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Thursday, March 19, 2009

SXSW '09 - Day 1 (Wednesday)

The drive in across Texas was brutal... 6 hours @ 45 mph, recalling but not eclipsing the legendary 14 hour drive from 2005. Note to self: this is a message from the universe to fly next year, you cheapskate.

We did manage a last-minute hotel upgrade from our previous headquarters the past 6 years about 7 miles from downtown Austin. This year, we can look out our window and see the convention center. My feet will thank me later...

After checking in and getting our badges and lighter-than-usual swag bag, we do a quick walk-thru of the exhibit floor. On to The Cedar Door for a quick bite before the evening's festivities... Oh and a quick round of one of the fav SXSW games -- "Is That Somebody?"

Filled up on tacos, it's time for the first band of the trip. Gallows is playing at Emo's. The hope is that this will at least be better than the Wednesday night folkie debacle that started off the 2006 trip. Whoa! Frank Carter (#1 NME Cool List, 2007) is a very dangerous man, spending more time off the stage than on and challenging the "pathetic" industry wonks to make a circle pit. Elbows and snot gobs flying, Carter's literally at the end of his tether most of the show, stretching the mike cord taut like a barking dog at the end of his leash just inches away from us at times. Musically, the performance is snarling and sloppy, covering a lot of the same territory as Iggy or the Sex Pistols. But as live acts go, this searing gig is easily one of the most memorable of 10 years at SXSW.

We escape with our lives and head down to Vice for the Von Bondies/Peter Bjorn & John/Glasvegas sets. Once, we're there I remember that I hate this place. The room probably holds 500 people, of which about 100 can see anything. Given that we have options, we leave before the music starts and head to Stubbs to see Ladyhawke (#6 NME Cool List 2008).

The contrast between Ladyhawke and Gallows couldn't be more jarring. Ladyhawke is a shy, reticent performace who delivered her polite dance-pop without making a ripple with the large Stubbs crowd (likely waiting for the Decemberists @ midnight). Nothing bad, but I fear Frank Carter may have set the bar unreachably high at this point...

We move up close and find a great spot to watch Cincy's Heartless Bastards represent. Right before the first notes, two 6'10 (not kidding, I come up to their shoulders) swoop in with some chatty chick and render our sightlines moot. And I could deal with the twin towers, but she's talking loudly over the music and getting all the band names of the band's she thinks she wants to see wrong. Note to fans of I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness (or as she calls them "I Love Choosing The Darkness"), be ready...

The Bastards are solid. They've grown quite a bit as performers since I saw them on the tour for their last CD. The new music from The Mountain, also solid. And when Erika Wennerstrom wails, it cuts through the shadows created by the big men in front of us and even chatty Cathy shuts the fuck up long enough to notice there is actually a band on the stage.

But I'm getting antsy in those shadows and decide we should make another run at Peter Bjorn & John. After all, they played here about 20 times the last time they were here and we ended up missing them all. So, to get that monkey off our back, it's back to Vice and it's gotten worse. If possible, it's even more packed in and now the room temp is cresting at 120 degrees. More like a sauna, my view is literally a stone wall... oh and PB&J is late. Finally, 25 minutes after their original start time, they take the stage still fussing with their gear. They make it through the first song, ok. Second song is aborted. More fussing and the crowd grows restless. A slow trickle starts for the door, then a few more. Still no music from the stage we can't see anyway. We pull the plug.

By the time we get to the Radio Room, The Grates are better than halfway through an energetic set. Patience Hodson's got quite a voice, actually reminding me of a more-upbeat version of the Bastards. Definitely one of those surprises that makes SXSW worth it.

Viva Voce is next up. The Portland band also surprises, mining some of the same sonic landscapes as The Duke Spirit. Radio Room has a main stage and a patio stage, so we walked out to see Annuals. These guys are a little too quirky for my tastes, but they're winning the battle for crowd size about 3-to-1 over Viva Voce. I stay for 3 songs to give them a fair shot. Nothing really connects. My ever-patience wife agrees and we go back to hear the end of the VV's set.

At 1 am, Delta Spirit's on stage. This San Diego band's got a layered rootsy sound that's a bit like a grittier Wilco. I'm impressed and make a mental note to pick up their most recent CD, 2008's Ode To Sunshine. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see these guys step up on their next record.

Meanwhile, I'd planned to stick around to see Manchester Orchestra, having appreciated their garage-y indie rock sound on the tracks I'd heard to date. Their energy was strong. Maybe it was mine that was waning at this point, but again, just not really connecting so after 3 songs, it was time to call it a night.

SXSW 2009 is off to a roaring start...

Grades: Gallows A+, Ladyhawke C-, Heartless Bastards A-, Peter Bjorn & John I*, The Grates B, Viva Voce B, Annuals C, Delta Spirit B+, Manchester Orchestra B-

* Incomplete


Anonymous said...
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Musical Justice said...

Always nice to get a comment... except when you get the same exact one on multiple posts... and then you google the exact comment and get over 189,000 hits. A comment spam robot. I could delete it, but maybe better to just call it out?