Imagine the most eclectic and gargantuan city-based music festival on earth where every corner of every street in a city centre/downtown area is seeping with live music from its pores. Now add cowboy boots. This is South by South West (SXSW), Austin, Texas, the world’s biggest music showcasing event which has been running for 23 years now and that is so vital to the local eco(nomic) system that in 2007 visiting participants to SXSW Film, Music and Interactive injected the city with 95 million tourist dollars.
It’s a Wednesday, the day after Paddy’s Day (which, yes, is the same as home – any excuse to ditch sobriety at midday and hang out in dire bars exclusively populated by green leprechauns and U2 tribute bands) and the marathon of gigs starts apace. The heart of the action takes place on 6th Street, a long stretch of grid-lined concrete which gives Austin, it’s “Live Music Capital of the World” tag. The street almost exclusively houses bars, clubs, pubs, pizza joints and restaurants and it is here where most of the action takes place.
What about the bands? 47 countries are represented here as as well as the thousands of U.S bands who have driven down for their slice of the live music pie. At time of writing, Sched.org which tracks the events taking place lists 2685 official band sets, 485 convention panels happening in the Austin Convention Center and about 2427 unofficial day parties run by blogs, magazines etc (with free food, beer and entry) which are not recognised as SXSW events by organisers. See, SXSW is a festival in dichotomy. What started as a music industry festival 23 years ago has rapidly grown into a consumer event ( indie festival heaven) but the organisers don’t seem to have reconciled themselves with that reality yet. Take the example of Kanye West, who is rumoured to appear at one of the larger unofficial parties thrown by Fader on Saturday night but will not officially be playing the festival.
On to the reason we are all here: to get a first glimpse at the bands of the not so distant future. After a slot at the Irish International Speed Dating networking event, the gig-going starts to stack up. First a quick look at Max Tundra in Red 7 flailing his arms about and doing his best to move an early-rising non-chalant crowd then onto The Golden Filter in the Austin Convention Center. We get some solid electro-pop played live that is interesting enough to perhaps require a repeat performance in the music’s intended place; a night club. The singer struts and claps like an electro Alison Mosshart (The Kills) but it’s the disco flourishes that really give their songs legs and help them stand out.
Onto 6th Street then for a quick one-two of Vivian Girls and The Harlem Shakes in Maggie Mae’s. The former are three girls playing charming ’90s rock with such perfection it matters little that the drummer’s contributing harmonies are woefully out of tune. That they manage to impress in those circumstances is no mean feat – seriously, a four-year old child could have harmonised better. The Harlem Shakes on the other hand are the epitome of young band professionalism with the whole band behind each song, which are very catchy and also very much in the Vampire Weekend vein. Extra brownie points to the singer Lexy for his Huey Lewis and the News ’80s jacket and cheesy grin.
Across the street, 20 minutes later at the Hype Machine Radio Show Party, Casiokids from Norway are jamming their electro-pop groovy reverie with Friendly Fires style crossover precision. Lots of cowbell, instrument swopping, grinning band members and yes, an army of Casio keyboards. You wonder though will their Norwegian songs hinder them in the future. Well, have YOU tried to sing along in Norwegian?
A break for the ears comes when State joins the line for wristbands at the Fader Fort on Waller and 5th, a necessary evil in which we conclude a 35 minute queue with a dire acoustic set from Graham Coxon who is no mood to entertain. Instead, he tunes his guitar, stands up and pulls up his pants for comfort, stares into the distance and comes out with – “Maybe I should have brought my electric guitar and a drummer. All that boring shit that you people like the most”. A pro.
The need to move hotel rooms puts us out of action for a bit but straight back into a territory marked “brilliant” is Portland’s Starfucker who dispense some danceable, reverb-drenched electro-pop in the spacious Radio Room on 6th St. Bodies are popping and heads are nodding along with some of the members of Hockey in attendance. Calling all promoters, someone bring these guys to Ireland NOW. A block down from that venue is Alaska in Winter, a one-man electronic autotune shakeup who delightfully plays a solo show with in-sync visuals showing himself playing all the parts of the song and dictating when he can take his regalia off mid-show. Sort of like an electronic R.S.A.G. with added vocodor and autotune.
On our way elsewhere we catch the opening strains of The Temper Trap’s ‘Sweet Disposition’ , the much-touted indie band. The bar is packed with even Perez Hilton in attendance (Twitter told us) so we resolve to catch them at a later date. It’s just as well because State manages to squeeze in to the seated St. Vincent show in the Central Presbyterian church. It’s a fitting setting for Annie Clark, whose voice is positively angelic. We are treated to a mix of old and new, the new drawn from upcoming album Actor sounds full-bodied and surprisingly befitted with some crunchy guitar riffs played with jagged and erratic panache by Ms. Clark who is joined by a full band including some hot flute sounds. A highlight.
Our feet are swelling and we’ve forgotten to eat so there’s limited amount of time to catch DM Stith’s spectral folk show in the Beauty Bar. The spectral part doesn’t show up tonight and Stith struggles to keep up with the chattering crowd. It’s not the time to judge him so we walk into the next room to catch the very end of a vigorous Parenthetical Girls set complete with violins and incessant drumming.
Our final set of the night comes from the delightfully titled Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head
whose delightfully rambunctious and almost-adolescent music is the perfect ending to a really fun night but it’s time to retire. After all, it’s a marathon not a sprint and there is plenty of more free beer and music to come.