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.
James Montgomery, MTV News writer: Just had my first totally random, totally awesome moment here at SXSW. I was waiting at a crosswalk on Congress Avenue when a dusty wood-paneled station wagon pulled up at the light and all the dudes inside, clearly in a band, clearly trying to look super-cool — think vintage vests, scraggly beards, wide-brim hats and bellbottoms straight out of Haight-Ashbury — were summarily laughed at by a gaggle of passing females. Next time get a tighter ride, bros.
Spent Thursday afternoon (March 15) baking in the sun at the Levis/Fader fort, where Interscope was debuting Queens of the Stone Age's upcoming Era Vulgaris record. Expect plenty of spooky, windswept guitars à la Lullabies to Paralyze — plus a whole lot of stompers circa their Songs for the Deaf era.
Then I headed over to Waterloo Records for an interview with Lily Allen, who was nice in an "I don't give a f----" kind of way. She talked about her plans to hit the studio in May and dismissed any notion of working with a producer du jour like Timbaland: "I don't want to be Nelly Furtado," she hissed. "And I don't want to spend $250,000 on a song I didn't write." She also got down to dissing the world-famous BBQ at Stubb's, declaring it "too gristly" (I would, respectively, have to disagree.)
Then it was back to the Fort for the Black Lips, who were missing a bassist ("He's still down in Mexico," one bandmember said) but still managed to fill the air with the kind of bludgeoning blooze-rock — and onstage French kissing — that they've been garnering much attention for in recent months. ...
Just back at the hotel for a minute, as I'm off to go interview the Cold War Kids at La Zona Rosa, then an evening filled with Elvis Perkins, Lo Fi Fink and (hopefully) the absence of heat stroke.
John Norris, MTV News correspondent:
"Dude, I've been watching you since I was 5!"
"Nice to see you guys actually covering music!"
Ah yes — just a sampling of the greetings you get trying to shoot a news brief at 11 a.m. in the middle of Sixth Street on day #2 of SXSW. Who said they don't get up before noon at this festival? In fact, one person who was up early was none other than Chris Kirkpatrick. Yes, as in, formerly of 'NSYNC Chris Kirkpatrick ... though decidedly more tattooed than the last time I saw him. Chris has been to South By before but was ready to proclaim this one "maybe the wildest one yet." (Uh, totally awesome, bro.)
Other sights and sounds on a sunny Thursday in Austin:
"Nothing like a matinee. We're from Montreal. It's our first time in Texas. We want some chicken-fried chicken, whatever that is." · Canadian ambient rocker Patrick Watson, during a 1:45 p.m. set at Emo's
"We hope you find happiness and places to park." · Will Sheff, frontman for local band Okkervil River, to the packed afternoon crowd at Bourbon Rocks. Great band by the way: They've been playing SXSW for seven years and have a deservedly faithful following. Folk-rock sound that would not be out of place on a Bright Eyes bill.
"Doesn't that bicycle seat hurt your ass?" · The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne, to a cycling semi-drag queen (gray hair and beard, painted nails, tiara, butterfly thong and, apparently, breasts). Wayne was last seen on Sixth Street at SXSW 2006 as a pied piper in a huge bubble; this year he's a roving reporter for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
Gil Kaufman, MTV News writer: Not a whole lot of time to file right now, as I'm putting in a marathon day of shows (Amy Winehouse, Daniel Johnston, El-P). But I wanted to share this gem from Wednesday night with you all: Sometimes even the most horrible band can teach you something.
Walking down Sixth Street, you hear so much music bleed out of every hole-in-the-wall bar that it's hard to figure out who you're hearing, even if you consult your festival guide. British blues yelpers Kava Kava, with a lead singer who looked like Bo Bice on a bender, were totally unexceptional, except for this genius bit of technology: The keyboardist had a little LED display taped onto his instrument that said "read me" and scrolled the band's name over and over in red 2-inch-high letters. Genius.
P.S.: No truth to all those "Rage Against the Machine played a reunion show last night" rumors floating around Austin. Tom Morello's manager told me the axeman was in Los Angeles on Wednesday night and that the supposed show "couldn't have happened." Though Morello's show Thursday night at Parish — where he is slated to perform as his alias, the Nightwatchman — is being billed as featuring "special guests," so ... who knows?
James Montgomery: Important SXSW Lesson, Number One: No matter how boring you think the Cold War Kids may be, do not — under any circumstances — avoid their live show, which from the sound of things will be one that fest vets will be talking about for remainder of the week. Of course, I wasn't there, having dipped out to go watch Lo Fi Fink goof around onstage for 20 minutes, but apparently — from the roughly 37 text messages I received about it — I missed an epic effort, culminating with a mega-jam involving hotly tipped folkster Elvis Perkins.
Important SXSW Lesson, Number Two: No matter how inconsequential you think Tom Morello might be, do not — under any circumstances — skip out on a performance by his side project, the Nightwatchman, especially when said performance is billed as "featuring special guests." Sure enough, I missed out on another sure-to-be-blogged about highlight — but don't worry, other members of the MTV News crew were in the front row, cameras and notebooks in hand (see "Morello's SXSW Gig Turns Into Raucous All-Star Jam With Slash, Perry Farrell").
Important SXSW Lesson, Number Three: I am a huge dumbass.
Thursday night wasn't all bad though ... I did get to witness a blistering set of anthemic, honest-to-goodness punk rock from Gainesville, Florida's Against Me!. (Of course, I had to sit through 45 minutes of Jack's Mannequin to do it, so let's call it a Pyrrhic victory.)
