And so it begins… South By Southwest 2006, the 20th year of musical madness in Austin, Texas, the self-proclaimed "music capital of the USA!" Eight billion bands play in any available nook and cranny, some already massively popular, some hoping to catch the ears of radio programmers, media, and honest-to-goodness music fans. (And sometimes all three.) The A.V. Club ventured down south to join in the delicious melee. We humbly offer this minute-by-minute report.
DAY ONE, MARCH 15: OFF TO THE ROCK RACES
4:56 p.m.: You know you're at SXSW when the taxi receipt features advertising for a new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album.
5:48 p.m.: Imagine that all the rockers from your town founded their own city, and you'll have a rough approximation of Austin in March. Unlike its New York counterpart, CMJ, SXSW is concentrated into one relatively small area. Black T-shirts, bed head, dudes wearing eyeliner, and tattoos abound. The days begin early with parties and barbecues, and they end late with shows everywhere. Unlike CMJ, a lot of bands end up playing multiple times, so it's not a big deal if you can't get into a show—you'll probably have another chance.
6:01 p.m.: An air of desperation lingers as bands try to stand out, industry types talk business, and people size up others to see how they can benefit. It concentrates pretentiousness into spiritually lethal doses. At this very moment, the founder of eMusic—he sold the company years ago to Universal—is sitting nearby in a café, pitching some kind of new business to various label people. There's talk of revenue streams, royalty payments, and—probably—synergy. (That last one is a guess.) But SXSW has a festive air that acts as the spoonful of sugar to make the soul-sucking elements go down. It's hard to complain when there are so many good bands, warm (though cloudy) weather, and Shiner Bock.
6:08 p.m.: The first day of SXSW Music (it's immediately preceded by SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive) is a zoo, and everybody who purchased or somehow earned a badge must wait in line to get it. A SXSW worker—they're everywhere, and the fest is amazingly well organized—tells someone behind us in line, "Everybody has to wait. Everybody who gets a badge is the same. The Beastie Boys had to wait in this line. Elijah Wood had to wait in this line." We think he said, "Charlize Theron didn't have to wait, though."
7:08 p.m.: To the average Joe, he probably just looks like a weird, possibly homeless guy, but he's a demigod here: While waiting for a table at a Thai restaurant, in ambles Dinosaur Jr's J Mascis, with grey mane attached. We end up seeing him everywhere over the weekend.
8:14 p.m.: At the opposite end of the indie-rock celebrity spectrum… It's former O-Town member (they're the boy band from Making The Band, remember?) Jacob Underwood, who now sports big ol' dreadlocks. Does anyone else here recognize him? Doubtful.
8:19 p.m.: Thieves could have a field day breaking into vans and trailers here. (Not that The A.V. Club would condone that behavior.) Say, is that Orange Rockerverb 100 yours? Nice. Oh, and that vintage Moog too, huh? Are you gonna be around all night? Speaking of vans and buses, they're all here, from 20-year-old shitheaps to gussied-up Nightliners to one van that had a PA mounted inside of its rear doors. (A band performed inside.) "We had hoped to have the only white van, but it looks like we're out of luck," Eric Elbogen of NYC indie-poppers Say Hi To Your Mom said. Maybe next year.
9:21 p.m.: Russian Circles play "Death Rides A Horse" at the Flameshovel showcase, stealing the show. Bound Stems are here, too, but there's something in the air that's not quite right. A mysterious pool of water at the front of the stage turns out to be raw sewage. Bound Stems play a solid set of fractured, arty rock, and don't appear to be too concerned by the stench. After the set, the band admits that the smell was twice as bad onstage.
10:30 p.m.: An invite-only party for Blender magazine's 20th anniversary (are they that old?), is getting underway at a produce warehouse outside the main drag. The event offers the irresistible lure of a "red carpet." The promised celebs (Elijah Wood, Tommy Chong (!)) never materialize. There's a scramble to take photos of a guy we don't recognize. It turns out to be jazzy Brit singer Jamie Cullum, a fact that excites mostly no one. Also appearing on the red carpet: Singer-songwriter Rhett Miller, who looks way too dressed up.
