Thursday, March 27, 2014

John Does SXSW 2014

6th Street strip during a "lull" later in the afternoon

Hi, my name is John and I finally attended my first South By Southwest music conference this year (hence the catchy title of the post). Having never gotten to experience this event when it was smaller in scale and without the heavy dose of multinational corporation sponsorships (AT&T, Chevy, iTunes, et al.), I can't really compare hashtag-SXSW to the older SXSW conferences. But from what I gleaned from veteran SXSW attendees, the spirit of the old South By is still there, you just need to look a little harder to find it while ignoring all the big events that are being used (at least in theory) to help pay some of the bills.

Because the event has gotten so big now, unfortunately that means acts like Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Soundgarden will be jetted in to perform one-off corporate sponsored events.  But since these acts are so big and have already toured extensively in recent years, I can't imagine there are too many fans flying cross-country and paying thousands of dollars to see them phone-in a 45-minute set to help a big sponsor sell corn chips or music services. At least Green Day had the sense to play this festival as their alter egos/side project Foxboro Hot Tubs, I assume playing only songs they recorded under that name.

The whole point of the original SXSW was to highlight emerging and/or underground artists. Showcasing some of the biggest names in rock, pop, and hip-hop kind of defeats the purpose and original spirit of the festival. A few hundred thousand people are going to SXSW now annually whether these big names are there or not.

It is apparently a necessary evil now though. As one questioner pointed out during a Q&A at a conference I attended - he works the SXSW festival and even though he hates it, he realizes Chevy and AT&T are helping to pay his and others' salaries now that the festival has grown so large.

I was fortunate enough to avoid all of the above events during the week, so in my circles SXSW still stayed fairly true to its original intent. My to-see list could be divided into three categories: favorites of mine whose music I know well and couldn't wait to see, artists who I had never actually heard much from before but wanted to see for the first time, and the last being the artists you never heard of before but end up seeing, with the ultimate hope that many from the second and third group eventually make it into the first group.

Anyway, below is a daily recap of my five days at SXSW seeing 35 full sets of music (and another few handfuls of partial sets) without a whole lot of sleeping or eating. I literally drank "beer for breakfast" (and lunch) with a protein bar most of the week. I also have a companion post that goes over the logistical, non-musical parts of the trip here. That post is meant to serve as a guide for future attendees and general observations about Austin and the SXSW event through the eyes of a virginal attendee.

Day One - Tuesday, March 11

I didn't arrive until early in the afternoon. And after getting to my Airbnb apartment rental and then taking the bus downtown to register at the Convention Center and pick up my badge and swag, it was already 4pm. So what to do? I didn't have a ton of bands on my list to see on Day One, so it was wide open.

My official badge. I'm officially ready!

Part of the swag - a commemorative guide to the whole week

And look - my name as an official registrant! So official!

SXSW democratizes the registration process. So my name is listed in same section of the book with people like Debbie Harry, Mickey Hart, Bob Mould, Neil Young et al.

Speaking of Neil Young, he was giving a keynote speech at a conference on his new digital music product launch called Pono. But I didn't spend thousands of dollars to come to SXSW to hear speeches that would end up on YouTube in a matter of days (see here for clips of Neil Young's speech on YouTube, as predicted that afternoon). I came to hear live music all day, every day. I can eat, sleep, and watch YouTube videos at home. The "music everywhere, all day" thing is what SXSW began as and how I wanted to experience it.

So I thought I had missed a chance to see Speedy Ortiz at the Side Bar for the Harry Fox Agency day party, but just as my luck would have it they were starting a little later than originally planned due to a delay getting there. The Side Bar outdoor setup reminded me of a backyard of a beach house with picnic tables mostly stones replacing the grass on the ground. And then drummer Mike Falcone put out a request to borrow a high-hat cymbal for his drums, which caused another longer delay until the cymbal was found and set up, but it was worth the wait. This was my first time seeing this MA-based quartet led by Sadie Dupuis and they didn't disappoint. Major Arcana was one of the best releases of 2013 and their new EP Real Hair is stellar as well. I originally thought I'd be seeing Speedy Ortiz 2 or 3 times this trip, but this turned out to be the only time (please play Philly again soon!). And Sadie tweeted me back on Twitter, so the trip was off to a great start.

Speedy Ortiz setting up

Sadie from Speedy Ortiz

Speedy Ortiz performing "Hexxy"

A little later I caught a great set by Yonkers, NY-based Palehound at The Metal & Lace. Palehound started as a project for Ellen Kempner (who is still not old enough to drink) and grew into a full band. I think they played just about every song from their Bent Nail EP and new 7-inch as well as at least one new song that is still untitled. Palehound is on the Massachusetts label Exploding in Sound Records and have much in common with their label mates.


