Wednesday, March 23rd, 2005

All Hail West Texas – SxSW 2005 Recap

This is it for the Texas-titled posts, I swear. And I know Austin isn’t in West Texas, bear with me. So here’s the final, formal SxSW post-mortem. I’ll recap the stuff I’ve already covered in brief and get into the other stuff a little more, and then some general thoughts on the festival experience. Some new discoveries I will cover more in-depth at a later date. These are just the capsule reviews, but I warn you – this post will be long. We will return you to regularly scheduled gossip, half-truths and outright lies tomorrow.

Thursday, March 17 (click for photos):

Wrens @ Emo’s Outside – First show of the fest for me, though I only caught maybe four songs. Absurdly high energy, they seemed beyond thrilled to be playing. Excellent way to start things off.

Stars @ Emo’s Outside – Their first of three shows on the weekend, and the start of something big. More on that later, but a typically excellent and fun performance from the band.

Shout Out Louds @ Cedar Street Courtyard – These Swedes were filling in for the no-show Rob Dickinson at the Filter party, and their retro-60s pop was alright, though the singer’s voice was getting to me. I left after four songs.

Midnight Movies @ Emo’s – I like it when they put the drummer up front. I like it more when it’s a hot chick. The music was a little difficult to absorb on first listen, I suspect it translates better on record. In a dark room. Worth further investigation, though.

American Analog Set @ Emo’s Outside – A nice hometown show for the band who were playing all over SxSW. Low-key and laid back with just enough groove the get you bobbing in time. Always a treat. It’s sad that they’re currently label-less, but I’m sure someone will have the wisdom to release their new album this Fall. Bonus marks to Andrew Kenney for giving a shout-out to his mom.

Aaron Booth @ Sake On Sixth – Hooray for the hometown boy making his first SxSW appearance. Some pleasant solo singer-songwriter pop to whet the appetite before setting out to indulge in the rock.

Ulrich Schnauss @ Blender Bar at The Ritz – I dunno, pudgy balding dude sitting at a laptop in really harsh, bright lighting making deafeningly loud noise just wasn’t doing it for me. Maybe I’ll be more in the mood when he comes through town next month, but I somehow doubt it. Perhaps his recorded output is more compelling?

Dirty On Purpose @ Co-Op Bar – The first great new discovery of the festival (for me). A great mish-mash of indie, synth and space rock with just the right proportions of sweetness and grit, they impressed even with a horribly unfavourable mix (though the soundguy made up for it somewhat by changing a broken string for the band). They thankfully had CDs of their debut EP for sale and while it’s good, their live stuff was even better. I’m expecting great things from these New Yorkers.

EPO-555 @ The Drink – Danes with a weird name, EPO-555 brought some pretty rocking yet still undeniably pop tunage that was enjoyable but didn’t floor me. Probably worth investigating at a later date, though. Frontman Mr. Baron von Max Hansen (presumably a stage name) really has some rock star moves down, though.

The Salteens @ Sake On Sixth – Cheers to Vancouver’s finest power-pop band to wrap up my first day at SxSW. Even though I was quite utterly wrecked by this point, I still greatly enjoyed their high-energy set which had people coming in off the street to see where the great tuneage was coming from.

Random Thursday notes – Also saw bits of Pedro The Lion, Bloom, Halley and Run Chico Run. I was up for over 24 hours straight. Combined with cross-continental travel, it makes for one wacky-ass day.

Friday, March 18 (click for photos):

Asobi Seksu @ Emo’s Outside – Like the day before, Friday started at Emo’s. I’d been quite anxious to see these guys since I didn’t expect them to tour up Canada way anytime soon, and they didn’t disappoint. They didn’t overwhelm either, but quite good. And loud. That’ll wake you up.

Experimental Aircraft @ Trophy’s – I made it a point to try and catch a fair bit of space/shoegaze rock whilst at the fest and that included these Austin-ite veterans of the scene. Playing a day show a little outside of downtown, the impact of their sound may have gotten a little lost in the outdoor setting, but still some excellent moments. A shame that they’re apparently disbanding next month.

