Having been dubbed a “crafty veteran” by one local bystander, there are a few certain truths that I have discovered seven years deep into South By South West culture. 1) Always carry your phone charger because the battery will die; the ABC’s (Always Be Chargin’) as we here at Spinning Platters like to call it. 2) Delicious food is only a food truck away when you need to take a break and refuel in-between day parties and evening showcases. And 3) there will be both bad, and good bands at aforementioned showcases. The payout for waiting through a not-so-awesome band, however, can be an amazing, week-altering experience that leads to months of fan-girl-ing out, post-South By. However, this is all contingent on actually being granted admission to that one thing one wanted to see the most. There are still things to be learned and sometimes learned the hard way.
Thus begins this SXSW 2013 recap where this crafty veteran attempts to recall (in-between heavy doses of local beer and fast food) all that was good, bad, and tasty.
The first night of festival showcases brought the cohorts and I to the VICELAND SXSW Showcase co-sponsored by Jansport and featuring a line-up of both unfamiliar and familiar names starting with Skaters, a five-piece outfit from New York City. Opening up the showcase with a lo-fi, garage sound, with occasional dives into a slower, more melodic sound. Coming up second was Team Spirit, a Vice Records band with a Jon Lovitz-impersonating singer who provided an upbeat, poppy sound, and on-stage energy that helped prep the crowd for the double whammy that was about to occur.
A hailstorm of Jansport backpacks didn’t deter the crowd from going into a frenzy when Wavves took the stage. A loud and raucous 40 minute set whipped the mostly male crowd into a fist-pumping, crowd surfing mass determined to destroy, I mean, enjoy every minute. It took five or six security staff creating a human barricade at the front of the stage to keep all the fans from taking over.
When Japandroids began setting up for their 11:30 pm set, I began to suspect that I would once again be witness to some sort of SXSW induced riot (recall MSTRKRFT in 2008 and Death From Above 1979 in 2011). After the Wavves set, I highly doubted they could handle the crowd when Japandroids came on. If you’ve never seen Japandroids play live, the only way to describe it is loud as shit, which lends itself to the awesomeness of their most recent album, Celebration Rock. It is loud, and it is triumphant. Two catalysts for a complete showcase meltdown. However, as if prompted by the promoters, Brian King took the mic just before their start time, and with his easy-going, Canadian demeanor asked the crowd to rock out, but calmly. And calmly they tried. It helped that their sound, which normally borders on hazardous, was turned way (way) down. To the point where two songs into their set, the crowd ditched singing along and just started to chant LOUDER! This crowd was ready to climax, and VICELAND was trying to kill the vibe. Needless to say, fans enjoyed the set regardless of the sound level, but wouldn’t it have been an awesome way to start out SXSW with Japandroid fans tearing down the fences and storming the stage to rock out? Perhaps that depends on whom you ask. It’s shows like that that I’ve come to expect, unexpectedly, out of SXSW. To censor that before anything big even happens is a total downer. Some things are better enjoyed loud.
Rounding off the night, in an unfortunate timeslot, was Divine Fits, the Spoon/Wolf Parade “super group”. After the face-melting sets of Wavves and Japandroids, Divine Fits played to a crowd that had expended most of its energy in manic sing-a-longs and too many tall boys of Corona. We stayed long enough to watch Dan Boeckner wail on his guitar, and hear Britt Daniel lead “Flaggin a Ride” and called it a South By night.
The first full day of SXSW started out a little rougher than usual, since this was the first year I stayed out for a showcase on the previous night. Any plans to hit the day scene at noon quickly diminished as I turned off the 8:30 am alarm. Four hours, and a $60 dollar blue shuttle wristband later, I found myself watching Matthew E. White at the Paste day party. The long hair, beard and rough guitars reminded me of the simpler days of The Black Keys before Danger Mouse. White, hailing from Virginia, played his soulful bluesy rifts with a bassist and drummer.
