The Good, The Bad, and The Courtney – A Mini Review of SXSW

This year, South By Southwest was even more of a business trip for me. Not a search and destroy mission of boys, bands, and booze as it was for a lot of my friends. I had notes and cards, I had a freaking power point presentation…would I find the time to enjoy some aural pleasure?

As a panelist I felt a weighty duty to teach and impart pearls of wisdom to the musicians, label people and publicists who braved the rivers of green beer and gathered in the Convention Center for my seminar, Working The Press; Intellectual Intercourse and Interviews.

photo by christopher holcombe

We spent an hour discussing how to land a good radio or TV interview and how to behave properly once you do.

I realized as I was speaking that I was doing it, not only for the audience, but also for myself and my fellow hosts. As I showed the infamous clip of Johnny Rotten behaving badly on The Tom Snyder show, as well as that blisteringly uncomfortable Billy Bob Thornton interview, I realized that I may be helping many of my fellow talk show hosts and radio DJs in the process.

We are not the enemy. We are there to help and we love music just as much as the ones who create it. OK, so my speech was a little Jerry McGuire and a little Almost Famous. I got very Cameron Crowe on their asses. But I borrow from the best.

After the seminar was done, it was rock and roll camp time. Every year, SXSW becomes a bit more unmanageable. More corporate sponsors bring in their forts and tents and unapproved soirees that overshadow the showcasing bands who bust ass to get to Texas and play their hearts out.

I’m not complaining about a free taco and a margarita but I think its a fucking shame that Perez Hilton spends thousands of dollars to paint a building pink, and fly Snoop Dog in for a party that will ultimately keep thousands of people from going to a showcase where a hardworking band (who probably spent every cent they had to get out to Austin) is playing. It sucks and it’s not what SxSw is about. Well, like Sundance, it’s unfortunately what SxSw has become.

I did attend some parties, but I tried to balance it out with showcasing bands and up and coming acts. Here is a cross-section of some of the highs and lows, deep in the heart of Texas.

photo by Eugene Hernandez

I caught a Shadow Shadow Shade performance/taping at the IFC studios Tuesday evening. The band formerly known as Afternoons took to the stage to play some sunny pop in the crowded studios. Though the songs were well crafted and well-played, they didn’t hold my attention very long.

Unfortunately, this was something that was a common occurence this week and a deadly problem for any band vying for attention in a city with thousands of others playing slots at any given time. A LOT of bands in LA/Silverlake right now have that throwback 70s sunny Cali pop sound. I don’t dislike it. In fact, I do like it. What I don’t like is when everything gets very samey. I don’t blame the bands for this, necessarily. I just find it hard to listen to all of it over and over again. When everything begins to sound the same (whether it be sunny pop, electronic MGMT stuff, Emopunk, Hotel cafe, or whatever,) then you better be THE BEST out there, or you will get lost in the Hollywood shuffle. Being great isn’t always enough. Emmitt Rhodes anyone?

Band Of Skulls played at the British Embassy Barbeque party Wednesday afternoon…well BBQ it wasn’t  – not unless you can count empanada type pasties in a chafing dish as a barbeque. Since the food was served al fresco, perhaps the Brits cheekily thought it was Tex Mex style? No matter, I love them all the more for it.

Band Of Skulls, one of the best new bands out there and I dare say, one of the best showcasing bands at South By Southwest, tore apart the stage and showed a craftmanship that has even improved since their being on the road via their Twilight soundtrack spot  and BRMC touring slot. Yet theirs is not a polished poppy sound. It is the cool fuzzy, garage rock sound of an old amp Jimi Hendrix would have plugged into. Amen. For a video interview with the band, click here.

At the NPR showcase, I was introduced to Visqueen who opened for a juggernaut lineup of The Walkmen, Sharon Jones And The Dap Kings, Broken Bells, and Spoon.

The Walkmen and their drunken fairy saloon music have always been favorites of mine. Lead singer, Hamilton Leithautser, is more Sunday New York Times cross word puzzle than Vice Magazine Do and Donts, which makes me supremely happy.

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings stormed the stage next with some Motown madness which goes to show that the music business is not just for the kids. Jones is a tour de force performer and though it was an older skewed crowd at the NPR showcase, she is almost wasted at a dust bowl like Stubbs. She should be doing class venues such as the Hollywood Bowl.