Calexico @ Emo’s Outside – Calexico always rule live. They took an extra long time to get set up (you try getting a seven-piece band ready quickly!), but once they got started it was worth the wait. I can’t imagine much better than listening to Calexico in the hot Texas sun.

Kaiser Chiefs @ Cedar Street Courtyard – I guess this would have been my only buzz band show of the festival. My Filter invite got me right in and to the front of the stage where I turned out to be part of a phalanx of photographers. I honestly wasn’t that interested in seeing them, the mp3s I’d heard didn’t do much for me and my NME hype allergies were in full gear, but they did put on a very high energy and entertaining set. I won’t say I was converted or anything, nor do I think they’ll change the world, but they were fun. Full points for that.

Giant Drag @ Blender Bar at The Ritz – I went to this one on someone’s recommendation, I don’t remember who. Turns out they’re a duo from Los Angeles who sound like Juliana Hatfield fronting a stoner band. Mildly entertaining, moreso for Annie Hardy’s spaced-out between song banter than the music itself.

Zykos @ Blender Bar at The Ritz – They followed Giant Drag and since I had nowhere better to be, I stuck around. Austin locals, they had the home crowd out to support while they played… okay, to be honest? I don’t remember what they sounded like. This was already four days ago. Cut me some slack.

Decibully @ Friends – It was obvious from the huge lineup that I wasn’t getting into the Matador showcase, so I headed to the Polyvinyl showcase to grab a spot before SLGTM took the stage, meaning I got to catch all of Decibully’s set. Probably boasting the highest instrument density of any act I saw, they were literally falling off the small stage from all the gear they had with them. I was quite taken with their lush, emotive pop sound, and their choice to cover Steve Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues” could only endear them to me further.

Saturday Looks Good To Me @ Friends – I was much looking forward to this show, and man, was I not disappointed. There were soundguy issues as they were setting up and that tension got turned into one simply amazing show. I thought they were great when I saw them last Fall here in Toronto, but their performance on Saturday was turned up several hundred notches. Where frontwoman Betty Marie Barnes had been demure last time, she was full-on with energy and simply amazing this time out, and the band followed suit. I was bopping up and down through the whole set, as was most of the rest of the packed club. There’s simply no way you couldn’t have loved them. They got my vote for best showcase of the festival. Whoo!

Centro-Matic @ Maggie Mae’s – Since Denton, Texas’ Centro-Matic refuses to come closer to Toronto than Buffalo, I was simply going to have to go to them. Despite the fact that my feet were absolutely killing me by this point and the floor at Maggie Mae’s is flagstone (OW!), finally seeing Will Johnson and co. perform made it worth the pain. I’d seen him perform (almost) solo and acoustic last Fall, but the full band experience was something else. Despite instructions from the venue, they refused to stop playing after the allotted 40 minutes, continuing to play right up until 2AM, and if anyone had tried to stop them, they’d have had to fight each and every patron in the place.

Random Friday notes – Also saw bits of Suttro, LD-Section I and Zzzz. So people seem pretty insistant that I didn’t actually see Willie Nelson on Friday, just Almost Willie. Alas. But there was a genuine celebrity sighting at the very end of the night as I saw the New York Dolls on the sidewalk whilst heading out to catch a cab.

Saturday, March 19 (click for photos):

Laura Cantrell @ Cedar Street Courtyard – Despite it being a private party, the outdoorness of the Cedar Street Courtyard still allowed a decent view and great sound out on the sidewalk. Her voice just amazes me, so clean and pure and expressive, and her crack band certainly helped things out as well. And her day job as a radio DJ was certainly evident in her between-song banter, providing engaging background and explanations for all the songs.

Doves @ Waterloo Records – Cheers to Waterloo Records for having excellent instores and a good-sized stage for the performers. Not-so-cheers for having no real area for the audience to stand. Sightlines were pretty bad in the completely packed store, but I managed to get in a spot where I could see and snap some picks. I’d skipped on their showcase show on Thursday on account of them coming to Toronto in May and because I was planning on catching this in-store. They played for maybe 20 minutes acoustically, save for an electric piano and Jimi strapping on the bass for a few numbers, but it sounded really good. The newer material translated really well to the stripped-down format.

