I survived SXSW 2014, my first ever, intact.
Like everyone there, I existed mostly on one meal a day (usually BBQ or 2 small tacos) and otherwise? Melted chocolate bars. We arrived on Monday night, splitting a cab into town with my pal Nardwuar the Human Serviette, then had hot dogs at Frank’s (I had the Jackalope – pork, antelope and rabbit of course), where Rawkblog‘s lovely Dave Greenwald joined us. I got cranky from 2 flights, no sleep, and the fact that I was in a brand-new city. I was stressed and intimidated. I didn’t know what to expect and feared 6th Street at night, the crowds, the crazy. I wasn’t prepared for the booze, everywhere. I wasn’t prepared for so many dirt site tents filled with kids who had an Android, queued since 5am, had a wristband or won tickets in a draw to see HUGE bands I didn’t care about. I didn’t know how dehydrated, exhausted or aching I would be. I didn’t know how many miles I’d walk across Austin during the five full days we were there. But I learned it pretty quick. And would I go back once more unto the breach? Yeah.
I saw some stellar shows, caught up with industry/blogger/PR/band friends new and old, and was constantly impressed by the patience, graciousness and helpfulness of Austin’s locals. I survived, cursed at, lamented, argued with, enjoyed, delighted, and collapsed at SXSW 2014. I was saddened by the loss of three lives, and for all those who were injured in a crash that took place just a block from where I enjoying music. I was happy to be able to text my mum and friends and tell them I was okay. I very nearly might not have been.
There were dozens of venues to get to. There were so many bands. Too many! Not enough! Too many clashes! Too far! Too late! Too long a queue! So I had to have a plan. And like all best-laid rock and roll plans, mine had to include a spreadsheet. I prioritized UK and European bands, then US friends, then US bands, in that order. Sadly I made it to only one act from back home, my favourites, The Pack AD, but I knew my other friends – like BESTIE – were out there killing it and didn’t need my help.
Were there highlights? Dear gods, yes, and lowlights too. Here they are in order in which they sort of happened. Contains shameless texting, a Lennon in the toilet, pubes and near-wanking, a JelloMan, breakfast burritos with bands, hanging with heroes and escaping tragedy. And while this doesn’t even remotely touch half of the cool experiences I had at SXSW, here’s a few:
- Seeing the mysterious JUNGLE (mysterious because they tried to keep their identities private and appeared as two black guys in early PR shots – turns out they’re two young white guys) and grooving to a tentative daytime set of their electro soul in the sunshine. I imagine they could be great in a packed club. Watch Busy Earnin’
- FUTURE ISLANDS -I haven’t raved about a band like this for a while. But Samuel T. Herring is a stellar frontman at the helm of an oddball ship. With crystal blue eyes, a plaintive soul cry, heart-pounding, fist-clenching, beer-kicking and acting-out-like-in-drama-class moves, Herring grabbed fans by the scruffs of their necks and sang into their beaming faces, one of which was mine. Afterwards, he said to me, “when we decided to be a band, I decided that if I was going to be a frontman, I wanted to be the best…did I do okay?” More than okay. I’ve never fallen in love, so quickly and so hard with a band so quirky. Tied for best of SXSW. Watch the moment when it all changed for Future Islands.
- DESPERATE SOUND SYSTEM. The appropriately named shitshow aka Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey from Pulp (in town to promote their Pulp doc) ended up at Hype Hotel, where Messers Cocker and Mackey spent a goodly 25+ minutes of their 40-minute set faffing about as if the record players were broken. RUBBISH.
- EAGULLS– Stellar self-titled post-punk rekkid debut from these young lads from Leeds-way. Singer George Mitchell has perfected his disaffection and drawl, while the rest of the lads give ‘er. And while I think that daytime shows did them no favours, I saw ’em twice during the day. I later ended up hanging with them in the airport lounge – half were passed out on the floor from something like 11 shows. When I asked if it was hard for them, playing all the sets, guitarist Liam said “What’s the point in comin’ all this way if you’re not going to work hard?” Approved. Watch: Possessed.
- CASUAL SEX – Fell in love this with this Orange Juice-meets-David-Bowie-meets-art-rock band from Glasgow. Slick-witted music, fronted by a wry Sam Smith. “Stroh 80” is the track to check. Praying they get picked up by the North Am powers that be and tour my side of the world. Loved.
- BLACK LIPS – A frenetic, crunchy set brimmin’ with psych rock n’ roll in front of a dirty, pissed-up crowd in the sunshine and Cole lickin’ his guitar neck? Yes please! Love me some Black Lips. Listen to their new album Underneath the Rainbow, here.
- INVSN – HE IS BACK. Refused‘s Dennis Lyxzèn has a new joint, fronting a co-ed four piece, doing anthemic goth pop. Of course, the
music’s nothing like the harder-edged punk of Refused, but the attitude and amazing showmanship is still there. In the audience at the Scoot Inn? Mario Rubalcaba from former tourmates OFF!. Better live than on album.
- And speaking of OFF!, I never, ever tire of seeing (Black Flag’s) Keith Morris, (Burning Brides’) Dimitri Coats, (Redd Kross’) Steven McDonald and (Rocket From the Crypt’s) Rubalcaba SHRED through their wealth of 2-minute punk freakouts. So I saw them twice in the same day, chatting merrily with MacDonald and Co ahead of their sets. Joining me for the Bar 96 show was also Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! and Dennis Lyxzén, returning the favour. OFF! is always on.
