The 25th anniversary edition of the South by Southwest Music Conference & Festival went down in Austin, Texas this month and it was one to remember. The festival once again featured everything from semi-secret shows by arena-level headliners to all the latest “buzz” bands, to '80s favorites looking to make a comeback. This wide mix of talent is exactly what makes SXSW so unique. With somewhere around 2,000 bands playing at roughly 200 venues over five nights, it was pretty much heaven on Earth for live music junkies.
The festival keeps growing in attendance every year, so the urban chaos factor has been increasing too, leading NPR to describe the massive city-wide party as seeming like “one big crowded bar.” It did have that vibe at times, but isn't that kind of fun? Indeed, it is. Traffic often did look like a nightmare (you gotta have a bike, people) and there were a couple unruly incidents this year. But if you're a party professional, there's really nowhere you can have a better time, not to mention being able to mix business with pleasure if you're a music industry pro. It's the influx of party amateurs that threatens to mess up a good thing.
Two incidents exemplified this: the gate crashing at Auditorium Shores when the free show by the Strokes on Thursday had filled to its 20,000 capacity, and the mini-riot that took place at the Beauty Bar on Saturday night after it had filled to capacity for Death From Above 1979, who were billed only as “special guest.” But there's just no excuse for such behavior. There's only, like, 200 other shows going on at any given time; if your first choice is filled to capacity, then go see someone else, This is why planning is key – you always want to have two or three potential choices in any given time slot, because you never know when your top show will either be at capacity or across town from where you've wound up and don't really care to travel to at that moment.
Bringing or renting a bike is key. A bike also allows you to zip back and forth to have maximum flexibility to see your most preferred shows. It's simple Vulcan logic. The other great thing about having so many choices is that SXSW can mean so many different things to so many different music fans. It's all out there, as every genre is represented. You can focus on one or sample them all like the massive musical buffet that SXSW is. If you're not having a great time, you're just not trying. Here follows one Gen-X rock 'n' roller's musical menu, broken down into headliners, other evening showcases and day parties.
SXSW Music has traditionally run from Wednesday through Saturday. But this year they decided to add some showcases on Tuesday evening as well. Yet there seemed to be something missing compared to the past two years. There was no blank spot in the Friday night lineup at Stubbs BBQ for a semi-secret arena level headliner (which turned out to be Metallica in 2009 and Muse in 2010.)
But then something stood out on the Tuesday schedule for SXSW Film – the world premiere of The Foo Fighters' new rockumentary “Back and Forth” at the Paramount Theater, with the program stating that Music badges were good for admission to the screening. Then word came down through a local music blog's Facebook page early on Tuesday – a Stubbs employee said the the Foo Fighters would be playing a “secret” show at Stubbs that night. Was it invite-only, or would which badges would gain admittance? This was unclear. But applying Vulcan logic, it was easy to conjure a likely scenario – if you attended the film, you would get into the show at Stubbs, because wouldn't it just make sense to play the show for the people who were big enough fans to attend the film premiere?
The Paramount Theater on Congress Avenue was a hub of activity, with no less than four different lines stretching in various directions. Chaos ensued with SXSW staff at first being unsure of whether Music badges were valid and then declaring that they were not. A mini-insurrection ensued, with a small group of music badge holders pulling out the official program, where it clearly stated that music badges were acceptable in order to gain admittance. The situation was rectified several calls later when staff were instructed to place the music badge holders in line. The coveted yellow wristbands with the band's “FF” logo soon followed and so it was that heady Foo Fighters fans had the unique pleasure of viewing the film, followed by an after party at Stubbs featuring a smashing headlining set by the band, with open bar and tacos, no less (provided by a sponsor of SXSW Interactive for the closing night party.)
The film was compelling, tracing the band's origins from the shocking suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain that sent Dave Grohl into an existential crisis, to becoming international stars, to the recording of the band's new album in Grohl's garage with Nevermind producer Butch Vig. Afterward, it was right over to Stubbs where a mob scene ensued as again there were no less than four different lines of people attempting to gain admittance. But it was the film attendees with the yellow wristbands who were admitted first.
The Foo Fighters also came on first and played a scintillating set that started off with a complete rendition of the new album Wasting Light, which definitely sounded like some of the band's best work. In the film, guitarist Chris Shiflett had commented on how “All My Life” from 2003's One by One was always a song that sparked a show higher. So it was again here as the song kicked off another electrifying 30-40 minutes of the band's greatest hits. Grohl was on fire, drummer Taylor Hawkins was an animal as usual, and there was no doubt this was one of the top performances of the week. And it was only the first night of the festival.
Wednesday night also saw a stellar headlining set from an alt-rock favorite, as Queens of the Stone Age took the La Zona Rosa stage at 12:15 am and delivered a straight-up smoking set that went right up until 2 am. QOTSA also delivered a complete album performance, but rather than highlighting a new one, they threw down their self-titled 1998 debut that's about to be re-released. The packed club reveled in every moment of the hard-hitting set, with Josh Homme and company in superb form on the tight, heavy material. Homme also put himself up for most rock star performance of the week by drinking straight from a bottle of vodka throughout the set.
Thursday night featured hipster heroes the Strokes headlining the free show at Auditorium Shores, as well as jam rock titans Widespread Panic playing the first SXSW showcase that would also be a taping for the Austin City Limits TV show. The Strokes show was appealing, but the Panic showcase also had a strong conflicting undercard. The New Mastersounds and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band opened the show at the swanky new ACL Live at the Moody Theater venue. Fear of getting shutout led many Spreadheads to get there early, although the 2,700 capacity theater never did fill completely. Still, staying in one place for three great bands can be appealing, too.
