MUSIC | Winning at SXSW: The Strokes, the Bangles, the Sounds, and more

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AUSTIN, TEXAS—After a rocking but rocky first day, I’m tempted to say that I’m starting to figure this whole SXSW thing out. On Thursday I caught no fewer than six artists I’ve been a fan of for years but have never seen live—and none of them disappointed. I also found the free beer.

The official SXSW events are seemingly innumerable, but the unofficial events that spring up around the festival like kudzu are actually innumerable. Everyone from record labels to energy drinks to magazines (on Friday, I’ll try to attend parties thrown by Twin Cities publications City Pages and Vita.mn) wants the eyes and ears of the journalists, musicians, and sundry “industry insiders,” and they ply us with free music (always), free drinks (sometimes), and free food (too rarely). Here’s a SX-style press table:

SXSW

That was my first stop of the day: an event in the parking lot of the Double Down Lounge (love the name) thrown by the Free Press Summerfest, a June music festival in Houston. All of a sudden, the riches I’d been promised were laid before my feet: beautiful sunny weather, great indie rock, a fun crowd, and an open keg.

SXSW

The first band to play were Brainstorm, though I was so blissed out I hardly heard them. I don’t even remember whether he played that horn.

Brainstorm

Somewhere around the second beer I ascertained that the party could become the siren luring my day at SXSW onto the rocks. Why would you ever leave?

SXSW

So I found the strength to leave, on my way out catching a duo called Pure X, though they don’t look like they’re on anything. Maybe they should have been.

Pure X

By early afternoon, downtown was already a madhouse. Grinning festivalgoers soaked up the sun and wandered from venue to venue, looking for a party worth staying at. The trash was already starting to pile up, overflowing bins and running along curbs. I can only imagine how things will look by Sunday.

SXSW

Having followed SXSW veterans’ advice and RSVPed for as many of the hundreds of parties as I could find information online for, at any given time there were several places “expecting” me. (The RSVP requirement, a common one, seems meant both to encourage attendance and to be a basic test of having one’s shit together, filtering out the people who would otherwise just wander in off the street.) I hit another jackpot at a party co-sponsored by—wait for it—Barefoot wines and Monster energy drinks. Both were flowing freely at a bar in back at Rusty Spurs. Yes, Texas bars really do have names like “Rusty Spurs.”

SXSW

This band, Robbers on High Street, amounted to my first real SXSW discovery. They marry the rhythmic drive of Spoon with the baroque pop of E.L.O., which is a nifty trick if you can pull it off. I loved the Z.Z. Top ringer who was in charge of hand-claps and other miscellaneous percussion. More triangle!

Robbers on High Street

Enterprising musicians are taking to the streets all over Austin, playing very, very unofficial sets, and as I noted when the teen trio Supercute! played First Avenue last year, they are nothing if not enterprising. I was delighted to see the first band I’d ever photographed in First Ave’s Mainroom playing their ukuleles and (unplugged) keyboard for anyone on 6th Street who might care to hear.

Supercute

I’d taken note of an event happening at the Austin Museum of Art, and planning to hit two birds with one stone (art + music), I turned north. On the way, I stopped by the IFC Crossroads House, where City and Colour were recording a session, and where extremely enthusiastic representatives of FreeCreditScore.com were distributing water, pretzel sticks, and earplugs.

IFC Crossroads House

At the Austin Museum of Art, event organizers G-House seemed to be experiencing some confusion about exactly how things were supposed to work. Doors were scheduled for 5:00, with a documentary on copyright and sampling being screened at 5:15, but the doors didn’t open until 5:30—I took the time to check out the museum, which suffice to say does not bolster Austin’s reputation as a creative capital—and the film didn’t start until around 6:00. Was there a guest list or was there not a guest list? Were there drink tickets, or no drink tickets? No one seemed to know, but I settled in, listened to an unending loop of “The Funky Drummer,” and bonded with two senior citizens from Austin who were impressed to learn that I was from the same state as one of their favorite bands, Trampled By Turtles.

I’ll say this for the G-House event: it definitely had the shortest beer line at SXSW. I think they would have let me do a keg stand.

SXSW

By this point, the official showcases were beginning, and I decided to try to get into the much-hyped appearance by the Strokes at Auditorium Shores Stage. Walking down towards the river, I was reminded that it was St. Patrick’s Day; revelers blended in with the SXSW crowd, with much wearing o’ the green.

SXSW

A huge crowd—I heard estimates of 20,000—was waiting at the outdoor stage for the New York neopunk favorites. These two asked me to take their picture.

SXSW

The Strokes were scheduled to go on at 8:00, and people in the front row told photographers they’d been waiting there since 2 a.m. No, that’s not a typo—they’d been waiting 18 hours. One guy fainted and had to be carried out, unconscious, by security.

SXSW

And then, there they were, kings of the Rock Revival (remember those innocent days of 2001?), lit bright red with the city of Austin as their backdrop.

Strokes

Strokes

They sounded great but were hard to enjoy in the crush of the photo pit, so I squeezed out and strolled away, guitars ringing in my ears as I crossed the river back towards downtown, arriving at Emo’s just in time for a fantastic, energetic set by San Francisco’s Magic Bullets. For years I’ve been in disbelief that the seven-year old band aren’t bigger names, and have dispaired of them ever coming to the Twin Cities, so it was a real treat to finally see them live. Frontman Philip Benson sounds like Morrissey but hops around like Craig Finn; it makes for quite the show.

