SXSW 2011: A recap of my personal highs and lows

25 Mar

South by South West (better known as SXSW) ended last Sunday, but people are still talking about the week’s events.

As a music lover and aspiring journalist based in Texas, I’ve been attending the music portion of the week and a half long festival for the last four years. Needless to say, I’ve seen my share of good and bad performances, but I’d have to say that SXSW 2011 takes the cake for not only the most versatile year, but the best year for me. That’s saying a lot – especially if you know that I spent 2009 catching every Cursive set – which ultimately led to my meeting the band’s lead singer and my personal idol, Tim Kasher, as well as hearing their 2004 album The Ugly Organ played in its entirety.

In its 25th year, SXSW held many surprises that even planners could not keep up with.

First, there was the unplanned performance of the Foo Fighters at Stubb’s on Tuesday night, the night before the music portion of the festival actually starts. Then there was the absolute shocker of a Jack White performance in the streets of Austin outside of his mobile record store for his record label, Third Man Records. Seeing as The White Stripes announced their retirement as a band in February, it was something that nobody could have expected.

Image by Trice

Last came the surprise performance from Kanye West, which had Twitter feeds jammed up and rumors flying from every news organization and journalist on the ground of Austin’s famous 6th Street. His surprise performance ended up happening in the old Austin City Power Plant, which has been abandoned since the 70s. It’s a surprise that anybody even got in to the concert at all, with the guest list even more chaotic than the back-and-forth rumors that he was even there. Needless to say, it wouldn’t be a Kanye performance without all of the hype. The rapper ended up hitting the stage around 2:30 on Sunday morning, thirty minutes after bars are supposed to close their doors in Texas, but it sounds like the concert was worth the wait. His performance featured acts such as Jay-Z, Justin Vernon from Bon Iver and a full marching band, to name just a few.

While I was badge-less and hopeless of catching any of these shows, I did catch quite a few sets that not even I could have imagined catching. I’ll try and point out my highlights and least favorites.

On Wednesday night I got lucky enough to catch a hush-hush performance of Portugal. The Man at the Do512 Lounge. The show was intimate and more stripped-down, but definitely on-point. The band mainly played songs from their 2009 release, The Satanic Satanists, but surprised all when they closed the show with fan-favorite, ‘AKA M80 The Wolf’ off of their first album, Waiter: “You Vultures!”.
Later that night I caught Rooney for the first time. While they are good live, I think that their 1 am set-time maybe have had something to do with them being the least entertaining of the week for me. I definitely want to catch them when they roll through Houston to give them a chance to redeem themselves, but for now I’ll just say that they were a little bit of a bore compared to the albums they’ve created.

Photo by Heather Kaplan

Thursday, I saw The Strokes at Lady Bird Lake. They played a number of their older hits and discography highlights, as well as a few songs from their new album, Angles, including the first single “Under A Cover of Darkness”. What surprised me, however, was that the newer songs sounded a lot better than the old ones. I’m not sure if it was because of the bad sound, but they definitely weren’t as on-point and tight as they were previous times. Then again, a bad show for The Strokes is often better than a lot of bands’ best.
Later in the evening I caught Noah and The Whale at Stubb’s and again, I wish I could see them again. While the rest of the band seemed to really be giving it their all, there was something about the lead singer, Charlie Fink, that seemed as if his heart wasn’t in it entirely. His vocals sounded a bit lazy, but where he lacked in vocals and guitar playing, violinist and back up singer, Tom Hobden, made up for, bringing in elements of their album with whistles, clapping and just spot-on violin playing.

Photo by Enrique Fabela

After watching a few more bands on the bill, I walked over to Red Eyed Fly and caught Maps and Atlases open for Menomena at the Barsuk Records Showcase. Needless to say, Menomena were my absolute favorite act of the entire week. Without missing a beat, the band played songs from each of their albums despite the recent departure of founding member (and one-third of the band), Brent Knopf earlier this year. Instead, the band brought in friends Matt Dabrowiak and Paul Alcott from Dat’r to tie up the loose ends from Knopf’s departure.  Lead vocalist and instrument extraordinaire, Justin Harris, was spot on with not only his vocals, but also his bass, guitar and saxophone playing that mimicked  an exact replica of that on their albums. Drummer and vocalist, Danny Siem, brought in the perfect base-tempo for the songs, standing up for some while he played.

Friday night gave me the chance to catch Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears, before I made my way to watch City & Colour play at Stubb’s. The solo project of Alexisonfire‘s guitarist, Dallas Green, was absolutely charming live. Although his fans might not be fond of the slowed down, acoustic style that he has pursued with the act, it is definitely worth catching live.
Later in the evening, I caught Austin-formed band, Okkervil River. The band, whose lead singer Will Sheff was nominated for a Grammy for his work with Roky Erikson sounded as truthful in person as he does in album form. His sincerity was not lacking in vocals or his musicianship, despite his 1 am showcase time at Antone’s.

Photo by AllSongs

Saturday, I got to see Bright Eyes play at Lady Bird Lake. For anybody who is a fan of the band and have yet to see them live, I would definitely suggest it. The show was held at the same outdoor stage that The Strokes played on earlier that week. The band covered a multitude of songs, sans sound issues, under the lighting of the “super moon”. With hits and gems being played off of nearly every release, including the title track of their latest effort The People’s Key, Conor Oberst and co. were so in-tune with one another that it felt an almost flawless performance. It didn’t hurt that the show, which was being streamed live on NPR’s website, ended in a fireworks display that lasted nearly 20 minutes after the band went off.

However, what occurred later that evening is probably the craziest and luckiest encounter I had of the week when I caught the mayhem and absolute wonder that was the Death From Above 1979 secret reunion show. Although the band is scheduled to play at this year’s Coachella Festival in California, Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler – also known as MSTRKRFT – literally and figuratively brought the house down. Fans of the band who couldn’t get in to the ‘Badges Only’ showcase stood outside dancing and singing along in the alleyway of Beauty Bar before they eventually tore down the back fence. Cops were called and arrived not only by car but by foot, bike, horse to tame the crowd. Within minutes of the fence coming down, officers both on horse and foot made their way through the crowd using taser guns and pepper spray. Regardless, nothing could disperse the fans. After a few minutes of banter from the band while security got the fence back up, the cops left and the music – and dancing – continued. Still, throughout all of the chaos and short set time, the duo only got to play about seven songs of off their only two recorded efforts – their full-length You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine and Heads Up, an EP.

In the video, you can hear Grainger claim “Welcome to the party!” and “Leave the horses at home.” – a clear stab at the cops who had begun beating, trampling, macing and tasering some of the audience. While bands have little to no control over capacity size of a venue, it is evident that the band was more than excited for the turn out and welcoming they received from their fans, while opposed to the amount of cops that reported to the scene. A better view of the crowd size, as well as eyewitness accounts, can be viewed here.

If it weren’t for that kind of commitment of fans and musicians alike, SXSW may not be as successful as it has been for the last 25 years. But with as much chaos that comes with a festival of its size, it’s safe to say that those in the music scene wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which leads me to ask this question: What are you most memorable moments of SXSW – good, bad, chaotic or ugly?

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