Last month, Earplug’s Michael Byrne hit massive music industry gathering (and unofficial weenie roast) SXSW alongside photographer Josh Sisk, wading through the thousands of bands and lapping up all the backyard BBQ he could eat. What’d he take away? Austin’s premiere event isn’t going anywhere. Strip away the logos, the dudes handing out soon-to-be-tossed download promo cards, the free domestic beer, the industry, the marketing, and you still get the feeling that this festival will be around no matter what. Beneath it all, it has that kind of energy, and it serves as an allegory for music itself, particularly as the stubborn industry around it crumbles. It will survive.
View a photo gallery of Byrne’s SXSW adventures here and read on for his anecdotes from Austin.
Band Dispatches from the center of SXSW:
1. Ponytail – I’m used to calling this band “squealcore,” but their new stuff has developed Molly Siegel’s prelingual vocal style into more than just a heavy accent. It’s thick, powerful in the mix, and actually surfaces to form human words. When her still kinda animalistic sounds join forces with guitarist Duston Wong’s, the result is something so fully realized, we’re trembling just thinking about what this band can and will do to music. Ponytail’s found rails, and is chugging down them at 110 mph.
2. Frodus – Eight years after disbanding, Virgina artcore trio Frodus comes unglued at one of the last official showcases of the festival, washing away a foot-thick, gnarled skein of festival corporatization in thirty seconds of spastic yowling. They cover Devo’s “Explosions” and it’s nothing if not transcendent.
3. Tara Jane O’Neil – It’s a brief set in the tiny backyard of a bookstore and runs through a couple of old tunes from /Tracer/ and /You Sound, Reflect/ (standard “The Poisoned Mine”). She writes more folk songscapes than beginning-middle-end songs, and it’s hard to pin it down exactly—something about the effortlessness/naturalness of her guitar playing. It’s like she’s coloring in something that’s always there, just floating everywhere in resonant soundwaves. Lovely.
4. DJ Class – No one but no one would have predicted one of Baltimore’s lesser-acknowledged club music pioneers would be playing South By Southwest in the year 2009, let along to a capacity club at an official showcase. But it happens, and the result is dancing that would get you shot and shot again in Baltimore, but the recognition means a ton. We get the hits, of course—two bouts of Class’ well-traveled, AutoTuned recent hit “I’m the Ish” and the Baltimore club classic “Tear the Club Up.” It’s heartening, to say the least.
5. Ms. Beas – A constant stream of Todd P-curated free shows throughout the festival on a patio behind a rough bar ten minutes walking or so from the main drag. Just about every indieground “it” band and everything “shitgaze” makes an appearance here for at least one quick set. One of the best things the festival has going for it, and a good reason to come Austin with or without a badge/wristband.
Exploring the Environment:
1. Sponsor saturation – Even at a late, late night punk show on a goddamn quaking pedestrian bridge over Austin’s “town lake,” someone’s tossing out boxes of goddamn Converse shoes to the crowd. The crowd, in turn, tears them open and pitches the shoes at each other (and, well, beer cans) and, inevitably, into the water 30 feet below. Lesson learned, hopefully.
2. Electronic music unsaturation – Aside from afterparties and private parties, electronic/dance music is all but nonexistent compared to the battleship loads of milquetoast, white bread “indie-rock” that pumps out of every other doorway ten hours a day. It’s there somewhat, sure, but often smooshed into lineups featuring a lot more of the aforementioned sheep-rock.
3. Oversaturation – It’s a weak complaint bitching about the sheer quantity of music happening in Austin at every hour in every place with a stage during the fest, but, honestly, when you’re down there it can turn into a headache of planning. Couple that with the anxiety of missing something cool somewhere else, and SXSW can be stressful. The best strategy is really to just say “fuck it” and plan on seeing a few exceptional performers, but plan on some randomness.
4. Emo’s Jr. – A goddamn sports game on during Efterklang’s set? Really? There’s a line of people around the block to see this band, and a tenth of the room is screaming at basketball, while the rest of the room is in a Norse chamber-core trance. Embarrassing.
5. Half-interest – You probably see this the more time you spend at South By Southwest, but you witness a lot of people with press and sponsor badges standing around at rad shows looking like they’d half rather be watching television or commenting on Idolator.