March 27, 2012
I’m going to try to give an idea of what it’s really like coping with sxsw. You’ll probably find the detail wearisome and you’ll probably be disgusted by some of the music. I have very Catholic tastes. But when I am too old and knackered to do it any more, maybe I’ll read this back and wallow in the memories.
Getting up a 4 am to catch the 5 o’ clock coach to Heathrow was challenging, but actually there was something rather relaxing about being in town at that quiet time of day. Everybody on the coach was asleep apart from a couple at the back who had a blazing row which lasted the entire journey. What kind of energy must you have to fight at 5 am?
I’ve never had such a lovely flight. Following the merger of Continental and United, there is over-capacity on transatlantic routes and the plane was less than a quarter full. I lay down across three seats and, after a lovely veggie lunch, used the three blankets and three pillows to create a bed and slept like a lamb for the entire flight.
Actually, I hadn’t booked this route at all (via Newark). I’d booked via Houston but received a casual email saying the route had been changed. This meant a very short connection in Newark, so I was hoping for a smooth immigration process. Inevitably, I chose the only queue with an over-zealous officer and a series of people with apparent problems. As the other queues were waved by with a smile, mine stubbornly refused to move. Then came security. The queue I chose was hijacked by a series of people in wheelchairs. In my panic, my natural inclination to give them the consideration they merited was almost overcome with a desire to shout “Get out of the bloody way, can’t you see I’m in a hurry?” – but not quite, of course. I literally ran all the way to the gate, huffing and puffing in at the last moment. On the plane, I sat next to a very nice Dutch agent. Unfortunately he had a streaming cough and cold and I had to try to face away from him while still maintaining a conversation. Buggered if I was going to let my sxsw be ruined by a cold.
My friend Paul was waiting at the airport and we headed straight for the Convention Centre to get my badge. As I’d slept so well, there were no jet lag symptoms at all. I was desperate for a shrimp enchilada and luckily such an emporium was just opposite. The waitress tried to convince us that the obviously chain establishment was owned by her father.
We headed straight for the “British Embassy” at a club called Latitude just off Sixth Street. This is where, each year, a succession of usually mediocre and never to be heard of again UK bands play apparently at our expense. It certainly seems from the brochure as if many of them are funded by local councils. I wonder how many council taxpayers are aware of their cash being used for these guys to have a full scale jolly and try to further their careers in the States? In effect, all the bands just play to each other, as there is a distinct lack of local accents. “Thank you Austin,” they all chant as they announce their long-awaited final numbers. Among those playing this year were Charlie from Busted (honestly) and the ghastly Frank Turner.
One of the quirks of my annual visit is that I have to write about bands from my area for the local paper. Frank Turner is the only “famous” rocker ever to have come from Winchester (apart from Mike Batt but he doesn’t count). I really am not impressed by Frank Turner. It’s not so much that he’s an old Etonian pretending to be a man of the people, it’s more that the songs are so poor and the performance so full of bluster. But I had to get a photo of him, so in we went. It turned out to be a good move, because we caught a great band from Wales called Future Of The Left, who were highly political and roared like buffaloes on heat. After that, Frank Turner announced he was going to play his “hits”. I wasn’t aware he had any.
After a nice sleep in the Homestead Suite which was home for the week, it was time to make some of the awful decisions that have to be made every few minutes at sxsw. At any given time, there are probably at least twenty bands you’d like to see, all playing miles away from each other. Plus there are loads you never get to find out about. The daytime “fringe”, mainly situated round the South Congress area, is now at least as big as the festival itself. Daytime activities on the Day Stage of the Convention Centre have become much more exciting than they used to be, and here you can catch many of the “buzz bands” in the almost plushy comfort of this large seated venue, complete with huge, dreamy bean bags. Thus it was that we were able to see three acts in just over an hour: Michael Kiwunaka (I think it may have been his US debut) being very pleasantly soulful, the lovely Whitehorse, (Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland demonstrating their new-found technological expertise in the adjacent Brush Square) and then back to the Day Stage for the rightly much-anticipated Alabama Shakes. They fit the bill for the Adele audience perfectly and it’s not unrealistic to imagine similar success for them.
