Gordon Answers Your 2011 SXSW Questions

by Gordon Elgart on March 28, 2011

Kim asks, "who wants to ask Gordon a SXSW question?" Photos on this post by David Price unless otherwise noted.

Welcome to my annual tradition of answering the SXSW questions you didn’t know you had! And here are this year’s questions.

1. What over-hyped band was the first one I saw, and surprised me by being excellent?
2. Who brought horns and a bunch of new songs, and got me to see them twice?
3. Who is still my favorite new band discovery of 2009, even as they totally destroy in 2011?
4. What hip-hop performer made even this hip-hop-know-nothing stand up and take notice?
5. What band blew the circuit breaker — twice, got cut off for time, and got to finish their set after the crowd yelled for more?
6. Who had the most frustrating technical difficulties?
7. Who’s possibly the best live act in the world today?
8. And if it’s not them, who is it?
9. What greatly anticipated import lived up to my expectations, and then some, but then got screwed over?
10. Who was the best guitar player in Austin during SXSW 2011?
11. What Kaiser Chiefs song was I honestly singing while waiting for Death From Above 1979 to play on Saturday night?
12. What’s this I hear about overcrowded, over-commercial SXSW? Is it true?

Click for the answers!

1. What over-hyped band was the first one I saw, and surprised me by being excellent?

Toro y Moi opened up the Fader Fort by Fiat this year, and the only reason I went was because I wanted to get some free drinks inside of me. I knew I’d be back later for some other acts (that I’ll mention later), but dropping some free Ketel One down my throat gave me the opportunity to check out Toro y Moi, and I ended up liking it a lot. The vocals are a little weak for my tastes, but the band he put together was excellent, laying down an old-school groove for songs that are really good, but fall short of amazing due to the lack of a dynamic vocalist. Chazwick Bundick is a guy to watch, and when he ends up as the main songwriter in some sort of indie supergroup, I’ll be there every step of the way.

2. Who brought horns and a bunch of new songs, and got me to see them twice?

His moves make the girls scream

Friendly Fires hold the distinction for me of being the first band I saw play a hit single at Glastonbury. For this reason, I’ll always love them. And for this appearance at the Fader Fort by Fiat, they played a bunch of new songs. My text message to my friend back home said: “Good news. The new Friendly Fires album is gonna be awesome.” And it will be, because the new songs are very much in step with the quality of the band’s debut album. If this new record, Pala, lacks filler, it will be a strong contender in the best albums of 2011 race.

Now if you’ve never seen this band before, you don’t know this, but the lead singer, Ed MacFarlane, dances like a man possessed. Girls near me screamed every time he started in with some of his signature dance moves. He’s similar to Nic Offer of !!! in a lot of ways, both in looks and dance moves. There’s so much energy on stage, you just can’t help but be swept up in it. Dance, or be left behind.

3. Who is still my favorite new band discovery of 2009, even as they totally destroy as a “new band” in 2011?

The Joy Formidable released a mini-LP or EP or whatever you want to call it in early 2009 called A Balloon Called Moaning. This was easily the best thing released in 2009, and I waited for a full length album to follow. After a live record and a few singles (including a killer Christmas track), the full length, The Big Roar, came out just a couple of weeks ago here in the U.S. For long-time fans like myself, there’s not a lot of new material to dig my teeth into, but as an introduction to the band, it will work wonders for you.

As for the live show, the reactions of people seeing them for the first time were marvelous. Some guy who was there to see Raphael Saadiq but stayed to watch Joy Formidable’s last-minute-replacement set anyway: “This is fucking awesome.” From Spinning Platters staffer James, “I need to see this band as many times as possible.” And then there’s the scary super-fans (am I one?) who stalked them around Austin all weekend forcing people to “Feel the Joy Formidable!” by slamming into them during their rowdier tracks. I’m not sure this was a good thing. But if they come through your town (and they will come through your town), be sure to go see the band.

