AUSTIN, Texas — Every March, the music industry throws on a pair of shorts, slathers on the SPF 45 and heads on down to Austin for South by Southwest, a weeklong celebration of bands, BBQ and (sometimes free!) beer. It’s a brutal bacchanal and music marathon powered by thousands of acts playing in hundreds of venues — at all hours — plus an unreal number of open bar tabs and fancy private parties.
Sleep is not exactly a top priority, so MTV News has dispatched three of its most tireless reporters into the fray. They’ll be filing reports twice a day (scroll down for the evening report), which will chiefly serve as a way of keeping you up to speed about what’s going on deep in the heart of Texas, but also double as a convenient way — for us, anyway — of making sure everyone’s still alive.
James Montgomery, MTV News writer: I only have two real goals here at SXSW (you know, aside from completing the whole “seeing bands/ waiting in lines/ sweating” trifecta): to eat BBQ every single day and to avoid decking one of the 55,679 dudes wearing eyeliner and girl jeans. So far so good, but it hasn’t been easy.
The misanthrope in me was awakened before we even hit the ground in Austin on Tuesday, as the terminal at New Jersey’s Newark International Airport was teeming with raccoon-eye guys in peg-leg pants, all hammering away on their SideKick 3s, all hyping their record labels that no one cares about, and — unfortunately — all looking to board the 1:55 p.m. flight bound for SXSW (um, dude, it’s barely lunchtime; do you really need to be working on your inner Pete Wentz already?).
And then, when we arrived in Texas, we were greeted not with the traditional South By sunshine but with gray skies and a steady downpour … which made the prospect of my annual trek to Iron Works BBQ seem all the more uninviting. Still, I am a man who believes in the accomplishment of goals, so as spidery lightning darted across the evening sky, I dodged raindrops the size of goobers and made my way to the corner of Cesar Chavez and Red River, where I totally killed a pound of BBQ Brisket and then began the long wait for my impending food coma. Seriously, if I keep this up, by Sunday, I’ll probably be like one of those dudes in “Awakenings.”
Highlights from Wednesday afternoon (March 14) included negotiating the Byzantine process known as “SXSW Registration”; eyeballing acts like Beirut and Girl Talk as they waited for their artist credentials; snagging a sweet promo poster for the White Stripes‘ upcoming Icky Thump (it’s got a badass penguin on it); downing a plate of pork ribs and some blackberry cobbler at Iron Works; and then, finally, heading out into the darkening night to catch my first spate of shows. More later.
John Norris, MTV News correspondent: Some 10,000-15,000 people are expected to converge on Austin for South by Southwest this week — among them around 1,300 bands. A few of those bands, not surprisingly, were on our plane ride down from up North — not that I could identify them. I told James they really ought to wear name tags. It would make this a lot easier.
There was at least one Scandinavian band onboard. I may not know my Danish from my Swedish, but I know Norse-speak when I hear it. No doubt those guys would not mind some of the attention currently being heaped on Sweden’s Peter Bjorn and John — who play the hot-ticket show on Wednesday night, plus several other Austin gigs throughout the week. Apparently not everyone likes their P, B and J though: One blogger has taken the time and the trouble to organize a campaign and event to “Stop the Spread of Peter Bjorn and John.”
Proclaiming the harmless trio to be “manufactured, over-cute and vacuous,” this dude wants people to rally in the street on Friday against the Swedes. Sigh. Please devote this passion and apparently free time to something that matters. I hear there is a war going on.
Landed in rainy Austin and saw Razorlight outside baggage claim — no Johnny Borrell though. Probably have a special holding room for lead singers/heartthrobs. But on to something really cute — bats! I love ‘em and upon approaching our hotel, our driver informed us we were right at the edge of the (apparently) world-famous Congress Bridge. It’s home to the largest bat colony in North America and star of a daily ritual in which, at sundown, all 750K-1.5 million of ‘em fly out to begin their nightly search for food. Missed the bats today but I will see ‘em tomorrow. Holy South By, Batman! Should be quite a week.