The fiercely DIY quartet turned the punk community on its collective head in late 2005 when they announced that they had signed with — gasp! — a major label, but if their sweaty set at the Sire Records showcase was any indication, all those old wounds have healed. Many fists were pumped, many hard-charging choruses bellowed and many unfortunate tattoos revealed, and the band seemed to be having a ball unveiling songs from their upcoming album New Wave, which displayed a decidedly dance-y streak.
Hey, even comedian David Cross, who caught the show in his "official undercover celebrity uniform" (read: a flannel shirt and a ratty ball cap) approved. And if it's good enough for America's foremost indie humorist, then it's certainly good enough for you.
John Norris: Now that's the South by Southwest I know and love. After a kinda sleepy Wednesday on Sixth Street ("Pete Wentz Clones Descend, Lily Allen Warbles As SXSW Gets Under Way"), on Thursday night things were back to the Bourbon-Street-with-a-great-soundtrack vibe that defines this week in Austin. Not always easy to maneuver, especially when every block there's another two or three CDs shoved into your hand. And — note to the guy who said, "You probably just throw these things away" — rest assured I try to make a point of listening to each and every record that comes my way.
Anyway, making it to see four artists at four different clubs in five hours does require a plan, and that's what I and my friend Chris, who was in from New York, had. For the most part, it worked.
First stop: Norway's Sondre Lerche, a power pop guy whose records seem to just be getting better. Not only is his latest, Phantom Punch probably his best to date, it also brings him closest to one of his musical heroes, Elvis Costello. Sondre and his very tight band had the crowd at Antone's — part of a showcase for Astralwerks that also included Sparklehorse — rocking.
The same could also be said for Mute Math. The electronic outfit — and former "You Hear It First" artist — is a band that, it is said, is best appreciated live. Tonight, everyone packed into the Dirty Dog found out why.
No doubt one of the three or four "biggest" bands at SXSW 2007 is Bloc Party — hence their show at Stubb's amounted to a mob scene. Thankfully Chris and I got in about 10 minutes before they took the stage, to tear through close to an hour's worth of songs from the still-genius 2005 album Silent Alarm, plus the recently released record titled — as frontman Kele Okereke implored the crowd to shout out — A Weekend in the City. On a warm night like tonight, the amphitheatre setting of Stubb's is Austin's best venue to see music — and favorites like "Banquet" to the new stuff, including the sweetly nostalgic "I Still Remember," swelled through the night air.
Finally, when it's 1 a.m. and you need a final burst of energy, what better way than the Smiths-y jangle pop of Austin's Voxtrot? This was one of the most-seen bands at last year's South By, and with a new album on the way, Ramesh Srivastava and the boys sent the crowd at Emo's off into the Austin night feeling good.
It was a long night, and a great night, and I'm done.
Gil Kaufman: I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, but while walking by the English showcase, I might have pretended to be from Leeds to squeeze in with some genuine Brits when they said the show was closed. Luckily, I snuck in, grabbed a soggy taco and got to see a mesmerizing, kinda scary acoustic set from mega-hyped British train wreck Amy Winehouse.
Impossibly thin with a towering black beehive hairdo and a sailor-worthy menagerie of tattoos, wearing tightly pegged jeans, a food-stained white undershirt and dirty pink ballet slippers, Winehouse played a four-song set that showed off her strong, soulful pipes on songs including her hit single, "Rehab." It was hard to ignore the deep scratches all over her left arm and her twitchy mannerisms, though.
Say what you will about the relevance of grunge progenitors the Melvins, but watching lead singer Buzz Osborne smash out dinosaur riffs while wearing a long black caftan covered in skulls and birds was the bomb. But the most important news of the day came during a brief set by beloved eccentric Daniel Johnston, who announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, I am not running for president today. I came here to this town today to rock this town."
The afternoon ended nicely with a ribcage-rattling set of thick hip-hop rock by El-P, who tried mightily to avoid cursing during a live broadcast on a local station. Unfortunately for them, he slipped up within the first five seconds he was on air.
Then, in the evening, I decided to check out a full set from Winehouse, and I'd like to take back (some) of what I said earlier; maybe she's just not an early riser. Dressed in the same get-up, but with a clean black T-shirt, she slayed an adoring, sweat-drenched crowd with a high-energy set that, unfortunately, started two hours later than advertised. But with her coquettish stage moves and dangerous-looking come-hither smile and teasing hand gestures — not to mention that smoky voice — all was forgiven.
After Amy, I checked out Minneapolis' Cloud Cult, who impressed with their Flaming Lips-style psychedelic rock, and the two onstage artists doing "action painting" during their set. James winced when I used the phrase "action painting," saying, "That sounds horrible!" I didn't tell him about the pregnant cello player with Christmas lights in her hair.
And finally, I caught up with an old pal, Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman, during Straylight Run's gig. Dressed in his signature board shorts, loose t-shirt and flip-flops, Lyman said he was just hanging out and doing a bit of business, hoping to check out Willie Nelson on Saturday. Now that's punk rock.
And if you'll excuse me, I've got to crash. I'm exhausted, officially.
Will James actually make it to one of these buzz shows? Can the rest of the fest beat John's stellar Thursday? And could anything out-weird Gil's "action painting" experience? 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 3.15.2007 at 8:44 p.m.]