Honestly, I'm not really sure how it's possible that South by Southwest exists. In these buttoned-up times, that such a bacchanal is tolerated at all, let alone located in a red state and centered on a street just a stone's throw from dear Dubya's old stomping grounds, comes as a surprise. Even though I know it shouldn't, Austin is rightfully proud of the event, that it brings untold millions into local coffers large and small, and that it helps fulfill the town's challenge to itself to "keep Austin weird." Still. Fifteen hundred bands, 40 venues, and thousands of tourists in various states of respectability is a pretty amazing thing to tolerate. (That's just the music festival; including the film and interactive festivals, the event is even bigger and more than a week long). Austin locals do it without blinking, which really just adds to my disbelief.
Anyway, on with the show, which has a way of making a music lover feel like a fat man in a Sizzler with a time limit. Confronted with the impossibility of seeing everything, the mind seizes. Complicated strategies are exhaustively outlined and abandoned. The majority of the festival takes place at the venues near and around the intersections of Red River and Sixth Streets, both of which are blocked to traffic. These venues range in size, but the largest hold several thousand people. The temptation to run around from one to the other is great, but logistics get in the way, as most places enforce pretty strict line policies. Cowed by line aversion and impelled by the desire to see a lot of variety, I ended up spending pretty much all day on Friday at legendary Austin venue Emo's, which featured a day lineup of indie rock curated by Pitchfork and a night lineup of electroclash and hip-hop.
The day started innocuously, with the rather bland stylings of Sweden's own Lykke Li. The singer is tipped by some as the "blogs' Kylie," but the comparison is not an apt one, especially since her full-band arrangements took a lot of the computer edge off. In context, it came across as indie studiously trying not to try too hard. White Williams, on the other hand, knew how to broadcast their effort. Led by a pixie-ish chap who spent the show bouncing between two tables filled with synths and processors, and a striking, virtuoso guitar player, the band made effort seem virtuous—not necessarily an easy thing to do on a bill that also features the atrocious lo-fi revivalists Times New Viking. A friend recommended White Williams as "like Dan Deacon, but good," but live they were more like "Vampire Weekend, but proletarian/complicated." Their shimmering, nuanced melding of shoegazer hum and '80s worldbeat pop sounded clean, and their dissembling ambition was actually kind of charming.
Next up was Jay Reatard, whose balls-to-the-wall, nonstop set featured lots of head-banging and soloing. The band gets style points for having a guitarist and a bassist who both rock Flying V's and whose frizzled locks basically obscure their faces. But how the band's sound appeals to the same people who like Britain's calculatedly avant-garde sound collagists Fuck Buttons is beyond me. The latter act had a schtick: weird naturalistic introductory sounds, then a layer of jacking beats, building to a crescendo featuring squawky screaming channeled through a kid's toy boombox. The first five minutes or so of these songs had an appealingly sculptural quality, but for me, the punk obnoxiousness of the subsequent vocal effects was a bit too art-damaged.
We then moved on to the paired pastoralia of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, both of whom seemed perfectly at home in the bearded neo-hippie heart of modern indie rock. The former's compositions started as aching, almost a capella folk songs and built slowly into surging, anthems redolent of My Morning Jacket. The latter were twee and folksy and one of them was wearing a buttoned-up vest; it was all very composed and somewhat arch, dispassionate to the point of boring. Their lead singer said, "We don't really feel like we belong here," twice, and while they were definitely more professional than half the acts there, the faux-modesty and generally conservative mien makes me inclined to agree.
One band that definitely deserves to be here—hell, they deserve to be on Letterman, and on Clear Channel stations—is Yeasayer, whose debut is a fine take on the current orientalist dance-rock moment crossed with some hippie shit, but who sounded approximately a dozen times more vital live. On stage, the electronic aspect of their sound is much more pronounced (and sounds awesome); their four-part harmonies have a lot more drum-circle power in person too. And their lead singer, who almost out-spazzes Thom Yorke, has a sort of gripping, cracked charisma that lends their songs focus. Afterward, some cranks shouted out, "I want to have your babies!" while the band broke down their gear. This is probably what people mean when they talk about "SXSW buzz bands."
