SXSW 2012 @ Austin, Texas

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SXSW 2012 @ Austin, Texas


In his inspired and inspiring SXSW keynote address, Bruce Springsteen quoted legendary music critic Lester Bangs, who wrote that Elvis Presley was the last thing that we would all agree on. Springsteen talked about a time when there were so few bands around that record stores didn’t exist, when albums were racked in a corner of the local drug store. Not anymore. There are more music genres in the world than there are words to name them – though Springsteen tried to assemble an exhaustive list. There are more music genres in the world than you can possibly conceive, and they are all represented at SxSW.

Over five days and nights in downtown Austin (hipster capital of the American South), two thousand bands play at more than seven hundred events – showcases, unofficial parties, and house parties, in clubs, dive bars, restaurants, car parks, record stores, backyards, on rooftops and street corners – anywhere you can fit a band they cram one in and ramp up the speakers to drown out the bleeding noise from the next car park/dive bar/restaurant door. The sound bashes you from every angle, all hours of the day and night, waves of distorted treble and booming bass buffeting your brain as you careen from one amazing small thing to another. Six blocks around Austin’s Sixth Street precinct, and east over the interstate, the streets are a muck of hipster, metalhead, dulcet indie songstress and hip hop heavy – all music cultures are accounted for, and everyone is a rockstar in training. Literally everyone is dressed to impress, in ludicrous permutations of torn skinny jeans, vintage shorts and facial hair, trucker caps, baggy jeans and bling or no facial hair, cascading heavy metal locks and t-shirts that say ‘fuck hipsters’. They are all unique flowers of the universe, all beautiful, all wearing unnecessary glasses. Only but the thing is, the sheer weight of collective attention-seeking crushes itself. No one can possibly stand-out here, ever, for any reason; it doesn’t matter if you’re Bruce Springsteen or Barack Obama, no one cares. And so instead of being a sea of arseholes, SXSW is a joyful clusterfuck of music fans who believe wholeheartedly that a great gig, a great song, will set you free. It is a positive, excited place where musicians work like dogs – four, eight, twelve gigs in five days – to prove they have a right to be heard.

Wrapping your head around the schedule is a good few days’ work, with countless unknown bands to research, parties to RSVP and road maps to coordinate. It’s a rabbit hole of possibility that becomes more awesome and daunting the further you drop. There is also a hierarchy to understand, with industry VIPs and artists sitting somewhere at the top of the list, conference badge holders on the next rung and the general public queuing up behind. Some of the bigger and more established parties evoke a kind of mass-hysteria at the door, with punters queuing for hours to collect a precious party wristband and hours to get into the venue in time for that one over-hyped set or a not-so-secret guest appearance by some music luminary who is slumming it in a club.

The schedule you pull together mutates and may ultimately be abandoned, but it is impossible to be disappointed with where you end up. The quality of music at SXSW is so strong that even the most mediocre of bands are worth five minutes of your time, and the constant swill of conversation and recommendations from fellow punters brings new discoveries every hour. The SXSW cliché is absolutely true – some of the best things you see are the things you stumble on while waiting for something else.

Among the most hyped acts at the conference, Alabama Shakes are spearheading the current blues rock revival, with lead singer Brittany Howard chomping and moaning her way through a powerhouse set at Stubb’s BBQ and Grill that had the crowd in fits. Canadian electro pop artist Grimes was another much-anticipated act, and while her set was largely a trick of vocal reverb and pre-fab samples, she is undeniably compelling to watch, dancing and twitching like an ’80s teen idol with her uber art punk wardrobe all casually perfect. Miike Snow and entourage tore up Lustre Pearl in the last slot of Thursday night with their unbelievable creamy future beat sound, and indie super band Diamond Rugs (featuring members of Deer Tick, The Black Lips and Los Lobos) inspired similar hysteria when they unleashed their rattling rock in the same venue on Saturday.

Alongside the fucking interminable synth pop trend, garage rock was lurking around every corner of SXSW this year, with Brisbane’s Bleeding Knees Club holding their own against similarly young and spunky bands like Bleached (pictured), whose lead singer is a doll-like nymph, and the very excellent Howler, who have phenomenal songwriting chops and also solid stand-up comedy skills. Bass Drum Of Death blew them all away, however, vaporising the crowd at the Friday night Noisey showcase.

Of the masses of hip hop and hip pop on offer, Santigold was a highlight – her dancers stealing the show at Fader Fort with their props, costumes changes and stone-faced twerking moves. Danny Brown followed with his snarky, dirty, unapologetic rap style- a maestro at the mic who slams hard and decries all MSG hip hop while shaking his asymmetrical kinky afro bob and stirring the crowd into a bellowing fan frenzy. Lady Leshurr was also amazing, a British MC whose rapid-fire flow bulleted off the stage during her midnight slot on Saturday at The Driskall.

The Magnetic Fields made their first-ever SXSW appearance this year, playing a showcase slot at the ACL Theatre and a small and frankly magical club show at The Parish for NPR – America’s National Public Radio. In a golf cap and tortoiseshell glasses, munching on wasabi peas in between songs, Stephin Merritt was at his most droll and adorable, delivering acoustic versions of songs from their latest album and a satisfying number from 69 Love Songs in his impeccable, lamenting baritone. Also drowning in wit and irony, Father John Misty (aka J Tillman, ex-Fleet Foxes drummer) confused the audience at the Sub Pop showcase, with the help of band members from Blitzen Trapper, temporarily dubbed Blitzen Misty. Before and around songs of dark, humorous poetry, he reeled off one-liner after one-liner in what is best described as a indie comedy cabaret performance. Freed from that cumbersome drum kit, he has blossomed into the leading man he was also supposed to be – weird, handsome and terribly fucking funny.

I was frustrated by the limitations of time and the wealth of things I necessarily missed – choices are tough at SXSW, and inevitably someone will tell you about something you had meant to see but couldn’t, which was of course amazing. Cloud Nothings made people very happy, as did Seattle-based violinist Kishi Bashi, Canadian indie pop crooner Patrick Watson and Californian prog hardcore act Ceremony, amongst many others. I wish I had seen them all, but I wouldn’t trade a single set. Not even the bands, and there were a few, where I saw multiple sets.

My favourite acts from SXSW 2012 ran the gamut. Danny Brown was up there, along with the brilliant electro Kate Bush sounds of Niki & The Dove and the arch indie rock of Brooklyn’s Oberhofer, both undoubtedly coming our way soon. Less certain of an Australia tour, Ki:Theory (aka Joel Burleson) delivered a monstrous, pummeling electro rock set at ND (with the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in the audience, caught on tape for the upcoming Terence Malick film). I adored Yellow Ostrich, fronted by the overgrown boy child Alex Schaaf, whose brutally sweet lyrics and breaking voice go hand in hand, and Youth Lagoon was amazing too. But by far and away, the band that made me tingle and sweat was San Francisco’s Two Gallants, two guys who have been playing together since they were kids and releasing music for the better part of a decade, who broke up in 2008 and reformed last year, who bring rage and incomparable brilliance to blues folk. I saw every set they played, because their records do not do their live show justice, and the chances of seeing Two Gallants in Australia anytime soon is slim. If for no other reason – and there were plenty of other reasons – the opportunity to see three Two Gallants shows in one week was more than worth hopping a flight to a mangy, overloaded music conference half-way around the world. They set my heart on fire.


Photo credit: Tegan Butler

LOVED: Food truck lot on east 5th and San marco serving wild boar and foise gras. Seriously, we need to step things up with our food trucks.

HATED: Queues.

DRANK: A lot.