Austin: SXSW Evening Recap, Volume 1




It is 8:50am on Sunday am. I'm staring out of a giant window at the airport in Austin, looking at the blue gate "16" sign hanging just above where the jet bridge makes contact with continental airlines flight 440 to Houston (and I'm hung over). I've spent the past five nights in Austin, TX, for the annual SXSW music conference which, for those of you who haven't been, means I've basically been standing around watching bands, 'networking' and drinking for 12 hours a day for four days in a row. I'm looking over my notes trying to figure out the best way to re-cap the whole experience. Do I do a bunch of brief mini-reviews or one long, giant re-cap? Maybe a two part series?

Since we did our best to hammer out some real-time coverage of events at the Levi's/FADER Trading Post during the daytime, I think it'll work best to just go night by night. Here goes...

WEDNESDAY

Following an abbreviated but promising set by Editors at the FADER thingy, I bolted to the Dirty Dog to try to catch the last couple of songs at OFFICE's showcase. I've been pumping up this unsigned Chicago band on the Tripwire on the strength of their recorded output for about a month now, but I had never seen them live. The room was quite full actually and I had heard from a few A&R types that OFFICE was on their 'list.' I immediately made my way to the front to snap a few photos. Playing with only the band's four core members, the female backing vocals and some keyboard parts were absent. The pieces they did have in place, however, were more than solid and showed the framework of a capable and exciting live act. Frontman Scott Masson and lead guitarist Tom Smith sported black suits and ties and stood on either side of bassist Alissa Noonan while on stage. Noonan wore a black dress and with a blank stare on her face, did her best impression of a "Robert Palmer girl" while calmly and effortlessly providing 1/2 of the rhythm section. Drummer Erica Corniel provided the engine that drove the indie pop machine forward, however. She pounded the shit out of her drums like Animal from the Muppets and seemed to be in a sort of rock & roll trance.

From the amount of CDs their manager was passing out following the showcase, I'd say these guys are on their way.

From there, I headed to Eternal to catch some of Australian dance duo The Presets' set. Their debut album, Beams, is set for release this spring (April 18). It's a solid disc that falls into the same category as an LCD Soundsystem or a Juan Maclean or a Daft Punk. Live, the band is uber-high energy. Think European DJ-style - over exaggerated hand and body movements. Though the venue was just filling up, you would have thought singer/keyboardist Julian Hamilton and drummer Kimberley Moyes were performing at Glastonbury, which is a good thing. Their music was funky as hell and peeps were "shaking it" up front, but the back of the room was pretty much just waiting for Wolfmother to take the stage. If you're into punk/funk and shaking your ass, you'll love The Presets. If not, you probably won't.

After The Presets gig, I decided to go see one of my favorite Midwestern indie rock bands, Maritime. Though the band boasts ex-members of The Promise Ring (Davey von Bohlen, Dan Didier) and Dismemberment Plan (Erik Axelson), they are much less aggressive than their respective earlier bands. With beautiful melodies, poetic and thoughtful lyrics and exceptional lead guitar work, Maritime songs come to life with the breath of frontman Davey von Bohlen. His voice is passionate, real and unique. They opened with "The Window Is The Door," for which Didier ditched his drums in favor of a small keyboard at stage right, and then delved into a few tracks from their forthcoming sophomore album, We, The Vehicles.

Having just come from The Presets, a vibey band with a "look" and "cool image," it was clear that Maritime were the polar opposite. The left-handed von Bohlen wore a green polo and "Cal" baseball cap. The band in general just looked like a bunch of dudes from your suburban hometown. They're actually from Milwaukee and, not coincidentally, they look EXACTLY like they're from Milwaukee.

The sound sort of sucked (like it did at most of the venues at SXSW) and there weren't that many people there, but Maritime are still one of my favorites. When you have songs as good as these, nothing else really matters.

Following that, I hopped into a cab with a few people to go to some party that was on the other side of the world. We made it about halfway there before the entire cab (including the cab driver) deemed it to be too far away and we turned back. I got a slice of pizza and went to sleep.