I moved on to the outdoor stage to see the amazing Marnie Stern, who served up new songs from Chronicles of Marnia using her usual dizzying finger tapping style of guitar playing. In between songs she would goad her drummer into removing articles of clothing, referencing a bet that he lost. Considering how hot it was outside, I’m sure he had no trouble doing so without embarrassment. Each song she played was fast, and chaotic, and accented with her distinct vocals. My only wish would have been to hear her guitar more distinctly, as the drums drowned it out considerably.
Back in the much cooler inside stage, Shout Out Louds were getting ready to play. Shout Out Louds are one of those awesome Swedish wonders playing sweet indie pop. They played a solid, 30-minute set to a packed room filled with front-stage fans.
The evening showcases for this night brought the discovery of Mike Scott and Steve Wickham, from Scotland. Because they were playing at a church, when we initially walked in, I thought we had been tricked into coming to a sermon, as Mike Scott was reading what sounded like biblical passages from a book. However, that quickly changed, as Scott took his acoustic guitar and played heart-felt songs, accompanied by Wickham’s amazing fiddle. The venue, St. David’s Historic Sanctuary, probably boasts the best acoustics of any venue in Austin (Save the ACL Moody Theater) so the combination of Scott’s vocals, and Wickham’s fiddle soared through the pews. The sincerity of the set could only be matched by the legendary Billy Bragg. Bragg’s set spanned the length of his career, including new songs from Tooth & Nail. Surprisingly, many of the newer songs were heavy on the themes of love, and relationships. A softer side of Bragg, you may say. The entire set left me with goose bumps, and wanting to re-listen to the Mermaid Avenue collection.
The night was finished off at Mohawks. Late sets lead to us accidentally stumbling upon The Specials and a crowd ready to get their ska dance party on, after what I’m sure was an industry-heavy Iggy and the Stooges show earlier. The group did not disappoint, and dance party it was as they went through their hits with trumpets soaring, and people remembered the good old days before the Ghost Town. Buzz girl Sky Ferreira followed, but did only a disappointing two-song set before apologizing to the crowd, holding back tears as she explained she could not sing any further because of her throat. That didn’t stop her band from awkwardly attempting to start a third song before she just walked off stage.
Last, but not least, was Ghostface Killah, rounding out the night. The hype man did a great job at re-energizing the crowd for the Wu-Tang veteran. Ghostface Killah was only able to play a 20-minute set before it was lights out, but a memorable one it was, inviting fans up on stage to perform verses from one of his songs. It was an epic fail for one lady who was ruthlessly boo-ed off stage, and a triumph for a Caucasian gentlemen who killed his part of the verse. Hugs abound as the set closed on Day 1 of SXSW.
Fast forward to Friday, Marcy 15. The fun and games took a sour turn, as all the wrong moves were played in the chess game that is Friday night’s music showcases. A certain thrift store aficionado was playing the last time slot in a smaller venue, thus drawing the masses of industry insiders, and casual music fans, hankering for a chance to see what $.99 swagger looks like up close. Rather than anticipating a long, and drunk, line crowd, as I should have, the confidence of gaining entry into almost everything I had wanted to see made me drunk with arrogance, causing me to savor my waffle chicken sandwich a little too slowly. Kitten and FIDLAR sounded great through the fence, but it wasn’t enough to keep the frown off my face. The objective of the night, one may ask? See Nardwuar, The Human Serviette, and get wet with Andrew W.K. Unfortunately, a lack of sleep and too much 3:00 am Whataburger lead to a misreading of the schedule. Needless to say, Andrew W.K. partied hard, and I bailed, hoping to catch Kendrick Lamar at the Austin Music Hall.
Those hopes were quickly squashed like a half-finished cigarette, as SXSW event staff explained the venue was over capacity, and had been shut down by the fire marshal.
Seven years of experience still can’t cushion the blow of missing out on almost an entire night of music.
The rookie mistake of Friday night was only redeemed the next evening, when, upon some strange magical chance, the cohorts and I stumbled upon Nardwuar on Saturday night loading up a pedi-cab with his gear. The simple act of having met my favorite quirky interviewer is one of those highlights that make SXSW an experience unlike any other, and one that turns crafty veterans into humble music fans.