I ended up seeing a set by the Tennessee-based blues-rock outfit Clear Plastic Masks at Holy Mountain shortly after that, due to a venue mix up on my part (one-part my mix up, one-part no signs on the venue, and one-part getting vague instructions from the guy working the door at the Red 7 indoor venue that I didn't clarify). By the time I realized I was at the wrong venue, the line was too long to get in to catch the Chicago Made showcase at Red 7 outdoor venue around the corner, featuring Autumn Defense, Archie Powell and the Exports, and others. So a rough SXSW baptism for me.

So it was on to the Rainey Street scene to the Javelina Bar. Rainey Street is about a two-block stretch of what looks like fraternity houses and nearly every one is a music venue (or possibly some private house shows?).  I was hoping to make it to 1am to see Split Single, but my internal clock was saying it was bed time after waking up at 5am Eastern the previous day. So I stayed for Dana Falconberry's folky roots-rock set and some of Torres' set before having to call it a night and figure out how to get back to my apartment before being awake for 24 consecutive hours.

Day Two - Wednesday, March 12

Wednesday started at the Hype Hotel for Consequence of Sound's Cosigns III Festival. It was sponsored by Miller beer, so the beer choices were Miller High Life, Miller Lite, and MGD. And admission came with a pair of free drink tickets, so I used them on a bottle of water and a High Life (probably saving more money on the water). Anyway, I missed the start of the show, but ended up getting there just as Together PANGEA from SoCal was about to play. I guess they were "undislikable" to use a Chris Richards term of semi-endearment, with their Pixies-meets-Emo pop/punk kind of sound.

They were followed by Strokes guitarist, Albert Hammond Jr. This was my first time seeing Hammond live and he didn't disappoint. He and his band ran through a tight set, including a few new songs plus selections from his 2013 EP AHJ and his first two LPs Yours to Keep and Como Te Llama?, ending with a cover of the Misfits' "Last Caress." I've always believed that Hammond's solo stuff is better than most of what the Strokes have done since Room on Fire.

Albert Hammond Jr.

Albert Hammond Jr.

Wye Oak from Baltimore followed with a set of all new songs from their forthcoming LP, Shriek. The new songs are bass/drum/keyboards with no guitars, so this was definitely a departure from their previous work. Perhaps their set was strategically placed between the two guitar-heavy acts as a change of pace.

Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak

Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack of Wye Oak

Against Me! closed out the party with a great set, mixing old and new songs and I believe playing at least one song from all of their albums, with most of the songs being from the 2014 release Transgender Dysphoria Blues and 2007's New Wave. At these types of festivals, it seems almost every act plays to about 60% of the crowd who are big fans and/or super-interested in their set, while the other 40% hang off to the side and check their phones, waiting for their favorites to take the stage. Against Me! was definitely playing to a mostly packed house of rabid fans.

Laura Jane Grace and Against Me!

Then on to Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop to catch an acoustic set by Rhett Miller of Old 97's. Seattle's independent radio station, KEXP was at this location all week, as they have been the last few years. Miller mixed in several new ones and some old classics ("Time Bomb", "Barrier Reef", "Doreen") and of course the Longhorn Network's theme song, "State of Texas." Miller is definitely one of the few artists I've seen who can pull off the solo acoustic show and make it almost as entertaining as the shows with a full band.

Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller performing new song

There is music everywhere during SXSW. Afterwards while eating a chicken sandwich from a street vendor in the middle a festival I caught sets by a pair of speed metal acts I didn't know anything about before heading over to the Chevrolet Courtyard for the rest of the night.

The Chevrolet Courtyard at Cedar Street venue was created just for SXSW. It was a nice outdoor courtyard in the middle of a bar/restaurant. So they threw together a stage and voila - another cool venue.

The Felice Brothers from the Hudson River Valley in upstate NY were the first act I saw. I knew of them, but had never actually heard them and I was pleasantly surprised. They have a country-rock style reminiscent of The Band, but with a fiddle and accordion very prominent in their songs.

The Felice Brothers

Lucius from Brooklyn was on next. They had a unique twangy pop/rock sound, led by a duo of similar-looking female keyboardists/singers and supported by a standard guitar/drums band. Sort of Neko Case meets Blondie. They were not at all what I was expecting, in a good way.


Lucius performing "Turn It Around" earlier that day

Lucinda Williams followed. This was my first time ever seeing the alt/country legend play live. The set got started a little late due to sound problems, so a planned 45-minute set was more like 30-35 minutes. But she and her band sounded good playing a few new songs and some older ones, including "Changed the Locks, "Joy", and "Righteously."