Gil Kaufman, MTV News writer: I haven’t been to Austin for SXSW in at least six years, and as much as people complained back then that it was getting, like, way too commercial, man, it’s amazing to see what a gigantic machine this thing has turned into. Imagine your city being overrun by the aforementioned girl-jeans-wearing hordes and having every restaurant, clothing store, camera shop, bar, hospital and homeless shelter try to horn in on the action. (OK, maybe not the last two, but still.) I mean, even my room key is sponsored by Interscope Records (no, really, it is.)
What’s even more amazing is how many truly awful, stupid, bizarre and just plain lazy band names are on this year’s roster. Oddly, quite a few of them are locals, but a quick rundown of the best in show proves that it doesn’t matter what you sound like, sometimes a lame name is enough to get badge-jockeys in the door. A sampling from Wednesday’s roster: Kiiiiiii (Japan), Best Fwends (Fort Worth, Texas), the Faceless Werewolves (Austin), Die! Die! Die! (New Zealand), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (Austin), Busty Duck (Belgium), Fatal Flying Guilloteens (Houston), Holy Sh–! (Milwaukee) and my personal favorite, I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House (Portland, Oregon).
James Montgomery : I just got in from the NME party at Stubb’s, an event that was both decidedly excellent and bizarrely frustrating at the same time (hey, just like the magazine!). Spazzy Welsh quartet the Automatic bounded off of the risers and worked a pretty nifty cover of the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” into their set, but the whole thing was pretty much ruined by the flamboyant, popped-collar fellow to my left, who spent the entire evening flashing the devil horns (note: this is no longer cool) and shaking his moneymaker for his strangely bemused posse. He was great — sort of like the ultra-crazy, ultra-fun, effete friend that I never want in my life.
Twenty-one year old crooner Jamie Treays (nom-de-stage: Jamie T) followed with a shambling, rambling, 45-minute set that was an intriguing mix of the Clash‘s working-class obsessions and Ian McCulloch‘s hair (with a backing band that featured a hippiefied keyboardist and a guitarist who resembled Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan if you found him washed up in a storm drain.) Then Lily Allen — with whom I’ll be chatting on Thursday — strolled onstage, clutching a Budweiser and a cigarette, and proceeded to halfheartedly sing a handful of tunes (but not before apologizing for being drunk “because it’s 11 o’clock” and ripping the NME a new one — I have high hopes for our interview!)
Apparently Razorlight was also supposed to play, but I headed out before I could verify this, as the VIP area — a highfalutin balcony that included every industry dude in Austin and, oddly enough, Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle — was reaching critical mass. Oh, I also I missed the Bravery’s set, which is ironic because — unbeknownst to them — I am currently using their wireless connection to file this story! (Big ups to Sam Endicott and Co. and the terrific wireless service here at the Embassy Suites.)
And before I turn in for the night, I wanted to share this text message I just received from my old roommate/ Parts and Labor drummer/ PaperThinWalls.com editor Christopher Weingarten, who was peeping some hip-hop showcase deep in the wilds of Austin: “Devin the Dude [seems] higher than a thumbtack on a flyer.”
Ah, SXSW … even in text-message form, you’re totally awesome.
John Norris: A pretty dreary evening, weather-wise, causing those of us at the kitschy Beauty Bar to either hang out inside a glitter-walled space (lined with old fashioned hair dryers) or under the tent out back — where, luckily, the music on stage was anything but dreary. Brooklyn, New York, favorites Dirty on Purpose turned in a solid half-hour set and represented for their home borough, as drummer/vocalist Doug Marvin asked “Is there anyone here actually from Texas?” (10 people cheered); “And now who’s from Brooklyn?” (about the same).
C’mon — is anyone really from Brooklyn anymore?
Definitely not from Brooklyn — and sometimes sounding not even of this planet — was the band that took the stage after DOP: Menomena, who are actually from Portland, Oregon. While they’ve been known to perform live backed by a choir, for this gig it was just the core trio — but that was all they needed to create a truly unique, experimental sound. They’ve gotten a lot of attention for their digital-looping skills, and armed with laptop, sax, toy piano and more, Menomena are captivating live. After only one full day, I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen one of the more innovative bands at SXSW.
