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 from all corners of the globe, and whether it's huge acts like Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen, baby buzz bands like Penguin Prison and Alabama Shakes, or unsigned unknowns looking to land record deals or just gain a few more Twitter followers by busking on 6th Street 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.) Additionally, seemingly every single alcohol, soda, junk food, fashion, and tech company with so much as a patent pending heads to Austin to grab that all-important 18-to-49 advertising demographic, so it's basically impossible for anyone at SXSW to strut down a single block of 6th Street without being whacked in the face with more logos and branding that one might see adorning a NASCAR racer. Hey, I guess someone has to pay for all these SXSW parties and showcases, so all these great bands have somewhere to play, right? So it might as well be Red Bull, Doritos, or Tito's Vodka. And if I grab a few free vodkas or bags of chips while covering Austin's events in the name of journalism, let's just say I was doing research.
SXSW's Music's festivities technically began on Tuesday the 13th, when there was a sort of changing of the guard between SXSW Music and SXSW Interactive, as moneyed tech nerds fled Austin and left the city in the probably-not-all-that-trustworthy hands of thousands of drunken rock fans. And thus began the first of many South By Southwest Sophie's choices for me, as I debated between checking out the Interactive Closing Party at Stubb's with Miike Snow and Kasabian, or Music's big kickoff show with La Zona Rosa with Santigold and Theophilus London. (Such is the downside of being so spoiled for choice at SXSW: With great music pouring out of every club and every storefront, it's impossible to see and hear everything. Le sigh.) La Zona Rosa won out, where Brooklyn rapper Theophilus (a man with so much charisma, he could start a second career as a swagger coach) and his Mexican-wrestler-masked hype man hosted an opening-night dancefest with the oh-so-PC party anthem "Let Me See Your T*ties," and Santigold danced onstage with a giant furry white horse while wearing what appeared to be a Burger King crown. And thus, the annual keeping-of-Austin's-weirdness began!
Tuesday night ended over at the Parish, where local hero and Season 1 "The Voice" finalist Nakia thrilled a hometown crowd (which also included "Voice" alums Rebecca Loebe, Whitney Myer, Lex Land, and Lee Koch) with his soulful, belty original music, along with one of his classic "Voice" covers, Kings Of Leon's "Sex On Fire." I was kind of hoping some of his "Voice" cronies would hop onstage with him, but perhaps it was just as well that Nakia got the spotlight all to himself this time. He performed like a real winner this evening.
So Wednesday started off at the crack of noon (it was amusing for me to walk through my hotel's hallway and see so many "Do Not Disturb" signs looped around every door handle, well after the morning had passed), with the Terrorbird Media day party over at Red 7. There, Ohio-bred, Amsterdam-based space-pop duo Teengirl Fantasy (perhaps the best-named band at SXSW, aside from some band called Total Unicorn) entranced the assembled hipsters with their washed-out synth-psych. The fact that they went on nearly 20 minutes late was annoying, though I wondered if some casual male spectators in the crowd were more annoyed that Teengirl Fantasy's lineup didn't feature any fantasy-worthy teen girls at all. That being said, TGF's fuzzy music was still a great start to a day that would get fuzzier and fuzzier as the hours, and the cocktails, flew by.
Next was the Welsh music showcase over at Latitude 30's British Embassy, where the apocalyptically and unapologetically loud Cardiff hardcore combo Future Of The Left (featuring former members of the cult band mclusky) blew the minds, or at least the eardrums, of various Anglophiles snacking on Glamorgan sausages and asparagus tarts. The best thing about FOTL's gig was the skewed Welsh wit of bantering frontman Andy "Falco" Falkous, along with the badass stage persona of rock-chick bassist Julia Ruzicka. But those tarts were pretty good, too.
Next was the Let's Big Happy Hour over at Maggie Mae's, in celebration of the forthcoming (March 28) premiere of "Let's Big Happy," a new original scripted web series on Myspace starring the always entertaining Andrew WK and Twilight actress Angela Sarafyan. Andrew was there, resplendent in his usual soiled whites, but equally resplendent was the Chevin, a cinematic Leeds-based band whose Embrace/Muse/Starsailor-style Britrock was one of my most pleasant discoveries of the day.