11:55 p.m.: The music finally starts, with buzzing Twin Cities band Tapes N' Tapes, who are at least partly worthy of the hype around them here. Like many bands, they're scheduled to play SXSW an ungodly number of times. The fashion-forward crowd seems unenthused—they're not here to be enthused—but the band is pretty great. We don't stick around for Echo & The Bunnymen or Spoon (or all the free liquor).
11:59 p.m.: '90s indie stalwarts Versus are still amazing, and it's even worth jumping at any chance to see their offshoots. +/- is fronted by James Baluyut and Pat Ramos —Versus' guitarist and drummer, respectively—and its records feature wondrously claustrophobic pop that has a few things in common with Pinback. The band's fleshed-out live sound can be explosive.
12:32 a.m.: Unintentionally hilarious British band The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster plays sorta proto-modern-metal-punk that nods to Danzig and hardcore. We just assumed they were weird no-names on a British showcase, but apparently they're hep enough to rate an upcoming collaboration with UNKLE…
1:06 a.m.: The Rakes may be this year's future of Brit-rock—funny, cutting, catchy, and great. Singer Alan Donohoe looks and dances like Ian Curtis, but the band sounds like a fashion-unconscious Bloc Party with a love of The Jam—and with tight songs more important than their presentation. That makes for a riveting performance, which includes the monster single "Retreat," as well as a Serge Gainsbourg cover. Amazing.
1:13 a.m.: Even though it takes The Go! Team an eternity to set their gear up for the night's last slot, they easily win over the audience with ebullience. The English band couldn't have looked happier to be onstage, and it was contagious for the capacity crowd at Exodus. The club's stage is at street level with windows along the back, so passersby could watch the show from behind if they couldn't get in. That's the other thing: You can't walk down the street without hearing a cacophony of music from various clubs, all of it blending together. Last night on Red River Street, you could tell that Neko Case was performing with The New Pornographers because her voice came through clear across the street.
2:02 a.m.: The Flaming Lips finish up a "secret" show. It's exactly the kind of thing that makes Austin in March so exciting and fun. Thursday's "secret" show? Beastie Boys.
DAY TWO, MARCH 16: FOR THOSE CONTINUING TO ROCK, WE SALUTE YOU
10:30 a.m.: SXSW managing director Roland Swenson gives a heartfelt introduction to an appearance by Neil Young and film director Jonathan Demme, noting that the festival had tried in the past to get Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan as keynote speakers, but never Young—he seemed out of reach. As on his recent Daily Show appearance, Young was totally normal and chill, which actually seemed a little strange. He spoke about songwriting, the concert film he made with Demme, etc. It wasn't terribly enlightening, but interesting just the same.
12:06 p.m.: Owen, also known as Mike Kinsella (Cap'n Jazz, American Football, Joan Of Arc) is playing at the Convention Center. It's a little early to completely absorb his beautifully confessional songs, but he sounds great and, appropriately enough, plays the song that includes the line, "I listen to my same old CDs / New Order and Morrissey."
4:16 p.m.: Islands, featuring former members of The Unicorns, make a pretty little mess onstage at the Longbranch Inn, both with the cheese popcorn they're tossing around and with worldbeat-tinged indie pop. When rappers Subtitle and Busdriver join the fun, for a few seconds it feels like the place is going to explode.
4:30 p.m.: Neko Case soundchecks with "Star Witness" in a tiny field house in a park overlooking the city at a party thrown by Anti- Records and Chicago club the Hideout (where Case used to tend bar). SXSW simply doesn't get better than a small show with great music, free alcohol, nice weather, and an awesome view of the city.