4. What hip-hop performer made even this hip-hop-know-nothing stand up and take notice?

Yelawolf played last at the Fader Fort by Fiat on Wednesday, and before he walked on stage, I knew nothing about him. Actually, I got an education in the final few minutes before his set: Eminem signed him to his label (maybe Slim Shady will be here!), he’s a rapper, he has lots of tattoos, and he’s “omg so awesome!” I had my doubts. I rarely like a hip-hop show because you can’t make out the words most of the time, and then everyone in the world is rapping except for the MC on the bill, and of course all of these hangers on have their own projects they’re trying to pimp … it can be painful. (Note: after Big Boi left the stage on Saturday at the Mog party, his hangers on kept performing for the quickly dispersing audience. No one cares about you if your name isn’t on the bill.)

But Yelawolf was having nothing of that. It was just him and his DJ for the most part, and he took to the stage like a crazed … well … wolf, and proceeded to get the extremely drunk crowd going nuts. People around me were screaming every word as I listened to make out a word here and there (didn’t help much), and even though I was unfamiliar with the music, and generally dislike the genre, I was floored. This was a guy with charisma and talent, and clearly someone to check out. Maybe hip-hop experts hate him; I wouldn’t know. Although I know nothing about hip-hop, I know a good performance when I see one, and I saw one.

5. What band blew the circuit breaker — twice, got cut off for time, and got to finish their set after the crowd yelled for more?

It was dark in there before the lights went out, too. (This photo by Gordon Elgart)

Idiotape, a South Korean electro rock band was right at the top of my list of bands to see from other countries. In fact, in the days leading up to SXSW, the band themselves proudly displayed my recommendation on their Facebook page. Thanks! Anyway, I hustled over to hear their set and found myself in what was clearly an abandoned basement bar (renamed “Easy Tiger” for the week), and it was not ready for prime time. For as the band played their opening number, the sound and lights went out completely. So the drummer did what drummers should do in this instance: he played a solo. A few minutes later, the band tried again, and again, during the first song, the power blew.

What to do? What they did was keep the PA off and play only through their amps. This threw off the mix quite a bit (the vocal samples were hard to hear) but did nothing to diminish the intensity of their performance. The small, extremely intelligent, possible Spinning Platters reading crowd, danced throughout, especially going crazy for their cover of Blur’s “Song 2,” an obvious choice but one that allowed for something like a singalong among the multilingual audience. As they continued to play, eventually the house cut their sound off. Not for a blown circuit breaker, but for time. The crowd started chanting, “one more song! one more song!” and the Korean equivalent as well. Much to my surprise, they turned their gear back on and let them play that last song. I bought their t-shirt, and they gave me the CD I had just bought on iTunes. See, I knew I should never buy anything there!

6. Who had the most frustrating technical difficulties?

They blasted their way through their all-too-brief set. (Photo by Gordon Elgart)

Parts & Labor‘s new album, Constant Future, is right at the top of my favorite-albums-right-now list, so I was really excited to see them, blowing off half of the Smoking Popes set due to an “it’s getting crowded” text message. The venue was Red 7, and it was getting crowded for Okkervill River, but they only have one entrance, so crowded for one is crowded for the other. I didn’t want to miss my chance so I hustled over.  I was stuck listening to a band that I’m pretty sure is called Small Black. A better journalist would look this up, but I disliked this loud bad goth pop so much, I don’t care if I get it right. Plus, they were bleeding time away from the band I had actually come to see. They finished at 1:05, and Parts & Labor hustled to set up. And then something was wrong: no keyboard.

Parts & Labor have about 30 effects pedals hooked up to the keys, and one of them was acting up. I offered them batteries I happened to be carrying, but that wasn’t it. Patch cable after patch cable was pulled and replaced until finally, at 1:35, they started their set. And it was just a whole bundle of noisy pop awesome, but it was too short. Time was ticking, and the band kept playing, and this annoying house guy came up to the stage and said one more song, and they said OK, but they played a medley leading into “Nowhere’s Nigh,” the best song ever, and finally they cut the microphones right at the climax of the song, so the band and the … dare I say it … 15-20 people there to see them just screamed the chorus at the tops of our lungs, making it more glorious than it ever was before. And as they packed up to leave, some bouncer started yelling at us like we were 7-year-olds stealing candy from CVS, telling us to leave.

