The Sonic Glory of SXSW 2012

South by Southwest (SXSW) is an annual conference held in Austin, Texas. The following pieces, videos and photos originally appeared on the website of Kansas City-based online newspaper the Vignette and chronicle my experience covering the showcases at SXSW 2012.

First Day in Austin/Day 1 of SXSW:

I went to catch Big Sam’s Funky Nation at the Lucky Lounge. It was nice to ease into my SXSW experience with some quality New Orleans funk. The music straddled the line between jazz, funk and rock. The crowd was grooving all night to the band’s jamming and licks.

The conference officially started on Tuesday. Music fans and artists from all over the world crowded the streets. I spent the afternoon doing several interviews, scouting out locations of venues and sampling the Austin food truck scene. The amount of venues, big and small, in Austin is staggering. There are at least 90 venues in the downtown Austin area alone.

In the evening, I headed to the Pitchfork showcase at the Mohawk. The two-leveled venue was packed with people. Ohio-based duo Teengirl Fantasy started off the night with some quality synth-based indie rock. Teengirl Fantasy represent a style of music that seems to very popular at SXSW this year: Bleepy, bloopy indie rock. However, unlike most bands, that just rely on subtle shifting soundscapes, Teengirl Fantasy’s beats hit hard and incorporate more texture and dynamics into their sound. A DJ, Star Slinger, was up next. His mixing was not quality and he jumped around from one musical style to another unevenly. The unfortunately named Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire captivated the crowd with his fluid, high-speed rapping. With just a DJ and hypemen backing him, eXquire used the full force of his flow to hit the crowd hard.

Around midnight, I headed to club Barcelona to catch Kansas City-based DJ FSTZ spin a set. His impeccable mixing allows him to blend many different styles of music together. Unlike a lot of DJs and beat makers I saw over the course of SXSW, FSTZ stood out due to his technical prowess behind the decks. My first two days in the musical insanity of SXSW were complete.

Day 2 of SXSW.

There were over 600 bands playing the official showcases during the six days of SXSW. 7,000 bands played unofficially. Stepping out on to Sixth Street in the afternoon, you are bombarded by the din of musicians busking on every corner. It is a cacophonous struggle to be heard over each other.

 Wednesday afternoon, I went out to check out the day-time street scene during SXSW. People cram down crowded Sixth Street, holding up their cell phones while walking by busking bands. It is hard for bands to stand out in this hectic environment. Portland, Oregon-based Fruition showcased rootsy songs busking on Sixth Street.

Downtown Austin in the afternoon during SXSW seems like a never-ending stream of music and self-promotion. People come up to you, pressing fliers in your hands, trying to convince you to follow them on Twitter and get you to come to their showcase. Advertisements and promotional materials sport snarky catchphrases to try to get your attention (“Your music looks like shit.”). The phrases printed on the swag bags given out at the blog Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel reflect this unnecessary, nonsensical attention-grabbing word use: “It’s just a bag, stupid.” There are dancing sharks and pandas, sponsored fake naked people riding around on bikes. The promotional scene at SXSW 2012 was “corporate weird.” It was like some Hunter S. Thompson dream, sponsored by Taco Bell.

I went to a day showcase put on by the France Rocks, an organization that promotes French music from the Loire Valley. There is a lot of quality indie rock coming out of France these days. The muscular, danceable indie rock of Gush was particularity impressive. Mars Red Sky also had a very tight, groove-based sound.

Wednesday night, I headed to the Hotel Vegas in East Austin for DJ Rusty Lazer‘s showcase. Far away from the crowded Sixth Street scene, the Hotel Vegas is a funky, small venue on Austin’s East Side. The show started off with the hard-hitting sounds of indie rock duo Caddywhompus. For only two people onstage, Caddywhompous make a heck of a lot of noise. Unlike too much of the indie rock that I saw over the course of SXSW, Caddywhompus’ set was tight, rocking and intense.

Magnolia Rhome‘s flow, backed with clattering bounce beats, got the crowd dancing and chanting along. NOLA Fam‘s set felt generic and flat compared to the rest of the acts I saw on Wednesday. Nicky Da B‘s set hit the crowd hard with energy. Her new single with Diplo, “Express Yourself,” had the crowd grooving hard.

Throughout the night, the Danger Boyz ignited the crowd with their energetic dance moves that could only come from New Orleans. 

