Saturday marked the convergence of South By Southwest's final rager with St. Patrick's Day...so that's another way of saying that downtown Austin's 6th Street basically turned into the sixth circle of Hell. Oh, don't get me wrong: SXSW had been a blast all week, a Spring Break-ish spree of great live music by everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Lionel Richie to Fiona Apple and Norah Jones to Santigold and Skrillex. But by the Texas musicfest's final day, I was more burnt than a Salt Lick BBQ grill. So the last thing I wanted to do was battle a bunch of green-beer-swilling rabblerousers for a spot in yet another block-long line to get into yet another overpacked 6th Street sports bar. No, Saturday called for a little relaxation, SXSW-style, and I thankfully got it, although along the way I still managed to occasionally party as hard as SXSW fixture Andrew WK.
The day started calmly enough over at the Motorola Moonshine Café, an invite-only artist-lounge hangout where industry types could escape from the chaos and dig into some proper Southern food while being plied with free swag. While tucking into a giant plate of hangover-soothing fried artichokes, I spotted Train's Pat Monahan (with his hair, he was easy to spot, although by Saturday almost everyone in Austin had bad bedhead), who was stopping by before headlining celebrity chef Rachael Ray's big annual Feedback party. Either Pat preferred the food at Moonshine over Rachael's grub (doubtful, although my artichokes were dang good), or even he couldn't get into Feedback (actually kind of plausible, considering the insanely long queue Rachael's party had before it was even noon).
My next civilized event was over at the Convention Center, where apparently actual educational panels about the music business take place between SXSW's open-bar soirees. (Who knew?) There, I got myself educated about "Soul Train," at a presentation called "A 'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," during which NPR's Dan Charnas interviewed the late, great Don Cornelius's son Tony about the groundbreaking, barrier-breaking TV show. ("I promise I won't cry," Tony announced at the start of the panel. "[My father] was my hero.") Tony and Dan's informal, intimate chat was interspersed with vintage clips of awesome Afro'd-and-hotpants'd dancers getting their in-studio groove on to Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye, and at a South By Southwest that was filled with an unprecedented number of huge hip-hop acts (Jay-Z, Eminem, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Nas, the Roots, Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross, Timbaland), this tribute to modern urban music's roots was fitting indeed. Also, it was just really nice to sit in an air-conditioned room and hear intelligent people speak in hushed NPR tones. They were using their indoor voices!
Next I dared to step back into the downtown fray to see MNDR, aka electropop goddess Amanda Warner, probably best known for singing on uberproducer Mark Ronson's "Bang Bang Bang" single alongside rap legend Q-Tip. MNDR was playing inside...a giant Doritos vending machine.
Yes, you read that right. In a South By Southwest marketing move that took this festival's increasingly gross and definitely unavoidable branding to a ridiculous new steroidal extreme, Doritos built a 56-foot-tall vending machine that also served as a stage, and it was so massive, I'm pretty sure I will see it from the sky when my plane lifts off from the Austin airport as I leave SXSW for good. The venue was also decorated with potted plants that seemed to grow out of soil made out of crushed Doritos chips. Um, was this was really necessary? Well, I admit I ate the free Doritos, and they were tasty. I have a craving for them right now, in fact, just because I'm typing about them. But still. This blatant co-opting of a festival that used to be all indie left a bad taste in my mouth, no pun intended. As for MNDR? Well, she was delicious. If her debut album (out this summer) had been available in that ginormous vending machine, I would have filled that thing with quarters and emptied it.
With a belly full of Doritos and shame, I decided to get away from the downtown Austin bustle again, so I cabbed it to Urban Outfitters near the University for that boutique's annual backlot showcase. (Urban Outfitters' marketing is something I can totally get behind. Don't judge me.) There I watched a couple other rad electroladies perform, and one of them was possible the best thing I saw during my entire SXSW stay. Light Asylum, aka Brooklyn badass Shannon Funchess, proved she is today's answer to Grace Jones, Nina Hagen, or Allison Moyet, and the missing link between Joy Division and TV On The Radio, as she performed a set of dark neo-new wave that was the very definition of FIERCE. She rolled on the floor, she banged on octagonal electronic drums like a synth-pop Sheila E, she seemed to summon the spirit of Ian Curtis...and she did all this while playing in broad daylight in an Urban Outfitters parking lot. (I can only imagine how mind-blowing she'd be in some cavernous, red-lit, dry-ice-fogged nightclub, where she clearly belongs.) Amazing. The May 1 release date of Light Asylum's new album cannot come soon enough for me.
