The lesson of South By Southwest is that if an attendee has their heart set on attending one of the marquee intimate shows that the Austin, Tex.-based music event books, then the best bet is to plan ahead and be prepared to wait for the chance at a once-in-a-lifetime musical moment.
Last year’s Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show set the bar for how these events can play out and it ran like a smooth machine. SXSW told attendees of the ticketing process for the show well in advance and the word definitely got out.
This year, it seemed like the rules for getting in to gigs like Justin Timberlake, LL Cool J, Iggy & the Stooges and Prince required more time to discover. Subsequently, that locked me out of both the Stooges’ set at Mohawk and Prince’s marathan session at La Zona Rosa.
Here’s hoping SXSW can find a way to get these headliners to place bigger venues. It’s the only event where most of the attendees can’t see the biggest names attached to play the event.
Thankfully, between innumerable day shows and SXSW’s load of showcases, there’s always plenty to do even after giving up the ghost on getting into the hottest gigs.
Day shows are quickly becoming the best place to catch the latest crop of SXSW buzz bands, as well as established, but under-the-radar acts like the Shout Out Louds, who specialize in an 80s alternative guitar pop that sounds like it belongs on a John Hughes movie soundtrack.
Other daytime highlights from the week included a set from indie buzz act Foxygen, whose take on glam rock incorporates a light MGMT-styled psych pop.
Indie pop weirdo Mac DeMarco cut an image of Jay Reatard, if the Memphis garage icon had been raised on power-pop and bedroom pop.
Dawes set themselves apart apart is their connection to smooth, pop-minded 70s AM rock. Laurel Canyon hangs in the heart of their songs and sometimes its hard not to imagine them covering a few Jackson Browne tunes.
Even A Place To Bury Strangers, the super-loud New York shoegaze noise rockers, made their mark in the daylight, including a Dead Moon cover to preview their upcoming Record Store Day release.
North Carolina’s Spider Bags killed it in the sunlight too, with their booze-rock anthems delivered with a conviction that comes from late nights and rough mornings.
Detroit legend Timmy Vulgar brought a hook-filled clarity to his pummeling garage punk, tempering his spaced-out side to directly rock out gems like “Cats on the Moon” and “Bouncing Boobies” with his latest project, Timmy’s Organism.
One of the week’s best shows was from a band that I’ve seen evolve over the years at SXSW. Indiana miscreants TV Ghost first appeared as high schoolers playing twisted post-punk slathered in hautned keys and anchored by the possessed force of singer Timothy Gick. It’s interesting seeing oddball punk kids grow up into their potential and that’s what TV Ghost seems to be doing.
Gick is now the towering center of the band, a truly disturbing frontman that’s hard to take your eyes off of as he writhes and squirms on the floor. He chants his songs like an exorcism, while his band has become a more layered, polished, punishing outfit behind him. They were once odd and intriguiing, now they are creating deeply weird and essential music.
Beerland once again hosted bands on its patio in the middle of the SXSW chaos, including a Saturday night closer with Thee Oh Sees. The San Francisco garage band has gathered a large following with their DIY punk attitude and its psych rock hooks.
Beerland’s patio is also where I saw Bass Drum of Death’s newish three-piece, two-guitar lineup. John Barrett and his guitar are at the forefront of this riff-fest.
Merge Records’ signee Mikal Cronin knows about the almighty riff too. On the Hotel Vegas patio, he and his three-guitar lineup mastered the shred. Cronin used to come across as being rooted in power-pop, but while his material was pretty direct, the guitar firepower placed his sound somewhere in the spectrum between Teenage Fanclub and Dinosaur Jr.
Viet Nam, who will play in Omaha this spring, also hit the right notes at Hotel Vegas, playing drug-addled street poet psych rock. Michael Gerner is all over the map, at one moment playing elegiac dirges, then switching up to driving songs with narrative lyrics tumbling from his mouth.
I also made my way for a night showcase at Austin Music Hall, in anticipation of Fitz & the Tantrums. The showcase kicked off with the theatrical, flamboyant electro synth pop of Diamond Rings, as artist that should have broke through last year with his single “I’m Just Me.” Diamond Rings has now evolved into a full band, adding a needed heft to what I saw two years ago as a one-man project.
English band the Enemy failed to impress after Diamond Rings, hopefully bringing a merciful end to the era of the overhyped NME guitar band. Shaggy-haired Sheepdogs did their best Allman Brothers impression, letting their Americana rock settle in a jammy groove between the Black Crowes and the Band.
Fitz & the Tantrums took the stage with conviction to get the crowd moving. Mostly, it worked as the band placed about four new songs in their set of R&B pop, which gets its unique twist from a heavy 80s New Romantic pop influence. There’s at least two potential radio hits that the band unveiled last night, so 2013 may just be the year this California band kicks it into high gear.
Meanwhile, I was reminded about one of the cool thing abut SXSW. It sometimes helps put two and two together and that’s the bit of math that happened Friday at Cheer Up Charlie’s, a funky indoor/outdoor club on Austin’s hip east side.
After grabbing a cocktail and navigating through the venue, I decided to take a look at one of the band’s playing on the outdoor stage on the other side of the venue. It took me a few moments to realize that on stage was Brian Harding, who used to sing in a indie band Hymns.
New York-based Hymns became a favorite of mine, thanks to their hooky sound that incorporated 70s country rock, power-pop and indie guitar pop sensibilities. The band dissolved a few years ago, with guitarist Jason Roberts picking up sideman gigs including with Norah Jones. In fact, he joined Jones on stage in Omaha last year.
Harding, however, dropped off my radar. Now he’s fronting Ex Cops alongside Amalie Bruun and the two’s duo vocals play off each other in a classic sort of way. Dream pop lurks on their record, True Hallucinations, but Harding has always had too good of a knack for penning insistent, hummable melodies and that hasn’t changed with Ex Cops.