The SXSW Diaries 2010

Drew Fortune :: Monday, March 22nd, 2010 6:41 pm

SXSW 2010. My first rodeo. My inaugural trip to Austin and SXSW was a bit like my first sexual experience: I didn’t know where I was half the time, there were a lot of events I wish I had been granted access, and it was completely overwhelming. I was reduced from jaded cynic to wide-eyed naïf the moment I set foot on downtown Austin’s Sixth Street, the hub and throughway of SXSW. It’s a bit like Mardi Gras for indie rock, with roving gangs of hipsters, hippies, tweakers, journalists and nonplussed locals pouring in and out of bars. Loud garage rock provides a constant buzzing, background score. Upon arrival, adding to the insanity was the fact that it was St. Patrick’s Day and March Madness was in full swing. After picking up press credentials in a large cattle call at the Austin Convention Center, I headed to Paradise on Sixth and Trinity for the Am to Am party hosted by PopMatters and my friend Tom Schraeder. Chicago’s Skybox played a tight, energetic set, bringing their unique brand of glam bombast and indie swagger to the party. Stepping onto the Paradise balcony overlooking Sixth Street, green beer in hand, I watched the circus below. A topless woman covered in body paint was offering Free Hugs. Two lovers in  chicken and gorilla suits walked hand in hand. An all ages, spontaneous drum circle broke out in the middle of the street, centered around a glowstick battle between two kids who couldn’t have been more than five years old. I shook my head, stubbed out a cigarette, and decided to head back to the hotel. After all, I had work to do.

Thursday: March 18. I awoke to news that Alex Chilton had died. It was a beautiful day in Austin, sunny and low 70s. I hopped into the rental car with my friend Matt and Mike for a trip to The Salt Lick, reputed to be the best BBQ joint in Texas, and possibly the world. Driving to Deadwood, just outside of Austin, I began to get a feel for the turf. Sixth Street was already in full swing, and we drove through town with the windows down. After savoring some brisket from the Salt Lick’s open pit, we drove back into the melee and marched directly to Red Fez for the Death and Taxes day party. L.A.’s Best Coast played a great set, their playful, innocent lyrics reminding of a more musically competent Beat Happening. The venue was jam packed, and just before Japandroids were scheduled to go on, I was torn away to The Driskill Hotel for an interview with Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene. SXSW Rule #1: You want a good laugh? Try sticking to a pre-written schedule…you won’t get to see half the bands you’d like to see. The historic Driskill smells vaguely of nice perfume and is swarming with musicians. Hey, there’s The Pains oO Being Pure At Heart on the patio having tea! After the interview, I rushed back to Red Fez and caught the tail-end of Japandroids’ set. The Vancouver bad boys were covered in sweat, laying into “Young Hearts Spark Fire” as I fought my way through the crowd.

Singer/guitarist Brian King stood on an amp and belted out the chorus, “I don’t wanna worry about dyin’ / I just wanna worry bout those sunshine girls.” After the deafening squall and non-stop attack of headliners No Age, it was time for a break. Day quickly turned to night, and I headed to Stubbs. I’ve been digging The Soft Pack’s album The Muslims for some time, but their performance left me cold. They seemed nervous, and their throwback sound, owing a big debt to The Stooges, sounds a bit overly familiar at this point, with bands like Harlem and Surfer Blood cranking out similar noise. Still, it was a lively show, with Matt Lamkin thrashing into the licks of opener “Pull Out” and Brian Hill standing up behind the kit, whipping the crowd into subdued submission. It was a fitting tribute that Big Star’s “September Gurls” played from the house P.A. between sets, casting a wistful shadow over the outdoor venue. Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers were up next, their twang and alt country sensibilities a perfect complement to the warm Texas night. Playing a clutch of selections from new album The Big To-Do  and a generous smattering of old favorites, I made a mental note to look into real estate listings for my own private spread in Austin. I like it here…I like it a lot.

Friday: March 19. I set out on the town bright and early. I was gonna be busy all day. I had to make it to La Zona Rosa to catch The Village Voice’s Throwdown party, featuring The XX, Surfer Blood, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, and, wait for it, Superchunk!!! It was a tight schedule, as Superchunk was set for a 3pm set, and then I’d have to hightail it over to Stubbs for my interview with Miike Snow. Then I had the cooking to do, and I still had to get the packages ready for Lois’ trip (Oh wait, that’s from Goodfellas). Needless to say, I felt a bit like Henry Hill on this nervous day in Austin, eagerly awaiting my heroes Superchunk to take the stage. Well, like I said, things don’t always work out the way you plan. SXSW Rule #2: Never take directions from a drunken Irishman. After some roundabout turns and poor navigation, I finally found La Zona Rosa, only to realize I had to queue up in a line which stretched around the block. SXSW Rule #3: Arrive at venues early, as press passes don’t always guarantee easy access. After a somewhat phoned in set from Surfer Blood, I received the text of doom from Miike Snow’s tour manager: Interview has been pushed to 2:45. Meet me at Stubbs at 2:30. I was barely able to enjoy The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s 2:00pm set as I would soon be torn away from Superchunk. The Pains played a no-nonsense set, their Jesus and Mary Chain meets Smiths sound always music to my ears. After only a few songs (Opener “This Love is Fucking Right”, “Everything With You” and “A Teenager in Love”) I reluctantly trudged east to Stubbs with a heavy heart.

