Every year, The A.V. Club reports from the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. This year, we sent five writers—Josh Modell, Sean O’Neal, Kyle Ryan, Marah Eakin, and Marc Hawthorne—who will be filing daily mini-reports on the best stuff they saw, ate, and did. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
I decided to catch Divine Fits at the un-rocking hour of noon Friday, thinking I’d watch their set, then go shower and start my day. Eleven hours later, and I was still rocking, with just a few stops and starts in there. But back to Divine Fits—a.k.a. Britt Daniel from Spoon and Dan Boeckner from Wolf Parade—who played in the un-rocking atmosphere of a huge Austin Convention Center ballroom. Despite the obstacles of the early hour and the sterile environment, they were great, and actually seemed to be having a great time playing. The audience sat for the most part, strangely, and clapped politely. The band was undeterred—perhaps they were happy to be playing on a proper stage with a proper PA, which can be tough at SXSW sometimes.
Before I forget: It has gotten insane here. Somebody told me that there was a 20 percent increase in attendance this year, but my unscientific study of just looking at people reports that attendance is actually up over a million percent. The party has spread well off of Sixth Street, and well into the public consciousness. This isn’t a bad thing, though—it’s just become a huge party that happens to have this industry event at its middle.
Other things I saw Friday, besides a million people: Doldrums and Austra at a day party for the Windish Agency, which had a line out the door that people couldn’t possibly have hoped to conquer. Then I popped next door to the Rhapsody party to see The Walkmen in their only SXSW appearance of the year, which was as fantastic as they pretty much always are. Singer Hamilton Leithauser got into the corporate spirit by rocking some Rhapsody sunglasses. Then it was back to the Convention Center to catch the last two songs by Vampire Weekend, one of which was “A-Punk.” It’s funny to think that Vampire Weekend’s presence at SXSW doesn’t even seem like that huge a deal this year, compared to all the heavyweights that decided to show up. But I expect they’ll be part of the public consciousness again soon, since they’ve got a new record coming out in May and the new songs I’ve heard sound pretty great.
There were lots of highs and lows on Friday, beginning with a solid dose of both during St. Lucia's early-afternoon set at Cedar Street Courtyard. After attempting twice to power through what singer Jean-Philip Grobler described as "sandpaper" in his throat, he bailed during the first few seconds of "Closer Than This," though the band decided to continue playing a stripped-down version while the crowd helped out on vocals. It was an extremely awkward moment that almost felt like we might be witnessing the disintegration of the band, but after his girlfriend (singer/keyboardist Patricia Beranek) brought him back onstage as "We Got It Wrong" got going, everything seemed to fall into place and all was well with the world again. The show obviously wasn't as great as the one I saw on Wednesday (the band's clever electro-fueled pop really is some of the best music being made right now), but there was still something slightly triumphant about St. Lucia finishing the set, and Grobler eventually jumped onto Facebook to apologize for what happened. (Later on at the Rhapsody party at Club DeVille, Foxygen singer Sam France could be heard losing his voice, which makes one wonder if the SXSW habit of trying to play a million shows over the course of a couple of days maybe isn't the best thing for a person’s pipes.)
After learning about pussy, Patron, and dicks the size of the Eiffel Tower during Kendrick Lamar's set at Spin's party at Stubb's, I made my way over to the Fader Fort, knowing The Afghan Whigs' set would be a big draw. Sure enough, it took a while to get in even using the expedited line, and the place was jammed when Greg Dulli and company (minus, noticeably, guitarist Rick McCollum) came blasting out with "Blame, Etc." But, oddly enough, it felt like most of the people around me had no idea who the Whigs were, and the woman next to me (who seemed super pumped about the show before the band went on) confirmed my suspicion when she asked me who was playing. My confusion finally ended when the band, which loves to get its soul on as much as it likes to rock out, followed its cover of Frank Ocean's "Lovecrimes" with a version of Usher's "Climax" that eventually included the man himself. With the place going apeshit, Usher called the Whigs "indie-rock royalty" before doing an awesome job helping them out with "Something' Hot," then gave a shout-out to the ailing Lil Wayne before collaborating on his own "OMG." While the band's instruments were being un-mic'd, Usher came back out for a brief a cappella encore. In keeping with the best-of-times/worst-of-times theme of my evening, it was definitely a memorable experience, but I'd be lying if I didn't say I was disappointed there weren't more Afghan Whigs songs on the setlist.