Next up at Urban Outfitters was Grimes, aka Vancouver's quirky goth-dance waif Claire Boucher, who showed up in a St. Paddy's-appropriate green raver dress, Halloween-appropriate skeleton gloves, and Rayanne-from-"My So-Called Life" rainbow-dip-dyed pigtails, an outfit that was actually way cooler than anything for sale inside the Urban Outfitters store. Unfortunately, she also showed up with a cold that seriously compromised her trademark shrill and babyish voice. ("I'm super-f***ing sick, so I'm gonna be singing terribly," she warned with an apologetic grin and sheepish shoulder-shrug.) Throughout her set she kept coughing, clutching her throat, and sputtering almost Tourettes-like expletives whenever she missed a note and got frustrated, but the crowd was incredibly supportive and kept cheering her on. "You guys are being really nice," Grimes smiled, before admitting, "It's my own fault; I stayed up all night two nights in a row." (SXSW will do that to a girl.) But Grimes made up for whatever she was lacking in vocal prowess this afternoon with can't-look-away stage presence and one irresistibly dancey dream-pop floor-filler after another. If this is how Grimes is when she's not at 100 percent, then I'm psyched to see her again after she fully recovers from SXSW. Get well soon, Grimes.
Leaving Urban Outfitters with two new serious girl crushes, I moved on to something completely different--a show of mostly dudes, playing all analog music--although this next event was still thankfully far removed from the March madness of downtown. Over on the campus lawn of the University of Texas, a "secret" Myspace show (note the quotation marks; nothing stays secret at SXSW) started with a drive-in-movie-style screening of a wonderful, totally good-vibey new Emmett Malloy rockumentary called Big Easy Express, about a national railroad concert tour starring Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, and Old Crow Medicine Show; this was followed by a full concert by all three bands. This was not an industry showcase--the lawn was populated by locals and college students, and the unjaded audience was hooting and hollering before the actual concert even began, when footage of the three bands' tour stop in Austin aired on the big screen. Suddenly, 6th Street felt very, very far away. ("This is for all the people in Austin who put up with all the people coming to South By Southwest," joked M&S frontman Marcus Mumford, an announcement that unsurprisingly drew huge cheers from the crowd.) The show itself was a massive celebration of music and the musicians' camaraderie, from the Zeroes' almost-too-cute new anthem about being "best friends forever" called "That's What's Up," to Mumford & Sons inviting the Austin High School marching band onstage, to a big lovefest group singalong with the Sons and the Zeroes joining forces. (M&S also debuted some lovely new tunes, like "Lover's Eyes" and "Ghost Still In You.")
"That was outrageously special. It was so special, we can't help but act like fools about it," Zeroes frontman Alex Ebert said of the entire Big Easy Express experience--a sentiment that seemed to be shared by all the spectators on the grass.
SXSW Saturday ended in traditional downtown-party style, however, as I wrapped up my night at Perez Hilton's annual "One Night In Austin" bash, which featured its own share of dynamite electroladies. I arrived just in time for Canadian dance-pop group Dragonette, who got the show going right away by greeting the excited crowd with "Hello" (their Martin Solveig collaboration from that unavoidable Trident commercial). Frontgirl Martina Sorbara gave off a sort of Joan Jett-meets-Tiffany vibe throughout their short, sweet set, so it looks like I have developed yet another girl crush.
Up next were of-the-moment girl-pop MCs Kreayshawn and Dev, who were definitely a lot of fun and just what I needed to keep my energy up in the final fading, flagging hours of SXSW. (The Daisy Duke'd Kreayshawn even announced to the crowd that she needed a place to crash in Austin that night; my guess is she received a few offers.)
But the highlight of the evening, and actually one of my highlights of all of SXSW 2012, was special guest Timbaland. Tim hit the stage to team with Dev on his raw, hard-hitting new single "Break Ya Back" ("Dev is part of the Superfriends now," Timbaland told the crowd, referring to his famous posse of regular collaborators), then apparently refused to leave. Of course, no one was complaining about this one bit. "I know you've all been missing me, but daddy's back and I'm here to save music!" he boldly announced. After giving the undiscovered, unsigned artists in the crowd a pep talk about never giving up on their musical dreams (fitting, since Perez's party was in conjunction with VH1's Save The Music), Timbaland tore into a set of his many hits with his Superfriends, including Justin Timberlake's "Sexy Back," Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous Girl," OneRepublic's "Apologize," and Missy Elliott's "Work It," along with his own "Carry Out," "Say Something," "The Way I Are," and "Give It To Me." The set went on and on and on--in fact, when a security guard tried to escort the photographers in front (who normally are only allowed to shoot during an artist's first three songs) away from the front of the stage, Tim protested, asking the snappers to stay and ordering, "Keep taking them pictures, baby!" He looked like he was having just way too much fun, shouting, "I don't want to leave the stage; I've got too many hits!" Finally he called it a night, bragging, "We saved the music today," but not before performing a snippet of another new banging song from the forthcoming Shock Value III that proved Timbaland is BACK. And he was right--I have missed him!
So that's a wrap, y'all. My ears are ringing, my foot blisters are bleeding, and my liver is crying, but it's been fun, and hopefully I'll be fully recovered in time for SXSW 2013. See you then.
- South By Southwest photo gallery
- Springsteen honors Clemons at SXSW show
- Norah Jones plays entire new album at SXSW
- Full SXSW round 1 recap
- Full SXSW round 2 recap
- Full SXSW round 3 recap