Grunge Rebirth, Beyonce Nod — And Flavor Flav! — More SXSW Surprises

Plus Damon Albarn's Queen gets loud, Hanson work 6th Street, Kirsten Dunst enjoys the show.

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 a few times each 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.

The Day

James Montgomery, MTV News writer: Another afternoon, another 36 Kool-Aid-colored wristbands to weigh down my wrists. At every day party I attend, my wrist gets slapped with a brightly colored piece of plastic (or, as is the case at the Levi’s/Fader fort, two pieces), which — in theory — are supposed to keep the unwashed masses from gate-crashing and allow me preferred access to VIP areas and/or free booze. But the only thing they’re really good for is snagging on clothing and making me look like
this guy.

I know, I know … cry me a river. But after only three days at SXSW, I’m totally starting to feel the inner Andy Rooney in me come to life (and he loves Robyn Hitchcock). Maybe it’s the fact that every dude here is wearing a tank top, or the fact that every girl looks she’s Karen O‘s stunt double. Who knows? …

OK … deep breath. Spent the afternoon at the SPIN party, where there was free popcorn, free ice cream, free cigarettes and, of course, more free wristbands! There was also a middling set from New Orleans funk act Galactic featuring cameos by a who’s who of rappers that no one cares about (Lyrics Born, the Coup‘s Boots Reilly), a Kirsten Dunst sighting and a truly awesome early evening performance from the Kings of Leon, who rock nearly as hard as their pants are tight (and that’s very).

Off now to get some dinner … then hopefully catch a sweaty, late-night set from Girl Talk. Oh, also, my buddy in Beirut just invited me on a four-hour “BBQ excursion” set for Saturday afternoon. Wristbands or no, things are lookin’ up, indeed!

John Norris, MTV News correspondent: By and large, the consensus in the local media and among people I have talked to seems to be that while the significance of SXSW has changed — I mean, we all know where music is “broken” in 2007, and it ain’t at one gig at one festival — the festival still plays a vital role. As a one-stop shop for those who don’t have bands rolling through their town every week, and for artists to get their music seen and heard by those in and out of the mainstream biz.

Among the bands, at varying levels of notoriety, that have introduced themselves to me on the streets of Austin and gotten their music into my hands in the past couple of days: Aloke, the GoStation, Locksley, New Year’s Day, the Animators, the Stock Market Crash and some pretty cool garage girls from Atlanta who go by the lovely name the Coathangers (who count in their arsenal a fairly demure jam called “Nestle in My Boobies”).

Finally, I have been avoiding going on a vegan rant for the last few days and just sucked it up and dealt with foraging around town to find non-animal-product dining. When in Rome … yeah, yeah. Well, I’m sure as hell not gonna start eating flesh slathered in barbecue sauce, that’s for sure. I’m often in situations like this — it means repeated trips to Asian places, which at least know what tofu is — so I’ve been twice to P.F. Chang’s and once to Veggie Heaven. But then you slip and eat cheese sometimes. At last year’s SXSW, even Chrissie Hynde — as much an icon of animal rights as a goddess of rock — told me she occasionally will eat cheese and she’s been vegan for more than 30 years. Really, I love longhorns. To look at. Or pet. Not to eat, sit on or wear. End of screed.

Gil Kaufman, MTV News writer: I’m going to announce a moratorium on the bad-name thing, though Chicago’s Flosstradamus get an honorable mention. Let me just say this now: If Australia’s Youth Group don’t become the next U2, something is seriously amiss. These guys have the kind of swaying, epic songs — like “Shadowland” — that fill up a dingy daytime bar show and make it feel like a stadium.

The pressure to melt down in public for new hot messes like Amy Winehouse must be intense, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing down the hottest mess on everyone’s tongue this week, Atlanta’s notorious Black Lips. More than six years into their career, the band still knows how to shock, or revolt, as when guitarist Cole Alexander lost his lunch mid-solo just two songs into the band’s set. Pro that he is, he never missed a lick, though the crowd did take a step back.

Note to the dude walking down the street with earplugs in: Bro, yeah, it’s loud in the venues sometimes, but you can take them out on the way to lunch.

One of the reasons rock stars love South By (that’s what the cool kids call it, for real) is they can just blend in, because every hipster doofus worth his salt has rats-nest hair, too-tight jeans and an expensive-looking ripped shirt. So, if you walk down the street and see Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore hanging on the corner, or Joan Jett waiting for a cab outside your hotel, yeah, it’s them.

Speaking of which, I was on the phone in the elevator and I see a guy walk in with a huge clock around his neck and a bunch of dookie chains and my first thought is, “What kind of a bozo thinks he can cop that look from Flavor Flav in 2007?” Oh, my bad, it was Flavor Flav! We chatted, I wished him luck on his show Friday night (March 16) and when the doors opened, he gave me a knuckle pound and zoomed out into the lobby on his wheelies.

Here’s what I missed today but heard about from people who were better line-jumpers than me: Pete Townshend jamming on “The Seeker” with the Fratellis, and Vietnam — or “those dudes with the giant beards,” as one patron described them.

The Evening

James Montgomery: If you like slightly tubby guys with super scraggly beards, rare, out-of-print Boredoms 7-inches and uttering the phrase “They’re still playing the same song?!” then the Ecstatic Peace Records and Tapes showcase was the place to be Friday night. Owned and operated by Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore, Ecstatic Peace releases records (actual records; like, on vinyl and everything) by a whole lot of erudite, experimental bands that you’ve never heard of, many of which — including the ethereal Gown, the drone-y Black Helicopter and the unpronounceable Charalambides — were on display tonight.