Now here’s an odd thing. As well as the clashes, there are moments when there’s nothing to do. Such was the case next, so we wandered over to the South Congress area. This is where all the cool art galleries and eateries are, plus the yards where band after band can be found playing, so there’s always some music to catch. After another round of shrimp fajitas (I could have them for breakfast, lunch and tea for the rest of my life), plus some happy hour beers (Dos Equis, two dollars a bottle), we hung around for some great music featuring Scrappy Judd Newcombe and an unidentified vocalist who looked as if he were about to die but sang like an angel. Then, via the already burgeoning mayhem of Sixth, we caught Jeff Klein’s My Jerusalem at Trinity Hall.
Emos has been re-named The Main, which caused a bit of confusion. We got there early for Jimmy Cliff, whom I’d never seen. It was an acoustic set, which was unexpected, and took forever to set up. And then, how do I put this? The lovely “Many Rivers To Cross”, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, “The Harder They Come” etc. were rather spoiled by the fact that Jimmy’s flies were gaping open throughout the entire set. Well, I’m sorry, but it ruined the vibe, because everyone was talking about it and pointing at it but no one liked to say anything. Shame.
I’d heard of Dry The River (or maybe it was one of the many other bands which have river in their name), so off we went to the Red Eyed Fly. Well, I hadn’t done my research, because they weren’t American but British. They were weird, but not in a good way. There was something disconcerting about the giant tattooed bassist leaping on and off the drum riser and then introducing the next song in a fey Home Counties accent entirely at odds with the image. I’d expected something authentic, which this certainly wasn’t.
It’s always worth paying a visit to the 18th Floor of the Hilton, a tranquil oasis away from the mayhem. Freedy Johnson was lovely there at midnight, playing “Cruel To Be Kind” on a ukelele. One of the highlights of the week actually, and how nice to relax on a comfy seat.
That day’s final madness was the misguided idea Paul had that a band featuring Wayne Coyne’s nephew from Oklahoma must signal a secret show from the Flaming Lips. It didn’t, but they were fun nonetheless. Not enough fun to prevent us from heading for the hotel though.
Thursday was going to be Springsteen day. Attendance at his show was to be decided by lottery. So far so good, but the winners were to be notified by email. My phone wasn’t so technically adept, so I was reduced to asking people if I could borrow their iPhones to check. I never heard anything, but soon was cursing my stupidity.
No one knew where the concert was to take place, but I should have spotted it. I’d noted down Low Anthem, one of my favourite bands, as a show to go to at the Moody Theater. Straight after was Alejandro Escovedo, followed by nothing. As Alejandro and Springsteen share a manager, it was bloody obvious what was going to happen – and I failed to realize. Pathetic. Anyway, first we had something else to see: Luke Doucet and a huge array of guitarists at Trinity Hall, accompanied, I’m pleased to say, by delicious breakfast tacos courtesy of Six Shooter Records. Yum.
But time waits for no one, and particularly when it’s a question of getting into the Cedar Street Courtyard. This is arguably my favourite sxsw venue, a small open-air quadrangle with a stage at one end, capacity about 200 I guess. The showcase I had spotted showed an afternoon sequence, in this order, of Band Of Skulls, Kaiser Chiefs and Keane. Few things are as thrilling as being very close to a huge band, even if they aren’t necessarily your favourites. Last year it was the Bangles (bliss) and the year before it was Primal Scream (brain-scrambling). This year it was essential to be in the front row for Band Of Skulls because, guess what, they’re from Hampshire. But to achieve all this, you have to go several hours early and tolerate the innumerable supports, because obviously a show such as this will be ridiculously over-subscribed.
Well, it’s very annoying for someone like me, who prefers things to be as they should. Admission to this showcase was supposed to be only for those who have RSVPd in advance and received an acknowledgement, a procedure which I had dutifully followed weeks before. In the event, what actually happens is that they simply randomly let everyone in regardless until it’s full. Luckily I knew this, which was why we arrived two hours in advance. Imagine how furious you’d be if you arrived, having carried out all the application procedure, and couldn’t get in because of the place being full of uninviteds? Basically, they shouldn’t even bother with the rigmarole in the first place.
Duly installed dangerously in front of the speakers, we settled down for the afternoon surrounded by lots of affable and mildly intoxicated new friends. The first band were awful Simple Minds clones, the second were certifiably insane and the third was Band Of Skulls. They have deservedly gone mega in the States and I genuinely felt proud to come from (near) Southampton. Plus they are all very photogenic, by which I mean that photos come out showing them as they actually are, rather than gurning. Next up: Kaiser Chiefs, loads of fun, swaggeringly confident and essentially going through the motions, but still a thrill greater than you’d get from seeing them in a stadium. Keane were quite unable to follow them. I’m sorry, but you don’t come to Austin without a guitar.