The next act, was the highly anticipated collaboration between Dangermouse and Shins lead singer James Mercer, Broken Bells. After what seemed like a forever and a day set up, the set was lackluster and uneven, disappointing many in the crowd, which thinned out considerably.

Spoon followed next. Britt Daniel, the unofficial mayor of Austin, did not disappoint the toe tapping, mild-mannered, tax paying NPR crowd, playing many off the new album and even covering the Damned.

Looking for a little bit more trouble than I’d find ala NPR, I dragged myself to a 1:30 am Hounds Below show that did not disappoint. Mixing Brill Building and fuzzy Detroit feedback. Jason Stollsteimer’s new band rocked the Habana Calle into the wee hours of the morning. The band even promised a hot tub party for those who could brave the 1-35.

The Hounds Below

I’m glad for the Roy Orbison, 60’s sound revival that is making a comeback with acts such as Findlay Brown, Codeine Velvet Club and the Motown sounding acts.

On the other side of feedback was The Butterfly Explosion. All the way from Ireland and fronted by Gazz Carr, this Musebox Act kicked off the daytime party with fuzzy, brooding songs. It was half way into their set before anyone noticed the sun was shining with all the shoe gazing going on. The band is a mix of shoe gaze and post rock; Ride meets Sigur Ros with of course some MBV, but with their own lush spin on it. If you like euphoric musical landscapes then you need to check out this band.

Butterfly Explosion

I traipsed over to the Babelgum party at the French Legionare Museum which was on this gorgeous property, rolling lawns gated by stone walls and large trees, tented stages and drink booths…it was much more Coachella than SxSw vibe. The only problem was the sound. It was such a muddy mess that it made The XX sound like they were drowning inside a subway toilet. It was so dreadful I decided to leave rather than to think of them as being that bad.

My next discovery was perhaps one of my favorites of the festival. ARMS sprung forth from the breakup of The Harlem Shakes. Todd Goldstein reformed ARMS, a solo project he had started in ’04, and began performing wry melancholic songs about an unraveling couple. The songs have killer harmonies with a Walkmenesque quality, which makes sense, considering ARMS has found a home with the Walkmen’s label, Gigantic.

Todd Goldstein - ARMS

Goldstein’s vocals have almost a  Michael Stipe and Stephen Merritt quality, wavering yet angry. Still the most interesting thing about the live performance was Todd’s stage presence. Charismatic, and witty in between numbers, he remained far more upbeat than the story line of the doomed couple in his gem of an album, Kids Aflame.

The Rolling Stone Showcase boasted a lot of up and coming artists that hipsters, journos and label people were eager to hear. LA based Dawes played to a sparse crowd, warming up for buzz band The Whigs.

The Whigs

The Whigs had the heavy head when they were crowned by Rolling Stone last year as the best unsigned band in the country. That can often wreck a groups chances, but so far they’ve managed well. Signing with ATO, they hopped on a tour with Kings Of Leon and Dead Confederate. Luckily their dirty Garage sound skews more towards the swirling madness of Dead Confederate with the buoyancy of Kings, but they play songs with more than three chords. They kicked off the show with the battle cry “Turn off the lights, it’s time to party!” and they meant it. They dove into the set, with driving bass lines reminiscent of their future tour mates, BRMC. The Whigs have a bright future. Hopefully they will keep their rock dirty and varied.

Titus Andronicus, another RS buzz band already named the best of 2010, (oh Rolling Stone. You cheeky monkeys. It’s March!) To me, from where I sat crouched by the bar, they seemed like a high performance level shoegaze band named after one of The Bard’s less performed plays. But I could be downplaying them quite a bit. Perhaps that’s because the next band was such a party in a bottle.

Free Energy is the next party cruise in 40 tight minutes. If you like Sweet, Cheap Trick, The Cars, Thin Lizzy, and cute boys who drink beer, then get ready to dance your face off. These guys are only here to make you have a good time. That’s it. They play, you dance. You forget your troubles. It’s the Andrew WK philosophy, minus the fake blood and puke and sticky aspects of rock and roll. It’s the boys answer to The Donnas. The 70’s glam rock era revitalized with tight black jeans and runaways and satin jackets and extra lip gloss just paves the way for Free Energy’s sweet sexy glammy classic rock to make you want to can the can with Suzi Q, Gary Glitter and the rest of them. Each song sounds quite anthemic – perhaps these boys will be played in stadiums during very important sporting matches someday to unsuspecting jocks. But for now, they just wanna have fun.