5:10 p.m.: Elefant, the New York band that sounds British, closes out a Filter-sponsored party. They're giving away Puma track jackets with "Elefant" emblazoned on the back. The sound is boomy and weird, since it's in a big stone courtyard covered by a tent. But Elefant are still good, even though the singer doesn't wear his scarf. It's probably too humid for that.
8:47 p.m.: Guy walking on Sixth Street talks on his phone: "Every time someone thinks I'm a loser, I can feel it." Blabbing on your cell phone at top volume isn't helping.
9:15 p.m.: People go nuts for Morrissey, of course. And he's very good, of course, because he's the sort of born entertainer/artiste that most bands here wish they could be, or at least be near. No, his later solo stuff isn't as good as The Smiths, but it's still pretty damn good. And for the old school, he even busts out "Girlfriend In A Coma," "How Soon Is Now," and, best of all, "Still Ill." Up next, according to the guide, is a "Special Guest." This is usually a good sign, so we stick around until the next scheduled act, Goldfrapp, takes the stage. Ray Davies was reportedly supposed to show up and play, but didn't.
9:17 p.m.: Red Hot Chili Peppers logos (with the release date of their new album) are spray-painted on top of other people's posters and flyers all over the city. Because if anyone needs the help of viral marketing, it's a multi-platinum artist with a large, devoted fanbase—never mind the unknowns or relative unknowns whose posters are getting covered up.
10:02 p.m.: A man who turns out to be Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips walks down Sixth Street in a giant plastic ball, followed by people in giant alien and insect costumes. SXSW has a little bit of a Mardi Gras to it, which may explain the Bible-beaters roaming the streets and urging people to repent. As the evangelicals shout over a megaphone, a woman yells, "Elvis is my personal lord and savior!"
10:10 p.m.: Deadstring Brothers take the stage at the Bloodshot Records showcase. The vibe of the club is sports-bar jockiness (female boxing and the NCAA tournament are on the five giant HDTVs). Waitresses walk the crowd with test-tube shots, and an MC talks constantly between bands, "Hey folks, don't forget to try a shot, only $2! All right, stick around for more great music from Bloodshot Records artists!" What, no jalapeno shooters? Singer Masha Marjieh asks, "Am I forced to watch TV while I play?" Answer: Yes. Singer-guitarist Kurt Marschke adds sarcastically, "Gimme some of that female kickboxing!" The Deadstring Brothers play an excellent set of country-fied Southern rock anyhoo.
11:24 p.m.: Scott H. Biram—"the dirty one-man band"—plays a song about getting hit by an 18-wheeler, which actually happened to him. Biram's pleasantly abrasive hard blues is excellent, and he's an electrifying performer—no small feat for a man whose setup consists of his voice, his guitar, and some kind of kick-drum contraption. He swears a lot, too. Biram debuts a new song: "Well if it tastes like chicken, and it smells like pee, you know that fish didn't come from the sea!" A few seconds later he adds, "That's all I got for that one." Who needs more?
12:13 a.m.: Bobby Bare Jr.: "Could you turn off the yellow lights? I feel like I'm a cheeseburger in the yellow lights of life." Bare, son of country-music legend Bobby Bare, plays an excellent set of rocking Americana, a nice mix of country twang and rock bombast.
1:59 a.m.: In an effort to end night two with a bang, it's straight to Eternal to experience the fuss that is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. It turns out that the Brooklyn band—which plays earnestly quirky indie pop that brings to mind Talking Heads, The Velvet Underground, and Violent Femmes but is too inspired to sound derivative—is worth every drop of the ink that's been spilled in its name.
DAY THREE, MARCH 17: NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER!
12 p.m.: Just because you can drink for free at noon doesn't mean you should.
12:29 p.m.: Two band guys sit in a sandwich shop discussing their singer: "I think the qualities that make him an asshole also make him a good lead singer," one says. The other counters that it's part of the "good guys, bad band" phenomenon: Nice people make shitty music, or so the theory goes.
