It's all about being in the right place at the right time. There was easily a hundred shows going on at any given time during the South By Southwest 2009 Music Conference. With so many bands and bars offering entertainment from late-morning to the wee hours of the night, how do you know you're at the right party? How do you know you picked the best spot to be at any particular moment?
Standing second row, stage right at the Filter Magazine SXSW Showdown at Cedar Street Party, 10 feet away from the performers, so close I could spit on them, watching a show that would later find it's way onto the front-page of the website for NME, the weekly UK music bible, I knew I was at the right party. It was the best free event of the week featuring positive affirmation for a new band, a violent clash between another and security, and most importantly, great music.
2:45 p.m. — My friends and I arrived to the Cedar Street Courtyard in time to see half a set by The Whip, one of my favorite indie-dance bands in the world right now. From the music hotbed of Manchester, this quartet wears its influences on its collective sleeve, New Order being a big point of reference. This group of live musicians combines guitars and drums with a heavy dose of throbbing electro beats, and in the process, make some of the best music to set dancefloors on fire.
Two indoor bars straddled the Cedar Street Courtyard. In the back sat the music stage, outdoors, connecting the two buildings. My friends and I took the right-hand bar all the way to the front of the stage, bypassing the already rammed-to-the-hilt crowd. We came out a door literally a beer throw away from The Whip, digging into the killer single, “Blackout”. Our asses began to shake uncontrollably.
When I decided to cover SXSW for free, without a wristband or badge to show it could be done, I envisioned moments like the one I experienced the minute I parked myself in front of The Whip. Here I was, rocking out to a band who had made my top 10 albums of last year, that had single-handedly helped me score phone numbers at my former DJ monthly, Metal Disco, just by playing one of their songs. That's the power of The Whip, people.
The quartet played its best, and most danceable songs, including “Muzzle No. 1,” and the crescendoing killer of disco-ball enthusiasts, “Trash.” Another thrill came when I got to talk to the band after the set, congratulating them on what was a sign of great music to come.
3:30 p.m. — Set-times were way behind at this point, but that was cool by my friends and I, as it allowed us to schmooze at the bar, being that it was within a hop, skip, and a jump to the the stage. Promo companies Spy Sunglasses and some shoe company were set up back there; rock stars who had lined up appointments, were spotted walking back and forth to score free shit.
We chatted with some of the merch reps — I once partied on the Spy Sunglasses booze bus until 5 a.m. in downtown Halifax, one of the drunkest nights I've ever lived through — and even talked to the extremely affable drummer of The Von Bondies, Don Blum, who showed up with his band to get free apparel. Funny moment: Jason Stollsteimer, the lead singer of the VBs was in the exact same outfit he wore at the show the day before, leading us to wonder if he'd have to be buzz-sawed out of his clothes after days of wearing them in hot, sweaty Austin. That's what you call packing lightly.
4:00 p.m. — The current UK buzz-band, Late of the Pier, featured in this month's Spin magazine, hit the stage an hour late. Some people around us thought this might be Razorlight, the band scheduled at this particular time. The discrepancies between the performance times came back to bite organizers in the ass in the most rock â??n roll moment many of us witnessed at SXSW 2009.
Late of the Pier are a gang of young misfits from London, four cheeky art-student looking hipsters who on first impression, don't appear to give a shit about anything but music, girls and themselves. Thankfully, that attitude suited their avant-garde, electro-synth punk. The crowd quickly got behind these upstarts. The same can't be said for the venue organizers and security.
Near the end of the set, the Late of the Pier roadie signaled lead singer Samuel Eastgate they only had time to do one more song. Eastgate announced the band would do two more songs. A loud voice over the PA coming from the soundbooth told him, no, the band had only one more song.
“God? Is that you, God?” Eastgate said into the microphone, looking to the sky. “No one likes you anyways, God.”
After playing the track, Eastgate ignored his roadie and God, telling the crowd they'd play their last song. You could see the anger visibly rise amongst venue staff standing at the side of the stage. At the time I thought, these kids are new, they don't know any better. But If you were headed back to slogging it out in small clubs, it would make sense for them to say, screw it, I'm never coming back to Texas any time soon, let's make an impression
That's when the tension started building. One of the stagehands walked over to the sound engineer supposedly hired by the band, and proceeded to get into a shouting match, kicking him off the boards. The roadie who had signaled to Eastgate earlier came over to stall the staff from shutting down the show. A large security guard got involved and a pushing match ensued.