SXSW

Outside, I scouted for food, but there were long lines at everything but the popcorn wagon.

SXSW

I didn’t have time for popcorn, though—I was running to Malaia to see Jenny O, a Los Angeles singer-songwriter whose debut EP Home I liked so much that last fall I asked to interview her even though she didn’t have (and still doesn’t have) any Twin Cities tour dates scheduled.

Malaia was an awkward venue for the show, since DJs were very loudly dropping beats at a dance party just up an open set of stairs. “Are they going to stop?” asked Jenny O when she was ready to play. The sound guy said no. “All right,” shrugged Jenny O, “are you all ready to rave the fuck out with those guys upstairs?” We were. Though the noise from above was a huge distraction, apparently forcing Jenny O and her band to rework arrangements on the spot, she turned in a wonderfully solid set that went from tender ballads to soulful grooves a la Slowhand-era Eric Clapton. My earlier hunch was only strengthened: this artist is one to watch.

Jenny O

I then walked down to the Cedar Street Courtyard, a beautiful outdoor space where “backstage” is a deck overlooking and wrapping around the stage. I was very surprised to find that there was no line, which meant that I was able to catch the end of a set by Smoosh. Remember Smoosh? They were one of the “kindercore” bands that emerged in the middle of the last decade, along with groups like Tiny Masters of Today and Care Bears on Fire: indie rock bands consisting entirely or mostly of preteens.

Smoosh

When Smoosh were founded in 2004, sisters Asy and Chloe were 12 and 10 years old (hence the omission, in all band materials, of their last name). I was surprised to find out that they’re still around as a band; they’ve since been joined by sister Maia. I liked their rambunctious early records; the current material definitely sounds more mature, but in this case I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Though inventive and well-written, the new songs don’t really stand out in a crowd. I’ll definitely keep my ears open, though, for more from these dedicated and talented young artists.

Smoosh

In a nice torch-passing SXSW moment, the members of Smoosh leaned over the deck railing to watch the next performance. “We’re the Bangles!” declared guitarist Vicki Peterson. “We’re still the Bangles.” Excepting the requisite dramarama temporary breakup, the Bangles have been together for 30 years now. Yeah—I know! I was 10 years old when their monster hit album Different Light was released in 1986, and I remember our music teacher pounding out the intro to “Walk Like an Egyptian” to prove that she was down with the hip new music we were listening to on KZIO, Duluth’s Top 40 station.

It was predictably an older crowd—I’d estimate that, at 35, I was younger than at least half the people there—and I hope none of those Gen-Xers ever lecture Gen Y about being obsessed with their phones, because as soon as the Bangles took the stage, dozens of iPhones and Androids appeared in the air. If you want to see some really crappy video of the Bangles playing “Manic Monday” at SXSW, I’m guessing YouTube will soon have you more than covered.

Bangles

The Bangles and their sound have aged well. At first, the laid-back arrangements caused me to think that the band had become an unambitious nostalgia act, but by the end of the set they’d won me over and implicitly reminded me that—as Peterson herself told me last year—their roots are in the California folk rock of the Mamas and the Papas and the Byrds. Unfortunately their material has sagged in quality since their 80s heyday, but their sound remains fresh and relevant. I hope Jenny O made it to the Bangles show, because she would have loved it. For me, the highlight of the Bangles’ set was their cover of Big Star’s “September Gurls,” which appeared on Different Light and which they dedicated at SXSW to Alex Chilton—the song’s legendary writer, who was memorably paid tribute by the Replacements in their 1987 song “Alex Chilton” and who died last year at the age of 59.

Bangles

Having started a half-hour late, seemingly because of technical problems, the Bangles shrugged off calls by impatient SXSW staff to end their set, even performing an encore medley of “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the Who’s “Magic Bus.” (“We’ve negotiated” with the SXSW staff, explained Peterson, whatever that meant.) That cut short the time available for the evening’s concluding set by Swedish rockers the Sounds, and if that kind of pissed off the Sounds, they didn’t bother to hide it.

The Sounds

“People backstage were telling us that we should be intimidated to follow the Bangles,” said singer Maja Ivarsson. “Should we be?” The crowd, consisting of a small portion of the Bangles crowd and a lot of people who’d poured in after that crowd evacuated, cried out no. “No disrespect to the Bangles,” said Ivarsson, who’d proudly informed the crowd that she was drunk, “but there are a lot of good bands here.”

Maja Ivarsson

I wrote before leaving that the Sounds were one of the bands I was most hoping to see at SXSW, and they did not disappoint. It’s appropriate that they shared a bill with the Bangles, since the Sounds represent for the bad-girl-gone-pop side of 80s music—cross Joan Jett with Bonnie Tyler, and you start to have the idea. They played with total abandon, Ivarsson prancing, jumping, and kicking her way across the stage, eventually chain-smoking and taking requests from the burly guy in the front row wearing a Sounds shirt and shouting along to all the lyrics. So much rock, so good it hurt.