Stubbs was a mob scene and security was extremely tight for the Spin VIP party, featuring Miike Snow, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and the return of Hole. After some bad noise with security, I was finally allowed in, only to learn that my interview with Miike had been postponed indefinitely. Well, regret is a wasted emotion, and I felt kinda cool being at such an exclusive event. I eagerly enjoyed the free BBQ buffet: SXSW Rule #4: Make sure to eat at Stubbs. Besides having some of the best pulled pork in town, the coleslaw is amazing. I stood four rows back for Miike Snow who played a somewhat jammy set, extending hit single “Animal” into a free form, synth driven rave. Surrounded by gorgeous woman, high powered industry types and a few stragglers like myself, we all waited eagerly for Courtney Love and the reformation of Hole, performing under the moniker for the first time in the U.S. in a decade. I’ve never really been a Hole fan, but the chance to see Courtney in such an intimate setting was pretty amazing, and I began to forget that I had missed Superchunk.

Start time 5:00pm came and went, and the crowd began to grow anxious. Not knowing whether to expect a slobbering monster or a nodded out, pharmaceutical nightmare, Courtney appeared onstage after a gushing, jittery introduction from comedienne Margaret Cho. Gone are any original members from Hole, but Courtney is still Courtney. With her dirty blond hair, cherry red lipstick and black lace “dress,” she looked surprisingly together. She drank from a non-descript coffee mug and smiled coyly at the crowd, before addressing us all as “suck-shits” and flicking us off. After an abandoned version of “Sympathy for the Devil,” Courtney muttered something about a big, flapping vagina, confessed her love for Bret Michaels, and introduced her new band. After a spot on, balls out version of “Violet,” I began to realize that she was going to pull this thing off. Her voice held for slower ballads “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Samantha” from the upcoming Hole release Nobody’s Daughter. It was a small victory for Courtney, who has been battling legal battles over the custody of her daughter and ever present rumors of complete drug oblivion. When she batted her eyes and flashed that world-weary smile, she reminded the assembled of why she’s a star, and America’s favorite bad girl.

Saturday: March 20. Apparently, in typical Austin fashion, the weather has turned inexplicably cold. It’s grey and cloudy, and the temps are somewhere in the low 40s. My day begins with breakfast and an interview with Glasgow, Scotland’s favorite sons Frightened Rabbit. In their thick accents, looking a little worse for wear, I share coffee and lox with brothers Scott and Grant Hutchinson for an upcoming feature in Death and Taxes. Then, it was more interviews as I dined with Brooklyn’s Here We Go Magic for a lunch interview. Business out of the way, I finally decided to check out some extracurricular activity. SXSW Rule # 5: Make sure and take in events other than music. The concert poster expo at the Convention Center was amazing, and it was pleasant to get out of the cold. Strolling leisurely through aisles of amazing original art, I chatted with artists, smiling and appreciating the mix of talent and creativity that defines SXSW and Austin. Frightened Rabbit played a chilly, outdoor 5:00pm set at the Filter Party on Cedar Street. Scott Hutchinson’s voice soared and lifted the crowd, the band delivering emotionally charged versions of “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” and the comically applicable “Keep Yourself Warm.” After an amazing steak dinner and some tasty red wine at Fleming’s, I headed to Scoot’s for Here We Go Magic. Scoot’s is on the east side of town, past the highway, and was a whole different world. Ramshackle venues and roadhouses replaced the somewhat well-kept bars of West Sixth. Bundled together around an outdoor fire, Scoot’s was what I envisioned as a proper Texas dive. Here We Go Magic played a short but electrifying set. Bouncing up and down to keep warm, singer Luke Temple belted out vocals and smoke breath in the cold. After getting the hook after a 25 minute set, the shocked band and crowd chanted “One more song!” in unison.

SXSW Rule #6: Leave nothing on the field. After four straight days and nights, I was feeling the pain as I limped back to Sixth for the last few songs of Titus Andronicus’ 10:15pm set at Red 7 Patio. Another outdoor venue, and the band seemed tired, yet fought through the cold with their punk energy. Mustering the last of my reserves, I decided to wait it out for J. Mascis’ solo show at 12:15am. Knowing the volatile nature of Mascis, I was doubtful but hopeful that he might turn in that great sleeper set that I felt I had missed out on all weekend. I tried to get some information from the surrounding drunken rabble about what Mascis had been playing while at SXSW, but no one seemed to know. Like something out of Dungeons and Dragons, Mascis appeared, his long, grey hair blowing in the night air. I was expecting a strict set of songs from his new project Sweet Apple, when suddenly, amidst the sweet smell of herb, Mascis launched into Dinosaur Jr. classic “The Wagon.” Sitting alone on a chair with only his electric guitar turned up to eleven, Mascis shocked the crowd with a set heavy with Dinosaur favorites. I couldn’t believe my luck. “In a Jar!” “Repulsion!” I can’t believe it…”Not You Again!” It was like the set was designed just for me, and that rare moment that comes along every now and again, when an artist completely blows away all expectations and does exactly what you hoped he/she would do.

I left the venue, my heart filled with joy. Taking in the final moments of SXSW, I walked slowly down Sixth, a goofy smile on my face. All physical pain was gone. In a moment I couldn’t have scripted any better, I got a call from my friend Jen telling me to get my ass to the Galaxy Room for the Japandroids’ 1:00 am set. I turned to my right and there was the Galaxy Club, the boys launching into my favorite track from Post-Nothing “Wet Hair.”  I joined my friends inside, the small club packed with adoring fans. Soon I was sweating and forgetting that I would have to leave tomorrow. Drummer David Prowse broke a drum stick and handed it to me.

SXSW Rule #7: Fuck the rules. Just have fun.

Photos courtesy of Lizz Kannenberg