Blood and Feedback: a SXSW Diary

[OffBeat‘s Aaron LaFont continues his SXSW diary]

Day 3: Friday at SXSW – the big day. I arrived downtown sometime in the mid-afternoon. Stop one: bratwurst. Stop two: 6th Street. I think I’m getting better at riding this bull. My only real concern was catching Thurston Moore’s solo set that night at Red 7. I strolled around until I found the venue. When I got there, the line was immense – for Thurston Moore I assumed, but that was not the case. When I got inside, punk-core progenitors 7 Seconds were provoking a full-on stampede. Though not exactly my thing, I had a great time watching the scene unfold. Fist flew, bodies banged, and stage divers hurled themselves into pit as the group many credit as the founders of the hardcore movement riled up the unhinged mass. After the show, I saw a girl near the front of the stage holding her face, blood dripping out of her nostrils. One of the band members approached her, “Are you alright? Did you get hit out there?” he asked.

“I’ll be okay,” she said, wiping the blood with her shirt. “Great show!”

I tried to hang around the venue for a while, maybe grab a few drinks before Thurston took the stage, but soon I and all the other lingerers were tossed out into the street. Thwarted! After a quick sushi break, I returned to Red 7 to wait in line again. En route, I spotted the Dirty Bourbon River Show, once more, rummaging about on the avenue. This time they weren’t trying to solicit fans to their showcase. They were panhandling for change. Their MC held a sign that read something like, “Help the Dirty Bourbon River Show get back to New Orleans.”

With only a 12-string guitar, the lanky, leader of Sonic Youth, sat in front of his mic, strummed away, swayed, and swept the hair out of his face as he delivered a short, six-song set which mostly covered songs from his 2007 release Trees Outside the Academy. The set was everything (but not everything and more) that I thought it would be, and I, who spent the better part of my teenage years drifting away to the Sonic Youth canon, was content with the laid-back, lo-fi, no-frills offering. Plus I’m a huge fan of Trees Outside the Academy, and have been wanting to see songs such as “Never Day” and “Fri/End” performed live. Intimate yet unassuming, the strummy, sliver-streaked set tapped right into the hazy sense of longing I had been searching for ever since I arrived in Austin. There’s no denying it, I’m nothing more than a sidetracked slacker.

Next, I hustled to see folk phenom Sarah Jarosz at Momo’s. I first came across the 18-year-old Ausin native a few months back after listening to her debut album, Song Up in Her Head. She was another one of my must-see artists at SXSW. In fact, days earlier (before I knew she was playing), I scanned the schedule looking especially for her name. As I walked into the packed lounge, I heard the chanteuse echoing the familiar chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells.” Perhaps, one of the best parts about being a sidetracked slacker is sliding into the soothing spirit of folk music. Jarosz, who switched from guitar to banjo to mandolin at various points throughout her set, glimmered with the strength and beauty of a young Gillian Welch. Portland, Oregon bluegrass band Black Prairie soon joined Jarosz, and the ensemble delivered a sweeping rendition of one of my favorite country melodies, “Queen of the Silver Dollar.” They also threw in a pair of clever covers, both of which can be found on Jarosz’s album: The Decemberists’ “Shankill Butchers” and Tom Waits’ “Come on Up to the House.”

I was soon back out on the street heading straight for hipster central, and unsuccessfully trying to [logically] figure out my next move. Broken Bells or Redman or The Entrance Band (my sleeper choice)? Well, it was a mile-and-a-half walk to the Broken Bells’ show, and I couldn’t bear standing in another line or listening to the egotistical exploits of She and Him open for James Mercer and Danger Mouse. So the choice was clear until MyNameIsJohnMichael drummer Eric Rogers dragged me into Friends Bar, where bandmates Corey Schultz and John Michael Rouchell were rocking along to Dutch girl troupe Rebelle. Other than a strong Runaways vibe, I didn’t really get much from the music. Agood time, but not exactly what I needed.

I needed to get blown, so Eric and I headed back to Red 7 to hear San Francisco psychedelic power trio the Entrance Band, whose eponymous 2009 release easily ranked as my pick for the year’s best, After the show, Rogers said, “This was the best show at SXSW!” I’m still on the fence, but I can certainly attest that the volatile barrage of mind-melting guitar solos, banshee wails, and wicked rhythms made for an intoxicating and incendiary spectacle – especially when bassist Paz Lenchatin shed her axe and sprang headlong into the crowd during the mammoth rocker “Grim Reaper Blues (pt. 2),” only to fight her way back on stage, strap up, and rip through the cascading crashes with seething tenacity.