Katey Red‘s set showcased her wordplay and nasty rhymes. “Punk Under Pressure,” which samples the Jackson 5’s “ABC,” ended the set on a really strong note.

Dee-1‘s social conscious hip-hop really connected with the crowd. The positive vibes and down-to-earth nature of his set made him an interesting choice to go on before legendary brag rap icon Mannie Fresh.

While Mannie Fresh‘s DJ set included some questionable choices (Buckcherry’s Crazy Bitch” and the Outfield’s “Your Love.”), Fresh really hit his stride when he got on the mic to rap his classic hits. “Project Chick” and “Get Ya Roll On” back-to-back provided the most raucous crowd reaction I saw during all of SXSW. These songs are glorious trashy rap songs everyone knows, whether they want to admit it or not. It’s nice to see that these songs are not just a New Orleans thing, they are part of the fabric of American rap classics.

From streets bursting with music, to Mannie Fresh’s nasty raps, SXSW day 2 had something for every music lover.

SXSW Day 3

SXSW is like a Choose Your Own Adventure story of musically epic proportions.  Thursday, I took a slightly more subdued approach to the musical madness.

Thursday afternoon, I headed to the blog Hype Machine‘s Hype Hotel for the Aquarium Drunkard day party. The courtyard was packed with people. The crowd was laid back and easing into their afternoons by grooving to some quality tunes. One of the most amazing things about SXSW is that, every hour of the day, you are surrounded by music.

Bass Drum of Death delivered a set of rocking indie tunes. They had the whole crowd grooving. It’s always nice to see a band rocking so hard in the early afternoon.

Youth Lagoon‘s set at the Aquarium Drunkard day party was one of the best sets I saw during all of SXSW. His vocals were angelic and his beats were sprawling and beautiful. His tracks have a very lush feel and it was thrilling to see him make them sound even more robust live. Fans of Bon Iver should check out Youth Lagoon. You will be glad you did.

Austin is well-known for it’s food truck scene. I had my first Korean pork taco on Thursday. It featured Korean spare ribs, kimchi, cheese, and, for some reason, french fries, all wrapped in a warm soft tortilla. It was a weird, wonderful, mind-blowing example of Asian fusion. I saw 8 other Korean taco trucks in Austin during SXSW. I felt like I was tasting the future.

Thursday night, I headed down Sixth Street to Buffalo Billiards for a showcase. The bottom floor of Buffalo Billiards is all pool tables and shuffle boards. The top floor held some quality rock. Austin-based band Gold Beach won me over with their buzzing, feedback drenched waves of sound. Avalanche City had a poppy, tight sound that went over well.

It was a more low-key scene on Thursday at SXSW. Still, quality music was all around. It was a calm before the insanity of the weekend ahead.

SXSW Day 4:

After doing several interviews, I headed to a parking garage for the Google and YouTube Live From the Lot day party. The stage was set up on the top level of the garage, up six flights of stairs. SXSW is a great work out for your legs and ears.

Two Gallants rocked the crowd extremely hard during their short set. Their finely crafted pop-rock songs sounded great in the breezy afternoon.

Coming into SXSW, Grimes‘ sets were some of the most anticipated of the entire festival. Her album, Visions, is one of the best I’ve heard this year. The beginning of her set was plagued by sound problems and vocal issues. However, Grimes’ voice sounded stronger as her set moved along. Her mix of spacey, minimal beats and airy vocals meshed together well live. Tracks like “Oblivion” and “Genesis” had the crowd grooving. Backed by a drummer, she would play the melody of a track on a synth, loop it and continue to add layers to the song. She absolutely lives up to the hype. 

Later that night, I headed over to Lamberts in West Austin to catch the Mynabirds at the Saddle Creek showcase. The Omaha-based band has been one of my favorites for several years. It was nice to see them in such an intimate space.  Like many of the bands at SXSW, The Mynabirds used their set as a way to showcase tracks from their upcoming album. They did dip back into their first album for a rollicking version of “Let the Record Go” and the ballad “Right Place.” Lead singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn’s vocals were powerful and soulful all night. Much of the crowd was chatty and rude during the set. Sometimes the crowds at SXSW seem to be a lot of self-important people all talking about themselves, all at once. In a rare move, Burhenn actually called them out for talking. Before playing a new song, Burhenn asked if the crowd could, “Please shut the fuck up. I’m trying to play a tender love song.” The crowd, sadly just kept on talking. If you’re going to a show at SXSW, the focus should be on the music.

