Only at South By Southwest do I attend two brunches before it's even noon. But hey, when in Texas, do as the Texans do, right? Day three of the Austin musicfest SXSW started off for me with a long-honored tradition, the 10th annual BMI Acoustic Brunch on the lawn of the posh Four Seasons hotel--a pleasantly fancy-schmancy affair, and a refreshing change of pace after the previous greasy days' taco trucks and mac 'n' cheese spooned onto soggy Styrofoam plates. China! Real silverware! Bloody Marys! And, of course, a slew of easy-on-the-ears, hangover-alleviating unplugged acts. I was most impressed by Mumfordy British alt-folkers Dry The River, who admitted to having hangovers themselves (and didn't seem all that thrilled with their 11am set time) but didn't let any morning-after fatigue prevent them from putting on a lovely lawn concert, filled with sweet rustic harmonies, that gently eased me into another marathon music day.
Then, over at the scenester central known as the Fader Fort, I attended the Blogger Brunch hosted by MyMusicRX.org, a "digital music medicine program" benefitting the Children's Cancer Association. The idea behind the program is simple but genius--access the iTunes store via MyMusicRX's portal, and up to 5 percent of any download purchase goes to the CCA--and that alone was reason enough to celebrate, aside from all the free breakfast burritos and Converse high-tops that may have initially lured a few dozen eager bloggers to the scene. But the addition of amazing musical guest Twin Shadow, who played in the laid-back living room setting while cross-legged kids gathered 'round him on the floor, made me want to head over to the MyMusicRX site and download anything and everything by this hip hirsute chillwaver. With his moody Morrissey-esque crooning and canned '80s-funk beatz--not to mention his modified Kid 'N Play 'fro, acid-washed skinnies, and open-chested Huxtable-print button-down--it seemed as if Mr. Shadow (aka George Lewis Jr.) had been sitting in a Patrick Nagel painting-appointed condo for weeks, watching VH1's "I Love The '80s" specials on a constant VCR loop. And yet, there as something very now, very wow, very 2011 about this guy, whose semi-acoustic performance proved that even when stripped of his retro bells and whistles and bloops and blips, his killer pop songs totally stand up. Expect this dude to be hailed as one of the breakout stars of this year's SXSW.
Next up was a quick dash to the Alternative Apparel Cafe, a calm-amid-the-storm oasis of Southern comfort food, mysterious pastel-colored vodka, and energy-bolstering Cafe Bustelo on tap. There I ran into "American Idol" earth mama Crystal Bowersox, who was with her musician husband Brian Walker, powering up before her big Friday night showcase at the Driskill Hotel's Victorian Room with special unannounced guest John Popper.
A couple of retweetable photo opps later, I stepped back into the 6th Street fray and headed towards one of THE biggest parties of SXSW, Spin magazine's always hotly anticipated, can't-miss blowout over at Stubb's. After three days of pavement-pounding from party to party and gig to gig, I was psyched to hit up an event that was basically one-stop shopping, a place where I could see a bunch of awesome bands at once without leaving the comfort of my barstool. As usual, the Spin indie-allstar lineup didn't disappoint...even if London's Vaccines, one of the buzziest bands of SXSW 2011, and the number two artist on the U.K. album chart right now, didn't exactly have me believing the hype. I didn't quite get what the fuss was all about--they were good, but not great, and certainly there were other acts in Austin this week more deserving of such attention--but the 'CCines did put on a brash, bouncy, energetic set that basically established the tone for an afternoon of fun in the Texas sun.
But the party REALLY got started when a band of men old enough to be the Vaccines' dads hit the stage to show the kiddos how it's done. I'm talking about recently reunited synth-pop duo OMD (or Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark), whose all-too-brief set ("33 years in 30 minutes") was the unexpected highlight of my entire Friday.
OMD's frothy dance melodies made them one of the most successful groups of the 1980s' MTV-driven British invasion, but unfortunately and unfairly, they weren't really taken seriously by critics or music snobs at the time. However, revisionist history has been kind to OMD, as younger generations of electronic artists have rightfully namechecked the pioneering synth act--and OMD's 2010 reunion album, History Of Modern, was largely hailed as a triumphant comeback by critics. Founding members Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys certainly seemed triumphant as they hit the Stubb's stage on Friday afternoon.
Introduced by none other than Moby, who gushingly cited OMD's first four albums as major career inspirations, Andy and Paul went right back to their self-titled debut by opening with their new wave classic "Electricity," a song penned in 1976 that somehow sounded fresher than anything the Vaccines had played just a few moments earlier. OMD's new song "History Of Modern Part 1" held up surprising well after that (it was hard to believe that more than three decades separated the first two songs on OMD's setlist), but then the band wisely crammed the rest of their show with hits, hits, hits (like "Joan Of Arc" and "Sister Marie Says"). And Andy entertained with the best stage banter this side of a Kiss Alive album, and dance moves so wacky and rubber-limbed that I wondered if he'd been studying Radiohead's "Lotus Flower" video lately. "Don't pretend you're too f***ing cool to dance!" Andy hollered, as he flailed about, and the spectators soon followed his lead.