THURSDAY

Thursday night began promptly at 8:00 pm. Following my first exposure to one David Ford, an insanely talented singer/songwriter (a la Ryan Adams or Damien Rice) from the UK, I made my way to the Dirty Dog (again) to see another UK-based act - Jont. My first exposure to Jont was "You Can Be The Stars," a track we all loved so much we put it on the Cornerstone Player last month. Wearing a purple velvet blazer, the tall and slender namesake of Jont opened his set with the very same song mentioned above. The room was mostly empty with a few A&R types and a cute girl who I found out later works for BMI music publishing holding it down. Playing guitar and singing, Jont surrounded himself with bass, keys and drums, though at one point in the set, he played a giant Korg keyboard as well. "The next song made it on to the ending of that Wedding Crashers movie," he said and was greeting some mild cheering. "Yea, but it was at the very end where there's nobody left in the cinema."

Overall, Jont was good, not quite great yet, but definitely worth noticing. He has great songs - really catchy, well rounded pop songs - and songs are what matter most.

I high-tailed it out of the Jont show around 8:45 or so and booked it back to the hotel to drop of my computer, meet a few friends and 'relax' for a few minutes. It's here where I realized that my inability to manipulate rolling papers is a major liability.

I then met Tripwire Chip & Erin at Buffalo Billiards for a bit of the Earlimart show, but not before I passed a scary looking group of aggressive religious types trying to tell me that I was going to hell (which I might be, but I don't need some dude with a cowboy hat and a big sign telling me so, you know?). By the time I punched that guy in the balls, saw an alien on the street (seriously, it was creepy) and made my way all the way up the 13 flights of stairs at Buffalo Billiards, Earlimart was pretty much done. So I don't have much to say about that.

Afterwards however, I ran into Wayne Coyne on the street. Well... not so much Wayne as Wayne walking inside of a giant plastic bubble and followed by a parade of giant worm-looking creatures. A bunch of fans joined in and there was a massive Flaming Lips parade walking right down 6th street in the middle of the night. It was a bit surreal.

It was then time to catch Grand National @ Spiros. Grand National is another band I've been speaking very highly of without having actually seen live. This, as I'm sure more than a few of you out there know, can lead to looking like a total jackass when said band ends up sucking live. Thankfully, Grand National didn't suck. They took 100 years to get set up and were running 20-30 minutes behind, which sucked, but once they started playing, they sounded good. All of the members, save one, were wearing glittery glam rock scarves and had complicated haircuts, but the band definitely has a fun vibe and a bunch of danceable songs. As I said before, they were running pretty late, so I had to cut out after about five songs to make it to the next show, unsigned Detroit-based indie outfit, The Silent Years.

My pal Sophie from Big Hassle turned me on to this band a little while ago. She sent me to their MySpace page and then sent a copy of their self-released, self-titled album. It was good, well... some of it was good. Some of it needed a little work and in all honesty, I wasn't really excited about seeing them. It was more of a favor. So going into it with absolutely no expectations whatsoever, I quickly decided that I really like The Silent Years. I didn't like the terrible-looking striped polo (circa The Gap, 1993) that the lead singer and guitarist were both wearing, but I LOVED their music. The hot chick bass player didn't hurt either (having a hot chick bass player in your band is NEVER a bad idea).

The Silent Years are really young. I'd say early 20s. They're all cute and good looking. They're clean cut. Besides all of that stuff though, they write really catchy pop songs with some serious mainstream potential. What surprised me the most what that even though I barely spent any time with their CD (maybe two listens), I remembered just about every single song that they played that night. As I said before, these guys are completely unsigned and basically unrepresented. Go after them.

I then headed over to try to catch Nada Surf but when I realized that the line was around the f-ing block, I opted to see The Rakes instead. The Rakes show at Blender Bar was an interesting one, to say the least. Steve Aoki was there. He's pretty much everywhere at all times actually (like the guy from VHS or Beta or James Iha, who are also everywhere all the time). The singer from Diamond Nights, the Cobrasnake, and a variety of other sorta famous people were on hand as well, but the room was far less crowded than I thought it would be. I suppose it has something to do with that fact that everyone in the industry has already seen The Rakes and that they played multiple times down in Austin this year. Everyone knew they could just catch The Rakes at a party or had already seen them at a party. Regardless of the crowd size, The Rakes put on a hell of a show and those in attendance were WAY into it. They plowed through their debut album, Capture/Release, frontman Alan Donohoe did his best Ian Curtis impression, guitarist Matthew Swinnerton was disgustingly good (as always), and basically they just killed it.

Thursday night the ended somehow. I think I remember getting a slice of pizza and running into the guys (and girls) from OFFICE on the street and having a drunken hug-fest for some reason that I'm sure seemed completely reasonable at the time. I ate the pizza and went to sleep.

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Austin: SXSW Evening Recap, Volume 1