I then made then 20-minute trek to Maggie Mae’s on Sixth Street to catch New Orleans rock band MyNameIsJohnMichael. I staggered up the stairs just as they were coming on. They delivered a rocking fusion of rock, funk, indie and New Orleans brass. The new material blended seamlessly with their older tracks, but had a harder, funkier edge. They had the entire crowd dancing. This is not an easy feat at SXSW, as people are normally too cool and/or physically exhausted to dance.

I headed back to West Austin to catch up-and-coming French house DJs/producers BeatauCue. The venue, Malverde, had no sign and was on the second level above a bar. When you are not even sure if a venue exists, this is a good way of knowing you are at a hip show. With the breeze wafting in through the windows, dancing to house so unmistakably French was a lovely way to spend an evening.

BeatauCue wrapped up at 2 in the morning and I ventured out into the Austin night in search of more quality tunes. I ended up back in East Austin at the Hype Hotel. The free vodka was flowing and the crowd was amped up. Caveman delivered a hard-rocking set at 3 am that put the rock in indie rock. The riffs were harsh and the crowd danced itself into a delirious state. At around 4, I grabbed a cab and headed back to get some much needed sleep.

SXSW Day 5:

Early on Saturday morning, I caught Laura Gibson‘s hotel room set at the Radisson. I gorged myself on vegan cinnamon rolls as she sang her lovely indie-pop songs. Her odd, beautiful voice was enthralling. Even in the confines of a hotel room, she had a full band (including a horn section), backing her. Her dreamy songs were the perfect way to ease into a day at SXSW.

MMOTHS spun a set of chilled beats at Irish music blog Nialler9’s day party at the Hype Hotel. The grooves had the small crowd in a daze. A lot of artists and bands at SXSW this year seemed to be working in this style of atmospheric, pretty bleeps and blops.

Despite it being St. Patrick’s Day, the crowds in Austin seemed to be the lightest they had been all week. SXSW is a long festival, and I think people just get burned out

I headed over to dive bar Red Eyed Fly, where I stumbled upon Colombian band M.A.K.U. Sound System. They whipped the audience of around 30 people into a frenzy with their strange, funky take on Colombian music.

I hit Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar for a showcase of New Orleans rock. Sun Hotel got the evening going with some quality indie rock. Caddywhompus was up next and rocked the crowd hard. A vicious, nervy version of Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” was filled with sharp, angular guitar riffs and bombastic drumming. It was one of the best things I heard during all of SXSW. For only two people onstage, Caddywhompus bring the loud rock.

The Revivalists closed out the evening with a set of full-bodied rock and roll. Much of the material was from their excellent new album City of Sound. The six-piece band has a dense sound, but it never sounds cluttered.

After their show ended at about 2am, I wandered back to rest up for one final day of SXSW coverage.

SXSW Day 6.

The SXSW conference officially ended on Saturday, but I spent one more day soaking up the musical goodness.

I headed out for the Proxart showcase at Lomography, a camera shop. Hi Ho Silver Oh knocked me out of my afternoon stupor with an excellent set of feedback-drenched rock. They were one of the best bands I found out about during SXSW.

The Stone Foxes performed a set of scuzzy blues rock. Unfortunately, their set had sound problems and the vocals were barely audible.

I went to go chill and take a break. A car rolled up next to me and some friends of mine from Kansas City shouted at me. We ended up at a dive bar listening to some southern rock. No rest for the wicked!

I headed back up to Lomography. Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Julie Belle closed out the Proxart showcase with an acoustic set. Her voice was smooth and her guitar playing was on point. It was a very laid back vibe.

I ventured out to try and find a house party I had heard about. I accidentally walked a mile in the wrong direction. I finally stumbled upon it in East Austin just as the sun was setting. The party was a small get-together. I spent a lot of my evening sucking down Tecate, listening to tunes and being socially awkward. The Gary Newcomb Trio played some excellent pedal-steel guitar driven country. They had the crowd waltzing in the kitchen.

I ended my time in Austin with Chicago house originator Derrick Carter at Kingdom. The house music fans were still clubbing hard, even though Kingdom seemed less than half full. The sound system was excellent and the beats were fresh. I knew it was time to wrap up my SXSW coverage when the guy at the table next to me was asleep.

SXSW was a life changing experience. It is so wonderful to see great live music in so many different styles. From packed venues to tiny house parties, SXSW 2012 was truly a celebration of the glory of live, independent music.

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