After a brief interlude for some Cajun crustaceans, I returned to Emo's to find the Biz3 productions party in full swing. The essential theme here was electroclash in the front and hip-hop in the rear. Crystal Castles sounded like club music's answer to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, partially because the duo had a (crappy) live drummer. He's apparently not actually in the band, so the numbers don't really add up. Still, the tension between a geeky boy making weird sounds with his tool(s) and a snarling vixen with a lithe and threatening stage presence is present in both bands. There was a strobe light and there was screaming, and the backing tracks veered wildly between sounding like digital hardcore and Peaches, and the set ended, brattily, after only 15 minutes. Luckily, they compared favorably with the subsequent act, London's Does it Offend You, Yeah?, who were definitely the worst thing I'd seen so far—essentially nü-rave's answer to Limp Bizkit, complete with entirely unwarranted self-regard and buffoonish stage presence. Their music was almost unbelievably simplistic, and they achieved self-caricature when the awesome t-shirt-wearing singer tripped and fell and almost knocked his keyboard into the crowd. Nevertheless, the audience seemed to be really feeling it—which is, I suppose, one of the nice things about a festival of this size. There's truly something for everyone. Even frat boys, who whooped it up when DJs Flosstradamus dropped "Jump Around." And then played almost the entire song. (Hey, I don't mean to hate. It's fun to play that song as a DJ; its Pavlovian effects on white men are almost as pronounced as those of "Like a Prayer.")
After a brief stop to wallow in nostalgia for the days when hip-hop was real, with the actually kind of fun '80s throwbacks Cool Kids, award-winning DJ A-Trak arrived to show the other DJs who was boss. And CEO. And Dictator-for-Life of the Galaxy. Seriously, folks, the things this guy did with "Music Sounds Better with You," "(It's Bigger Than) Hip Hop," and M.A.N.D.Y.'s "Body Language," not to mention like 60 other songs, were almost indescribably mean. That he only had half an hour to work his magic was a travesty. Luckily, he stuck around to DJ for Chicago's Little Sister, who's also on his label. Her sound is essentially an update of the hip-house of the early '90s, and though her voice sounded strained (emcees were complaining about mic levels all night), the songs themselves were catchy and fun. The club hit "Beeper"—she guests on the Count & Sinden's track—is a perfect encapsulation of her appeal: slightly, winkingly anachronistic, with plenty of sass. Also, she rapped over "Shake & Pop" by Green Velvet and I kind of made a mess in my pants.
The night was all buildup to an appearance by indie rock's favorite black people, Clipse, and while I wish I could say that they lived up to their promise (seriously, people, Hell Hath No Fury is front-to-back solid gold, not to mention the Neptunes' finest work in the last five years), it was mostly a good example of why I tend to steer clear of rap shows. Their DJ spun 2Pac and Biggie while we waited for them to show, which seemed an oddly portentous, morbid thing to do; when they arrived, they played hits from their last record as well as stuff they made listenable by other artists. Pusha T introduced "What Happened to That Boy" like so: "This is technically by some other people, but we're the only people who matter on this track." Birdman was apparently not in the house. But hey, Ice Cube was! While the Clipse are to be lauded for their fine work on mixtapes, the live experience really didn't add anything to their work; the tracks were all the same, and the vocals sounded breathless and rushed, as is seemingly almost always the case with live hip-hop. This music is for riding around, shining, in ridiculous automobiles; it doesn't quite translate in sweaty rock clubs. Especially not when the band is living up to their reputation for petulance by asking the crowd to raise their hands if they have Hell Hath No Fury, then asking people who downloaded it to identify themselves, then yelling out, "Liars!" when the cheers fade. It wasn't really a good look for them.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.