- ST VINCENT – I literally haven’t seen Annie Clark live for, like, 10 years. She’s interstellar. And man, can that woman schralp a guitar. Hats off. Fairly pristine show from her at Stubb’s. Made the cold night and cramped environs a little less chilly.
- DAMON ALBARN – After coming on 45 minutes late, telling us that the set would have to be cut short and instructing us lowly photogs that not only could only 10 of us shoot from the pit (ie, not me), then making the rest of the photographers MOVE TO THE BACK of the venue entirely, Albarn kicked off with “Everyday Robots”. Backed by a phalanx of back-up singers and string players, the show felt like a fizzled, muted affair. Bummer. And it was during my time waiting for him to come on that I learned about…
- …the tragic crash that happened only a block away, when a drunk man plowed through barricades in a car, killing three and injuring many others. I was supposed to be at the Mohawk at the time when the accident happened (X were playing) but I had decided to see St Vincent instead and get their early for Albarn. Of course, I should have been at X but in this case, I would like to thank Annie Clark for being the reason I escaped possible injury. It was a heart-wrenching moment when I saw the first tweet about the crash after it happened, and I was so close. When I left Stubb’s, the road was blocked off and I could see the police lights. Horrible stuff.
- But the show must go on. And in this case, at the ungodly hour of 10am at a Four Seasons Hotel. I had a breakfast burrito and watched WYE OAK in a ballroom for some KUTX charity event. Not even remotely surreal, oh no. “You’re going to get my morning voice,” said Jenn Wasner to me as we joked around about the weirdness. Of course, she still sounded amazing and the new album Shriek is playing nicely live. I’d later see them again with Bob Mould. Never too much Wye Oak.
- KURT VILE – Nothing like showing up at a venue miles from anything and realizing you can’t get in to see Kurt Vile because the queue’s around the corner. So what’s a girl to do? Text Kurt Vile. And when that doesn’t work, tweet his brother “Jelloman” Paul Vile, who’s helping his bro out (and selling his Jello shots.) Now, that, that worked! Paul met me round the back and snuck me in. “I WENT TO FIND YOU AT THE ENTRANCE,” Kurt said afterwards but then we realized we’d been at two different entrances. But bless both Viles. Also: solo Vile in the sunshine, followed by Moonshine and custard ice cream from Jeni’s is pretty much THE BEST.
- PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING – Tied with Future Islands for my favouritest show of SXSW, this is the band to watch. Not only is their debut album, Inform, Educate, Entertain, stellar but as BBC’s Steve Lamacq said in his introduction of them, “they just do things differently.” PSB are a duo (synth programmer and guitar/banjo player J. Willgoose Esq, and drummer “Wrigglesworth) who play uptempo, joyous instrumentals punctuated with samples from old BBC documentaries, whilst wearing tweed jackets and speaking on stage using only voice samples. Amazing. I was grinning like a loon by the far-too-short end. Praying they’ll be back to the PacNorWest soon.
- FAT WHITE FAMILY – imagine, if you can, a bunch of drunk/high chip-toothed chancers from London playing slurry, chaotic psych rock/punk. Now imagine a lead singer who strips down to his black underwear and proceeds to pull at ’em until you see more pubes and private parts then you could never wish for. Now imagine this singer wastedly warbling and alternately throwing himself into the audience or playing with his cock, while singing. Also imagine a curly-haired guitarist smashing his guitar on the tiny stage then slipping, falling off, banging his head and knocking himself out for a second at my feet. I can’t decide if Fat White Family are the embodiment of the old punk rock/GG Allin/Iggy ethos or if they’re just fucking rubbish. Either way, I saw way too much pale dick and hank gods, blues punkster duo DRENGE followed so that I didn’t have to have FWF as my final show of SXSW. Now that, that would have been terrifying.
- AND THE RUNNERS UP! What else was awesome? Spending a bit of time and seeing my mates Gale and Olly from Turin Brakes not once but twice, patiently waiting for Sean Lennon to leave the men’s loos after performing a solid set with his band Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger so I could chat with him; seeing Bob Mould (always), and saying hi to half of Superchunk (Jon and Mac) at said gig; being surprised by the gusto of a Gary Numan performance (man “Are Friends Electric?” still stands up); hearing Mike Peters of the Alarm perform “The Stand” and “68 Guns” as a one-man skiffle band; being blown away by Japanese weirdos Bo Ningen (intense, strange thrash that probably works better live than on album); not one but TWO Super Furry Animals in the form of solo gigs by Gruff Rhys (with Kliph Scurlock from the Flaming Lips on drums!) and Guto Pryce’s new joint Gulp, back-to-back awesome from Torres then Jason Narducy’s Split Single band; plus a crazy hyper-charged Octagrape show. And then there was the random run-ins: chatting with hero Steve Lamacq in an alleyway, talking about my own music writing history with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, meeting Carrie Brownstein at the St Vincent show and running into Kelis at the NPR booth and meeting the Cocteau Twins’/Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde the morning we went to get breakfast burritos.
Because that’s just it. That’s what makes SXSW special, even with its marathon-like exhaustion and overwhelming chaos. So I survived SXSW intact. Just give me another year, I might have recuperated and be ready to go again.\m/
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