As this column’s deadline approaches, South by Southwest is roughly three-quarters done. Plenty of time to collect some some stray impressions, discoveries, and regrets from the field:
It was no surprise that the Stubb’s showcase Wednesday featuring Belle & Sebastian and the New Pornographers was a highlight, despite weather that threatened throughout to spit rain on the crowd. Both groups sounded great and played a good selection of tunes — B&S were heavier on the new stuff than some might’ve liked — and fans who caught the abbreviated set were surely envying the luck of anybody who got to see a full-blown tour stop co-headlined by the bands.
Later that night, an invitation-only party in an East Side warehouse offered a chance to see Spoon in a smaller venue than they generally play these days, and, even more exciting, an audience with the reformed Echo & the Bunnymen. Huge crowds would get to see the pair the following night at an outdoor stage, but this was a thrill — especially since Echo frontman Ian McCullouch sounded just like his mid-’80s self on tunes such as “Lips Like Sugar” and “The Killing Moon.”
Day parties were everywhere, although their schedules were more, er, informal than the clockwork programs enforced for official showcases. Vice Magazine threw parties that occupied two bars (the storied but decaying Victory Grill and the upstart Longbranch Inn) and an open field just east of the highway. There I caught the mysterious Quintron and Miss Pussycat, who weren’t quite as intriguing in the flesh as they are on disc (their punky predecessors Rye Coalition were, though), and Lady Sovereign, the pasty and pint-sized MC who did some virtuosic rapping when her equipment wasn’t crapping out on her. Sovereign played an earlier set that day at the new Beauty Bar (a trendy idea imported from L.A., where retro hair salon meets nightclub), and I was wishing I’d been able to catch that show instead.
Friday at lunchtime, indie darlings Of Montreal squeezed into Urban Outfitters on the Drag. Looking like they’d plucked their wardrobe off the store’s faux-retro-stocked shelves, the group was delightful. Across the street in the studios of KLRU (where Austin City Limits is taped), Seattle radio station KEXP had settled in for three days of live broadcasts. I caught a Billy Bragg show that included a 10-minute interview, a brand new song, and one of the most amusing sound checks I’ve ever seen (Bragg sang Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” as a folk song). Sitting on clean chairs in a quiet, air-conditioned auditorium with perfect sight lines everywhere, it was the most comfortable gig SXSW had to offer.
|Rye Coalition rocked a Vice party.|
You can never see every band you want to catch, of course, and many of the ones I missed were foreigners who aren’t likely to come back soon. One whole showcase on Thursday was devoted to world music I wanted to hear: Brazilian Gecko Turner, whose glossy jazz-pop repertoire includes a barely identifiable version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; the Russian Auktyon; and Lenine, a star in the post-Tropicalia scene whom I’d never heard of until the fest rolled around. I didn’t get to see Lenine live, but am happy to see he has a greatest-hits compilation due out soon in the States.
Two more rocking international (or international-ish) bands I had to miss: England’s buzz band Arctic Monkeys, whose Domino debut I’m really enjoying; and Gogol Bordello, the “gypsy punk” band based in New York but led by Eugene Hutz — a man who, if his endearing performance in Everything is Illuminated is to be trusted, still has an awful lot of the old world left in him.
That’ll have to do for now. If I don’t wrap this piece up soon, then I’ll have to add to my list of regrets the afternoon barbecue featuring Merge artists Camera Obscura, who hail from Glasgow and probably make such lovely music I don’t intend to wait for their next American tour. •
By John DeFore