South by Southwest isn't really meant for music fans. It's no secret that the Austin, Texas, "music, film and interactive" conference, now in its 23rd year, was designed for the back-end of the music industry: labels, press, PR, AR, BMI, and other such corollaries to the music business naive fans and exhausted music editors ought to avoid whenever possible. But away from the long lines for buzz bands, the hubbub over Metallica and Kanye and the heavily sponsored open-bar after parties, one can still find honest music in Austin.
The scene here is carnivalesque: A slow-moving river of beautiful and stylish young people avoids flier handouts on the main drag of 7th Street. Costumed brass bands march and dance in busy intersections. A good hot-dog cart spawns a line 50 deep. Kids with "free hugs" signs wander the streets, some of them promoting their bands and some who just, apparently, need some hugs.
Oh yeah, and then there's music. For this year's 1,900 official SXSW bands performing between March 13 and 22 (the actual number, including unofficial acts and street-corner buskers, is rumored to be nearly twice that), the challenge of the festival lies in just standing out in a crowded field. On every street corner, rapid-fire black metal drums ring out against overbearing MCs and frail singer-songwriters. "Hey bro, do you support hip-hop?" "Hey dude, do you wanna catch some killer metal tonight?" They are questions one comes across with every crosstown journey. The natural tendency for seasoned "southby" vets is to keep that head down and make a beeline for one's next destination. It takes a great band—or a great shtick—to divert someone away from his or her mission.
For some bands, standing out is easy. Last year, Israeli hard rock act Monotonix stood out with chaotic sets that relied more on crowd participation than musical ingenuity, and the formula made it one of the festival's most talked-about groups (it also stole hearts at Portland's MusicfestNW last fall). This year, the hairy trio was back at it: At a sauna-temperature Austin ballet studio last Thursday night, the band's members sailed above the crowd half-naked, their drums strewn about the room but still being beat with purpose. Frontman Ami Shalev played his usual role of outlandish rocker—jamming the microphone between his butt cheeks and wrestling with bandmates—and conductor, commanding the crowd to sit quietly, then "go fucking crazy."
Portland artists performing at SXSW (about 30 groups, officially) were, on the whole, a bit less theatrical than Monotonix or similarly fabled Los Angeles art-punks the Mae Shi. But our city's bands certainly understand the importance of standing out. On Wednesday, the Decemberists dressed sharp to debut their new rock opera, Hazards of Love, in its entirety to a sold-out crowd at Stubb's (the same outdoor venue Metallica would rock two nights later).
At his shows, inimitable Portland-via-Nova Scotia rapper Josh Martinez handed out custom-packaged mustaches emblazoned with his likeness and the slogan "the mustache ride of your life." The Thermals were mostly business over the course of their eight SXSW sets, but the local pop-punk trio's frontman, Hutch Harris, did strip down to a pair of swim trunks to reveal the word "SLUT" written across his stomach as the band debuted material from its upcoming album Now We Can See, to be released April 7.
As another local aside, both pop wunderkinds Blind Pilot and dance party superstars Starfucker drew sizable crowds in Austin, with the latter rocking everything from day parties to evening shows, exclusive after-hours parties to DIY art galleries. "We really didn't expect it to be this fun," SF's Josh Hodges said of the experience.
On Saturday, SXSW's final day, I realized just how much I'd missed during the first few days. When confronted with two competing acts I wanted to see (Friday night at 10 pm, for example, there were 73 official shows running at once—a dozen looked pretty good), I just gave up and headed to the taco cart.
By Saturday evening, the pace of the fest and its hard-sell feel had worn me down a little. So I made one of my few definitive scheduling decisions: I would see L.A.'s Earlimart at St. David's Church that evening. And as I settled into a church pew to survey my surroundings—high wooden ceilings, gorgeous arches and a respectable sound system—I felt like there was no place I'd rather be.