7. Who’s very possibly the best live act in the world today?

Kim never plans her landings

Matt & Kim are somewhat famous for being happy. “They just look so happy on stage when they play!” everyone seems to say about them. And y’know, it’s true. I don’t know how they do it. I saw them backstage before the show, and they looked like pleasant people who might work at the coffee shop. But on stage, they’re amazing. Here’s the thing. I don’t think their songs are particularly great. They have memorable hooks, but there’s not too much depth to them. But the lyrics are catchy, and the energy is just ridiculous. It’s magical. For this show, held at the MTV Garage, literally on the roof of an active parking garage, the capacity was somewhat limited due to the fact that the structure could only handle so much weight. The floor was bouncing like a trampoline for much of their set. And off in the distance, on neighboring parking garages up the hill, and nearby walls that happened to have a view of the stage, there were fans jumping along with the music, way off in the distance. And Matt, showman he is, kept performing just for them, pointing and calling them out. He wants the whole world to be part of the party. I have no doubt that Matt & Kim will lose nothing as they ascend into bigger venues.

I don’t know what else to say, except GO SEE MATT & KIM.

8. And if it’s not them, who is it?

A non-stop force of nature

Janelle Monae is going to earn second place for me in the “very possibly” competition. This is a performer just stepping into her prime. I’ve seen her three times over the last year, and each time has gotten significantly better, her band stronger, her dance moves tighter, the set list smarter. If this 70-minute set, which she performed as a same-day replacement for Cee Lo Green, is the same one she’s going to do with Bruno Mars, she’s gonna blow the supposed headliner right out of the building.

There’s strange and wonderful costumes, a dynamic band, an onstage impressionistic painting, choreographed dancing, and just an endless pulse of joy. She closed with “Cold War,” “Tightrope,” and a 10-minute crowd participation version of “Come Alive” that had everyone in the audience sitting on the floor only to rise up as one in a jumping, screaming mass. There were people disappointed with her appearance on the bill, choosing to leave after the incredibly dull Wiz Khalifa. Too bad. They missed the best official showcase performance of SXSW 2011.

9. What greatly anticipated import lived up to my expectations, and then some, but then was screwed over?

Art vs. Science topped my must-see list for SXSW due to their being from really far away, and due to the absolute fun and silly brilliance of their single, “Magic Fountain.” And what a glorious thing it was. The first time I saw them was at Bar 96, in the hot sun, after playing giant Jenga (I suck at all forms of Jenga, apparently). I was hot, I was a bit drunk, and for five songs, I was a dancing fool. I sang along, much to the band’s surprise. I learned the “Flippers” dance. And I watched a crowd swell from 10 Australians and 3 of us to about 45 wide-eyed folks who heard the siren call of amazing. So I decided I’d see them again at 1:00AM and bring everyone along.

And at 1:00AM, at the Habana Bar (another abandoned venue re-opened for the festival), I watched the band play the same five songs before being unceremoniously cut off at 1:40 by a far-too-eager-to-go-home staff. I asked the guy at the door what the problem was, and he explained that all SXSW shows end at 1:40 because the band is required to be loaded out by 2:00. I said, out loud, “Really? This is what you’re going to tell me? That shows end at 1:40 at SXSW?” And he stood by his complete and utter bullshit. A band comes all the way across the world to play their official showcase and a bunch of other gigs, just hoping that this insanity will help their career, and some volunteer asshole with no future decides he wants to go home early? Fuck him! This left a sour taste in my mouth. If only I had somewhere to vent about it! (Oh wait a minute.) So we walked back to the car, to the cacophony of a dozen other bands, all playing until 2:00AM. Bullshit is bullshit.