The macho posturing moved to the stairs to the left of the spectators, finally erupting with the security guard taking down the roadie. Band management jumped in, Eastgate noticed what was going down, and mid-song, ran over to the fracas, trying to land several punches on the rather imposing security guard. That prompted venue staff to back off, just enough to clear things up.
Meanwhile, the band played on and after the roadie was safe, Eastgate ran back to the stage and finished the song. The audience erupted in applause, perhaps sympathetic to the plight of the roadie, but mostly floored at Eastgate's brazen and ballsy move. It was a spectacle to behold, and since it was on the elevated stairwell, everyone saw it. The brilliant thing about it was the band didn't miss a beat and created enough of a diversion to complete the set.
The story made UK industry pubs, including the New Musical Express. Check out this NME article for another take on what transpired. I'm actually in the photo. What am I doing in it? Taking notes, of course.
4:50 p.m. - Unfortunately for Razorlight, they had to follow the madness. Not surprisingly, it made for a bit of a let down. The one usually making headlines is the outspoken Johnny Borrell, the lead singer and main songwriter of Razorlight, who has drawn the ire of many for his blatant disses in the British music press of anyone who gets in his way in or bands he doesn't like. It should tell you something that Kate Moss courted the guy before she hooked up with Pete Doherty.
Borrell definitely exuded confident charisma and his four-piece band played a decent roster of songs, taking a few requests from the audience, including the UK-hit “In The Morning.” Other highlights included Borrell's Mick Jagger dancing and an overwhelmed female fan that hit on the singer mid-song. It was a set that didn't do Razorlight any damage, but it didn't make a deep impression.
6:00 p.m. — Finally, the act I came to the Filter Mag party, nay, SXSW to see, headed down the boxing ring, er, stairs to the stage. London-based White Lies recently hit No. 1 on the British charts with To Lose My Life, the trio's debut album. One of the producers of the record was none other than Ed Buller, who manned the knobs for two classic Brit-pop albums albums that changed my life: the self-titled debut by Suede (which also hit No. 1 when it came out in 1993), and His N Hers by Pulp.
White Lies may get criticized for sounding like too many other act such as Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, Editors, Interpol, even The Killers. To me, this isn't a problem. I love the dark, post-punk sound: stark lyrical imagery, melodic bass lines, and sharp, complimentary guitar-riffs. As long as bands keep making these type of records, I will keep buying them. And it's a helluva lot better than trying to keep the teen-pop sound alive (ahem, Jonas Brothers).
Needless to say, I had high expectations for this band. As they strapped on their instruments, I was surprised to realize the guys I admittedly harbor a man crush on were nothing more than boys, maybe in their early-twenties. The crowd gave them a receptive welcome, but they looked diminutive, shy, and slightly awkward, almost as if they didn't realize how good they might be.
All insecurity melted away as soon as the band kicked into the first notes of the electrifying single “Fairwell to the Fairground.” From that moment on, White Lies held the complete attention of every single person in the Cedar Street Courtyard, confidence building with each track. They blazed through half their album, songs such as “E.S.T.,” “Unfinished Business,” and the title track making us realize that some acts just “have it” and some don't.
One of the greatest things about being a music fan is discovering a band before everyone else does, making it your secret, hoping “your” band builds on that early potential while earning deserved success. Think Radiohead, a group that found modest commercial achievement early on, then built on it with innovative creativity without losing critical credibility.
White Lies is one of those acts for me and by the time it simply destroyed the audience with “Death,” easily one of the best songs of 2009, I felt like every ounce of adoration for this young trio had been justified. It's one of my favorite performances all SXSW and may go down as those shows that people talk about years from now, telling their friends about the one time they saw this band with a few hundred people, packed into a courtyard in Austin, Texas. It was that good.
Chalk it up to another lesson learned while doing SXSW for free. It was entirely possible to see some of the best new acts as well as some of your favorite ones without paying for a wristband or badge. Not to mention, it was entirely possible to gain VIP-type access to those bands and be there to see it all go down as it happened mere feet away. The Late of the Pier episode confirmed the rock-music adage that sometimes a little bit of naughtiness makes it even better.
Stay tuned for the rest of Day 3 and Day 4 of SXSW For Free to be posted throughout Monday.