Although this is often forgotten amid the haze of Shiner Bock and BBQ grill fumes, the annual South By Southwest conference is supposed to be work. It is a business convention, after all (the music industry's biggest), on the surface hypothetically no different from networking conventions for medical supply salespeople, dental hygienists, or morticians. Business cards are exchanged, hands are shaken, backs are slapped, industry panels are attended, expense accounts are maxed out, etc. And at the same time, this weeklong whirlwind of conspicuously branded hipster soirees, open bars, and Texas-sized barbeque buffets isn't all that different from the mythical seven-day weekend known to frat boys the world over as "Spring Break" (or "Spriiing Breeeaaak!!!!"). But South By Southwest (or SXSW, as it is affectionately nicknamed by those too lazy to type out the whole thing) is different, because in the end, this much-hyped Texan pow-wow is really all about the music, man. At least to me, it is.
Yes, every year, musicians of various genres and varying levels of notoriety/talent flock to SXSW in Austin, Texas from all corners of the globe, and whether it's veteran acts like '80s favorites Duran Duran and OMD, massive modern-day headliners like Kanye West and the Strokes, baby buzz acts like the Vaccines and James Blake, or unsigned unknowns looking to land record deals or just gain a few more Twitter followers by busking on the streets or playing in the terminals of the Austin airport, they're all there for one reason: to grab their own increasingly unattainable piece of the music-biz pie. (Grabbing a few beers is a very close second.) And every year, I'm there to write about what goes on and what goes down. And hey, if I grab a few beers along the way, let's just say I was doing research, shall we?
Of course, much as I'd love to clone myself, there is only one of me, which means that--with thousands of bands playing official SXSW showcases and seemingly thousands more working the unofficial daytime/afterhours party circuit--it was impossible to see everything under the Texan sun. This meant that for every amazing private Duran Duran party or MTV blowout I attended, I missed seeing, oh, I dunno, Jack White's surprise parking lot gig, or the Foo Fighters' backyard Stubb's show, or the keynote speeches by Bob Geldof and Yoko Ono. Sigh. Every time I whipped out my iPhone, there was my Twitter feed, mocking me, alerting me in real time as to what I was missing. But on the plus side, every city block in downtown Austin was buzzing and bustling with fabulous music, so wherever my Conversed feet or pedicab took me, I ended up having a swell time.
Upon landing in Austin on Wednesday afternoon, my first stop just had to be the Fader Fort, Austin's most sprawling oasis of swag/grub/booze/bands and a veritable SXSW institution, for an afternoon set by English indie-funk wonders Friendly Fires. The FF's executed the whole double-drumming shtick in a most magnificently post-punky manner perhaps not seen since Adam was still playing with his Ants, and their herky-jerky hipster rhythms certainly helped me shake off my jetlag as I shook my booty.
Raphael Saadiq was slated to follow, but for some reason he canceled; however, I knew that, like most SXSW artists, he'd be playing about 18 or so other gigs this week (and I indeed ended up catching him later that evening). So I just consulted my handy, heavily annotated SXSW party spreadsheet (partying is serious business, people) and hightailed it to the IAMSOUND Records bash a block away at the Shangri-La, just in time to catch the end of Brooklyn backpack-rapper Theophilus London's set. Intrigued by this charismatic baseball-capped figure, I promptly decided that I was now obsessed with Mr. London. Jonesing to hearing more, more, more, I referred to my aforementioned spreadsheet and decided to check him out the following day at the MTV Garage megabash.
After a quick disco nap back at my hotel, it was time to see some proper Eurodisco: Duran Dur-effing-ran. My beloved Boys On Film were, incredibly, playing SXSW for the first time in their triple-decade career, at Stubb's BBQ, and there was NO way this not-at-all-recovered Duranie was going to miss that. Because I knew if there's anything that could make a Duran Duran concert better, it'd be the opportunity to carbo-load on Stubb's world-famous Crisco-sodden vittles (chunks of cornbread as thick and heavy as bricks, giant mountains of red beans 'n' rice, mashed potatoes that seem to be two parts butter for every one part actual spuds, cheese grits overgenerously laden with oily cheese until they're as yellow as Big Bird with a case of jaundice, etc.) while watching "Hungry Like The Wolf." The above-mentioned Raphael Saadiq warmed up the crowd with his incendiary old-soul revue, but it was D2's completely joyous set that jolted the BBQ bingers out of their food comas with so-old-they're-new-again hits like "A View To A Kill," "Notorious," "Friends Of Mine," "Girls On Film," "Ordinary World," "Wild Boys," and the sexy-in-any-decade "Chauffer." What was surprising was how seamlessly the tracks off Duran's new, Mark Ronson-produced, retro-modern 13th album, the aptly titled All You Need Is Now, segued into the setlist--usually when '80s bands on the comeback trail play their new songs at gigs, that's my cue to take a bathroom break (or, in Austin, a BBQ break). Not in this case. If anything, I wanted to hear more new songs--the band only played four in total--and that was a pretty good sign.