It goes without saying that any spaces between acts are always filled by lengthy walks, interspersed with sticking your head into venues (almost every building is a venue) and catching a moment or two of random unidentified bands. I wanted to see Portland’s Laura Gibson but got the time wrong (just the first in series of blunders). This meant tolerating a succession of no-hopers at the Red Eyed Fly. Happily, Laura and her band brought in a blessed element of subtlety and relief.
I’d been recommended The War On Drugs, so after sitting on the kerb eating a huge lukewarm chunk of pizza, I headed to the Mohawk Patio early, fearful of crowds. I ended up crushed against the front of the stage, far too close to the speakers. In fact, my ears are still ringing a week later. It meant that the sound was so distorted that I couldn’t work out whether I actually liked them or not. I’ll have to give them another go.
What followed was an unexpected highlight. Billed at the Hilton (ground floor) was “Special guest (Framingham, UK)”. All the acts are listed together with their provenance. This could, of course, only mean Ed Sheeran, so I got there early, assuming it would be rammed, with queues round the block. Ed was doing several other shows during the week, all in much bigger venues. But that was without reckoning on the difference of tastes between the UK and the US, nor the way that careers develop at different rates in different countries. Basically, the place was half empty, and it was only a small hotel conference room anyway, laid out, cabaret style, with tables, chairs and candles. At first I blundered straight into Ed’s dressing room and had to beat a hasty retreat. Then (I’d had a couple of drinks), I marched straight to the front and sat down at a table by the stage. This gave a good vantage point, firstly for the excellent Marcus Foster, then for Ed himself.
Bloody hell, he’s good. I am instinctively prejudiced against anything commercially successful, particularly if bound up with Brit Awards and the like. Also, the “solo bloke with acoustic guitar and loop pedals” concept is so hackneyed. Well, not this time. He’s ridiculously talented as a songwriter, uses the gizmos brilliantly and brought the house down with his rapping. At the end (he always does this but I’d forgotten), he clambered on top of my very table and did a couple of unamplified songs. He was wearing very baggy shorts and it was tempting to point my camera up them. I resisted.
By the end of the long walk home, I was knackered enough to cancel morning appointments and opt to sleep instead. Just as well, since it would be another long day. It started with the beginning of a ridiculous but magical Chuck Prophet odyssey. He was playing at the excellent Ginger Man Pub, not even listed as a venue, but centrally placed and with a great patio and stage. Here I found a nest of UK promoters, all discussing the Springsteen show. Apparently it had been possible just to walk in there unchallenged. There’d even been empty seats. People were saying it hadn’t been anything special – phew. In fact, a couple of songs into Chuck’s set, all the talk was about Chuck being significantly more exciting. Basically, you’ve never seen a better rock band. His band is astounding and the new songs from “Temple Beautiful” uniformly appealing. And Chuck’s guitar shredding is beyond belief. So when Peter Buck stepped up and joined in the “You Did” finale, it was more that anyone could ever have hoped for an a Friday lunchtime.
Time for a bit of comfort at the Day Stage. The target was Blitzen Trapper but I arrived in time for the end of Ben Kweller’s set. This guy was being hyped all over the place, on billboards, buses and taxis, but it was hard to see why. Blitzen Trapper were much more interesting.
Next was a long trek to a venue called Lustre Pearl. On the way, we saw a bleeding guy who’d been knocked off his bike. More of this later. The show was organized by the same magazine as the previous day’s Cedar Street showcase, so needless to say the same chaotic admission procedure reigned and my RSVP was cheerfully ignored, indeed laughed at. Eventually we saw snatches of Deerhof (good) and The Drums (Strokes clones) but the call of hunger was irresistible and a visit to a nearby chain burger joint reinforced what we really already knew: avoid chain burger joints.
Then I did something silly. Keen to see M. Ward, I set off for a small venue called Frank. Wandering past a quarter mile queue (they call them “lines” over there), I vaguely wondered who was causing it, until I got to the venue and realized it was the front of the queue. Bloody stupid, of course I should have realized M. Ward was far too big for a little venue and that I should have gone along hours early. Nevertheless, I joined the line but it didn’t move at all and eventually we were informed that it was “one out, one in”. So that’ll mean getting in some time next week then.
