So, I made it through this year’s South by Southwest festival without any sunburn, hangovers, or blisters on my feet. Don’t know about you, but I call that a success!
My roommates and I spent most of Wednesday in the small town of Gruene, a quaint old village with a grist mill (now a restaurant) and a dance hall where we saw the Drive-By Truckers play. The weather was perfect, the Truckers were good, and Ellie could tell you more about it. It felt a little weird going away from Austin on the first day of SXSW, but I was comforted knowing that Thursday and Friday belonged to me. (Muahahaha) I spent a couple of days poring over every free/unofficial show list I could find to compile a near-perfect schedule. Honestly, I can’t imagine that having a badge or wristband would have made my week any better. Everywhere I went, there were no lines, no hassles, no worries, and best of all, it didn’t cost me anything.
I took it easy on Thursday. This year was my very first SXSW, something I’ve been looking forward to for years, but I had absolutely no idea what to expect as far as crowds, lines, RSVPs, food, drinks, and bathrooms. The French Legation Museum was hosting a free Lawn Party that looked like a pretty good bargain for the day, with a lineup that included The Antlers, Zola Jesus, Holly Miranda, and The xx. When my roommate dropped us off at 1:30, Ellie and I walked right through the gates and found virtually no crowd at all.
The Antlers got a little bit of a late start around 2:20 after what seemed like an endlessly frustrating sound check. I had listened through their album Hospice a little while back and wasn’t very impressed despite all the good press I’d read, but I was still curious to see what they would be like live. They used a lot of synth and feedback to create an ambient backdrop for their moody little dramas. I held my breath for the lead singer as he reached for ever more impossible high notes. “Swoony,” Ellie observed after the first song. Despite my skepticism, I have to admit they were pretty good live, and I might give them another chance.
I spend most of Zola Jesus‘ set standing in line for the bathroom, and that was probably for the best. Harsh? Not my thing. I had heard one of her songs before and thought it was pretty decent. She has a big, commanding voice and some doomy synthesizers, but all of the songs sounded exactly the same. The day was all wrong for her, too. It was gorgeous and sunny, she played on a tiny stage at the bottom of a grassy hill surrounded by historic buildings and a stone fence. She wore all black and flailed around with more energy than the music really called for.
We walked a couple blocks south to the Eastbound and Found stages on East 6th Street, just in time to catch The Morning Benders, a band I was really excited to see. I think I like them; their new album Big Echo was produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor and they do sound a little like Grizzly Jr., heavy on the bass, four-part harmonies, and dreamy nostalgia. I was shocked to see how young they were — I’ve seen pictures but I didn’t think they were actually that young. Like fetuses. But really adorable Cali pop-playing fetuses.
We walked around 6th St. to ogle the craziness for awhile, but never made it back to the French Legation. Instead we walked almost all the way home before stopping for margaritas and some Tex-Mex.
Friday was a whirlwind. We had quite a bit of trekking around town to get from one show to another and were blessed with some impeccable timing. Started out at 1:00 pm in the parking lot of Waterloo Records and saw folk rock legend John Hiatt play to a full crowd (also, a much older crowd than we had seen at SXSW so far). Hiatt played one of the more fun sets I saw last week; he’s an old pro who had a great supporting band with him. Ellie and I especially admired his hot collection of guitars that he and his other guitarist rotated throughout the set.
Next, we saw Shearwater, a band I don’t actually like but wanted to see live anyway. At this point, the size of the crowd was cut in half. Jonathan Meiburg’s incredible, theatrical voice was just as impressive in person as on record, but while the songs were pretty, they were also kind of dull. I’m not up on their discography, but I do know they played a good version of “Rooks” from the album of same name.
What I was really looking forward to that day was Miles Kurosky, the former lead singer of San Francisco (and Elephant 6) band Beulah. The crowd thinned way down — apparently John Hiatt was going to be the most popular act of the day — which made me a little sad for Kurosky’s first solo outing. A gaggle of teenage girls behind me wondered aloud which Beulah songs he would play. Answer: none. I was surprised to find that Miles can actually rock pretty hard. Never thought I’d say that. Beulah was always kind of fussy in its grand pop arrangements but looking back, I realize I underestimated that they did, in fact, rock sometimes. The sound guy needed to turn his mic up; the vocals were almost completely buried. Halfway through Kurosky’s set, he stopped to apologize, “I feel like I’m not giving 100%…I have this funny disease…” alluding (I think) to some of the health problems he’s struggled with for the past couple years. Apparently he felt awful for the entire Waterloo set, but hung in there until the end, despite looking increasingly distressed.