After a night of sleeping off my fish tacos and free tequila (yes, I know, what a horrible job I have), I woke up Thursday at the crack of noon, reasonably un-hungover and ready to fill my gullet and earholes with new treats. So off it was to the MTV Garage gala, a giant parking-lot event where potato vodka (better than it sounds) and mac 'n' cheese flowed like the Rio Grande and Theophilus London (assisted by bandmate Dev Hynes, aka moonlighting British songsmith Lightspeed Champion) partied like it was 1999. Literally. Sampling Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," rocking a '91 Chicago Bulls championship T-shirt and a pair of Air Jordans, and giving shoutouts to Nate Dogg, the retro-obsessed rapper ecstatically told the crowd of neon-sunglassed scenesters: "This s*** feels like MTV in the motherf***ing '90s, when it was the greatest motherf***ing music network on the planet!" Cee Lo couldn't have said it better himself.
And Theophilus just might end up becoming as big as Cee Lo. Like Cee Lo (and Kanye West, come to think of it), he's the rare hip-hopper who can appeal to the mainstream while still seeming cool and edgy enough to be embraced by the indie-rock crowd. This guy's so good, maybe MTV will take a cue from his onstage rant and start playing music videos again--with Theophilus's videos hopefully in high rotation.
My Londonian curiosity now fully satisfied and satiated, I guzzled what was left of my potato vodka, scored a free Theophilus tee from the kind sidekick who was tossing them to girls in the crowd, and headed over to the Express Rocks Music Lounge for some veggie tacos and whatever energy drink I could mainline into my system to keep me going. Alas, the queues for the complimentary massages and salon treatments were way too long, but I did spot a quite lovely Maja Ivarsson from Sweden's the Sounds lounging about, looking refreshed and ready to rock at her band's Cedar Street Courtyard showcase later that night.
Idolator's "Pray For Pop" party at the Purevolume House, another must-visit destination at SXSW every year, was next, according to my spreadsheet o' fun. There, brink-of-stardom Danish electropop chanteuse Oh Land (real name: Nanna Øland Fabricius) wowed all onlookers with her glacial-cool style, indie-Grace Kelly beauty, and irresistibly Ting-Tingy indie-dance anthems. And "American Idol" earth-mama goddess Crystal Bowersox was an equally pleasing crowd-pleaser, in a real party mood as she covered Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and smilingly dueted with her musician husband Brian Walker on their co-penned "Mason," a song so lovey-dovey and mushy that it inspired two drunken canoodlers to slow-dance in an ankle-deep puddle of spilled beer. Aw, SXSW romance...
Next up over at the Beauty Bar, the '90s nostalgia dance party got restarted by Diamond Rings, aka Canadian indie-popper John O'Reagan. Rocking a high-topped hairdo that would impress even To The Extreme-era Vanilla Ice, a neon cheetah-print bomber jacket, and some dance moves that he quite possibly learned from studying Brian Austin Green on the original Beverly Hills 90210, Mr. Rings certainly seemed like he'd time-traveled to Texas straight from the 1990s in a shiny Mazda Miata....only his souped-up MacBook indicated that this was in fact SXSW 2011. However, John O's moody new wave stylings were quite reminiscent of the '80s--more Dave Gahan than, well, David Silver. And judging from his excellent one-man set, Diamond Rings is completely relevant right now, in whatever this current decade is called.
And finally, it was a very Duranish SXSW this year (Duran Duran also participated in a daytime panel at the Convention Center, hosted by MTV veteran John Norris, at which they too bemoaned MTV's current video-free programming), as Thursday ended splendidly with a private show by Simon Le Bon and his fellow Wild Boys at the can't-miss C3 late-night soiree. Performing several songs they left off the previous night's Stubb's setlist (like the never-before-played-in-the-U.S. new number "Leave A Light On," as well as "Planet Earth," "The Reflex," and the Texas-appropriate "Rio"), Duran Duran were the ultimate party band. Revelers sang along in un-ironic earnest to every word of every hit, got down to the new tunes, and even raised their hands like extras in a Sure deodorant commercial during the chorus of the lesser-loved semi-oldie "Reach Up For The Sunrise."
Duran Duran may have been one of the more seasoned bands at SXSW, but in an era when newcomers like Diamond Rings, Friendly Fires, and Theophilus London seem smitten with the past, these Birmingham boys sounded totally fresh and of-the-moment. SXSW baby bands, take note: If you play your cards right, this could be you in 30 years. See ya at SXSW 2041.