The Meeting Places @ SoHo Lounge – The first show of the evening, it was good to see that with this Los Angeles outfit, someone was still bringing the shoegaze, old-school. The dual Jazzmaster guitar lineup already had my approval, as did the huge sounds the coaxed out of them. Even more impressive were the solid songs that went along with them, something a lot of “nu-gaze” acts seem to forget. The live show was a fair bit more aggressive than the recorded material, but it hit just right. Colour me impressed.

The Winter Pageant @ Blender Bar at The Ritz – The plan had been to cross the street to catch +/-, but there was already a fair-sized lineup at 9PM. What gives? When we finally did get inside, the club was not nearly full, natch. New York’s The Winter Pageant were just setting up and when the too-bright stage lights went nearly dark, they were ready to begin. They offered up a set of mostly instrumental, ambient post-rock that was at times mesmerizing, other times meandering. I think they’ve got a lot of potential but will need to tighten up their songcraft to really impress.

Stars @ Blender Bar at The Ritz – The lineup I mentioned earlier that I couldn’t explain? Turns out it was for Montreal’s Stars. Though not accompanied by a whole lot of pre-Sx buzz when they arrived in town, a couple of impressive day shows must have gotten tongues wagging, because the place was pretty well packed for their official showcase set. As for how it went, it’s probably more effective to say that everyone I talked to afterwards was talking about the Stars. Some had expected greateness, others were taken completely by surprise, but all were blown away. I couldn’t help but feel some nationalistic pride when I heard that the band sold 3000 records last week alone – that’s bloody amazing. I think they would have to qualify as the sleeper hit of the festival, and I’m very eager to see how it shakes out for the band from here on out.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness @ Blender Bar at The Ritz – To make one more point about the Stars, Austin’s own wonderfully-named I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness was one of the pre-fest hype bands, but when the Stars finished their set, the place cleared out. Everyone had seen who they came to see. Granted, it filled up again by the time the band started their set, but still. I had been completely prepared to dislike ILYBICD – I was expecting more generic 80s-derivative post-punk new wave disco, but was pleasantly surprised. While there were definitely touchstones to the “in” sound, ILYBICD came off much more timeless in their brooding, atmospheric rock – certainly not another bandwagon jumper. And their name rules.

Ambulance LTD @ Exodus – Attempts to see Nada Surf close out the festival were stymied by huge lineups and little venues, so I was thankful that we still managed to get into the Exodus to see New York’s Ambulance LTD in the final show of the weekend, albeit in the balcony where sightlines were nearly non-existant. I wasn’t that chuffed to see them since I’ve already got tickets to see them in town next month, but was still curious to see how the album translated live. Answer? Pretty well. They were very polished in their performance, slick even. Some of the atmospherics of the recordings were traded in for a more standard indie rock sound, but it all still held up quite well. They were also the only band I saw all weekend to do an encore, even if it was a sort of aimless two-man instrumental piece.

Random Saturday Notes – Had my first Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Was not impressed. This is the official beer of indie rock? Is there even alchohol in those things? Sure doesn’t say so on the can. When a pint of beer can’t get me remotely buzzed, there’s something wrong. Drank it at Emo’s during some punk rock day showcase. Man, all the kids with the big purple X’s on their hands… I felt like a chaperone. I hit Flatstock at the convention center and would certainly have come away with some concert poster artwork if it were at all practical to get it home on the plane. It wasn’t. Also, many thanks to Rachel, who drove down from Dallas for the afternoon, and to locals Joyce and Fred for keeping me company throughout the day and evening.