But there was an alternative. Over at Joe’s on South Congress, Alejandro Escovedo’s Orchestra was about to start playing. But it was a hell of a long walk, so the time had come to try out the ubiquitous bike rickshaws. I was a little surprised that a clutch of them declined to take me when I said where I wanted to go. “No thanks man, that’s up a hill,” was the response. Eventually one agreed to do it for twenty dollars. It was actually a bit hair-raising. Austin prides itself on its eco-friendliness, but it hasn’t really got its act properly together. Taxis are not to be found in the centre during sxsw because gridlock reigns and they’d never get anywhere. The status of the rickshaws seems vague. As we trundled along the road, motorists charged dangerously by, honking at us to get out of the way. So then we took to the sidewalk, whereupon we were quite rightly shouted at by angry pedestrians. On a couple of occasions I had to dismount because we couldn’t get through gaps left by parked cars. Anyway, we eventually got to Joe’s, where a huge crowd was being entertained by the orchestra. There were no “special guests” but a great version of “Rock The Casbah”.
It was back to the mayhem of Sixth for a moment, where I was tapped on the shoulder and turned to find the son of a friend of mine from Cornwall. That’s crazy! As was Grant Hart, who I was interested to see because Bob Mould was in town performing “Copper Blue” but I couldn’t work out where. Hart was shambling alone in front of a sparse audience and appeared to have no teeth. I lasted thirty seconds.
Shearwater was strange too. They’ve suddenly turned into a rock band, losing two of their most important members (drummer Thor and bassist Kim Burke). They were good but had lost much of their original appeal and I wonder whether audiences on their forthcoming Euro tour will feel short-changed? I was cheered up by bumping into my friend Al James from Dolorean but shocked to find the beers at Red Seven cost 6 dollars each. Cheek!
Saturday started with something very pleasant, a secret show from Laura Gibson and band in her hotel room, complete with delicious breakfast courtesy of her record company. Things like that are so special . But the rest of the day was to be Chuck Day. Paul had decided he wanted to follow Chuck round Austin because he was so bloody good. Paul had a car, I was feeling less inclined to rush around checking out other artists and basically, the idea was irresistible. So there we were at Jovitas, drinking beer at 1 pm (it feels deliciously decadent) and having our brains blown out by the storming Mission Express. Someone videoed lots of this show, try putting Chuck Prophet, Jovitas in to You Tube. The ear to ear grins sported by the entire band tell you everything.
After a few minutes of the Waco Brothers it was off to the wonderful Yard Dog Gallery courtyard for the next Chuck instalment. This was enlivened by two power cuts, which hardly seemed to matter, because the audience just kept on singing until it was sorted out. Noticing that Ian Mclagan would be playing at the Yard Dog later, we zipped over to Maria’s Taco Express, where the impeccably dapper Alejandro Escovedo was presiding over his annual taco party and a huge array of bands of wildly differing style and quality. Plus gorgeous food and margaritas. Back at Yard Dog, the Mekons’ Jon Langford and the indefatigable Ian McLagan were finishing off the day in style. Austin residents and expat Brits both, they sum up the joy of being a musician in this particular town. Mac observed that he had now lived in the US as long as he had lived in London. He also invited everyone to visit Austin outside of sxsw, when there is still masses of music to choose from.
Getting towards the end now, I had a hankering to check out hotly-tipped new Scottish band Django Django, and it was worth it. Despite being at the oddly-shaped and very uncomfortable Latitude club, they impressed with their stoned synths and raging percussion. Plus their bassist was a dead ringer for Thomas Dolby (who was also in town somewhere). In fact, they were a pretty oddball bunch all round.
My plan was to finish off the week with a nice quiet dose of Hurray For The Riff Raff, but it turned out they had actually been on at 12. 30 lunchtime rather than midnight, so the trip had been fruitless. The only solution was another rickshaw (and another complaint about pedalling uphill) back to the Continental Club for a final helping of Chuck, preceded by a frighteningly loud Jon Dee Graham and Freedy Johnson, quite different from the acoustic version previously encountered. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s claimed that Elvis once played at the Continental, and it certainly feels as if the spirit of rock and roll is embedded in its walls.
And so to bed and a completely uneventful trip home. Next year’s already booked.