By Johnnie Craig. Photos by Dan Dennison.
Today was the day that State remembered to eat. For all that people rave about the amount of -choice’ available in America, and legendary status of this country’s gargantuan portions, Austin is a city where you really have to search for a decent breakfast.
While I was interviewing Fight Like Apes, Pockets complained that the breakfasts were -terrible’ here – and having played in Toronto last weekend, a city where they really know how to prepare the most important meal of the day, he should know. That may irk the Austin locals to read, you might think, but my taxi driver actually agreed with him. As we were making our way downtown, he pointed out a branch of homely fast-food franchise Denny’s, about five minutes’ drive from my hotel, remarking, ‘it’s a bit of a trek for you but it’s worth it for a breakfast that doesn’t suck.’
SXSW is a frantic experience that requires energy and sustenance, especially on a day like today when there are lots of interviews to do at various, far-reaching locations around town. Grabbing slices of pizza or slapdash tacos from Downtown’s numerous caravans and hole-in-the-wall joints may well satisfy the -body’ part of well-being but they do little for -mind and soul’, unless you count having your juvenile sense of humour tickled by the hotdog company, Best Wurst. But I ate, and ate well, at an establishment recommended by Cathy Davey – I’m most grateful for the tip, Cathy, and I’m not sharing the info with anyone else in case the joint gets invaded.
I began the day at SXSW’s heaving central hub, the Austin Convention Centre, to visit the Music From Ireland stand at the Trade Fair, the exhibition hall where all the participating nations are displaying their wares. For parties interested in the Irish contingent, there’s an excellent double-CD compilation of our finest acts on offer, plus the warmth, expertise and professional wisdom of Music From Ireland’s director Angela Dorgan. Despite the obvious interest from passing parties, Angela admits she’s suffering from a degree of what she calls -stand envy’. ‘I thought ours was lovely,’ she says, ‘but then I saw the New Zealand stand going up – they’re not even a very big country! At least it’s given me more ideas for next year.’ The Canadian contingent’s stand has gone one further; they have a baby in a Canadian Blast t-shirt which is pulling in the crowds and turning super-cool rock types into cooing, clucky types. Bless.
Nevertheless, my chat -n’ coffee with Angela on the subject of her passionate, tireless work in showcasing Ireland’s musical talents at home and abroad is enlightening and fascinating. Getting bands to come to SXSW costs a lot of money, both for Music From Ireland and the bands themselves, with many acts simply unable to afford the trip; one of Ireland’s original line-up for 2008, Distractors were sadly forced to pull out because they couldn’t raise the necessary funds. But while Angela acknowledges Music From Ireland needs more money, she’s very grateful for the funds it does receive. ‘Without Culture Ireland, IMRO and the Arts Council giving us money, none of it would happen,’ she says. ‘Bands need money, we need money to hire their backline. There’s a lot of work we can do on the ground and through various contacts but the money is a great example of how funding popular music works. We make each of the grant donations quadruple in size and we do it across eight festivals all over the globe. We have our snapshots CD showcasing the next generation of acts too. Last year we had Fight Like Apes before anyone had heard of them, this year we have Grand Pocket Orchestra and Super Extra Bonus Party; local radio in Canada picked up on it, Zane Lowe went away with one in his back pocket yesterday – you never know how who’s going to be interested. It’s very easy to give out that -the government never helps’ but this is one way where it’s really working and we’re so grateful.’
It’s also obvious from the all the Irish acts’ genuine affection for Angela that they feel she’s doing sterling work on their behalf – Darragh Nolan, lead singer of Angel Pier is only too happy to help her out on the stall today and, at the end of Fight Like Apes’ gig, MayKay even announced that Angela is ‘a ride’; unlike the fast food here, it appears Ms Dorgan is mind, body and soul.
So to Friday’s gigs. Last night, we began with Reykjavic from Reykjavic; tonight it’s cool four-piece The Parisians from’¦ Kimmage. Kidding, they’re from Paris. Three skinny guys and one who possibly finishes the others’ brioches for them, they look exactly what you’d expect of a bunch of photogenic blokes who’ve made No 8 in Dutch Elle magazine’s Hip Parade 2008. A sort of tidy French Libertines, they’re a little style-over-substance but they have a clutch of pretty impressive tunes too.
Next, a few warm, summery numbers from New Zealand’s The Ruby Suns; happy-clappy tunes, complete with synth effects and some great drumming from all three members, perfect on such a stifllingly hot night. A little walk away, it’s Japan night at Elysium where we happen upon the wonderfully wacky Avengers In Sci-Fi. A three-piece, white-clad whirlwind of throbbing electro, wild guitars and thundering drums, they thrill the packed crowd inside, while upsetting the huge queue outside who know they’re missing something special.
Reading’s Does It Offend You, Yeah? take an unsettling age to set up; then, no sooner has Morgan Quaintance received his hero’s welcome than he’s fallen on his snot from cavorting on a slippery monitor, and then tangles his lead around the bass guitar. Naturally, it’s all part of the fun, we all giggle and they move on; the beats and riffs are great and smiles abound in the room, even if the audience don’t quite feel like dancing. Next up, the spooky, gargoyle-filled Prague venue hosts experimental mentalist duo Fuck Buttons; men in a suitcase with colourful wires, lot of knobs to twiddle, toys to fiddle with and a deliciously loud, hair-raising sound that befits this dark, subterranean barroom. Excellent.
Sticking with the UK, and the lovely, endearingly twee, cardigan-wearing Fanfarlo commit the sin of worrying too much about the fact that their keyboard has broken, thus delaying and severely shortening their set. It’s a huge pity, as their singalong indie-pop is joyful, and leaves everyone on Wave’s rooftop wanting more.
Although, in fairness, not for very long as, a short time later, we’re treated to Brooklyn’s A Place To Bury Strangers. The sonic antithesis of Fanfarlo, they’re one of the bands that Jim Carroll has been raving about all week (whenever you can stop him for long enough to chat) and it’s easy to see why. Oliver Ackermann creates the most impressive, darkly expansive, head-warping guitar effects which, when coupled with his shuddering, skin-tight rhythm section, are the complete alt-rock experience. Seriously, you don’t need much more than this lot for your rock indulgence. My bones are still rattling but it’s a pleasure, not a pain.
Meanwhile, up in the Soho Lounge, Fight Like Apes’ star continued to rise; at their typically rousing finale, they’re joined onstage by Michigan’s somewhat smitten Von Bondies. Angela Dorgan’s proud smile says it all.
Finally tonight, Austin’s musical offering to the world redeems itself a thousand times over in the shape of White Denim. Another of Jim’s favourites for the week, they’ve been gigging nightly and copiously so we can all get a chance to see them; this takes place under a gazebo in the yard of Club Deville. I plonk myself in front of a huge fan (even at 1am, it’s very warm), and savour the delights. Skuzzy, soulful, funky, bluesy, grimy, chirpy, cheep-cheep, you name it, this three-piece are like nothing I’ve heard before. Handsome singer, funny drummer, girly-geeky-boy bassist, they have it all. If it wasn’t for SXSW and Best Wurst, they should be what Austin is famous for. Listen and enjoy.
The Cool Kids @ The Blender Party
Austin during the Festival