File this under #sxswproblems: No matter where you are at the Austin musicfest South By Southwest, no matter what hot buzz-band showcase or exclusive afterparty you've managed to blag your way into, you know you're still missing out on something else. If you're at, say, the Temper Trap show, well, you're missing the simultaneous Miike Snow, Grimes, Jesus & Mary Chain, and Of Montreal gigs that are going on at various venues all over town. And you're missing Bruce Springsteen's invite-only show too, by the way. It's a horrible feeling--that nagging suspicion that someone cooler than you is somewhere out there, having a better time or seeing a better band or getting more free drink tickets than you are--but if you can just let go of all that "gig envy," and enjoy the moment, you'll soon learn that good times and good tunes await on pretty much every street corner in downtown Austin. And part of the excitement can come when you don't overschedule yourself, and you almost literally stumble into fun while just roaming down 6th Street.
Anyway, after my whirlwind SXSW 2012 kicked off with bands ranging from Southern soul revivalists Alabama Shakes to "X Factor U.K." pop starlet Cher Lloyd, I woke up Thursday morning determined to see as much music and have as much fun as possible (I hadn't quite gotten over my gig envy just yet). So I started my day with the breakfast of SXSW champions: breakfast with Leeds mod-poppers the Kaiser Chiefs, that is, who performed a bloody good, bloody-Mary-laden brunchtime show at the Hard Rock's "Sound Of Your Stay" lounge as some sort of promotion for a new belVita breakfast biscuit. Breakfast biscuits? Oh, how very English of them!
With a belly fully of breakfast biscuits and bloody Mary mix, I headed over to my next stop, Google and YouTube's "Live At The Lot" open-air party, which took place atop a multi-story parking garage; I considered the several flights I had to climb to get to the venue my cardio for the day, and assumed I'd worked off some of those biscuit calories in the process. There on the roof, New York's Cults and L.A.'s Best Coast trafficked in a festival-ready sound I like to call "sundress rock" (patent pending): a breezy, girly genre also popularized by the likes of She & Him, Jenny & Johnny, and Vivian Girls. (Side note: Vivian Girls were actually scheduled to play a show at a Kate Spade pop-up store this SXSW, so I think that proves my point. Kate Spade makes sundresses, right?) Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino looked quite fashionable in her pinup-worthy red sailor onesie and showgirl fishnets, and sounded even fresher playing new summery surf-pop songs like "The Only Place," "Why I Cry," "Last Year," and "Mean Girls," all of which sounded like they were expressly written to only be played in direct sunlight. Seeing Bethany play in some dark, dank nightclub would almost seem, I don't know, wrong.
Next were the twee-pop outfit Cults, fronted by Madeline Follin, a woman so adorable, she may soon replace Zooey Deschanel as my number-one sundress-rock girlcrush. The girl is simply the Snow White of indie: black hair, alabaster skin, ruby lips, and a stage presence and lilting voice that are the stuff of fairytales. I practically expected to see animated Disney bluebirds fly out of nowhere and land on Madeline's shoulders when she began singing. I don't know how she managed to look so crisp and cute in her vintage lace frock when nearly everyone else in Austin (including yours truly) was a sweaty, hair-matted-to-forehead, literally hot mess...but I guess that's why Maddie's a rock star and I'm not.
Later that night came one of SXSW's most anticipated events, an allstar show held to honor powerpop icon and Big Star leader Alex Chilton, who died only three days before Big Star were slated to play SXSW 2010. At that time, what was supposed to be Big Star's regular showcase at Antone's turned into a musical memorial, with a rotating cast of musicians paying their respects. This year, SXSW continued that tradition by screening the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, followed by a "Big Star 'Third' Tribute Concert"--a run-through of Big Star's most famous and revered album, Third/Sister Lovers--at the Paramount Theater. On hand were R.E.M.'s Peter Buck (standing in for R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, who had to cancel due to illness), Wilco's Pat Sansone, Posies/latter-day Big Star members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, Chris Stamey of the dB's, Peter Case, the Tosca String Quartet, and the Dunwells. But the highlights had to be when Big Star's lone surviving member, the seemingly ageless Jody Stephens (pictured below in the orange T-shirt), stepped out from behind his drumkit to take the mic, and when Replacements/Guns N' Roses bassist Tommy Stinson (second photo below) performed "Nighttime" backed by his "Uncle Jim" on slide guitar.
Next was a limp over to Stubb's (seriously, how can my feet hurt this much after only two days? is Austin asphalt harder than normal asphalt or something?) to see shambolic San Franciscans Girls, followed by an unexpected pitstop at next door's Red-Eyed Fly for Nada Surf's acoustic set. Sometimes it still amazes me how the band behind the '90s semi-spoken-word novelty hit "Popular" managed to so thoroughly reinvent itself as a critically revered (though now horrifically commercially overlooked) adult-alternative act. Joined by fan-turned-collaborator Doug Gillard (of Guided By Voices/Cobra Verde/Death Of Samantha cult fame), Nada Surf put on a lovely show of perfectly unplugged pop songs that was a nice respite from all the blaring noise out on Austin's crowded city streets, and I'm glad I made the detour to see them.
My attempt to see the Jesus & Mary Chain's first U.S. show in four years was quickly aborted once I saw the snaking-down-the-block line to get into the 500-capacity Belmont club where J&MC had stupidly been booked; this had me wondering if I'd ever get another chance to see them, since visa issues almost prevented them from making it to SXSW in the first place, plus the band's warring Reid brothers have this annoying tendency to break up onstage and then not perform together for years at a time. Oh, how I seethed as I checked my Twitter and read the gloating tweets from all of my friends who'd managed to get inside the Belmont. (Talk about gig envy!) But all was not lost: I instead ended my evening at Maggie Mae's for the Gossip's headlining set (where Cults' Madeline and her bandmate/boyfriend, Brian Oblivion, were in attendance), and frontgoddess Beth Ditto did not disappoint. She rocked a disco-sequined caftan (before of course fearlessly stripping off, as she always does, and rocking out in her black lace undies); she invited a dreadheaded fan to dance onstage and then kept asking him if he was the lead singer of Korn; she belted out a mashup of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Lil Wayne's "Lollipop"; and she in fact belted the HELL out of every song. Beth was amazing, and anyone reading this paragraph should have a case of gig envy by now.
So, that's three days down, two more go. Assuming the Austin asphalt is kind to me and my feet don't get worn down to nubs in the next 24 hours, I'll be running around from gig to gig all day Friday, so come back for a full report later!
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- Bruce Springsteen