From there, we had an hour to get down to End of an Ear, a small record shop in South Austin. Thanks to a little ride and a lot of walking, we made it home, changed clothes and shoes, and arrived at End of an Ear just in time to see Efterklang start their set. Efterklang is an ethereal art-rock band from Denmark who make dense and dreamy songs like Sigur Ros, but with the song-oriented accessibility of Sufjan Stevens or Vespertine-era Bjork. They have a sprawling, spacious sound, so I was very curious to see how that would play in a tiny record shop. There were six of them crammed into a corner, but they had great attitudes, marveling over their first in-store performance (ever), playing to more intimate crowds outside their own country, smiling and cracking up the whole time. Although they claimed their set would be very stripped down, I couldn’t tell a significant different in scope. Efterklang was probably the most pleasant surprise of SXSW for me. The new material sounded crisp in the small space. I don’t know how many fans were in the audience, but the Danes won over the whole room by the end. A couple guys who rushed in the door as the band said their final goodbyes begged for one more song. “We just got here!” they yelled, and the band happily obliged them for a brief encore.
From there, we made it over to Home Slice on South Congress, where the pizza joint was hosting their free Music by the Slice event. We were there to see Lou Barlow, but showed up in time to catch the Cave Singer‘s entire set. And pizza. Man, I love Lou Barlow. It should have been weird to see him at something like SXSW. Although not exactly a household name, he’s been a mainstay in the indie world since Dinosaur Jr.’s first album back in 1987. And I don’t even know if Dinosaur played South by this year, but I did spot J. Mascis earlier in the day behind the Waterloo stage.
Lou Barlow’s performance style isn’t really suited to the 5-song set format of SX; you really need two hours in a laid-back setting where people can call out requests and let him fumble around a bit, telling stories. His set that night was a nice happy medium; he took a lot of requests but stuck only to songs he knew well. I was front and center, and had too many favorite moments to name, but at one point he announced, “So I read online that this song is terrible…” and then shrugged it off: “I have no filter.” He launched into “Take Advantage” from his last solo album, Goodnight Unknown. Also, nice to be in a crowd full of people who know him and his extensive catalogue. The audience wanted to keep him. He puzzled over how quiet and attentive the crowd was, in contrast with the rowdy Sixth Street parties he had played earlier in the week. “Welcome to South Austin,” someone explained. Because Barlow was playing Home Slice’s last show of the night, the organizers didn’t seem to care much about time limits. He played an extended set (lots of good old Sebadoh, too: “Soul and Fire,” “Brand New Love,” “Skull,” “Not a Friend,” “Willing to Wait,” and “Too Pure”), and even played a couple songs on ukulele after the crowd insisted on an encore.
We settled at Doc’s awhile to drink away the pain in our feet, and by 10:30 pm, we were ready for round two! We walked over to the Continental Club, where No Depression hosted a showcase, and saw the Deadstring Brothers play. We did a bit of dancing, admired the band’s collective hairiness, and then went home to collapse.
My SX experience on Saturday was unplanned and (pleasantly) unexpected. Ellie and I knew we wanted to catch a couple of acts at Auditorium Shores, where Deer Tick, Lucero, and She & Him would be playing later in the evening. I went downtown for a couple of hours to volunteer at the museum, and decided to do some impromptu wandering with a friend after I got off — it was fucking cold! And dark! And windy! And I was only wearing a thin dress with some sweater tights, but I braved the misery, determined to eke out some more enjoyment on this last day of the great SXSW. We rushed east of I-35 in the hopes of catching Austin instrumental band Balmorhea, but even though we were only ten minutes late, we caught the last song. Seriously, who runs ahead of schedule at a time like this?
Then we wandered up to the French Legation to see what was going on. Again we caught one final song, this time from Admiral Radley who, as my companion pointed out, sounded an awful lot like Grandaddy. (Aha! Mystery solved... that’s because they are Grandaddy, plus Earlimart. I knew I recognized Ariana Murray on keyboards!) Even though the wind and cold were getting increasingly dire, we decided to stick it out at least to see what the next band, Denmark’s The Kissaway Trail, was like. They weren’t bad, as far as I could tell from the one song we heard, moody, synthy, a bit 80s, (doesn’t hurt me that they were pretty Scandinavian boys with cool hair) but the cold sent us skittering away to a more indoor location.
We ducked into the inviting warmth (well, relatively) of Shangri-la and caught a couple of pretty excellent bands I’d never heard of. First up was the Treetop Flyers, a band from England with a rootsy, soulful, 70s soft-rock sound a la Crosby, Stills and Nash, Harry Chapin, with a little Van Morrison thrown in. I should have bought their EP that was on sale, but really needed to hold on to my last five bucks in cash until I knew what the food sitch was like. After the Treetop Flyers, Tape Deck Mountain played a noisy, percussive set with a lot of feedback and some good grooves that reminded me a little of a less-angsty Elliott.
We met up with Ellie at Auditorium Shores, but none of us realized they had pushed the showcase back by two or three hours due to the harsh winds. Expecting Lucero to start at 6:00, instead we got Kimya Dawson kicking off the whole shebang. I’m not crazy about her music at all, but she was gracious and charming enough, even though her hands were almost too cold to play the guitar. After that, a thoroughly bland and middle-of-the-road folk rock band called Dawes played. I felt bad for disliking them because they seemed like really nice guys. But at this point, it was clear that we would not last another hour outside in the cold waiting for Lucero to play, especially now that the sun was dipping below the horizon. We gave up the fight and headed to Fran’s for hamburgers and shelter.
And that concludes my SXSW! Highlights: Efterklang, The Morning Benders, Lou Barlow, and The Treetop Flyers.