Day 4: Saturday, March 20 – I got a good jump on SXSW until I realized that I left my badge at my friend’s house and had to return to get it. If you know how much Austin traffic sucks, you’ll know how much this sucked. And did I mention that it was freezing?

I decided that the best way to beat the cold was to beat around the convention center. I spent the better part of my afternoon strolling up and down the aisles of the Flatstock, a concert poster convention. Despite the abundance of graphical wizardry on display, I found the overall lack of diversity amongst the exhibits oddly unsettling. If it wasn’t über indie, it wasn’t in sight.

A little later, I rendezvoused with New Orleans pal Jack Gray and his crew at Ace’s Lounge to catch hip-hop duo The Cool Kids. One of the most recognizable forces in independent hip-hop, the pair, who aspire to party as hard as the Beastie Boys, rocked the packed house with a set that could have easily been out of ’88 – and that’s a good thing. Two turntables, a whole lot of bass, and straight mc-ing, that’s their m.o. With a few pals on hand for their shindig including Cleveland’s Chip tha Ripper, the duo rattled walls and shook booties with their booming beats and sharp, smacking flow.

After some semi-aimless wandering, attending, mooching and drinking, I grabbed a slice of pizza and headed to Maggie Mae’s rooftop to get a good spot for MyNameIsJohnMichael. By this point, the temperature was absurd. Luckily, so too was MNIJM’s show, but in a good way. Their lush, driving melodies, euphoric choruses, and surging rhythms cut through the frigid breeze. Soon the crowd, which included New Orleans bounce-rap pioneer DJ Jubilee, immersed themselves in the show, chanting and dancing along to the chugging tunes. As for MNIJM, momentum continues to mount. The performance of their final number, the [trashcan] pounding, percussive anthem “The One,” stands as one of my festival favorites.

Without much of a plan, other than to get warm, I hurried over to Stubb’s where The Drums were on, and later the Scissor Sisters would take the stage. While I’ve never heard or seen The Drums, I’ve read several gushing reviews and was intrigued to see what the New Wave ensemble had to offer. Based on what I gathered at this show, they put a lot of effort into piling loads of atmospherics onto Smiths’ singles – not exactly hipster bullshit, but not exactly original either. Still, they did put on a helluva show, and for the record, I have a soft spot for histrionic new wave. Wait, did I just say they sounded like The Smiths? Because the song “Don’t Be a Jerk Johnny,” cops everything but the lyrics from the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” much like the Strokes smash “Last Night” was to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers “American Girl.”

The next band, Circa Survive, was altogether horrible. I believe the correct term for their particular brand of self-loathing is emo-core, but at its core, their heavy-handed mewling is nothing more than contrived corporate rock for disillusioned teenagers. At least the Scissor Sisters were next, and there isn’t a morose cloud –or crowd for that matter – sad enough to rain on their flamboyant parade. After all, there’s no crying in disco!

While I fully expected an exorbitantly ostentatious outpouring, I clearly wasn’t prepared for the dazzling dance extravaganza that was soon to unfold. Vocalists Jake Shears, donning a leather jacket, sheer undershirt, and skin-tight, leather-patched jeans, and his red-headed companion Ana Matronic, dolled-up like Jane Jetson with her purple, polyester space dress, proceeded to throw a triumphant bash that blended Bowie’s late-Seventies shimmer, Blondie’s dangerous provocations, and the Bee Gees’ vivacious jubilation. Their performance was electric and infectious, particularly their electroclash cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” the shockingly irresistible “Tits on the Radio,” and the over-the-top encore “Filthy/Gorgeous,” which saw Ms. Matronic deep-throat her microphone.

Once the disco daze wore off, I ambled over to Valhalla to catch the close of instrumental band Caspian’s showcase. Having missed their recent concert in New Orleans, I was itching for a chance to soak up their sonic supernovas. Though I believe people have been using the terms “stargazing” or “spacegazing” to describe their music, within moments of settling into the club, it was pretty obvious that no tag, no matter how cleverly coined, would supplant the “shoegaze” designation. The band members, the crowd, everyone stood still, stoically rocking back and forth, staring at their sneakers. Seriously, no one – myself included – lifted their heads. I didn’t want to, either. I only wanted to let my ears absorb the textured waves circling the room. Mesmerically, Caspian’s droning symphony drifted through mellow reveries, thunderous clashes, and liquid eruptions. By the time I looked up, the band had dismantled the drum kit, and each member pounded a different piece of the set as a wall of feedback faded in the distance. Heavy, man, and not too bad a way to end my first SXSW experience. Let feedback ring!