Of course, that was before I witnessed 45 life-affirming minutes of Beirut at Emo’s. What a difference a year — and a blogosphere explosion — makes. At SXSW ’06, Beirut were a makeshift four-piece playing a sparsely attended gig at one of Austin’s smaller clubs. On Wednesday night, globetrotting musical genius Zach Condon brought his now-eight-member group of multi-instrumentalists back to town, and created the first certified clusterf— of the fest. Even with the supposed “preferred access” conferred by a festival badge, I had a 20-minute wait to get in, but it was more than worth it.
It was something of an “improvised” set since, as Condon told me after the show, he was originally told he would only get 15 minutes onstage. This, coupled with the fact that the band had a longer-than-expected drive into Austin from Albuquerque and that they were down to one ukulele from their usual two, called for some quick thinking. Zach even called for requests at one point. No matter, few people do ragtag better than Beirut. “Nice to see they knew our songs,” he said, most of which came from their Gulag Orkestar LP and Lon Gisland EP. There was, however, one surprise in the set: a cover of a tune by legendary chanteur Jacques Brel, which fueled recent talk that Beirut’s next record, due in September, will have a Gallic bent. “That’s all I’ve been listening to,” Condon told me. “Chansons françaises.”
Gil Kaufman: Sometimes you just don’t feel like fighting the crowds, or waiting in line for an hour to catch the last 10 minutes of a show, only to turn around and wait another hour at another venue 10 blocks away. So, if you can’t see what you really want to, you see bands like the aforementioned Fort Worth electroclash/digital hardcore clowns Best Fwends, who spazzed out in front of a sheet covered with cartoon characters and made the crowd at Beauty Bar smile.
Or you see former “You Hear it First” artist (but currently missing in action) soul brother Cody Chesnutt, who took the stage in a royal red cape and orange bell bottoms and asked the audience to hold their applause while he played the entirety of his new album, The Live Release. The meandering soul/gospel opera told the tale of the pitfalls of success, excess and materialism, with large doses of spirituality, tons of wah-wah guitar and the odd trumpet solo.
Then things went wobbly. I somehow ended up watching Murfreesboro, Tennessee’s How I Became the Bomb, led by a singer in satiny tuxedo, playing a keytar and sporting a pair of gleaming pinky rings, followed by Manchester, England’s Waxplanet, who were okay, but not the “Beach Boys on acid” that was promised by their hype man handing out stickers on 6th street.
The biggest letdown of the night was undoubtedly Peter, Bjorn & John. The Swedish trio’s hit single, “Young Folks” sounded great, but the canned whistling was lame.
Other highlights included Chicago’s Cameron McGill and & Quartet Offensive, led by the disheveled folk troubadour McGill, who scrawled the Woody Guthrie-inspired epitaph “This Machine Kills Hipsters” on his battered acoustic guitar and ripped through Dylanesque protest songs; the jaded 10-year-old doing a Sudoku puzzle in the back of Emo’s as the Hush Sound pounded out their Panic! at the Disco-esque circus emo; bumping into former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist/ current grayhair James Iha in the muddy back yard at Emo’s and talking to him about the awesome new wave band Office, whose debut is due later this year on his Scratchie/New Line imprint (and no, he wouldn’t talk about the upcoming Pumpkins album being recorded by his ex-bandmates); and finally, psych/funk-rocker Kenna hyping his upcoming album, Make Sure They See My Face during an afternoon set he played while wearing a baseball cap pulled down so low you couldn’t, um, see his face; and finally, Rubber Robot: a dude wearing a horse head playing a Theremin on a trippy psychedelic stomp jam. Need I say more?
Will the Bravery kick James off of their wireless connection? Will John see a band with members that were actually born in Brooklyn? Can Gil find a band with an even worse name? Check back all week for our SXSW coverage!
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.
[This story was originally published on 3.14.2007 at 10:51 p.m.]