Every March, tens of thousands of music fans, industry workers and hangers-on descend upon Austin, Texas for South by Southwest (SXSW), an orgy of sheer aural mayhem. With nearly 2,000 musical acts performing in every available space the city’s downtown has to offer, it’s the kind of event that’s difficult to sum up in a paltry few words. What follows, then, is the thoroughly non-comprehensive Reader’s Digest version of the festival — for those who need more, myself and Patrick Boyle chronicled our progress on the Fast Forward blog (ffwdweekly.com/blogs/stranger-in-the-alps/).
Wednesday, March 18
Best performance: Though it’s not exactly unexpected, folk songwriter extraordinaire M. Ward’s set at the Central Presbyterian Church is a thing of beauty. His guitar chops are unbelievable, his songs somehow sad and uplifting all at once, and the venue — forgive the pun — is immaculate.
Most awkward stage banter: Human Highway’s Nick Thorburn adopts a Texas accent and asks the crowd why they showed up — “Didn’t y’all just get laid off?” He also mutters that the less-than-enthralled crowd should “wake the fuck up” before playing a lovely rendition of “Sleep Talking.” Classy.
Best lecture: Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker delivers an hour-and-a-half long lecture on song lyrics, in which he sings a karaoke version of Des’ree’s 1998 single “Life” (worst pop lyrics ever, according to a 2007 BBC poll) and performs the first song he ever wrote, a teenage pun-fest called “Shakespeare Rock.” If university was more like this, I wouldn’t have been in such a rush to get through it.
Thursday, March 19
Biggest disappointment: During Devo’s press conference, they accuse David Byrne of stealing their dance moves and claim that bands these days just don’t have “Devo content.” Also, their new song, “Don’t Shoot, I’m a Man” is painfully mediocre. Before seeing them talk, their Friday night set is my most anticipated concert of the week. After, I don’t even bother attending.
Biggest surprise: Lucking into wristbands for the Playboy party. A mysterious stranger tells Pat and I to show up at a certain location and say that we “got the text message” to get access. The party, held in an abandoned Safeway, is a blast, featuring a stunning performance by the original lineup of Jane’s Addiction. Say what you will about Perry Farrel’s last decade (and you’ll never convince me that Dave Navarro isn’t a douche), but the guys still know how to put on a show.
Hometown hero award: Calgary rockers Women’s set at the Mohawk is so packed that the manager of their label can’t even get in the door. Looks like the buzz around these guys won’t die down any time soon.
Friday, March 20
The “Everyone was right” award: I’d always heard that The Hold Steady are one of the best live bands going, but chalked it up to being a byproduct of their Springsteen aping. Nope — they’ve earned this one on their own. Drum and Monkey manager Dan Northfield describes the crowd as a “brodeo,” but what’s a few chest-bumps among friends when the music’s this good?
Saddest sight (tie): Tough call. Seeing melodic popsters Takka Takka play a show to half a dozen people certainly rubbed in the importance of booking a good venue, but I might have to give this one to myself for calling it an early night on account of exhaustion. If I’d pressed on, though, the award would probably go to Tinted Windows, the supergroup consisting of members of Smashing Pumpkins, Cheap Trick, Fountains of Wayne and Hanson.
Saturday, March 21
Best decision: Stopping in to see funnyman Eugene Mirman was a stroke of genius. With all the music at the festival, it’s easy to forget about the comedy lineup. Mirman’s rant about Delta Airlines was worth missing any number of middling indie rock acts.
Most abrupt ending: Erykah Badu plays two songs after starting her set an hour late, declares that she’s going to take the crowd to hyperspace, and disappears. Confused attendees crowd the exits, making it almost impossible to leave. Never a good sign.
And speaking of abrupt endings….