Lucinda Williams

The Hold Steady closed things out. What else can I say about the Hold Steady and how great a live band they are? They ran through 5 or 6 new ones and lots of old favorites ("Stuck Between Stations", "Chips Ahoy!", "Weekenders", "Constructive Summer", "Slapped Actress", "Magazines", "Sequestered in Memphis" - 'subpoenaed-in-Texas!...', "Hot Soft Light", etc), doing their best to make the most of their 50-60 minutes of stage time. No nonsense, no banter, no jams. Just song after song after song until the they were told they had to wrap up. I'm sure they would have played longer if they could have. And much like Against Me!'s set, the Hold Steady were playing mostly to diehard fans who were into the set, singing along with most of the songs. But then again their "psalms are sing-a-long songs."

The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady performing "Hot Soft Light" from the Brooklyn Vegan show I couldn't get into

Day Three - Thursday, March 13

Thursday began at Paste Party at the Swan Dive on the strip of venues on Red River Street. I arrived shortly after the party began.

Split Single is a band from Illinois I've been looking forward to seeing. Jason Narducy fronts the band and plays guitar in a project that includes Britt Daniel from Spoon on bass and Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Mountain Goats, Bob Mould) on drums. You may know Narducy from his time playing with Robert Pollard of GBV and also playing in Bob Mould's current band, as well as filling in as the touring bass player for Superchunk last year. They have a classic alt/rock sound that reminded me a lot of the Replacements. Their LP Fragmented World drops on April 1st.

Split Single

Split Single

Ages and Ages from Portland delivered a solid set of pop/rock music tinged with country-rock and folk at times. They reminded me a little of Dr. Dog or the Decemberists on some songs.

Ages and Ages

Ages and Ages performing at Cheer Up Charlie's

Lydia Loveless is an act I knew nothing about before SXSW, but the 23-year old from Columbus, OH and her backing band were very impressive. This was a raucous set of garage-y alt/country reminiscent of Whiskeytown-era Ryan Adams.

Lydia Loveless

Lydia Loveless

Lydia Loveless performing at the Bloodshot Records party

Those Darlins from Nashville are a band I've been looking forward to seeing live for a few years and they didn't disappoint with a great set of garage-y alt/country, featuring songs mainly from their last 2 LPs - Screws Get Loose and Blur the Line, and also covered Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot", also previously covered somewhat notably by U2.

Those Darlins

Those Darlins

Those Darlins

Those Darlins performing "Screws Get Loose" at Cheer Up Charlie's

I had to nearly run from the Swan Dive to Beerland for the Can't Stop the Bleeding (a sports blog) day show, a block north to catch the set by Protomartyr. They hail from Detroit and their 2013 debut LP No Passion All Technique has been in heavy rotation for me since I discovered it late last year. The obvious MC5, Pissed Jeans, and Parquet Courts comparisons are apt and also don't quite tell the whole story. They ripped through a blistering set of songs mostly from No Passion and also their debut EP, along with a new song called "Scum, Rise!" from their forthcoming LP that will be released next month.


Obnox from Ohio was up next at Beerland. It is a one-man band created by Lamont "Bim" Thomas. He had a drummer accompanying him for this set, but it was mostly just raw, fuzzy, post-punk. There is a blues rhythm though underneath all the noise.

Philly's Paul Green School of Rock was getting some love in the Beerland bathroom.

The Paul Green School of Rock Music sticker

I was originally planning to head a few blocks away to the Mohawk for the Stereogum Party to see Speedy Ortiz and Cloud Nothings later in the afternoon, but the show was cancelled out of respect for the victims of the hit-and-run outside the venue the previous day.

While I was seeing the shows at the Swan Dive and Beerland, my wife was at the Convention Center and caught the Warehouse: Songs and Stories conference with Bob Mould, Steve Wynn, Britt Daniel, and Matthew Caws, among others.  

Warehouse: Songs and Stories conference

Bob Mould debuted his new song. Here's a clip below:

clip of Bob Mould performing an acoustic version of a new song ( I think is titled "The War")

Bob Mould

She also caught Archie Powell playing an acoustic set at the Convention Center.

Archie Powell

After taking a break it was on to see NY alt/rock troubadour Jesse Malin and his new band at the South By Sapporo party at Cheers Shot Bar on the 6th Street strip. I've been a fan of Malin's for years and this was a solid set of mostly new material from his forthcoming release, along with a cover of the Ramones' "Do You Remember Rock 'N' Roll Radio?", which worked really well with the horn section in the new band and also the Pogues' "If I Should Fall From Grace With God."