12:35 p.m.: Scarecrow! This metal band caught a friend's eye because they wear skeleton face paint. Apparently they caught no one else's eye, because they play to about five people. But they give it their skeleton-faced all just the same. The singer even introduces himself as "Yours deadly."
1:56 p.m.: Reverend Dave Ciancio of The Syndicate (the company that manages screamo band Thursday, among others) snags what he says is his 42nd pair of sneakers at the Riot Act Media/Flameshovel Records showcase. He apparently has 41 pairs of Vans and, now, one pair of retro-looking Sauconys.
2:48 p.m.: Comedian Eugene Mirman hosts the Merge/Sub Pop party in the sand-filled backyard of a BBQ joint about a mile outside downtown. He does a bit about a band that sent him a MySpace message (they were opening for Badfish, apparently "the best" Sublime tribute band), and they wanted him to come. He answers with a disturbing message that includes, "The worst thing I've ever done is shit on a cat in its sleep." Recent Sub Pop signees Band Of Horses begin a set that's marred by constant mic problems. Frontman Ben Bridwell changes lyrics to say it's their worst show ever. Everyone laughs.
3:01 p.m.: The Go! Team is supposed be going on right now at the Spin party at Stubb's, but apparently they're already done. The Stills follow with a fairly boring performance, but We Are Scientists are convincing. Apparently Charlatans UK are still together, too.
3:40 p.m.: Back at the Flameshovel party, Headphones—the newish project of Pedro The Lion's David Bazan—battles a mic stand that won't stay up. He prefaces a song with a bit of history about how the Romans privatized their army just before the empire fell. "I pray America crumbles soon," he says. Umm…
4:20 p.m.: Legendary '90s punk band Lifetime, who broke up in '97 but reunited last year, begin their set at Emo's. (My Chemical Romance is the not-so-secret headliner.) The crowd erupts. Frontman Ari Katz says, "This is the most girls there's been at a Lifetime show ever." A guy with a visible bald spot stage dives. People run and jump off the stage continuously during the set, and the crowd itself jumps up and down, moshes, and generally freaks out. The group's members clearly didn't expect such an ecstatic reception, but they love it. Afterward, a kid exclaims, "That didn't just happen, did it? I can't believe that just happened!" Just how big of a deal was it that Lifetime played? After My Chemical Romance takes the stage (to much squealing from young girls), frontman Gerard Way says, "The greatest fucking honor of our lives is to play with Lifetime."
5 p.m.: RJD2 is playing DJ at the Pitchfork day party, which takes place in a tent. No one seems to notice that RJD2 is playing DJ, though, as it just sorta sounds like someone is playing records between bands. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what's happening. Art Brut closes out the tent party, and the British band is funny, sloppy, and weird. Singer Eddie Argos has a killer moustache. They blaze through 25 minutes, including a new version of the song "Emily Kane," in which Argos updates the story of his long-lost girlfriend. It's fucking charming.
6:40 p.m.: We Are Scientists, last year's super buzzing band at SXSW (and owners of an excellent, Killers-like album this year), perform three songs for a live broadcast on a Minnesota radio station. Have you ever seen a band play in a little conference room on the top floor of a hotel? It's actually pretty cool. The DJ interviews bassist Chris Cain—he of the semi-ironic moustache—between songs, and he's hilarious. The band is great, too: How is their record not totally massive yet?
7 p.m.: The big story of day two is a surprise appearance by the Beastie Boys, who open a show at Stubb's that also features Deadboy And The Elephantmen, Noisettes, The Fiery Furnaces, The Dresden Dolls, Gomez, and Nickel Creek. Word travels quickly late in the afternoon, and the teeming masses converge. A TV news van parks outside, a news helicopter circles overhead, and the staff tries to cope with a crowd intent on getting in. The Beasties take the stage to "Brass Monkey" of all things, and the crowd goes crazy. Enthusiasm makes it easy to forgive the B-Boys' obvious rustiness, and the trio keeps the goodwill going with a set full of hits, from "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" to "Body Movin." A guy exclaims, "Damn, they look motherfuckin' old!"
