SXSW Day Two

Austin, TX

March 15, 2006

Austin’s a funny place. Their service road is just as wide as its highway, which gives travellers the feeling, and maybe rightfully so, that they can travel just as fast on it as they do on the highway. So, needless to say, it was really hard for me to pull straight onto the service road(highway) from the Crestwood on Wednesday morning, still groggy as cars raced towards me at sixty mph. Another thing about Austinians before I recount my most musical day at SXSW: they’re trusting. At least more trusting that New Orleanians. We’d never leave tip jars open to wandering hands on the bar, and we’d sure as hell wouldn’t create open-air venues that could be infiltrated with a small amount of work. Seems like New Orleanians would rather go to sleep at night knowing there’s no way you could get into their establishment than just assume that you care enough about the city and your fellow citizens not to denegrate it with fear. I really envy people who live in towns or cities where they feel they can leave their homes and cars unlocked.

I've never felt more like a woman than when I prepared to leave the hotel room every morning. It must have taken me fifteen minutes to get all my crap together, when it normally takes me five. Keys, wallet, cell phone, day party schedule, night schedule, medication, Rotary Downs CD, comfortable walking shoes. I felt like I was preparing for Jazzfest or a war. My musical weaponry.

I entered the car, and as I moseyed along in the far right lane of the service road, so as not to irk any maniacs, I looked for a convenience store before I had to make the u-turn onto I-35 South. Sure enough, I found another Shell food store. I’m not one to make racial jokes, but this was the best stocked Shell I had ever seen, and I had to wonder if this had something to do with the fact that the three men talking behind the counter were of Arab descent. I set my three 32 oz. Gatorades on the counter and became a known recipient of the lecture the manager was giving the younger worker. I had been trying to listen as I looked for lemonade flavor, and all I could make out was that the loud one was telling the silent one that the customers want this or the customers will do that. It was some sort of hyper-paranoid crap. At the counter, once the manager turned away to allow the transaction, the lectured opened his eyes wide and gave me a small smile, as if to say, “I know he’s crazy.” I nodded and tried not to laugh out loud. This guy became my friend quick, and when I visited that Shell the next three mornings, we had some unspoken bond going. It felt like we were fighting the same war when he gave me change. Did that sound gay? Yeah, well, onto the music.

I walked into the convention center at 2 p.m. after I parked in their lot, which is where I’d park for the rest of the festival. It was $7 for the whole day, and for its location and the ability to re-enter three times, completely worth the price. As I walked past the long line of people waiting for badges, I told myself I’d see at least one panel before I hit the day parties, the list of which I had acquired from Some crazy savior created links to the myspace pages of all the bands at SXSW, only to top that by constructing a list of every single party occuring for four days. I was late when I arrived at “Crash Course 3: Design and Packaging,” but nobody seemed to notice as I slumped in the chair with my Gatorade. I’d find out later that, even though Austin doesn’t let you leave a bar with a beer, they’ll let you waltz right into one with a Gatorade and not give you shit. Fair enough. The panel tried to iterate and re-iterate how important good packaging is to a product finding its way into the hands of a consumer. I already knew this, so after hearing the two guys on stage recount long-winding, irrelevant professional tales, I got out of there, hoping to find a computer room. There wasn’t one, but the whole center was wireless, and I’m apparently the only one left that doesn’t have a laptop. I met up with Dave outside, and we ran into Michael Jastroch, the former assistant editor of Offbeat who left New Orleans to pursue his comedy career in Austin. It was good to see him.

After chatting, we all walked over to Red Eyed Fly to see The Octopus Project, a raw, high-energy experimental pop group from Austin. “Experimental” is another way of saying they “used a theremin, xylophone, were instrumental, and had enough wires and inputs that if there was a meltdown, I could have easily been scarred by acid.” Drummer Toto(!) Miranda was the MVP, switching from drums to guitar and back. He played along with the drum machine, but he was at his best when his drumming was the only percussion coloring the fuzz-heavy, dance-ready basslines of Josh Lambert. Yvonne Lambert was the highly melodic synthesizer ace, and she performed a certain air ballet with the theremin that was beautiful. My favorite song was “What They Found,” a lazy, high-piched robotic piece that moseyed and finally exploded with the weight of Josh and Miranda’s playing. A righteously pristine headbang jam! The Octopus Project was theatrical, which kept things fun. Miranda’s kick drum housed a light, Miranda and Josh wore Mormon uniforms, and they covered their amps with cloths that resembled robot ghosts.