Of course, doe-eyed dreamboat Michael Pitt‘s little grunge outfit, Pagoda was there too, but I spotted John digging them pretty hard, so I’ll leave it to him to document their set. Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to get my fill of avant instrumentalism, and I was quickly out the door. But not before snagging a copy of the free Ecstatic Peace ‘zine for my reading leisure. Thanks, Thurston!

Then it was off to Stubb’s, where a little of the old “I’m with MTV News … my camera crew is inside, and I need to get to them now!” routine (note: professional!) got me to the front of the line and into the much-hyped gig by Damon Albarn‘s new project, the Good, the Bad and the Queen. I’d been hearing a lot about how the whole thing was some sort of semi-conceptual play, a sort of time-skipping portrayal of life in London throughout the 20th Century, and I was anxious to check it out myself.

Sadly, all I got out of the performance a whole lot of former Clash bassist Paul Simonon‘s booming, bubbly low-end (I mean, seriously, dude was loud) and a few pictures of Albarn in a top hat. Playing on a stage littered with streamers and Union Jacks, in front of an impressionistic portrait of London, the atmosphere was right, but the music — all percolating, dubby basslines and three-quarter-speed guitars — wasn’t. Truth be told, the whole thing was a complete snoozer. And if it was come sort of concept, I wasn’t getting it. Maybe, on this night, I just wasn’t smart enough for any of it. Not sleeping and existing solely on ribs and cigarettes tends to do that to a person.

John Norris: While I didn’t stick around at Stubb’s long enough to check out the Good, the Bad and the Queen, there was still plenty of the Snide, the grungy and the unexpected to go around.

Began my travels at Buffalo Billiards, where you rack ‘em up downstairs and upstairs you hear music — cool music on this night, in the form of Nashville’s Clem Snide, the band fronted and really embodied by one of the dryer, wittier guys in indie music, Eef Barzelay. He led his two backing players through a 40-minute set full of Clem Snide’s trademark tunes that build and build … and suddenly end. Eef’s sarcasm was in abundance as well, in songs like “Girls Don’t Care” and in his between-song patter, like when he told the SXSW crowd “You quench me. Your applause is like calamine lotion on my mosquito-bitten skin.” Oh and he even busted out a bit of Beyoncé‘s “Irreplaceable.”

Three encounters making my way down a packed 6th Street: former MTV VJ and walking musical encyclopedia Matt Pinfield, shooting a show for DirectTV; my old pals Taylor and Zack Hanson, being interviewed for another video outlet; and Damaris Drummond, a performance artist who is planning to cover herself with vintage Atari joysticks on Saturday and ask people to choose one to play with. Where in Austin will this happen? “Wherever they will let me,” says Damaris. I am not kidding.

Nor am I kidding when I say that Michael Pitt rocks. Pitt may be the easy-on-the-eyes actor who starred in “The Dreamers” and “Last Days,” but he has apparently put acting on the backburner indefinitely to concentrate on his neo-grunge band Pagoda, who played outdoors at the Mohawk. With Pitt on guitar and wailing vocals (playing a Cobain-like character has clearly had an impact on him), plus bass, drums and cello (!) the band ripped through one impassioned song after another, and you might have thought it was 1993 all over again. Only one beef though: say something, dude. I get it, you want to downplay the “movie star as frontman” thing; who wouldn’t? But apart from “Thanks Thurston” and “This is our last song,” Pitt was totally mute … and he tended to overdo the whole back-to-the-crowd thing. Mike — you can play guitar, you can sing and scream, your band is good. Lighten up.

Plenty light and comfortable is Mancunian troubadour Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy. Although large open-air Stubb’s may not have been the best setting for his sound, Gough lit up the night with his peppy alt pop, including the winning title track from his most recent release, Born in the U.K. Plus, he’s a dead ringer for my MTV News buddy Aaron Pinkston, who was watching the show with me. There could be a sitcom in here. Couple of bearded, longhaired, beanie-wearing dudes from opposite sides of the Atlantic. It could work …

Gil Kaufman: If there’s anyone who loves the Ramones more than me, it’s Japanese punk bands. Which is why the Japan Night showcase is always at the top of my list. This year was no disappointment, with a killer set from Osaka’s The50Kaitenz, a power trio who rocked a blistering set of Ramones-inspired rockabilly while wearing matching black suits with Colonel Sanders-style black string ties. They were followed by the equally off-the-charts Pistol Valve, a 10-woman collective with eight horn players, an electric violinist and DJ, all combining forces (like Voltron!) to create a truly unique brand of Afro-Cuban-funk-jazz-hip-hop-a–go-go, all while wearing fedoras and varying stages of lingerie.

After flashing my badge, dropping some names, pretending to call my nonexistent cameraman and using every slimy excuse I could think of to jump in front of the two-block long line, I finally got in to see hot not-mess Brazilian funk carioca trio Bonde do Role. The group — really just two MC’s and a DJ — mash up party-ready Bailefunk rhythms with hip-hop and samples that range from classic rock to Brazilian dance and snatches of the “Grease” soundtrack, and they had the packed house bouncing off the walls. They got even the most jaded hipsters to throw down.

Can James snag himself a nap? Are there more Beyoncé covers in John’s future? Will Gil’s line-cutting come back to haunt him? Check back all weekend for our SXSW coverage!

Earlier this week:

· “Tom Morello’s SXSW Gig Turns Into Raucous All-Star Jam With Slash, Perry Farrell”

· “Amy Winehouse Raises Eyebrows, Bloc Party Draw A Mob As SXSW Wakes Up”

· “Pete Wentz Clones Descend, Lily Allen Warbles As SXSW Gets Under Way”

For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.

[This story was originally published on 3.16.2007 at 8:45 p.m.]