Boosting my flagging mid-afternoon energy in a way no can of free Red Bull ever could have was the 12-legged rock 'n' roll machine known as Foxy Shazam over at the Swinghouse party, one of best live bands at SXSW or, really, on the planet. These guys pretty much ruled from the minute their horn player soundchecked by playing Chuck Mangione, and they truly knew how to entertain. "I know rock is dead, but that doesn't mean we can dance with its f***ing ghost!" announced Chachi/Leif Garrett-styled Foxy frontman Eric Sean Nally (a true showman just for his handlebar 'stache and Fauntleroy-fringed mullet alone), who then proved rock is very much alive and well by spending the next half-hour somersaulting, drumkit-climbing, and telling tall tales about writing songs in the back of a 90mph pickup truck with his supposed BFF Andre 3000. In fact, this show was actually worth attending just for Eric's banter alone. (Example: "Roses are red, violets are blue, Foxy Shazam, baby...f*** you!" Genius, right?)
Around the corner was an entirely different but just-as-cool rock ensemble, New York's the Drums, over at the day party hosted by Under The Radar magazine. The Drums' Portamento was my absolute favorite album of 2011, so they were probably the only SXSW band I would have even considered leaving Foxy Shazam's show early to catch. The Drums' Haircut 100-meets-Smiths college rock was so very retro-'80s and yet so very modern, and just plain COOL, and it was a perfect breezy soundtrack for a sunny Austin afternoon. So, how are Foxy Shazam and the Drums not the biggest rock bands in the world already, huh?
After a stopover at my hotel room to watch "American Idol" (hey, I'm not that hip) and take a disco nap, it was back out into the March madness to see Alabama Shakes, one of SXSW 2012's buzziest bands, at NPR's showcase at Stubb's. The Shakes (who, yes, hail from Alabama; their moniker is less misleading than Teengirl Fantasy's) came from seemingly out of nowhere in the last couple months, and when they played Wednesday night, it was easy to see what all the buzz was about, and why the likes of Adele, Robert Plant, Jack White, David Byrne, and the Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner are all fans. The vintage-style Southern soul combo's Brittany Howard--just a real, regular girl who used to work for the post office--showcased an AMAZING voice, raw and tender and passionate and really the kind of voice any "American Idol" contestant would kill to have, and her performance nearly had me crying into my Shiner Bock. Most moving of all was the keening "I Found You," the "At Last" of indie rock; if/when I get married, I think I want that soul-stirring, gooseflesh-raising love ballad to be my first-dance wedding song.
Switching gears completely, I headed over to Idolator's "Pray For Pop" afterhours party over at the PureVolume House for a totally different type of female singing star, "The X Factor U.K.'s" Cher Lloyd--who made her live U.S. debut for a rabid audience that included her new label boss, "X Factor" judge and Epic Records honcho L.A. Reid. Sadly, Cher only played four songs, but she made maximum use of her stage name, all teeny-tiny red spandex hotpants, big hair, big voice, and most of all, big ATTITUDE. She wasn't joined by her duet partner Astro on her debut U.S. single, "I Want U Back," but Cher dominated the stage so completely, there probably wouldn't have been room for Astro and his ego anyway. Expect Cher to follow the path forged by Leona Lewis and One Direction, as she becomes the next "X Factor U.K" alum to break big in the States.
Idolator's dance party continued, and my night concluded, with New York alt-poppers Penguin Prison, the cutest-named band at SXSW and certainly one of the coolest. Main Penguin Chris Glover started off PP's set singing in the crowd surrounded by adoring revelers, and when the band played their Occupy Wall Street pop anthem "Don't F*** With My Money," the audience went nuts. Penguin Prison's Hall & Oates/Michael McDonald/Level 42-damaged yacht rock seems to make them the natural successors to Phoenix, Miike Snow, Foster The People, Zoot Woman, et al, and I expect them to blow up in 2012.
Assuming I survive another day of this Austin awesomeness, I'll be back later with a full Thursday SXSW report!
- Bruce Springsteen makes surprise SXSW appearance
- Fiona Apple makes SXSW comeback
- Jay-Z's SXSW show gets mixed reviews
- British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka hits SXSW
- South By Southwest
- Shiner Bock
- Foxy Shazam
- Bruce Springsteen