SXSW is big; almost too big. The showcase has become so multifaceted, spreading to include film, music seminars, videogame showcases, and the burgeoning (and loosely defined) realm of interactive media. It’s occasionally hard to focus on the music. But bands have made their way out to Austin’s mid-March festival with ritualistic focus. Journalists reciprocate, competing against each other with bloated live-blogged assaults and sponsored day parties. Its immensity is both troubling and intimidating.
In the weekend preceding the official music part of the week (kicking off Wednesday) the press and associates were treated to a number of corporation-fabricated so-called concerts, generally designed to serve a greater agenda. For instance, a Yeasayer show advertised on posters for everywhere is actually just an Internet Explorer 9 release party at which Yeasayer happens to be performing. Industry execs crowded the halls, drank free beer and discussed soft issues with a full saturation of smugness thanks to the faade of luxurious exclusivity around them, and taking advantage of anything on offer. There was a small contingent of likeminded vagabonds, determined to see good music no matter the consequence, but they were the obvious minority compared to the legion of talkative mouthpieces around them. This is the tribute big money players are paying to independent music: surrounding it with a false demographic and quietly pushing their agendas.
Strangely, the purest pre-game event belonged to Pitchfork, the behemoth publication whose detractors still can’t help but check it every week. The website’s popularity is certainly large enough to host its own event, but it’s impressive how they can gather a solid showcase on a Tuesday night, essentially building an unofficial kickoff show for the music-loving masses at Emo’s, one of the most notable venues in the notoriously venue-heavy city of Austin.
The bands were the textbook cusp-of-fame acts, and the outdoor stage was exclusively occupied by the bedroom/garage-born strand of hazy pop-rock – No Joy, fresh off of a stint opening for Wavves and Best Coast, buzzed their way through a ramshackle slew of songs, disheveled hair strands bouncing with every guitar slam. The scummy noise-grunge bombast of Weekend was at least elementally pleasing, and the yippish Beach Fossils looked just as clean-cut as ever, even after the band admitted they hadn’t slept in three days. All were nice and loud and, after a while, incredibly hard to pay attention to. Sure, resources are limited but the goldenrod washes of tempered guitar-reverb don’t stay interesting for long. Drummer in the back, a guitarist and bassist splitting vocal duties – we get it. These bands can crank out a few notable singles but even under the flighty 45-minute sets, their music stuck together quite unflatteringly.
Most of the interesting stuff was reserved for the inside stage, a haven for musicians with a little more nuance. OK, it’s hard to call anything about Pictureplane nuanced (he took to the stage wearing a shirt that proudly expressed “BIG THANGS POPPIN'”) but he found a little restraint in his music. The Denver native put more emphasis on repetition, circling ghostly soul samples and treble-mulching synths into his usually attack-first trance. His sedation was minimal of course; it was still party music in the end, but with a deeper understanding of the craft. If that maturity persists we might see a lot more from Pictureplane in the near future.
Mount Kimbie‘s brain-feeding dub-soul was occasionally swallowed whole by the sweaty interiors of the mix. It didn’t help that the bar stayed busy and Kai Campos‘ Dom Maker meandered around the stage looking confused and completely un-rock star-like. Not too surprisingly, Mount Kimbie’s music doesn’t translate well to the stage, but then again there was Gold Panda. The producer had the slightest set-up of the night: a small table covered in electronics, and his tiny build coated in a gray hoodie. Yet somehow his set towered above the others of the night, impeccably sequencing his bio-beat squelches, beeps and booms. He handled himself like a seasoned DJ, and when the bass dropped on You after a few minutes of teasing, the audience came face to face with god. Strange how one guy can upstage a thousand other bands with a footprint smaller than a coffee table.
Looking ahead to tomorrow, when the festival properly starts, Altered Zones has a day showcase over at ND, and The Fader is kicking off their daily party with Toro y Moi and Dom. Come nightfall this reporter will be bouncing between the Secretly Canadian showcase at Red 7, and a hip-hop night at the Mohawk. Stay tuned for more adventures at SXSW 2011.