, who stayed in one of the plushest of the downtown hotels, kindly allowed me to take sanctuary at his place for a bit, where I passed out for several sweet hours in a blissfully fluffy bed (complete with decorative throw pillow).

After sweating the fever out, Laura and I reconvened at Stubb’s, one of the biggest SXSW venues, where we caught the Outkastian romps of Janelle Monae, as well as the endearingly adorable Ladyhawke, who won me over with her shimmery, dreamy dancepop. After Ladyhawke finished up, we took a rickshaw [SXSW tip #5: rickshaws are a great idea for getting around Austin, cheaper and way more fun than taxis. And ladies, the drivers tend to be on the foxy side.] to the gargantuan Austin Music Hall, to see something I had been impatiently waiting for for weeks, the Black Angels with Roky Erickson. The Austin Music Awards were in session, and were running extremely late. The acceptance speeches were on the lengthy side, and the set we had showed up for started about an hour late, but was worth every second. You know you’re in the right place when Bobby Gillespie and Mani of Primal Scream are floating around the crowd. I began to get chills as soon as the Black Angels launched into “You On the Run,” and the goosebumps didn’t leave me until the last chords had been played. The noise was deafening, probably the loudest songs I’ve ever heard, so loud that I felt like the bass was vibrating right through me, and would at any moment literally knock me off my feet. Seeing the Black Angels is amazing enough on its own, but when you throw in the legendary Roky Erickson and a show in their home turf, well, it becomes a transcendental experience.

Day three was on the lame side, not because of the festival but because I woke up feeling a thousand times sicker than I had the day before. Playtime was limited, first at Club 1808 (a spot my taxi driver hesitantly asked whether I knew anyone there, as the ‘hood was far from the best) for Seaspin, Californians enamored with gazing at shoes. We checked them out with the War Tapes, friends and SXSW participants. And then it was time to bolt for downtown, to see one of my current favorite live bands, Dead Confederate. The boys from Athens hooked me last year, and having seen them once before I knew just how good it was gonna be. But then, they took it even further, exploding into swirling, heavy, overpowering swamp rock grit, and the entire venue seemed to heave with their every note. It was intense, and it was the perfect way to end the day of (mostly) suck.

Friday was the longest day, but probably the best overall day as well, [SXSW tip #6: see as much music as you possibly can, even if you feel like by the end of the day you will never be able to stand again.] as we took in twelve sets by eleven bands (two Glasvegas sets are better than one!), and as a bonus I no longer felt like death warmed over. We began our day at Stubb’s for the Spin party, where we started off with the brash Atlantans Black Lips, and their bratty snarlings. Überhyped Glasvegas was next, and the hotly buzzed Scots won me over with their impassioned, loud rock. Perry Farrell sauntered onto the stage to introduce Echo & the Bunnymen, who sounded ageless (even if they didn’t look it). We left the Echo set early to stake out space at Brush Square Park for the New Zealand Party [SXSW tip #7: New Zealand is the new black. No shit. With SXSW participants like Bang! Bang! Eche!, Cut Off Your Hands, and Ladyhawke, not to mention Surf City and perennial artpunk faves of mine, Die! Die! Die!, Kiwis are hot commodities.], which was probably my favorite party of the whole week. Cut Off Your Hands set the tone with their 80s-infused sound. Midnight Youth I wasn’t sold on, they were far too middle of the road (or MOR, for you abbreviation lovers) for my taste. Bang! Bang! Eche! was my favorite of the four bands, not only because I love excessive punctuation but because their set was out of control, and it was dynamite. After another excellent Ladyhawke set, it was time to hightail it over to Habana’s back porch to see a new favorite, the Love Language, straight outta Raleigh. I loved them before their set, and I am happy to report that I love them even more post-SXSW. The forced march led us next to SoCo (South Congress) to the American Apparel store. Not for shopping, but for the most unusual event I attended all week. The aforementioned War Tapes were about to do a set on the roof of the store, and despite being a bit of a dubious proposition, the band nailed it. By the end of their set they had assembled quite a little legion of admirers, deservedly so. The final journey of the night took us back downtown, to La Zona Rosa, for the tail end of the all-day Scottish Music party. We took a load off listening to the Proclaimers’ acoustic set (loved it), and then Glasvegas launched into another rollicking set, to the delight of the assembled persons. But the absolute, unquestionable, obvious high point of the night was the finale: Primal Scream. Prml Scrm. Goddam Primal Scream. It had been nine long years since my last Scream show (in Glasgow), and the band made the wait worth every single second. Sure, Kevin Shields and Throb weren’t there, but apart from that it was a sensational set. Incendiary, even. By SXSW standards it was an extremely long set, and covered every incarnation of the Scream’s sound. If I had to pick a favorite moment, it was the point in the show when I thought to myself, “How perfect would it be to hear ‘Shoot Speed/Kill Light’ at this very moment?”, and then, well, they did. Even after all these years, Primal Scream is still a live juggernaut.

We cooled our jets considerably on Saturday, the last official day of SXSW. First was Graham Coxon, doing a solo acoustic set at the Q Magazine party. I’ve been a fan of Coxon since his Blur days, and found him as endearing a personality as you could hope. Oh, and the songs were great as well. After Graham finished up, we downed our free beer and set off on a very, very, very long walk [SXSW tip #8: during the day, make sure you take a taxi or rickshaw, or hitch a ride with a band to get to a far-flung destination. It’ll save you time toweling yourself off when you get to where you’re going.]. Sure, we were sweating up a storm when we arrived at the Pretty & Nice set, but they made it worth our while. A highly recommended group of Noo Yawkers. After their set, we wised up and took a taxi down to Headhunter’s, to see one of my most highly-anticipated sets of the week: Austin’s own Ringo Deathstarr. It could end up being on of those gigs that people reference years from now, because Ringo Deathstarr is so fucking good they should be huge one of these days. If you’re into MBV and J&MC, you’ll love RD. After they were done causing my jaw to drop to the floor I immediately bought their LP. It was a little anticlimactic after RD, former flavors of the week Razorlight and the amazing PJ Harvey entertained us over at Stubb’s. And then it was time to hit the hay.

Sunday was a day spent doing touristy things. The city felt a lot less crowded, which was rather nice. We rented a car, and drove around Austin [SXSW tip #9: renting a car for a day might seem odd, but worked out really well. It allows you freedom to tool around the city at your own pace, and is a great way to handle getting to the airport when you leave town.], everywhere from the state capitol building to the UT campus (to take pics of the clock tower, naturally), to SoCo, where we ended our day cruising the plethora of killer boutiques and antique stores and occasionally running into members of Echo & the Bunnymen.

I’m no stranger to the world of festivals. I’ve been to several HFStivals. I’ve been to Coachella. I’ve been to All Tomorrow’s Parties. They were all great. But let me tell you, nothing compares to u, SXSW. It’s a force of nature, and it incurs some growing pains, but hot damn if it wasn’t one of the best weeks of my life. [SXSW tip #10: go. Just fucking go. Bands, get your asses down there. Non-bands, just do whatever you have to do to get down there. You’ll be glad you did.] Viva SXSW!"

[Photo by Megan Petty]


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