10. Who was the best guitar player in Austin during SXSW 2011?

Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females is incredible. Standing at her feet watching her play guitar was like watching one of the all-time greats. She either doesn’t really care about being on stage, or she chooses to have the persona of someone who doesn’t care about being on stage. She simply looks down at the floor, screams into her microphone, and simply rips shit up. She can play bluesy or riffy with equal quality. The band’s rhythm section just plows along, and it’s impossible to take your eyes of her nimble hands.

11. What Kaiser Chiefs song was I honestly singing while waiting for Death From Above 1979 to play on Saturday night?

Pardon me, sir, can you get your fans to calm down?

“I Predict a Riot” was my theme song on Saturday night inside the Beauty Bar Backyard. Five of us had gotten there around 9:00, willing to put in the long hours to see the long-desired but not long-awaited Death From Above 1979 reunion gig at 1:00AM. It was unbearable at times, listening to four straight hours of DJs from under the Undocumented Management umbrella. One of them, Bird Peterson, sounded really good to me, and he and three vodka tonics had me dancing up a storm, but the truth is that most of the people were just standing around, looking very serious, waiting the hours it was going to take until their favorite band came on stage.

I wasn’t 100% sure I’d be coming to this show. I like what I’d heard of DFA 79 but I wasn’t a fan, and since there were people waiting several hours that day to get in, I thought “was I taking the place of a true fan?” No, not at SXSW. I’d be taking the place of a curious badgeholder at best. All the true fans were already inside. You see, the Beauty Bar let in about 30 people from the front of the public line without charging them a cover. These were the happiest people I have ever seen. There were tears being shed, toasts drunk, hugs shared with strangers. Had those people been left outside, the night might have been a bust. But they, and the credentialed fans, brought it. Inside the show, as the band played their blistering punk, was a tiny swarming pit full of people screaming every important word. The truth is, I felt like an outsider, like I didn’t truly belong. As I moved toward the back of the venue to get some water, I saw the already over-reported riot occurring outside. And I felt like I was under siege. This was quickly becoming one of my all-time highlights as a concert-goer.

As for the riot itself? This wasn’t a surprise. You see, I had been at the MSTRKRFT “riot” in 2009, and this was the same situation, and JFK was there for both. DFA 79 knew what they were doing. They WANTED the riot. They wanted the cops on stage stopping the show, the hundreds of people outside trying desperately to get in. This band is now bigger than ever before. You can’t pay for this kind of publicity. Now, I’m sure they didn’t want mace and pepper spray and things thrown at cops, but they definitely are enjoying the buzz now that it’s happened.

(See a giant gallery of photos from this set at David Price’s Flickr page.)

12. What’s this I hear about overcrowded, over-commercial SXSW? Is it true?

Yes.

But of course, it needs to be this way. So what if every show is sponsored by some giant corporate entity? This is the music industry we get to have now that all of us have stopped buying records. If it weren’t for these brands working hard to associate themselves with cool music by paying these bands, we’d have no industry to speak of. I WANT this to be corporate because I want it to exist. Selling out is the only way now for bands to make it, and I’d rather have a band make it by being in a television commercial I’ll never see (because I’m out seeing bands) than have to give up because there’s simply no hope of any money coming in. So even though I’m contractually obligated to say Fader Fort by Fiat every time I talk about it, I’m glad to do so. Because at least it still exists. Thanks to Doritos and Corona Light (and others) for sponsoring the MTV Garage. Because they did, I got to go see an amazing Matt & Kim show that I’m unlikely to forget. If the brands leave, the bands leave. Personally, I’ll take flavored nacho samples washed down with crappy light beer over silence any day.

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Casey March 28, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Thanks for this, it answered questions I didn’t even know I had. I’ll have to check out Idiotape, sounds like something I would be interested in and never would have discovered had I not read this article. Also, this makes me really excited for the new Friendly Fires album. You guys did some awesome coverage of SXSW! Thanks SP, you guys rock! Especially you, Gordon!

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Ben April 4, 2011 at 7:45 am

Well, this answers all of my questions! 🙂 Nice write-up.

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