And with the strike of 2AM Saturday night, that was it for SxSW 2005. I absolutely had a marvelous if exhausting time. Would I do it again? Maybe. Things I would have done differently this year or would do for next year:

1) Get on more guest lists for private parties. No reason I shouldn’t be able to rub elbows with the hipsterati, after all. I didn’t really try this time on account of having enough to wrap my head around with the regular events, let alone the special ones.

2) Bring a cellphone. It would have been nice to have been actually able to meet up with folks like the Donewaiting crew or Mr Catbirdseat rather than just playing phone tag.

3) Don’t go alone. SxSW is a big schmoozefest and even if you’re not a schmoozer, it’s much easier to enjoy the atmosphere with others. I did meet up with some friends in town and that was fine, but the times when I struck out on my own were kinda lonely, particularly waiting in line (which is why I didn’t do so very much).

4) Look up the damned addresses of day show venues. I had mistakenly assumed that everything would be listed on the official SxSW maps… not so. There were day shows I’d have liked to get to, but had no idea where they were. At least until I found a phone book, which brings us to…

5) Rent a car. Cabs to and from the airport cost me $50 right there, and another $10 to the hotel. Bus service was cheap but erratic. Having some mode of transportation would have really helped me save time (key!) as well as given me access to the more remote day and night show venues. This would obviously be made more affordable by addressing point 3). And yeah, parking is a pain but hailing a cab at 3AM isn’t much easier.

6) Stay in a closer hotel. I didn’t really realize how far my pad was from the downtown. Comes from not really knowing how long a mile is, really. The distance wasn’t so much the problem as the lack of direct transportation. Cabs and buses suck. And it really would have been nice to just decompress for even an hour in the hotel between shows. Next time, man. And if point 3) is taken care of, the price goes down! It all comes together.

7) Hook up with a publication. Even if it’s just to snag a press pass (apparently blogs aren’t press) for my camera. Smuggling was easy but still annoying. It’s also be neat to go down as part of a team and cover the fest that way. So if there’s anyone reading this who might want to enlist some help for next year’s festival, drop me a line.

8) Orthopedic shoes. Fashion, schmasion, my feet hurt! A girdle for back support isn’t out of the question either. Or maybe I’ll just carry around one of those rubber mats that cashiers at supermarkets stand on.

By : Frank Yang at 6:25 am
Category: Uncategorized
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  1. Rachel says:

    Look, I’m famous! I’m in Frank’s blog! You forgot to mention the stifling heat in Waterloo. Now I know how Napoleon felt. And, the ten year olds at Emo’s were funny. In that, "oh God I was never that young or certainly not cool enough to go to a music fest by myself when I was" sort of way.

  2. david says:

    You made me happy I missed Ulrich Schnauss…

    Next year I plan on attending the entire week (including Interactive), we’ll trade cell numbers and form a posse.

  3. solace says:

    that’s it, i’m going next year.

  4. Five One Seven says:

    EPO-555 is a pretty great band. I ordered their record on the weight of a remix they did for Lise Westzynthius. I keep meaning to to an entry about them… The album is mostly electronicish though.

  5. Eric says:

    Glad you enjoyed the Polyvinyl showcase. I was right up front from Ida all the way through Of Montreal. That placed was overpacked and a little insane. I’m glad I got to see those bands though . . .

  6. jinners says:

    i’m so happy you enjoyed it… i wish i had met you. i was up front and bopping my head. did you see me?

  7. Frank says:

    hey Jinners – I had no idea you were DOP’s manager until Michelle told me. I think I was standing like two people beside you at the Co-Op showcase. How about that. You have to keep me in the loop as to goings-on with the band. And get em to tour up here. I guarantee attendance of at least two people, maybe three.

  8. jinners says:

    yeah i’ve been talking to michelle about bringing the kids up there. i’d like to party in toronto for sure! maybe you should start a party we can play?

  9. jinners says:

    you were at kaiser chiefs? i took photos of the audience from the balcony. i’m going to see if i can spot you.

  10. Frank says:

    my birthday is in may, you guys can come up and play at that.

    I was at the Kaiser Chiefs day show at the Filter party, I was front row, stage left right in front of the keyboardist, leaning on the PA.