Jesse Malin

Jesse Malin

Jesse Malin

Jesse Malin and his new band plaing "Wendy"

Jesse Malin and his new band performing "All the Way From Moscow"

The Merge Showcase followed that night at The Parish on the 6th Street strip. It's one of my favorite record labels and I really like most of its roster. The bottom line is I trust Merge even I know nothing about a band, but I find out they are on Merge. First, I know they probably share similar integrity and values about music as others on Merge. And second, I know if Mac and Laura at Merge were willing to sign this band, they are probably pretty good. Anyway, here's a quick segment on Merge's 20th anniversary from 2009 (checkout Wye Oak being featured back then).

 I didn't arrive until just as Vertical Scratchers were finishing up, but I liked what I heard briefly, reminiscent of 60's British invasion rock combined with a classic Guided By Voices indie rock sound.

Saint Rich were up next from Sussex County, NJ were impressive with a set of that seemed equal parts blues-rock and garage, very reminiscent of the Strokes on a few songs.

Saint Rich

Saint Rich

Hospitality from Brooklyn were next playing an impressive set of indie pop with selections from their two LPs, 2012's S/T and 2014's Trouble. Trouble is one of my favorites of 2014 so far.



 Hospitality performing "I Miss Your Bones" from the Waterloo Records show the previous day

Ex Hex from Washington, D.C., was the "wow" band of the night. I guess I wasn't quite sure what to expect or how much of a shredding band Mary Timony's new power trio project would be. But they ripped through a set of original music from their forthcoming album. The obvious comparisons to Dinosaur Jr. or Sleater-Kinney are obvious and appropriate.

Mary Timony and Betsy Wright of Ex Hex shredding

Betsy Wright of Ex Hex

Ex Hex

Ex Hex - "Hot and Cold"

Wye Oak from Baltimore followed with another set of mostly new songs from their forthcoming LP, Shriek. This set had a few older songs in it, unlike their set at Hype Hotel. One of the most powerful moments of the night came shortly after midnight, when Jenn Wasner read the note about about a moment of silence for the victims of the hit-and-run outside the Mohawk. And then they segued into "Holy Holy" from Civilian.

Wye Oak

Wye Oak


"Logic of Color"

"That I Do"

Bob Mould closed out the night with an hour-long set of new songs and old songs. And I ended my day seeing Jason Narducy playing bass with Bob Mould, after beginning my day seeing his band Split Single. It was a long day for him, but that's SXSW for you.

Mould opened the set with "Star Machine", "The Descent", and "Keep Believing", from his last album Silver Age. And he closed out a rare encore at SXSW with Husker Du classics "Flip Your Wig" and "Makes No Sense At All." In between he played several new songs, which were really good, especially "This War" which he debuted earlier in the day at the Convention Center. He played about 5 other new songs, along with Sugar standouts "A Good Idea" and "If You Can't Change Your Mind" and other Husker Du songs like "Hardly Getting Over It", "Chartered Trips", and "Hate Paper Doll." I'm probably forgetting a few more other older songs. Anyway, this was a great set by a rock legend. It was almost worth the trip just for the Merge Showcase.

Bob Mould in his warm-up outfit during soundcheck
Bob Mould with Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wurster on drums

Bob Mould

Bob Mould during "Hardly Getting Over It"

"Keep Believing"

"Chartered Trips"

Day Four - Friday, March 14

Friday started out with the New Punk Strategies conference at the Convention Center, featuring Mac McCaughan from Superchunk/Merge Records, Lyle Hysen (Bank Robber Music), Joseph Voss (industry lawyer), and Rebecca Gates (Parcematone Presents). It was an interesting hour-long discussion highlighting how to help support musicians today as they navigate the new music business model, while helping them maintain more control over how their art is used.

From there it was on to the New Movement Theater to see Pile from Boston. It was a theater for films and Pile played the front lobby. They tore through a set of garage punk songs, mostly from their last LP Dripping.



Next it was off to Waterloo Records to catch Protomartyr's set. It was similar to the previous day's set, but they sound was better at Waterloo. I could probably watch a few sets from this band almost every day.





Mac McCaughan of Superchunk was next back at Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop for performances that were being broadcast on KEXP radio in Seattle. The shows on this day featured Merge bands celebrating Merge Records' 25th anniversary.

