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Friday, March 20, 2009

SXSW '09 - Day Two (Thursday)



So what is it about Thursdays at SXSW? Last year, we got shut out of the Spin party and the Vampire Weekend day gig. This year, we make an attempt to get in first at the Paste Mag party and the line is easily 1/2 a block long and my badge fails to do it's usual magic despite an RSVP. Our fallback position is NPR's deal at the Parish. Another no-go. Sigh.

I've been thinking a bit about this because you'd never know that there's a bad economy by the volume of people at SXSW this year. The crowds have been equal to Friday-Saturday crowds in years past. But a closer look says that most of them don't have badges or wristbands. It looks like the vast number are here just for the free stuff. We've scarsely had any trouble in the evenings getting into venues and the number of badges looks to be down from my limited view. So, maybe the crowds of people looking for free entertainment is actually a sign of the recession? Just sayin'...

So anyway, we fall back to Plan C which is to head for the infinitely less-hip Austin Convention Center to camp out at the Day Stage there. Finally, we strike paydirt, as best we can, with a banjo-y rollicking set from Elliot Brood. We played a couple of tracks from his Mountain Meadows in 2008. It's reasonably fun and he seems a charming guy.

Following Brood is Justin Townes Earle, Steve's kid. J.T. performs sincere old-timey folk stuff with an occasional vein of humor. He sings better than dad. Wife doesn't typically like this kind of music but she gives it the thumbs-up at the end. That's a pretty good endorsement.

I'm a bit taken aback when Amy LaVere takes the stages. She's short... way short. And she's rocking a stand-up bass making her the only member of the tiny female lead singer/stand-up bass player club that I can think of. She's got a great big voice for such a small package.

So, I'm sitting there after LaVere, looking over the schedule and catching up on some of the Austin Chronicle's recommendations when the 4-piece Mumford & Sons start their set. One song in and I'm paying them full attention. A quick Google on my phone and I find out that the BBC has named them one of the Sound of 2009 -- one of the 15 top rising stars, a list that includes such buzz-worthy folks as Little Boots, Lady GaGa, Passion Pit & Florence and the Machine. I'd put them at the intersection of Arcade Fire, Coldplay and David Gray, which is a nice neighborhood to live in. A great find.

We decide to walk back to the room for a quick break which turns into nap time for my tough wife, who's been soldiering on despite a lingering cough and cold. SXSW is a bit of an endurance test, so one of the key rules is to rest when you can. The Von Bondies & Peter Murphy get scratched from the list. C'est la vie...

We rally in time to hit Latitiude 30, which is the home of all things British this South-by. I get to see Frank Turner, who was on my short list. Turner's a former punk anarchist turned Britpop/rock/folkie. Think Billy Bragg. He might be a bit too Brit for the US indie-fab scensters. We've been playing tracks from his Love Ire & Song for the past several months. I'd compare him favorably to The Frames for his rock-edged, nakedly honest anthems. He ends his set with a nifty cover of the Postal Service's "The District Sleeps Alone". A great set.

After that, I give the wife the choice between Vivian Girls (less than a block away) and Tori Amos (at La Zona Rosa, about 15 minutes walk) and I know which she's going to pick. We go for a walk... On the way, we spot Rolling Stone's David Fricke waiting in line outside Antone's. Someone please give this guy access, OK? New media world, indeed...

When we get there, I find out that this is the Sound Exchange showcase and I refuse to allow one of their nice people to put one of their "I'm Getting Paid" stickers on me. She wants to know why and I explain start to explain my position on internet radio and streaming music royalties when I realize that this exchange is not going to have a happy ending and walk away. I'm all for artists getting paid, but I can't help but wonder how much of my royalty payments are going to these kind of splashy marketing efforts.