The big John Hughes nostalgia moment came when OMD played their Pretty In Pink mushfest "If You Leave" ("All of a sudden you're 18 at a high school prom, huh?" Andy asked the audience), but the coolest part of the show had to be when Moby re-emerged, bass guitar slung around his wiry frame, to play on "Souvenir" (a tune he actually remixed for OMD in 1998) and the absolutely effervescent "Enola Gay." This was truly the feelgood show of the day.
(Editor's note: Sadly, when OMD returned to the Stubb's stage later that evening for their official SXSW showcase, the vibe was not as joyful, when at least four concertgoers were injured and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance after a camera boom fell on the crowd. According to reports, no one was seriously hurt, but the scary incident understandably put a damper on OMD's delayed, truncated 1am show.)
Anyway, the Spin party continued with a blistering set by the Kills, the garage-punk duo featuring sometimes-Dead Weather frontgoddess Alison Mosshart and guitarist Jamie Hince (aka the future Mr. Kate Moss). Admittedly, the Kills would have benefitted from a much, much later timeslot; seeing these sleaze-rockers in the blindingly bright sun just seemed WRONG, and Jamie bitterly told the crowd that he hates afternoon gigs. ("Please, go see us at night!" he grumpily implored.) But the Kills still exuded a compelling chemistry and sexual tension onstage. Smolderingly staring at each other through their curtains of jet-black fringe as they prowled the Stubb's stage, it was hard to believe that they're really just platonic gig buddies--and that Jamie's fiancee, Kate Moss, shouldn't be at least a little worried. I mean, Alison's so hawt and cool, I have a girl crush on her myself.
The Spin party wrapped up with Brooklynite art-funkers TV On The Radio (minus cancer-stricken, on-hiatus bassist Gerard Smith, sadly), who were amusingly introduced by Brobee from "Yo Gabba Gabba"--or, more specifically, some poor suffocating, suffering guy trapped in a furry green suit while braving the relentless Austin heat. TVOTR's "Staring At The Sun" seemed appropriate in this situation. As the sun beat down on the bleached Stubb's backyard grass and made this gig seem like it was taking place at Coachella, not SXSW, lead singer Tunde Adebimpe begged the crowd, "Please, stay hydrated!" But the hipsters paid no mind, and just kept on grooving to TVOTR's space jams while foolhardily guzzling the open bar's BlackBeard Rum cocktails and jumbo cans of Sparks. Good times.
So naturally, after all that, a seriously restorative chillout session was needed before the night's showcases started up all over again. So I headed over to the Feedback House hosted by Rachael Ray (yes, THAT Rachael Ray--her husband is a rocker in a band called the Cringe, and she celebrates SXSW every year). A charming, actual house on the outskirts of downtown Austin, this haven felt more like a private garden party than some see-and-be-scene music-biz compound--so much so that I stretched out on a lawn chair and kicked off my shoes. Chicago's Maps & Atlases, whom I immediately dubbed the "Princes Of Leon" due to their KOL-esque twanginess and general beardiness, provided the pleasant background entertainment, although when they covered Elvis Costello's "Radio Radio" and got to that "promise of an early bed" line, they reminded me just how tired I really was.
The sudden presence of party guru Andrew WK, in all his soiled-white-denim splendor, lulled me out of my lethargy, as I steeled myself for one of his legendarily manic, hard-partying spectacles...but unfortunately even Mr. WK seemed tuckered out (he'd hosted his own "Death Match Day Party" earlier that afternoon), as all he did was sit quietly with a beer and a few friends and not party at all, hard or otherwise. After staring him down for several minutes, trying to will him to smash a bloody brick into his face or lumber onto the stage and attack the piano, or just do something rad, I decided to move on.
So the last big stop of Friday was Bright Eyes' pop-up show, one of several invite-only surprise events AOL hosted at SXSW (other pop-up gigs of the week were the Vaccines at the First Baptist Church and the Dodos at the First United Methodist Church). Bright Eyes played their pop-up concert at the Austin Club, a chandelier-bedecked banquet hall probably more accustomed to hosting wedding bands than indie bands. (Bright Eyes mastermind Conor Oberst likened it to Disneyland's Haunted Mansion: "Pretty soon, the walls are going to start stretching!") And while Conor and company hit the Austin Club stage more than an hour late because Conor apparently didn't like the room's lighting (he's not a fan of chandeliers, then?), and the bar only served Miller Lite, Bud Light, and Coors Light (REALLY?), this was still a pretty cool, pretty special event.
And when, during "Poison Oak," the room fell absolutely pindrop-silent (an almost unheard-of occurrence at SXSW, trust me), it was as magic a South By Southwest moment as I could remember or hope for. And I was feeling Bright Eyed at the end of a very long, very loud day.
[TV On The Radio/Brobee photo courtesy of AP]