Having never seen Earlimart, it was a few minutes into the Hudsons' set that I realized this was the wrong band. Co-frontman Hudson Mueller had a clean, clear voice with a hint of Texas twang, and his partners, guitarist/singer Brian Hudson (now you get the band name) and violinist/vocalist Leah Zeger, didn't look like Los Angeles people. There were, I put together after a stunned moment, two church venues at SXSW: one Episcopalian and one Presbyterian.
But I was trapped. Anticipating a great set, I had positioned myself right in the middle of the room, and the pews had filled with smiling, down-home, middle-aged faces (how did I miss the hints!?) after I arrived. Everyone was so damn sweet, how could I walk out on them? Pissed off but resigned, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for a shitty local band.
The Hudsons, it turns out, are not a shitty local band. I mean, they are from Austin, and their third song was a rap-folk number called "Green Man," but it's actually surprisingly clever. And when Mueller finger-picked his acoustic to tell a story, I was struck by how awesomely uncool these guys are. First he sang a little song about SXSW: "It's good to be in Austin, Texas, during South by Southwest/ And it's good to be at St. David's Episcopalian Church because those people are the best." The audience chuckled.
Mueller followed the on-the-spot ditty with a song he wrote while sitting by the river in Austin and watching a Styrofoam cup floating by. His bandmates chime in with perfect rootsy harmonies: "I'm going to live forever/ I'm going to cross that river/ I'm just a Styrofoam cup."
It occurs to me that Mueller's voice isn't just clean and twangy, it's stunning. He sings as purely and directly as he possibly can, aching to get his story across to the crowd, but there's not a hint of ego or showmanship in his presentation—he's not trying to sell me anything or land a major label deal, he's just in this for the joy of singing and writing songs.
Seeing bands like this, imperfect artists who lay their personalities on the line without hesitation, is why I wanted to write about music in the first place. I smiled through the Hudsons' entire set, because in the middle of America's craziest music festival—one where bands travel from all over the world to impress writers like me—my faith in music was renewed by a group that plays Austin once a week.
The Top Six Performances I Caught At Sxsw
Titus Andronicus at the Vice magazine After Party
My compatriot Cary Clarke described these guys as Bruce Springsteen meets some band I can't remember now. But to me they sounded a lot like the Black Lips. The live show was wild and less pretentious than the latest record, which is good but a bit more precious than punk. The show was punk as hell.
Here We Go Magic at Side Bar
Luke Temple's new band takes all the pop sides from its latest, self-titled record—which also features equally interesting departures into Fela Kuti/trance territory—and pumps up the jams for a live audience. And the Brooklyn group's drummer is almost as tall as Menomena's Danny Seim, which makes for lots of flailing.
Bobby Bare Jr. at Maggie Mae's
Each time I see Bobby Bare Jr., I walk away more impressed, and this blistering trio set at Maggie Mae's was the perfect way to end my regularly scheduled SXSW. Bobby can switch from sensitive singer-songwriter to country ass-kicker without a second thought, and that in itself is enough to keep things really interesting onstage.
Monotonix at Ballet Austin
A band to see before you die, one has to want to enjoy a Monotonix show. But if you loan these wild Israeli rockers your body, they'll return your mind in slightly better condition.
Shaky Hands at Red Eyed Fly
With ex-Jogger Jake Morris on drums, the Shaky Hands sound tighter than ever. Classic rock departures and guitar freakouts mean these Portlanders just keep getting better. Unfortunately, Morris' cowbell was stolen before the band's set. He had to make do with the base of a mic stand in its stead.
Loch Lomond at Club de Ville
The current lineup of Portland folk-pop act Loch Lomond is unnaturally cohesive, and the group's willingness to buck the genre's usual tameness with adventurous songwriting and high-energy delivery is a breath of fresh air. It's sorta like frontman Ritchie Young is leading a weird little army into battle with every performance.
Music Editor Casey Jarman's day-by-day SXSW diary