Another day of bands, but better weather at South By Southwest 2012. Let’s get right into it.
Typically, covering SXSW means a lot of walking around. There’s this falsity that all the venues are located along 6th Street aligned one right next to the other like a perfect string of pearls. In reality, SXSW venues are scattered across 100 square blocks in downtown Austin, with a few located even further away, including across Town Lake and on the east side of I-35. We’re talking miles and miles of walking.
But sometimes (if you’re lucky) you can cut down on the legwork if one, two or three bands are scheduled back to back at the same venue. Sponsors know this, which is why they schedule as many top acts as possible for their “day parties,” figuring you’ll say “fuck it, let’s just stay here,” when the band you came to see finishes their set.
For example, I kicked off yesterday afternoon by going to the Pandora day party at Antone’s, where I hoped to catch a set by Neon Trees. Since I knew that NT is currently trending, I got there early not knowing who was on the schedule. The name Incan Abraham didn’t ring a bell. The LA-based 5-piece (which appears to genuinely be unsigned) is one of the many new bands that have decided it would make good business sense to sound like Vampire Weekend. At one point during their set I wanted to yell, “Play something off Contra,” but that wouldn’t have been nice. Besides, no one was there to see them, anyway.
Half the crowd was there to see the next band, Neon Trees. This Provo-based band of Mormons (all are LDS members, according to Wiki) has the distinction of having one of the best frontmen in the business — the amazing Tyler Glenn. The second this guy takes the stage in his faux hawk and gold leather pants you know he meant business, and if you don’t, he’s going to let you know right to your face. Rarely has a frontman tried so hard to make a connection with his audience doing everything except pulling them on stage with him. He’s an in-your-face rock version of American Idol with a wicked sense of humor that will help him immensely when he reaches his final destination in Las Vegas. Pure showman.
As for the music, well, it sounded like someone grew up listening to The Cars, along with more modern pop like The Killers, a band who helped Neon Trees get signed to Mercury. You might have heard their music on Buick commercials, and something tells me they’ll be selling a lot of other stuff in the future. They’re a good time band that demands audience reaction, even if it’s 2:30 in the afternoon. Some did. Most did the ol’ standing-hump dance. Of note, Omahan Neal Duffy runs their sound. It was nice to see a friendly face behind the sound board. By the time you read this, Duffy will be headed back home, his tour of SXSW over, for now.
I said half the crowd was there to see Neon Trees. The other half was there for Glen Hansard of The Frames, The Swell Season, and the hunky leading man and Oscar winner for the music in the 2007 film Once. I didn’t know Hansard was on the slate at Antone’s, and was pleasantly surprised. He did about a half hour of fantastic personal folk, including the song “Gold” from Once, just him and his worn-to-shit acoustic guitar.
Hansard’s between-song patter is good enough for the stand-up circuit. He used it to coax Tom Meny onto stage, a YouTube musician who has covered one of Hansard’s songs online, which Hansard said was better than his version. He wanted him to sing it, but before he started, Meny whispered into Hansard’s ear that he’d forgotten the words! Instead, Meny added some tasty harmonies and told the crowd before he left the stage, “You’ve all experienced the best day of my life” — a touching moment.
Well, I couldn’t hang out at Antone’s all day, could I? Next it was off to the Mess With Texas party at the 1100 Warehouse, located on the east side of I-35 on 5th St. Getting there was an adventure involving crossing many lanes of live traffic with no stoplights (though a friendly cop helped us at one intersection). This event used to be held in a park just north of 6th St., but somehow they lost the rights to use the property. Unfortunate, because to say the airplane-hangar-sized metal-roofed warehouse had poor acoustics would be showering it with praise.
We waited about 10 minutes in the sweltering tin can for Cults to take the stage, and when they did, we held on for about three songs. Worst acoustics I’ve ever heard at SXSW; a waste of time for the bands and its fans. If that’s the best place Mess With Texas could find to host their day party, they’re better off not hosting one.
After the long hike back to 6th Street we set the bands aside and splurged on a sit-down meal at Annie’s on Congress Ave. and then went back to the hotel to watch some March Madness. Look, my non-stop days are over, folks, I’s gots to get some rest. And the way my night ended up, I’m glad I did.
I headed back out at around 9 to catch Secretly Canadian band Gardens & Villa at Mohawk Patio. The Santa Barbara band’s standout quality is a frontman that plays a variety of bamboo flutes (but not exactly in a Jethro Tull sort of way). With a regular drummer and a guy on an electronic drum kit, the band has more than a passing resemblance to Yeasayer, though not nearly as hippy-ish (even with the flutes).
From there, I figured I could sneak in a set from Grimes at the Central Presbyterian Church — yes, you read that right, it’s a big frickin’ church a block off of 6th Street that hosts shows for SXSW. Once inside, the kind-faced volunteers — obviously members of the church’s congregation — were selling coffee, scones and bottled water. They shepherded us into the main church and told us to take a pew. I wandered up to the balcony instead, and moments later (and what was 10 minutes ahead of schedule) a woman on stage asked to kill all the lights. The band that I thought was Grimes was, in fact, electronic duo Purity Ring who played a haunting set lit only by colored electric lanterns made all the more dramatic from the church’s spooky confines (which, btw, had remarkably good acoustics).
So apparently the church’s schedule was way behind, and there was no way I was going to be able to stick it out for Grimes because I had to get in line if I wanted to see The Jesus and Mary Chain at The Belmont at midnight.
I’m happy I got there when I did, at around 11, because I only had to wait in line for about five minutes. Once inside, it was a crush mob that would only become more crushing as the night went on. So packed were we that I could not raise my hand to scratch my nose without hitting the guy or woman standing next to me. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hold this sardine pose for a full hour, not knowing that I’d have to do it for two-and-a-half hours. Good thing I took a leak at the church.
Before Jesus and Mary Chain it was a set by Titus Andronicus, who I didn’t recognize because frontman Pat Stickles had shaved off his wilderness beard, making him now look like Matt Whipkey’s long lost twin brother. I’ve seen Titus a number of times. They’re known (and proud) of their marathon-length songs, some of which are more than 10 minutes long and just seem to stretch on pointlessly forever, especially last night. No one wants to hear a 15-minute song about your eating disorder, Patrick, especially one with a repeating chorus that goes “Spit it out.” I will say this, it took cajones the size of melons to take a gig where everyone in the audience just wants you get off stage as fast as possible, and instead play these long, boring songs.
Finally, at around 12:30, Jesus and Mary Chain took the stage and played a ton of my favorite songs and a few I never heard of, one after another for over an hour. The Reid Brothers may be older, but they haven’t really lost any of their style. Jim’s voice is distinctively lower and grainier, but still has that thing that makes it unique. Meanwhile, brother William slouched off to the side with his axe and blew us all away with the shear volume of it all. As it stands, that was the highlight of my SXSW…. so far.