Off to Brazos Hall before 10 to check out Yahoo!'s presentation (apparently the performance will be on music.yahoo.com on March 26) of synth-pop pioneers Depeche Mode, I was initially told by some security clown that my ticket (which I'd worked fairly hard to procure) wasn't good after 8:30. Thankfully that got all cleared up, and soon after I was seeing some of my childhood heroes playing in the smallest venue I ever have and ever will see them in. Surprisingly, the set didn't consist exclusively of songs from the forthcoming Delta Machine, and it was great to hear songs like "Walking In My Shoes," "Personal Jesus," and closer "Enjoy The Silence" alongside the new material. The performance was very rock band, thanks in no small part to the drummer as well as Martin Gore playing a guitar all night. At times it almost felt like The Faint doing a Depeche Mode tribute, and while that may sound like a slight, it really isn't. Things change, and I'm fine with that, and the vocal one-two punch of Gore and Dave Gahan sounds pretty fantastic no matter what they're singing over. It's pretty likely I'll be seeing the band again when they go on tour. (I can just use all that money I just got back from Morrissey canceling in the Bay Area for the millionth time.)
Moving on from the high of Depeche Mode, I was bummed to be confronted with a large line in front of the Third Eye Blind show at The Pandora Porch, where I had plans with a friend (who probably doesn't want me to reveal his identity for obvious reasons) to drunkenly sing along, arm in arm, to songs from the first two albums. With the venue visible from the street, it felt like there were more people watching the show from the nearby parking garage as well as right there in the middle of Fifth Street, to the point where traffic was more or less stopped for the '90s alt-rock goodness. As much as I was sad I couldn't get in—get ready, the night's theme is about to show up again—there was something pretty great about the hoopla that the band can still create. Instead of slumming it with the folks outside, I decided instead to head next door to secure my spot for Little Green Cars, an Irish folk-rock outfit that I've only heard one song by, but "The John Wayne" is so great that I made a point of making sure to catch one of their shows in Austin. And here's where my night ends, unfortunately on a low note because: 1. The rest of their songs aren't nearly as great; 2. The band started and ended so late I didn't have a chance to check out anything else; and 3. I'm pretty sure they were saving "The John Wayne" for last, but the plug was pulled before I could hear the main reason why I was there. I guess the upside is that things can only get better when I start my final day of SXSW.
There’s a lot of argument online and elsewhere about what, really, SXSW is for at this point. Is it for seeing new bands exclusively? What about more storied bands in small venues? Or is it just about drinking weird cocktails in the sun?
My argument is that it’s all three. While SXSW was, at one point, a vehicle for discovery, by now, everyone knows what he or she wants to see and hear before they even get here thanks to the Internet. We’ve all heard so and so’s new single, and we all know what bands are going to come out of this fest doing well. And if we didn’t coming in, we know by the first day of the fest, when everyone’s talking about who’s great on Twitter.
That’s why, for me, SXSW is a balance of the high and the low. I can spent eight hours seeing tiny bands in tiny venues performing to tiny audiences, and then I’ll go see some big deal band because, hey, why not? (And for the record, I did. Friday, I saw Mount Moriah, Lydia Loveless, Luke Winslow-King, Ghost Beach, Angel Haze, Lord Huron, Little Green Cars, and Thao And The Get Down Stay Down. ) Also, while it’s gratifying for the industry’s elite to give themselves a “only we know and like this stuff” handjob from time to time, what’s really keeping the industry afloat at this point is, in fact, the masses. They’re the people who buy Mumford And Sons and Yeah Yeah Yeahs records, and fans in Oklahoma are the ones that made the Black Keys more popular than Grizzly Bear.