Free Energy

One of the coveted laminates to wear around your neck was for the Spin showcase at Stubbs. The line up was a  schizo combination: a luke warm set from Rogue Wave, a manic set from Fucked Up (including lead singer, Damian Abraham, creating his own muddy mosh pit by pouring bottled water into the dusty ground in front of the stage and rolling around in it),

Fucked Up - Make Your Own Mosh Pit, Just Add Water

and a lightweight set from the elusive electronics of Miike Snow, which didn’t seem to translate in the broad daylight.

Miike Snow

But the real elephant in the room was waiting backstage. Courtney. It was the first time Hole was playing in the US in ten years. And without Hole. Would she show? Would she have a melt down? Would she be fat? Gawkers, detractors and mega fans everywhere were sticking around through the rather tepid showcase just to catch a glimpse of what I dubbed the Love-Train-Wreck.

The Love Train Wreck pulled into the Stubbs station about twenty minutes late, but for Courtney time, that’s no big thang. Wearing an orange pageant sash that was emblazoned with ‘Beware’, that most likely doubles as caution tape, Love launched into a curious cover of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’…I was not sure she was going to get any, as she announced “We are Hole, whether you like it or not, you little shit sucks.”

Wearing some type of wild, wild, west bar whore outfit and sounding like Stevie Nicks on a bender if she had been gargling with a cheese grater, Courtney flirted with being on key and was brash and confident…she was, well, Courtney.

Playing a mix of older hits (Violet, Reasons To Be Thankful, Miss World) and newer ones (Skinny Little Bitch, Samantha) Love tried to win over the crowd and coax us into thinking that her new songs would vault her back to superstar status. But even when she was making fun of Bret Michaels for being a washed up mess, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Courtney, isn’t that like the Hole calling the chasm, black?’

After a round of meetings and dinners I was whisked back to Stubbs for the Myspace secret show which turned out to be the worst kept industry secret – it was Muse and Metric. I like both bands but what made the night was seeing New York friends I hadn’t seen for ages.

What was unfortunate was the loooong line of über Muse fans that snaked down the streets of Austin who didn’t get close to getting in, while A&R people stood around and didn’t even watch the performance. Oh Music Industry, you big bitch. Afterwards there were many cool show to see. Sixth street in of itself was a carnival, like Mardi Gras, and when my friends and I jumped into a pedi cab to get to another showcase, drunken revelers literally swarmed the cab and began rocking it, trying to get us out. I’m not sure if they were trying to turn the thing over or scare us or the driver…but we were amazed.

This is SxSw, not a Lakers parade you asshats. We know how to handle you and you will get a beat down.

Saturday was my last morning before I escaped Margaritaville and I planned on hitting a few barbeques and panels before the airport.

Bob Schneider played a fun set at Stubbs early in the morning at the Rachael Ray event. And it has become quite an event. My friend and I went over there to catch School of Seven Bells. It was freezing and slightly raining and the place was set up with the sponsors frozen drink machines, instead of the coffee people so desperately needed. Funny thing…the ‘yummo’ food that Ray is supposedly so famous for, was pretty fucking awful. As was her husband’s band, which I think is the whole reason she puts on the event. The name of his band is called The Cringe…I don’t even need to comment further. He’s done my job for me.

Free Energy and LA favorites Local Natives played the small indoor stage (of course. Let The Cringe play the Main Stage and clear the venue. Good idea. Yummo). Andrew W.K.  got some people to party hard…although not too hard, because we were all in danger of losing our limbs to frostbite.

I headed to the convention center early to warm up and catch an amazing panel on Bill Hicks, one of the greatest comics that ever lived. A documentary about his life played at the film festival throughout and I have to say it was an amazing panel discussion – possibly the highlight of the week.

Bill Hicks

Oh Austin. You sure did keep it weird. Your mercurial hot and cold weather. Your open doors to spring breakers and corporate whores. Your damn Grackles. But I love you and I keep coming back for more. Next year? Same time, same place?

4 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad, and The Courtney – A Mini Review of SXSW

  1. Great review I feel like I was at SXSW after reading this!

    I agree that SXSW has become much about the “big name” bands and I wish they would get back to the up and coming artists which I thought is the spirit of what the event is for.

    Loved your coverage – keep it up!

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