7:25 p.m.: A giant MySpace bus gets mobbed by kids on Fifth Street. They disappear inside of it as it pulls away, perhaps never to be seen or heard from again.
8:49 p.m.: Members of female trio The Like sign the autograph wall at Arirang sushi on Sixth Street. One member draws a big heart, then writes "The Like are cunts 4 eva" inside of it.
10 p.m.: Same hotel as We Are Scientists, same floor, different side, it's Eric Bachmann playing the No Depression night. He's not necessarily a fit for that crowd, but he is amazing, especially with the addition of some new songs and a violin player. The instrumental "Islero" is fiery. A solo album—how is that different than a Crooked Fingers album, you ask?—is due later this year, and the bits we hear are great.
10:15 p.m.: With all the available choices, Sukpatch at Latitude 30 turns out to be a bad call. The Minneapolis band apparently forgot that it used to make great, beats-y pop that was like a more drugged-out, less eager version of Beck. Now Sukpatch is just a run-of-the-mill indie-rock band. Sadly, Toto, we aren't in the mid-'90s anymore.
11:05 p.m.: It's time to leave civilization and make the trek east for the Fiery Furnaces show at Red's Scoot Inn. Though there's a line to get into this unsanctioned event, a hill behind the venue is just high enough to allow for a perfect view of the stage. There's no denying that the Friedbergers are rocking the place with all their might, but once it becomes clear that they're not going to start throwing punches at each other, it's easy to stop paying attention.
11:15 p.m.: Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay plays solo, battling against bad sound, another band playing outside, and even—oh the inhumanity—a sound system right behind him that won't stop playing hip-hop. He plays an angry set, which is still pretty damn impressive. But ideal conditions these are not.
12:07 a.m.: Binky Griptite, guitarist and emcee for The Dap-Kings (blues maven Sharon Jones'), warms up the crowd before Jones makes an appearance. He tells the bartenders to turn off the TV over the bar: "There's only one show going on here tonight."
12:20 a.m.: You haven't been to Austin in March until you've been nearly bowled over on the sidewalk by Juliette Lewis. Slow down, rocker!
12:40 a.m.: Text message from Kyle: "Make the blues music stop." Note that he still wants music, just not blues. Good for you, Kyle!
1:27 a.m.: Neko Case laments her choice of pants. "I have a bit of a camel toe going on," she says, laughing, and requests that people don't take photos of it. Everyone cheers, particularly the dudes. Her backup singers, Kelly Hogan and Rachel Flotard, laugh before Flotard says, "Really? We have a moose's paw over here. It's clams' night out, if you know what I mean." The crowd roars. After Case plays "Dirty Knife," a track from her excellent new Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, a woman in the crowd says, "She's blowing my mind! I'm going to buy all her albums tomorrow!"
2:05 a.m.: St. Patrick's Day ends with Snow Patrol at Stubb's, and the dramatic pop is a bit underwhelming. Maybe it's all that Shiner talking, but suddenly everything starts to sound like The Goo Goo Dolls. It's time to get some sleep.
DAY FOUR, MARCH 18: RUNNING ON FUMES, BUT RUNNING JUST THE SAME
11:10 a.m.: The circus prepares to leave town, but not without an intense day and night first. People are exhausted, hung over, and getting burned out, but they soldier on.
1:54 p.m.: During an acoustic set at the Austin Convention Center, Rogue Wave plays "Salesman At The Day Of The Parade," a quiet song from their recent Descended Like Vultures.