So that’s why I went to see Green Day, who played at the relatively tiny 2200-capacity Moody Theater for ACL live. I’ve seen Green Day before—most recently as they headlined Lollapalooza a few years ago—and they put on a great show. Also, they started at 9pm, so I figured I could catch a little bit of the rock and then scurry on over to see whatever blog buzz band was on around the corner. I ended up staying for the full two hours, though, watching as Billie Joe Armstrong made his triumphant return to the stage after a much-publicized stint in rehab.
Armstrong started off the night saying the show was a “celebration,” and he couldn’t have been more right. The group ripped through hits old and new, including “Jesus Of Suburbia,” “Geek Stink Breath,” and “Basket Case.” While the venue wasn’t quite full, shockingly, everyone there seemed to be having a great time. At Armstrong’s insistence, most of the audience remained on their feet the entire show, and there was much arm waving, rhythmic group clapping, and singing along. There was even a toilet paper gun and a whole-audience take on “Hey Jude.”
So, yeah, it was Green Day and even my grandparents know who they are, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a vital, important part of the industry and a heck of a rock band. Plus, at one point Armstrong shouted out Friday Night Light, saying “Texas forever!” right before he grabbed some kid from the audience’s cowboy hat, so he’s aces in my book regardless.
The Spin party always has worthwhile performers, and this year wasn’t any different, with Kendrick Lamar headlining, supported by Solange, CHVRCHES, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and Parquet Courts. I arrived just in time to see CHVRCHES for the fourth time of the festival—I’d see them one more time after that—and the band seemed to be feeling more comfortable on stage, despite temperatures that were sweltering by Scottish standards (82 degrees). Solange took it to another level, though. The less-famous Knowles was impeccably attired—easily the most fashionable of the performers I’ve seen this year—and in good spirits, and she had the crowd in her hand immediately as she launched into “Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work.” In a festival whose performers range from cathartically earnest to aloof to confrontational and more, Solange’s showmanship stood out. She and her guitarist frequently broke out into coordinated dance moves, and she just had an entertainer vibe missing from a lot of performers. That shit must run in the family.
As word of Lil Wayne’s life-threatening illness spread on Twitter, Mass Appeal magazine and clothing company Billionaire Boys Club/Ice Cream hosted a staggering collection of hip-hop talent: Raekwon, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T, Bun B, Rockie Fresh, A$AP Ferg, and a bunch more. (It also offered the audience a chance to hear the word “pussy” roughly 1,000 times in the space of a few hours.)
Oddly, no one mentioned Weezy’s condition on stage—DJ Jasmine Solano even spun “No Worries” for the evening’s Irony Award—but maybe that’s because the mood was too celebratory. Up-and-comer Rockie Fresh, a 21-year-old from Chicago, lived up to some pre-fest buzz by blowing through his set with barely a pause between songs. (Unsurprisingly, his song “Life Long,” featuring Rick Ross and Nipsey Hussle, received prominent placement in his quick set.) The trio in A$AP Ferg—the same crew that gave us A$AP Rocky—played a manic set, with Ferg and his two MCs repeatedly jumping into the crowd and bounding around the giant, mostly empty stage (while all wearing hoodies from Thrasher magazine). Ferg opened with “I Fucked Your Bitch,” an ode to female sexual empowerment told through the eyes of a woman recovering from sexual assault. (Not really. Lyrics: “I fucked your bitch, nigga / I fucked your bitch / She sucked my dick.”) But the night belonged to Pusha T, Bun B and Lamar, especially Bun B, for whom Austin practically counts as a hometown. (He’s from the Houston area.) Pusha T helped sustain excitement for his long-in-the-works solo debut, which still isn’t out until June. Lamar showed why he’s one the biggest rappers in the scene right now, which he’s continued thanks to a punishing gauntlet of shows this week, but he still looked good. “Westside, Right On Time” began the show, but “P & P” (“pussy and Patron”) naturally made an appearance later to keep the night consistent if nothing else.