The venue is about half full when finally walk in and Erin McCarley's just starting. She's one of those Gray's Anatomy soundtrack types and clearly influenced by Tori. She's talented and the crowd is eating it up with a spoon, but I'm rethinking the wisdom of two hours of piano-based chick pop. She covers Suzanne Vega's DNA remix of "Tom's Diner". Some guy in front of me is doing interpretive dance and Mr. Jazz Hands goes off the deep end when she follows the cover with something that I can only assume is a hit single.

To say this crowd is a bit enthusiastic would be an understatement... a bunch of them burst into applause when the bring Tori's grand piano out on the stage between sets. Folks, that's just being too easy. Then the lights dim, the crowd erupts as... Perez Hilton takes the stage? Hilton introduces Amos as "one of the most influential artists of all-time".

Amos is the real deal. No doubt. Probably the most pure musical talent that we'll see this trip. But the crowd... ugh? A real sign of this YouTube age that when she performs the intimate classic "Crucify", the stage view is almost completely blocked by the sea of tiny video screens trying to capture not just a single snapshot but the entire performance. So I resigned myself to watching it on one of those amateur vids...



The early "Crucify" gives the wife her raw meat and knowing that I've been getting restless, she offers an early exit. We move towards the door, but actually find an improved sightline and stay for a couple more songs. I look at the schedule and see that we might have a chance to catch the end of the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart set a couple blocks away. We hustle over, guess the wrong line for badges and see the last song over a fence. Seemed good, but too limited a sample to draw any conclusions... Off to walk back towards the Radio Room for the Sub Pop showcase...

We get back across town and gain easy access to the venue. Sparse crowd in the main room for Daniel Martin Moore. The guy's polite, mannered and looks like a missionary. Nothing bad, just nothing to keep people around. So we head in back to check out Vetiver. I'm getting fidgity and I'm thinking about Blitzen Trapper. And I start to realize that Sub Pop has gone Americana. Does that mean if Kurt Cobain was still around, he'd be doing roots rock? Time to look at the schedule and I see that King Khan & The Shrines is down the street. We scoot.

Decent enough venue, this Sun and Moon place. But the band is 15 minutes late to the stage and then once they start, we realize that the sound system is just inadequate. The crowd is yelling "turn it up" but I think these amps only go up to 7. The band is hot, ripping it up. But it sounds like they are at the far end of a tunnel. Quite a disappointment, but totally not the band's fault.

We decide to step outside as Little Boots (see previously mentioned BBC Sound of 2009 list) is playing right across the street and we might catch the last half of her set. As luck would turn out, she's had one of those typically long fussy set-ups that we've seen before from electronic/dance acts (see Goldfrapp, Lady Sov, White Williams, etc.). So we actually saw the first song. Stayed for 3. She's pretty good and sells it better than LadyHawke. I think we'll hear more from this indie dance diva.

Walking down 6th Street, we decide to pull the plug on the evening. Just having a hard time getting up for going back to the SubPop gig or giving Peter Bjorn and John a second chance at Emo's. So we head back toward the hotel. And I look at my map. The Woggles are playing just a couple blocks away from our place and remembering their performance in 2007 as one of the best of SXSW, that's just too good to pass up.

And it not only meets but exceeds our high expectations as the band gives Gallows a serious run for best of SXSW so far. Amazing stuff as the Mighty Manfred spends as much time as Frank Carter in the crowd. But Manfred's all about feeling the love, not throwing elbows. He's up on the bar, swinging the mic stand like a bandleader's baton, testifying to the power of their garage rock. Sweaty, energetic and tight -- this is a band that must be seen live. Just go... you can thank me later.

We've reached the half-way point. Twenty-one acts so far. Here's Thursday's marks...

Grades: Elliott Brood B-, Justin Townes Earle B, Amy Lavere B+, Mumford & Sons A-, Frank Turner A-, Erin McCarley B-, Tori Amos A, Vetiver C, Daniel Martin Moore C, King Khan & The Shrines (performance B+/sound F), Little Boots B, The Woggles A+