By our man in Texas – Johnnie Craig
As a first-time visitor, it’s easy to underestimate the massive impact that South By South West has on Austin, Texas. Before State even rolled into town with its miniscule suitcase, laptop and sense of bewilderment, the Film and Intertactive elements were well underway. These have grown out of all proportion in the last few years, attracting thousands of visitors and, as any taxi driver will cheerfully tell you, dollars to the city. The music festival has grown from a few hundred visitors in 1987 to tens of thousands in 2008. It’s clear from the streets, shops and copious takeaways that Downtown Austin is not a typical, bustling U.S. city in the mould of New York or Chicago; they’re building this city on rock -n’ roll.
Today is when the Music festival kicks off and the trick to SXSW is to know what you’re doing; for a novice, it’s a steep learning curve. There is an Aladdin’s cave of information, advice and the ubiquitous -hot tips’ available; distilling it all to plan your day effectively is a morning’s work in itself. Veteran festival-goers guard their top tips jealously and, if you know who they are, it’s almost as well to begin by following in their footsteps.
The first thing you have to do is register your presence here. The Austin Covention Center is an seething anthill of activity, and the blue-shirted SXSW volunteers stick to their vast array of posts and tasks with astonishing diligence. I have my press badge around my neck within five minutes of walking in the door, having been pointed, coerced and prodded into the correct spots with ruthlessly relaxed efficiency. It’s a bit like being put through a car wash.
When I emerge from the Center back into the midday sunshine, I turn to the first faces I recognise to articulate how impressed I am; they turn out to be Scott Paterson and Adele Bethel from Glasgow’s Sons And Daughters, having a sly puff before continuing an exhausting round of press and media interviews – and here’s me chatting away to them like a deranged fan. They are here as returning success stories; they first came as fans six years back, then as a showcase act, and they’re now one of the most anticipated acts at this year’s event, having just put out their best record to date, This Gift. Cool exteriors notwithstanding, they are as friendly and enthusiatic as newcomers. We’ll pop along to see them this Saturday.
And so to the music. With Downtown’s treats looking as intimidating as a swarm of bees attacking a chocolate box, the difficulty is knowing where to begin. I’d gleaned good advice from a music manager during a shared taxi ride: applying -the three song rule’ works best when arriving at gigs – if a band don’t have you by the third song, leave.
Therefore, I trawled the streets, pocket guide in hand, hoping to be pulled in by some thrilling sounds. And so it was.
The Bourbon Rocks venue showcased Portuguese -war-time rock -n’ roll’ heads, Kalashnikov who attempted to convince us, amidst their splattering thrash racket, that we ‘ain’t seen nothing like this’. Not for twenty years, maybe, but their efforts were still went down a treat.
Next it’s over to Maggie Mae’s Rooftop for impassioned New York indie trio Day For Night. Singer Kali Holloway has a voice that simply drags you in off the street; a dark, beautiful, reverb-heavy, note-perfect holler, and a physical presence that has her audience spellbound. With shuddering, feedback-enriched riffs, tumultuous drums and fuzzy, forbidding atmospherics to back her up, Day For Night are certainly ones to watch.
After a frustrating visit to Antone’s to get a peek at These New Puritans and Lightspeed Champion (they were there, we could hear them, we just couldn’t see them), we return to 6th to see local heroes Zykos , who bill themselves as -southern rock and comedy’. After the age it took them to soundcheck, they revealed themselves to be neither rocking nor funny. Cheerfully, smartly-attired Brooklyn psychedelic soul-heads Hysterics provide our escape route. Lots of endearingly nerdy posturing, glorious duelling Rickenbackers and that cutesy impression that, although they sound out of tune half the time, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
A long stretch of the legs later, we’re at the La Zona Rosa venue, where we’re treated to ladelfuls of black beans, piles of corn on the cob (does anyone know of a dignified way to eat corn on the cob?) and the delighfully distorted sounds of Ohio trio Times New Viking. More talented than they’re trying to let on, they swathe each of their two-minute nuggets in so much noise you can barely make out their intricacy; but it’s there and the performance is concentrated, riotous and utterly joyful. Following them onstage is much-muttered-about Brooklyn meanderers Yeasayer. In their anxiety to make their -own thing’ accessible, some of their performance (twiddly guitar wanderings and overlong atmospheric synth jabbings) gets a smidgen lost in translation; however, there’s enough spiky, Animal Collective-like jiggery-pokery here to warrant a second look. One more corn on the cob for the road, then.
Biggest treat of the night were Glasgow’s supreme Frightened Rabbit. If you thought they were good before, be prepared because, judging by the material they performed from their forthcoming album, The Midnight Organ Fight, they’ve got infinitely better. Sweat, grit, tears and, best of all, gathering an audience which kept growing beyond the three-song ceiling, Frightened Rabbit are rapidly growing in stature. Wonderful.
The penultimate act of our evening, the supremely (possibly intentionally) appalling TAB the Band impress all eight of their audience in Maggie Mae’s with their earnest, by-numbers rock. They want to sound like The Who so much that they can’t help covering My Generation; an SXSW showcase covers band, folks – and they even tried to pass it off as an Avril Lavigne cover. Shoddy.
Fortunately, Wisconsin’s Bon Iver provide beautiful, rhythmical, harmonic lullabies for the rock-fatigued upstairs. Despite the balmy evening, theirs a palpably wintry sound, evocative of snowbound woodlands and crackling campfires. Indie-folk doesn’t get much better than this.
And so, then, to bed, exhausted but cheered that we’re just about getting the hang of this thing they call SXSW. A Himalayan tower of pancakes for breakfast and we’ll be back at them tomorrow.