(As an aside, honestly, my rock fanboy man-crushes get no bigger than the one I have for Mac. When you're younger and you imagine yourself as any "rock star", you probably wish you could be certain super-famous ones for a variety of reasons (money, girls, whatever). But for several years now, if I could have been anyone, I'd have chosen to be Mac. For 25 years he's been the singer/guitarist in a great band (Superchunk), a singer/guitarist in a very good under-appreciated side project (Portastatic), and co-founder/co-owner of one the best record labels in rock music history, certainly one of a handful of the greatest independent labels ever, all while maintaining an admirable independent ethos).

Mac did an acoustic set, opening with "Overflows" from Superchunk's I Hate Music, played live for the first time ever. The set also featured "Watery Hands", "Detroit Has a Skyline Too", "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo" and some others from both Superchunk and Portastatic releases.

Mac McCaughan

Mac  McCaughan

 "Watery Hands"

 "Me & You & Jackie Mittoo"

Ex Hex followed to close out the Merge 25 showcase with another "wow" set, similar to the previous night at the Parish. It was cool to see the members of Ex Hex taking in Mac's set before theirs too, like big fans would.

Ex Hex

Mary Timony

Betsy Wright

After taking a break for a few hours, the next stop was Lamberts BBQ Upstairs for the Misra Records Ohio Showcase. R. Ring featuring Kelley Deal (of Breeders fame) were one of the main acts and she was hanging out in the audience before the show.

Greg Vanderpool (of the Monahans) kicked off the showcase. I was not familiar with his music at all but this was a solid set of rootsy Americana rock songs.

Greg Vanderpool

Connections from Columbus, OH were next and they were one of the the bands I was most excited to see with their GBV-inspired garage rock sound. They rarely if ever play outside of OH, so this was finally a chance to see them live. They formed a few years ago as a new project featuring Adam Elliott, the drummer for Times New Viking and his brother, singer Kevin Elliott and guitarist Andy Hampel, both formerly of 84 Nash. And then they added Dave Capaldi on guitar and Philip Kim on bass. They've had an epic 2012-2013 that saw them release over thirty songs already, with another LP on the way in 2014. It was a great economical set that featured mostly older songs with a few new ones. I got to talk to Kevin Elliott a little bit as I bought a 45 from him for DeadRadioSound.


Kevin Elliott of Connections


After that it was back to the Chevrolet Courtyard. I caught some of the set by pop act, Polica, but was there for Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Pains' lineup has changed since their last album and the new songs definitely have more of a poppy feel to them. Still it was great to finally see them live. They played mostly new songs along with a few old ones like "Heart in Your Heartbreak" and set closer "This Love Is Fucking Right!"

Pains of Being Pure At Heart

Pains of Being Pure At Heart

Pains of Being Pure At Heart

Pains of Being Pure at Heart playing at Incite Out

And then it was on to the Gatsby for the Pandora Discovery Den Festival, featuring Lucinda Williams. The band sounded really tight again and they played a similar set as a few nights before, ending this set with a cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."

Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams

Shakey Graves followed with a one-man blues rock thing, similar to G Love. But it was time to get home by then, so I left before the end.

Day Five - Saturday, March 15

Saturday seemed to filled with huge party shows all over the strip with many big (indie big, anyway) names on the same bill. So instead of people being more spread out at several different venues, everyone seemed to be going to the same 5 or 6 shows at some point.

And it seems Saturday is the day more of the locals are there and those who just take off Friday and come for a three-day weekend, so it's the most crowded day of the entire festival. The lines were ridiculously long. I didn't get into the Brooklyn Vegan show at the Red 7 (which featured most of the artists already listed above on the same bill), after waiting in a block-long line for over an hour. I finally gave up after moving about 20 feet in an hour. And by then it was too late to see any of my plan-b or plan-c shows and/or they were too far away to get to in time. So I just decided to have a nice early dinner and see Ex Hex again that night at Cheer Up Charlie's and wrap up before 2am for a change, since I had a 7:30am flight home the next morning.

Wild Moccasins were the first band I saw at Cheer Up Charlie's. They had a country-tinged pop sound with some "world music" mixed in and were not really my cup of tea.

Wild Moccasins

Crooked Bangs followed. They are a local Austin punk band I've read about previously. They ran through a set of old school punk/Riot Grrrl songs reminiscent of Bikini Kill but with a little more of a 70's punk sound.

Crooked Bangs

Leda Celeste Ginestra of Crooked Bangs

Ex Hex were next with no surprises. Just another great set very similar to the previous ones.

Ex Hex

Ex Hex

And that was the wrap on my first ever SXSW.  It was an incredible experience and an exhausting but fun five days. I look forward to doing it again in the near future. Also, again if you would like to read a post about some of the non-music parts of the trip, check it out here.

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