So, what were your favorites this year?
FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, STOP USING THE WORD “CAVERNOUS” TO DESCRIBE SHIT. I WILL BUY YOU A FUCKING THESAURUS. Also, stop categorizing certain types of music as “chillwave.” I have no fucking idea what that means.
In other news, SXSW is happening. Cheers!
I spent the better part of last week hermetically sealed inside Newsom’s music, living in this alien but meticulously detailed world she’s crafted. Friday night, when I finally had to listen to something else, I felt a little like a traitor. It was like leaving a country and knowing I might not be granted re-entry. Today, fortunately, I find that place just as welcoming and immersive as last week. Slate had a pretty good (and positive) write-up of the album today, called “Joanna Newsom Would Like Your Undivided Attention.” Naturally, discussions of the record have mostly focused on length; it’s interesting that it takes a triple album by Joanna Newsom (of all people) to make critics question what pop artists are allowed to ask of their listeners. Has this issue poisoned the album? Will Have One On Me be considered a masterpiece because of, or in spite of, its ability to sustain our interest for more than two hours? How much should that even matter as long as the songs are worthwhile? But most importantly, why are we so obsessed with our own attention spans (or lack thereof)?
On first impression, I like part three of Have One On Me more than the quieter second disc. Like disc one, it has a little more musical variety and assertiveness, and therefore makes a perfect bookend to the album as a whole. The PopMatters review I posted in a previous entry argues that Newsom could have pared down the album to make it stronger; this has stuck in my mind as I listened, so I’ve tried to consider which songs I would cut. Although there are a few songs that I don’t care for too much, I can still argue for their artistic merit and right to inclusion. The only song from the whole 18 track collection that I would offer up for sacrifice is “Autumn” from this last set. In the opening moments, it too closely echoes “Go Long,” but continues on limply, with no build or real melody. She even sounds bored in her vocal delivery.
The third disc opens with “Soft As Chalk,” which has the rough feel of a live track, like a piece of tossed-off studio tomfoolery, with splashes of missed piano notes and melodies that change direction and tempo every minute or so. The “chorus” (if it has a chorus) reaches a crescendo that sounds a little like Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and her voice even hits a few notes with Grace Slick’s forcefulness. Despite its haphazard construction, “Soft As Chalk” has a charmingly loose sound, and has emerged one of my favorites on the album. Fear is a palpable theme here, as she sings, “Give love a little shove/ and it becomes terror,” and ultimately finds the speaker “cowering with my light,/ calling out/ Who is there?” It’s a heartbreaking image, someone so undone by the worst aspects of love.
“Esme” is written as a lullaby, and Newsom stretches each syllable over an impossible number of notes. She sounds positively awestruck singing lines like, “Taking so many photographs — / so amazed! –/ we’ve never seen a baby so newlyborn.” I don’t have much to say about “Esme” that can’t also be applied to the rest of the album, but it’s a solid and beautiful entry in the collection. “Ribbon Bows,” a kind of folk ballad, finds her in a reconciliatory mood, inviting her lover to “come and get your love,” explaining, “I only took it back/ because I thought you didn’t [want it.]” She sings with a soulful twang over mandolin and violins.
The penultimate piece, “Kingfisher,” is perhaps the grandest song on the album, a stately, medieval procession of flutes and deep, booming drums. It has an epic, cinematic sweep. I want to read the title as “Fisher King,” a reference to the castrated ruler of the Wasteland, which might not have been Newsom’s intention, but I can’t help but interpret the same apocalyptic overtones in the lyrics. She makes repeated references to failed crops and ashes; the lines near the end, “And I saw that my blood / had no bounds, / spreading in a circle like an atom bomb,” (the second mention of bombs) are particularly chilling. When she hums over the haunting instrumental break, I get goosebumps every time.
The last song, “Does Not Suffice,” brings the album full-circle, with its callbacks to “In California,” (a reprise) and “Easy,” (“everything that could remind you / of how easy I was not”). The song begins groggily, the piano and Newsom’s voice both hesitant at first, then gaining in confidence as the speaker steels her resolve for a breakup. She chastises her soon-to-be-ex-lover’s condescending platitudes, “It does not suffice / for you to say I am a sweet girl, / or to say you hate to see me sad / because of you.” Instead of talking it out, she insists on removing every trace of herself from his life. She presents the emptiness as a parting gift: “Everywhere I tried to love you / is yours again,/and only yours.” Her voice even fades into the background as the song comes to its final climax.
It’s been a very long time since I immersed myself in music this way, bringing a new record home from the store, poring over the lyrics, and trying to absorb every sound. Now the process seems like an exercise of self-discipline, but the payoff is still the same. The final verdict: amazing. Have One On Me is surprisingly inviting, starting with that title in big, bold letters, and only gets warmer and more welcoming on subsequent listens. Favorites: “Easy,” “Good Intentions Paving Company,” “You and Me, Bess,” “Go Long,” “Soft As Chalk,” and “Kingfisher.” These, of course, are subject to change given the mood of the day.
Listen: Joanna Newsom — “Kingfisher”