Live Music + Gig Reviews

SXSW 2011 @ Austin, Texas – Part 4

20 March 2011

Beyond the finger-biting choices, beyond the overcrowded venues and bar-room chatter, beyond even the poorly scheduled bands and listless sets, easily the biggest bummer of the week was being turned down at the Seaholm Power Plant to see Kanye West. It was a strictly above-21 event, and my press badge was proven to be futile. I begged, pleaded, threatened, said things like “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” (regrettable I know) but nothing could make their borders budge. Thwarted not by music or prices, but by an open bar – I was very listless for the rest of the day. An event that huge should be as universal as possible, and it’s a shame in the ostensibly indie-minded festivities of SXSW corporate hand-wringing can have such damning involvement.

That didn’t mean there wasn’t other stuff going on, as the last night of the festival settled in on the clubs, there was an added sense of urgency to the already overwhelming chaos. People wall to wall, lines around blocks and into parking lots, it was a sensory explosion, but at every moment the pangs of what could have been at the power plant haunted me. Following the nonsense on Twitter only added to that longing.

But still, there was other stuff going on. Because of my dedication to Kanye I missed out on the first half of the day’s gigs, which included a raucous day party which filled the top half of the bill with TV On The Radio and Big Boi. But all the important stuff kicked off with the receding sun. Austin’s Mohawk was absolutely packed with ramshackle garage-rock; local heroes The Strange Boys and Fergus & Geronimo raged through respective jaunty sets.

The most immediately impressive was Fergus, who despite their slight school-boy figures, strung together some mightily effective guitar hooks. In full incarnation, there was about two, maybe three, unneeded members – including one bewildered fellow whose entire contribution to the sound was an army of shakers at his feet. They might have the songwriting chops to transcend their beyond-humble origins into international recognition. And they should, for the hooks were too good to deny.

Then there was the haughty Prince Rama, whose off-the-deep-end psychedelia worked well in the auburn walls of the Mohawk’s interiors. Their reverberating hymns seemed to bounce off the walls, the two sisters that make up the band’s primary components all tranced-out and turned inward. But then the songs would end and they’d greet the audience with a hospitable heartiness, a far cry from the aloof acidity they were previously engaged in. You could call it breaking character, but it seemed more like a return to Earth. They are human, after all.

After that I ventured to the complete other side of town to see a few electronic acts play at La Zona Rosa. Shit Robot is a likable character, but he’s done little to diversify himself from the army of similar-minded DFA acts. He throws up a video feed and puts on a mask, in hopes you won’t recognize the homogeny of the music. Trentemller had a similar sense of stagecraft, but instead one-upped his opener by incorporating an entire band. Guitars, live vocal samples, and a fair dosage of percussion. The set appeared more like a straight-ahead show rather than a traditional electronic extended mix, and personally I’d rather hear Trentemller’s already great songs in the context of a DJ rather than a band, but most seemed enthused with his overachieving.

That did it for SXSW, it was over, it was done, I danced the final night into the early morning, and it seemed about as valid a way as could be to end it. All in all it’s a great festival for the consumer, with countless bands, parties, and showcases beckoning at every whim. It’s a pretty fun thing to cover journalistically considering all of the young and established talent that makes their way through the city (although writing recaps at 4am has downsides) but it doesn’t seem to be a great experience if you’re an actual band.

The three-shows-a-day weight of exposure doesn’t breed long-lasting sets or memorable moments, and from the outside looking in the stress seems almost overwhelming. However that’s all extraneous; what we do know for sure is that SXSW will continue to be a very important thing in the realm of independent music, regardless of how healthy it is.

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