2:13 p.m.: Flatstock 8, a gathering of rock-show poster designers, is doing brisk business. It'd be easy to drop a month's pay at this joint, with amazing limited-edition work by The Bird Machine, Burlesque, Aesthetic Apparatus, and tons of others. If you want some funny Dr. Dre stickers or a kick-ass Arcade Fire poster, this is the place to be.
2:16 p.m.: There aren't a ton of people on hand to see Amusement Parks On Fire, but the English band plays a great set of anthemic rock that bursts, buzzes, and pays tribute to some of the best alt-rock from the '90s (Smashing Pumpkins, Hum, Dinosaur Jr., etc.).
3:01 p.m.: Near the Emo's Annex stage across the street, a young girl asks a security guard what time Lifetime will play. When she hears that the band played yesterday, it's like she just watched a puppy get run over. Twice.
3:50 p.m.: Far from the din of downtown, there's more din: The neighborhood surrounding the University Of Texas (a couple of miles north) keeps busy, with shows in vintage shops, pizza places, and even Urban Outfitters, which scores great bands every year. The Rakes play again, after some serious technical difficulties. They are even awesomer than on Wednesday.
4:01 p.m.: The microphone keeps cutting out on Beth Ditto of The Gossip. Instead of getting pissy about it, Ditto says, "Fuck it, I don't care. You can hear me." Considering the intensity of her gospel-like punk wail, she's probably right.
5:32 p.m.: Goblin Cock is a sludgy metal band fronted by Pinback's Rob Crow, and just in case anyone thought that any of the black-cloaked dudes onstage were taking themselves seriously, they toss in a cover of Tears For Fears' "Head Over Heels." Hopefully Roland Orzabal will get a chance to hear it someday.
5:36 p.m.: Screamo band Thursday takes the stage with "Understanding In A Car Crash" and the crowd erupts. There's a lot of singing along and pointing fingers at singer Geoff Rickley, who flails like an epileptic.
8:34 p.m.: The singer of New Mexican Disaster Squad prefaces a song during the group's set at the Jade Tree showcase at Emo's by referring to it as "the fuck song." A fiftysomething woman sitting in the corner keeps her fingers in her ears. The group's hardcore was apparently too loud, and there's no doubt she's too old.
9:02 p.m.: Hardcore band Paint It Black takes a minute between songs to make sarcastic comments about SXSW. "That's what SXSW is all about—moving units, making connections… and eyeliner." The bassist adds, "If I see anyone on a Blackberry during our set, I'm going to throw down my bass and shove it up your ass."
9:15 p.m.: Eternal, which looks like a dance club, is the wrong place for tender acoustic troubadour Jose Gonzalez. He's still impressive, even more so live than he is on record. He plays his cover of The Knife's "Heartbeats" (the one from the Sony Bravia commercial with all the balls bouncing down Russian Hill in San Francisco) and pretty much transfixes the entire audience (except for one asshole who thinks he's being hilarious by secretly attaching stuff to his friend's back).
10:11 p.m.: Over at the Merge showcase, there may not be a less surprising band in the world than The Essex Green, whose throwback pop seems generated via some sort of throwback-pop computing machine. Is this the same label that spawned The Arcade Fire, Polvo, and…
10:57 p.m.: …Superchunk, who hadn't played together in months before this show and who seem perpetually on the edge of packing it in? You couldn't tell here, as they stormed and joked through a set of classics and even a newbie or two. Singer/label co-owner Mac McCaughn started the set with this gem: "I didn't tell the rest of the band, but I think we're gonna get signed tonight!" then blazed through everything from "Cool" to a fiery "Precision Auto." After the set, who appears on stage to half-drunkenly sing Superchunk's praises? David Cross, that's who. Nice.
2:16 a.m.: And then it was done, and a whirlwind of rock had blown through town for the 20th time. There are shows we're sorry we missed (Editors, Gang Of Four, Levy, Julie Doiron, Billy Bragg, The Flaming Lips, Metallagher, the Barsuk/Saddle Creek showcase, and lots more), but there's always next year. We'll be back.