Okay, South By Southwest. Enough already. You have too many bands. Really, SXSW? Jack White AND Eminem with 50 Cent AND Skrillex AND the Cult AND Temper Trap AND about 1,817 other acts--all on the same Friday night? Come on, SXSW, pace yourself.
Well, pacing oneself was so not on the agenda during SXSW's first big weekend night, as what appeared to be the entire population of Texas descended upon Austin's 6th Street to watch (or, more specifically and sadly, stand in block-long queues for) the abovementioned acts and more. It was astounding that with so many options this evening, every venue was still so beyond-capacity packed, and that it seemed like there were even more revelers out on the sidewalks than in the clubs. (The flier-strewn, beer-and-I'm-scared-to-ask-what-other-liquids-soaked 6th Street felt like a combination of Mardi Gras, Tailhook, and the set of Mad Max, and when I finally pushed through the teeming crowds and made it back to my hotel room at the end of the night, I felt like I needed to take a bath in equal parts Febreze, Purell, and bleach. But hey, a little chaos and uncleanliness is all part of the SXSW experience.)
Friday started in a rather civilized manner, actually, with Spin magazine's lovely Stubb's BBQ day party, always one of the best bashes of any SXSW year. Kicking off the sunshine-day festivities was Brooklyn-based "disco orchestra" Escort, whose fetching frontwoman Adeline Michèle was easily the best-dressed person at all of SXSW. Rocking a Janelle Monae updo and a print-on-print ensemble of which "Project Runway's" Mondo Guerra would approve, the Parisian-born stunner thoroughly charmed the earlybird crowd not just with her superfly style but with her sultry voice and her multi-piece band's Scissor Sisters-meets-Stereolab partystarter jams.
Keeping the Brooklyn girly-arty-dance vibe going were Chairlift, whose cocktail pop went down pretty well with the free cocktails Spin was so kindly serving up. Caroline Polachek was also an enchanting frontwoman, basically the Jackie O of SXSW, elegantly gliding across the Stubb's stage as she soothingly crooned in her sweet ingénue voice. By the time I got finished watching Adeline and Caroline, I was feeling pretty dumpy myself. How did these lovely ladies manage to keep so cool in the Austin heat?
Next up were London alt-rockers the Big Pink, one of my favorite bands to emerge in the past few years, whose fuzzy, festival-ready shoegaze (or make that sandalgaze, considering this was a daytime SXSW show and it was really hot) made me feel like I was at South By Southwest 1989. That, of course, was a very good thing.
Speaking of nostalgia, over at Under The Radar magazine's massive party at the sweatbox known as 6th Street's Flamingo Cantina, Elephant 6 psychedelicists Of Montreal thrillingly played their 2005 landmark album The Sundlandic Twins in its entirety, and it was amazing how many 22-year-old kids seemed to be as excited about this event as older rockers had been about Bruce Springsteen's appearance a couple days earlier. This was actually THE most overcrowded show I managed to shoehorn myself into during the entire festival, with practically-openly-weeping fans climbing up on furniture and each other's shoulders as they sang along with feelgood art-pop anthems like "Forecast Fascist Future," "Death Of A Shade Of A Hue," and the Outback Steakhouse-appropriated "Wraith Pinned To The Mist And Other Games." It seemed like a whole lot of hipster kids wanted to go Outback tonight, indeed. Only at SXSW would a set by an underground act like Of Montreal be seemingly just as hotly anticipated as a show by Brooooce, right?
Later, things got a little more civilized again, while the nostalgia continued, at Austin's relatively new venue ACL Live at the Moody Theater. There, at this thankfully air-conditioned megaplex, Philadelphia's ones-to-watch '90s revivalists the War On Drugs cranked out their Sonic Youthful alt-rock, and lo-fi 1990s icons the Magnetic Fields entertained with their wryly witty tunes and stage banter. "Austin, we have eaten too much of your local foodstuffs; now we are fatter than you," intoned foghorn-voiced Fields frontman and all-around lovable misanthrope Stephen Merritt, whose other deadpan-delivered zingers included, "This song is called 'Come Back From San Francisco.' It's about someone who's gone to San Francisco.'" (Okay, it was funnier when he said it, trust me. If Stephen ever put out a comedy/spoken-word album, I'd buy it.)
It was when the evening progressed that the March madness of SXSW really set in. First, I wasted an hour in line trying to see Jack White's solo show (I hear some people waited three hours and didn't get in; of course, celebrity fans like Bill Murray, Olivia Wilde, "SNL's" Jason Sudekis, Rancid's Tim Armstrong, and Stooges drummer Scott Asheton had a little more luck). This was a serious mistake that made me miss my window of opportunity to see Eminem across town, so it was time for a plan B. Or a plan C, as it were. So a decision process of elimination dictated mostly by how little walking down 6th Street I'd have to endure led me to the nearby Parish, for Los Angeles tastemaker radio station KCRW's showcase with Australian dream-pop combo the Temper Trap. (Only at SXSW would a Temper Trap show be a plan C.) The band suffered several technical issues and had to start two songs over again, apologizing for being rusty after not playing live for a year and a half ("Austin, thank you for being such a forgiving town," said seemingly nervous singer Dougie Mandagi), but they eventually got their mojo going, and along the way they got mine going again as well. Ethereal songs from their upcoming long-awaited and long-overdue sophomore album were gorgeous and galvanizing, propelled by Dougie's amazing Matt-Bellamy-as-a-young-choirboy vocals, and they went down excellently with the aforementioned forgiving (and really quite adoring) crowd. Dougie had nothing to be nervous about at all. And considering all the music supervisors spotted in the audience, I would not be surprised if some of these new tunes ended up in about a gazillion commercials, like the Trap's breakthrough hit "Sweet Disposition" did in 2009.
For all my complaining several paragraphs ago about the overabundance of bands at SXSW, there was one less band in Austin this year, and one that many people, including yours truly, had been excited to see: the Ting Tings, who were scheduled to headline Stubb's Friday night (and play Perez Hilton's Saturday party as well), but were sadly forced to cancel when lead singer Katie White had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. (She's going to be okay, folks.) So my Friday ended MOST randomly and unexpectedly, watching "American Idol" prankster Magic Cyclops (remember him???) do a bizarre one-man comedy/performance-art set of laptop songs like "I Am The Sex" and "Teen Pregnancy--Don't Do It!" at a sports bar called Peckerheads, for a crowd of drunken frat-boy types who kept yelling, "You succcccck!" until Magic personally escorted the most vociferous heckler right out the door. Like I said: random. But sometimes the most memorable and fun moments of SXSW happen when everything doesn't go according to plan.
Okay, just one more day to go, Austin. Will I get into tonight's Keane, Mumford & Sons, Shins, or Sleigh Bells shows? And will I survive the 6th Street gauntlet walk between Red River and Congress? Or will I just go sing some karaoke with Magic Cyclops and call it a night? Watch this space...
- South By Southwest photo gallery
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- Norah Jones to play entire new album at SXSW
- Full SXSW round 1 recap
- Full SXSW round 2 recap