Friday, March 25, 2011

SXSW - Review - 2011

My first SXSW. Four days of cramming in as many bands as possible, eating Texas barbeque and street tacos, people watching, which often focused on the many garish hipsters (“hipster Mardi Gras” as a friend said), and punctuated attempts to stay hydrated in the sun and boozed in the dark. The SXSW festival includes an “interactive” conference aimed at tech, film, and music industry insiders, but most people come for the music showcases which begin Wednesday afternoon and run until the wee hours of Saturday night. A badge or wristband (costing $650 and up and $150 respectively) allow you free access to showcases at the more than 50 participating clubs and venues at night. But there is no need to pay the price tag. Numerous stages are free during the daytime hours, and nightly covers at clubs are only $10-$15. I left Austin having shelled out a total of $35 getting into venues. With more than 2,000 bands playing, I saw saw a tiny fraction of it all, but managed to see all of the acts I had on my wish list going in.

The best act I saw, hands down, but somewhat surprisingly, was Oberhofer on Thursday night at the Bat Bar. I interviewed Brad Oberhofer a few months back and saw him play at Brillobox. It was the first time he had gone on an extended tour and really worked out material with his live band. The guys have really tightened up their live show—changing a number of the song’s live structures to be louder and more punk influenced, while still showcasing the quirks of sound and acrobatics of Brad’s vocals that make Oberhofer distinctive. Really stunning show. Two friends with me who had never heard of him (and weren’t already fans like I was) agreed that he was the best thing we saw.

Two of my other wish list groups did not disappoint: Braids and Baths. Braids I saw on Saturday afternoon at the Swan Bar, where their live sound blew me away. I love their album Native Speaker, but the vocals at the live show were so much more powerful and visceral, while maintaining every bit of the shifty atmospheric pop that drives the album. Baths on Thursday evening was a one man glitch electronic show that I expected would be a great sound, but not much of a show. I was wrong. Will Weisenfeld was over-the-top; jumping, throwing his head back, cavorting with the crowd while twisting knobs, looping vocals, banging out bass, and singing with a surprisingly good live voice.

Other highlights included Wye Oak’s set on the outdoor stage at Waterloo Records. I still can’t get over how cool it is to see Andy Stackhouse play drums with one hand and keyboard with another, while Jenn Wasner alternately sings in her soothingly husky voice and shreds into her guitar. James Blake, a must-see of the festival, played a flawless set to packed and sweaty tent at the French Legation Museum on Friday. The downside was that you couldn’t see Blake or his band mates (they were sitting down on a low stage). But this didn’t matter as much as the profound sounds of his wounded vocals over minimal music (for which the crowd kept silent in admiration) alongside the thunderous bass and sharp tacks of dubstep. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, whose hometown is Austin, attracted a huge crowd on Thursday afternoon and absolutely killed it with their blues and soul rock, particularly when hosting the bright-blue-suited singers the Relatives onstage. Tune Yards played a seriously enjoyable set influenced by African and reggae beats. I also threw fists in the air during sets by the Joy Formidable, JEFF the Brotherhood, Mount Kimbie, and Maps and Atlases. Das Racist capped of one of our evenings with a sweaty, thumping, and often hilarious hip-hop set. These guys are awesome (and completely high) live.

Some misses included the overhyped Toro y Moi. His music sounds introverted and under-confident live, failing to make a lasting impression. Although I love them, the Trail of the Dead played a set marred by weak vocals, even for a band known to have bad live vocals. Prince Rama is a gimmick, playing Indian-inspired music, complete with a dancer and a total lack of substance. Both Cults and Nite Jewel have gotten some buzz, but neither are the real deal. Cults actually look like a cult—they all have the exact same late-90s long haircut, but their sugary pop is boring. I came home exhausted on Sunday afternoon after having not slept on Saturday night. That still left me in better condition than the Australian band that boarded the plane and sat across the aisle from me on the flight to Dallas. One of the guys spent the early part of the flight vomiting up last night’s drinks while his friend patted his back and the poor girl boxed in to the window seat cringed and pretended to sleep. Despite a few clunkers (and even some of them were fun to see) SXSW was a blast and one of the best places to catch and discover new and upcoming acts. Some of these bands are now on tour and will be coming through Pittsburgh and nearby cities, so keep your eyes open.

Daniel Hammer