By Johnnie Craig. Photos by Dan Dennison.
Next SXSW, State plans to split itself into at least three people. -Getting the hang of it’ is bittersweet: you have the element of pride in your achievement when you’ve finally mastered your way around the downtown venues, can judge the distances between them and plan an effective assault on the evening’s entertainment; the downside is that you get the feeling you’ve missed so much during the learning process, if only you could spool back with the knowledge you have now.
But then, even that learning process is part of the fun. It’s one thing getting your official (and, frankly, indispensable) SXSW 2008 Pocket Guide and swotting up on the venues and street layout, but it’s not even half the story. All around you, and far beyond, gigs are taking place in every possible nook that could possible pass for a stage. Two-bit, low-rent rock outfits set up, guerrilla-style, on street corners or near queues for pizza outlets for maximum exposure, often with some lunatic mate of theirs passing the hat or flyers; the Old Pecan Street Market is fenced off with a band on one side and the audience -pecan’ in the other; stores like Urban Outfitters are clearing space for impressive showcases featuring acts like Yacht and MGMT (how do they sell any clothes during this time?); but the biggest phenomenon for those with their ears to the ground, and mobile phones poised, are the house parties. These are 100% unofficial, word-of-mouth-or-text-message events, which somehow attract top acts, who are clearly desperate to return to their roots; for some attendees, these gigs are the main reason to come to Austin – the street-savvy can save themselves the cost of a $650 SXSW ticket and still see acts like Moby, Simian Mobile Disco and Justice virtually from the comfort of someone’s armchair. Like I say, next time I’m splitting myself into three; I’m not sure any one person can leave, however happy, thinking they’ve had the complete SXSW experience.
The final night of fun has taken a slightly surreal turn, though. News filtered through of Bell X1’s tour bus fire in Boston and then the later fire at The Village; a text messenger described the fire, and the resultant evacuation of the venue and Whelan’s next door as being ‘like Cloverfield all over again’. Nothing like getting your evening started with a jolt.
So, to Saturday’s gigs. The ever-wise Jim sent me a text wishing me the ‘best of luck tonight’. I wasn’t sure what he meant but it soon became apparent; Saturday is ludicrously busy everywhere. I don’t know where the extra 10,000 punters came from or what a normal, non SXSW Saturday night in Austin is like, but this was terrifying. Lengthy queues were snaking along the streets before the 8pm sundown from practically every venue; this included queues of badge-holders, like myself, who could normally waltz into most venues at the flash of a mug shot – much to the chagrin of waiting wristband-holders and, the proverbial lowest of the low, the poor paying customers.
The frenetic gigging begins with the wails from Wales, Duffy. To give the lass her due, she truly has a fine set of pipes but the word-of-mouth here in Austin (she has no record out in the States yet) seems to be coming through blue-ish lips; it’s the most -mature’ audience I’ve been surrounded by all week. Naturally, when she struts onstage in a tight dress and big hair, looking like a somewhat deflated Dolly Parton, she gives it loads of exaggerated, X-Factor moves and well-timed warbles; she’s a very conveniently-packaged, highly-professional, house-trained, record selling-machine and by the end of her opener, Rockferry, she has the crowd eating out of her cutesy dimples. Her band are uniformly excellent, the delicious Bernard Butler-touched chord changes of Warwick Avenue are amazing to hear in a live setting but Duffy, despite all they say, still has an awful lot to learn about effortless cool before anyone can seriously mention her name in the same breath as the great Dusty Springfield again.
Back to the trendy squalor of Emo’s for Belfast’s Oppenheimer; there’s something about this duo that shouldn’t really work but it does, brilliantly. They’re making a real name for themselves on this side of the Atlantic with their punchy, quirky pop tunes and deservedly so. How Shaun Robertson can drum so well and keep those vocal melodies going at the same time (especially with Fight Like Apes blowing air horns at him from the front of the crowd) I’ll never know; their performance earns every clap and whistle of the large audience’s appreciation.
Next, Manchester’s almost-forgotten man Jim Noir, still plugging and strumming away with some seriously sharp and swoonsome tunes, even if he’s had a bit of an image make-under. No longer the suave guy with the bowler-hat, he looks like he wants do an 11850 ad with his lengthy hair and Knopfler-like headband. The reticent audience don’t quite belt out “My Patch” the way he’d like but they’re suitably enamoured anyway. Onward to the 14-legged groove machine that is Syracuse, NY’s Ra Ra Riot; they are, frankly, exhausting to watch. Bouncy drums and guitarists, groovy cello and violin (no, seriously), chirpy harmonic vocals and instantly loveable tunes you’re desperate to sing along to, if only you knew the words.
Across the street, NY and LA’s indie Roxette, The Raveonettes are playing to a jam-packed room. Despite a noticeable darkening of their material, they’re still getting away with their 50s pastiche, borrowing a little too heaviy-handedly from The Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly to be taken entirely seriously. They are fun, though. Through the wall, a small but enthused crowd are enraptured by a bespectacled, geeky beanpole with a Mac and an acoustic guitar, who goes by the name of James Yuill; and no wonder they love him – he rocks. Boppy indie-folk pop suddenly gives way to something a lot more hardcore at the flick of a switch. Find of the night, for me.
Back to Elysium’s first-rate festival of Japanese rock. Tonight’s treats included Toddle, two singing girls with guitars and a meaty bloke on bass who combine twee melodies with a lot of reverberating noise; then, The Emeralds, a risible, non-ironic three-piece who really know how to rock and make it spellbinding to watch. I’m clutching my Japan Sound Sampler CD with some glee after these two nights.
Another packed house in Emo’s sees The Donnas still looking like a Suzie Quatro cloning experiment gone slightly awry but they’re none the worse for it, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way; it’s not quite as nice to see lots of middle-aged men getting so sweaty over it, though.
As the evening draws to its close, it’s sardine time on Wave’s Rooftop to catch a short while in the company of Toronto’s electro-riot duo Crystal Castles. Getting well away from last year’s excruciating nu-rave fad, this is what you’d hope 2008’s dance music would sound like in your wildest dreams. The beats shake the bacardi bottles from their shelves as the pair, clad in black hoodies, bounce through their way through a powerful set. Those at the back can only dance along blindly, unable to see the stage; one woman, upset by the lack of vista, said to her male friend, ‘what, are they midgets, or something?’ No, they might be giants, though.
Finally tonight, a sprint up the road to catch the last few numbers from the magnificent Los Campesinos. Too clever, too talented and too entertaining by half, their musicianship, harmony, tightness, wit and wisdom pour off the stage and infect the audience to something approaching mild fever pitch. The memories of a few technical problems at earlier SXSW gigs was wiped, and all Gareth Campesinos had to contend with was being told to make their penultimate song their last. ‘Right, here’s a motherfucking megamix,’ he declares defiantly, and we, the international tweexcore underground, get true satisfaction. An brilliant, breezy end to a busy, breezy night. Well, with a final taco for the road, that is.