Every year I learn a few more what-not-to-dos at Austin's SXSW music festival: Don't sleep in too late or you'll miss the free tacos; RSVP for everything, just in case; don't make elaborate plans or you'll never hear anything new; try not to pay for beer. This year my best-laid festival plans fell apart early after a handful of early travel mishaps, but I learned a few festival-going tricks nonetheless.
Not only because it will help you get around, but because some of the best music in the city is delivered en Español. There are working-class Norteño bands that set up shop at dive bars on César Chávez Avenue (yup, every city has one) and groups flown in from Mexico City for official showcases, but some of the best music I saw at this year's festival came from Spain. Guadalupe Plata is a raw blues-rock trio that seems more inspired by the Mississippi Delta than the Black Keys; frontman Pedro de Dios, he of the Liam Gallagher glasses and protruding chest hair, is a slide-guitar wizard whose picking hand looks twisted and clubbed as he sings in both English and Spanish (sample lyrics: "Baby baby baby baby/ Baby baby baby baby"). Vetusta Morla plays big, sweeping indie rock with theatric percussion and downright breathtaking build-and-release song structures.
Take the Bus
Unlike our own transit system, Austin's Capital Metro is cheap; you can get most places for $1. But there are other helpful buses in Austin. During my visit, one such bus, covered in an awful hippie mural and blasting the Beatles' white album, was parked atop a hill on East 6th Street. The passengers on board greeted visitors with, "What do you need, bro?" (I think they meant drugs.) Another roaming bus, this one white on the outside and glowing purple inside, housed the surprisingly tight Austin-based prog-rock/jam band Interstellar Transmissions. The bus picks up strangers and fans at random as it creeps through the streets. And then there's the RVIP Karaoke RV, which loads would-be rock star passengers on board for free beer and bad renditions of Journey songs.
There always seems to be one inescapable celebrity musician at SXSW—a performer who appears at every daytime showcase and late-night party. This year it was Andrew W.K., still celebrating the 10th anniversary of 2001's ridiculous and excellent
album. Rumor has it W.K. spent his week tipping pedicab drivers with hundred-dollar bills and giving party advice to strangers on the street. On Saturday afternoon, he hosted
's day party at Club DeVille in a "Party Hard" hat and leather jacket, looking stubbly and sleep-deprived. After being loudly booed for giving props to Texas Gov. Rick Perry ("and his lovely daughter Katy"), he led the crowd in a nonsensical chant of "apple Dutch" and sang a variation on his decade-old radio hit with new lyrics detailing the best strategies for roasting duck. Then he repeatedly introduced Scotland's
as "Twilight," to which the band's testy frontman—who actually looked kind of goth in his purple-and-black-striped T-shirt—eventually retorted, "We're not called 'Twilight.' We're not fucking vampires. Shite movies!"
Things I heard at this year's SXSW panels:
"I call them fanagers. They're fans, but they want to micromanage your career."
"Dre's gonna make more money off headphones than he ever made off of music. And he made a lot of money off of music."
This festival has more sponsors than a NASCAR race, and brands like Doritos, Whole Foods, Pepsi and Red Bull have successfully turned downtown Austin into a carnivalesque, corporate-run Burning Man with ever-more-elaborate installations. It's best for your soul to ignore all that stuff, keep your head down and see great bands in small clubs.
The best venues in Austin aren't bars with tricked-out sound systems or oversized rooms at the convention center—they're churches. Singer-producer the Dream headlined Central Presbyterian on Thursday night, appearing onstage in Marty McFly's light-up
shoes and singing through a golden microphone. His extra-funky backing band sounded like Whitney Houston's '80s production and the Dream, who seemed humbled by the setting, wiped his sexually charged set clean of cursing. On Saturday, March 17, Firehorse played St. David's Historic Sanctuary on 7th Street, where sexy, pajama-clad frontwoman Leah Siegel closed out the show with an a cappella performance that had me believing she's destined to be huge. Siegel cursed once.
Like this one: "Great bands I saw this year that I haven't mentioned yet."
The French beatmaker, with a live saxophonist and guitarist on hand, delivered one of my favorite SXSW sets. Electronic music is rarely this warm and mercurial, and it felt especially moving because it was competing against an ocean of dubstep and house, which de-emphasize performance for danceability.
I'm not crazy about the name either, but this Canadian funk/electro/pop/psychedelia outfit put on a show that had kids jumping up and down and old-timers making the "ooh, that's nasty" face. Hard to quantify what they do, but early Beck, Prince and Of Montreal are good sonic reference points.
The Seattle hip-hop duo, now emboldened with a Sub Pop deal and a fine forthcoming record, are growing as performers.