Reports indicated that the Strokes delivered a high-quality show highlighting their new album to make up for two abbreviated sets at last fall's ACL Festival. It was however a great night at ACL Live. The New Mastersounds got things going with a funky set, followed by a great set from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who received guest assistance from bluegrass legend Del McCoury and the Traveling McCourys, as well as Jim James from My Morning Jacket.
Widespread Panic delivered a solid set, if not quite the full-tilt barnburner that some badgeless local fans feared they might miss. There were no special guests but there were plenty of highlights, such as a sparkling “Pilgrims” and the soul-soothing “Up All Night,” an appropriate anthem for the SXSW crowd. “Chilly Water” closed the set with a surging take on one of the band's jam staples, with bassist Dave Schools laying down a super-heavy low end. Some newbies and casual fans were probably surprised to find themselves getting wet from Spreadheads playfully shooting water from their water bottles up into the air, as is tradition during the song. A triple encore included a great “Dirty Side Down,” the title track from the band's latest album and a gem that shows the band is still cranking out great new songs 25 years into their illustrious career.
Friday night had a wealth of options in headliner slots, such as Duff McKagan's Loaded at the Austin Music Hall, but this reporter had to see the Airborne Toxic Event at Stubb's. A favorite new discovery at SXSW 2009, the band had graduated to a Friday night slot at Stubb's, and if you'd fallen in love with their debut album, you wouldn't want to miss the chance to see them make good here and check out new material from their forthcoming second album .
Singer/guitarist Mikel Jollett noted how the band wound up touring behind that first record for over two years, which meant he had to sing about his ex-girlfriend every night for over two years, which he doesn't recommend. A great new song touched on this theme with Jollett singing, “Two years away, now I don't miss home.” Many bands were clearly pacing themselves for a long week by drinking water onstage, but Jollett received party points when he toasted the crowd, saying “It is SXSW after all, and we are professionals,” followed by a slug from a Heineken tallboy. It was a zeitgeist moment for SXSW 2011 – you can party without having to be out of control. Another highlight of the week occurred when the band played their neo-classic, “Sometime Around Midnight.” The tale of heartache at seeing an ex that you're still getting over can induce a tear, but it's a cathartic song and it clearly struck a chord with the audience here. Violinist Anna Bulbrook drove the song to several peaks with her skillful work, and the set was a most triumphant SXSW homecoming for the band.
There was also a major conflict in the closing slot, when rising Oakland buzz band Beats Antique were playing the Beauty Bar at the same time that '80s icons Men Without Hats were to play around the corner at Club DeVille. Many music fans under the age of 30 have probably never heard of Men Without Hats, but if you were watching MTV in the '80s, the Montreal band's smash hit “The Safety Dance” was huge. There was a real buzz in the crowd at Club DeVille because it felt like one of those special SXSW opportunities that just don't come around every day. When the group hit the stage with a charged cover of The Rolling Stones' “Jumping Jack Flash,” the party was on. Singer Ivan Doroschuk had his mojo working and this energy translated to the crowd as the group ran through all their best material. “Everybody's Happy” was interestingly dedicated to local radio talk show host and conspiracy theory icon Alex Jones. When the group triggered the opening synth run and beat for “The Safety Dance,” a jolt of electricity shot through the crowd with a wave of smart-phones rising in the air to record the moment as the crowd sang along. It was easily one of the most well-received songs of the week, as well as one of the most ecstatic moments.
Saturday night featured another big free show at Auditorium Shores with Bright Eyes, where there was no trouble to be found, just great music. The only reason for anyone to be upset could have stemmed from spotting a huge prop Maker's Mark vending machine, only to find that no whiskey was available for sale - just beer and frozen margaritas. Conor Oberst and company delivered a sparkling and lengthy set that sounded great on the balmy spring evening under the rare super moon, which appeared extra large and bright as the moon made its closest approach to Earth in 18 years. The crowd seemed to recognize every song, with one tune after another being met with huge cheers. Oberst was mostly in high spirits as the band featured material both classic and new from their latest release, . Oberst dedicated “Approximated Sunlight” to the super moon, while later noting that the US had just started its third war with the military action in Libya.
“It doesn't even matter any more, it doesn't bother anyone... I think it's worth noting that today we murdered children as a country. Sorry to bring it down like that, but that's what's actually happening,” said Oberst before soothing the vibe with “Old Soul Song.” But ultimately, the indie rock star was as much in the spirit of SXSW as anyone, saying, “There's music everywhere you go, all the time, which is just a beautiful thing.”
The evening ended with a bang too, for those who found their way over to Lustre Pearl for a 1 am set by Rhode Island's Deer Tick. The charming Rainey Street club had been packed for a great set by Dawes, where members of Deer Tick joined the band for their last song. Deer Tick had apparently advertised the fact that they were going to pull a special stunt here, but the crowd seemed taken unaware when the band came on and launched into Nirvana's “School.” It was just the beginning as the band played an entire set of Nirvana tunes, taking the audience on an exhilarating time travel trip back to 1993.
Deer Tick is known for a bluesy indie folk sound, but singer/guitarist John McCauley has a gritty voice that's right in Kurt Cobain's register. The band's powerful sound did great justice to the material, as they tackled it with a sacred reverence. They delivered some of the hits such as “In Bloom,” “Lithium” and “All Apologies,” all of which received raucous singalongs. But they also covered more obscure fan favorites like “Blew” and “Aneurysm,” and the delirious crowd was just as into those. If you were starting to feel a bit weary after raging SXSW for five nights, this set was just what the doctor ordered to re-energize both body and soul. The band even went so far as to smash their instruments after the set-ending “Scentless Apprentice,” going all in on the tribute to one of alt-rock's greatest heroes. What a way to close out the festival.
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