Dave stayed to chat with the band, and I ran off to Emo’s to see The Deathray Davies, a Dallas rock band that I’ve been a fan of for five years. The Davies are dark and poppy, and dark yet poppy is my thing. I walked into a full front room, but only a smattering of people seemed interested in the upcoming band. That’s a great chance for DD to win over people, but it’s also not the best time to get the full Davies concert experience. That would happen on Saturday. I still had fun bopping and lightly headbanging to their energetic, straightforward music, though. I felt sorry for lead singer/guitarist John Dufilho because the front row was packed with two overweight girls. Dufilho’s a rock star, and this is the eye candy he gets? Sad.

I speed jogged over to Beerland at 5 p.m. to catch Big Blue Marble, who was playing a sparsely attended party. I ran into Colby, who owned Rocks Off Records but evacuated to Austin after Katrina. He's working at Beerland, and he seemed a little defensive about his decision to move. It sucks, but a record store specializing in obscure rock, metal, and punk was bound to have trouble in New Orleans. I took that place for granted. Big Blue Marble employed a new bass player, who passed the test. He doesn't sing, though, unlike former bassist Sara Essex. BBM played their hearts out and spot-n rocked the place, which made the attendance more heartbreaking. When will this band get its due? I really thought their last CD, "Stars in Suburbia," would be their breakout disc, and they didn't even make it into SXSW this year. Then again, the fact that great groups like BBM travel to Austin just to play parties is the power of SXSW and good news for music fans looking to stumble onto their next favorite band.

(So, it's a weird thing for me, but as I sat down to write some more, I decided I wanted some Frank Black and The Catholics, who have been sorely overlooked. I need music when I write, and I need it to be stuff I already like, even though that's funny, because I get so focused on what I'm writing, that I'm not really listening. Must be a matter of comfort. So, I'm looking through the band's catalog on itunes, and what the hell do I find? Two new studio albums released on February 3rd. How does this stuff get by me? I read all the major music magazines and Pitchfork. Is this Black's non-Pixie music so ignored and prolific that these albums can just slip by? Anyway, I'm really looking forward to listening to them.)

After the show I talked to BBM lap steel guitarist Michael Blum, who said refugee musician James Hall will be back visiting New Orleans in April, which is good news. Keyboardist Adam Campagna said refugee musician Blair Gimma is in Florida. Nice to know she's OK, but she needs to move back. Dave and I took off looking for food. We ran into Patrick, a Portland writer we met at the Sleater-Kinney concert. He was with a friend--let's call him Chuck--who was very excited about eating at a Cajun place down the street. I'd soon find out that Chuck got excited about everything. He was eerily optimistic about even the smallest pleasures. Medication? Who knows, but he was zesty, and zesty is never bad. So, Dave and I follow them to the Cajun place. We all smartly place drink orders with the waitress as we wait for a table. They have Purple Haze! Lonestar, the Foster's-like beer of Texas, is fine, but there's something comfortable and beautiful about Abita and Dixie--rest in peace. So, we sat down at a table stocked with paper towels. Just like backyard boils. Chuck, who was from Indiana or Ohio(one of those Midwest states), said we were gonna have to eat with our hands, which is what I've been doing my whole life, but Patrick looked a little confused about how to eat a crawfish. After an assortment of crab, shrimp, crawfish, potatoes, and corn were laid down in a heap on the table, the waitress put bibs around our necks, and Chuck showed Patrick how to peel a crawfish. I could have just as easily done that, but I wasn't trying to be some territorial know-it-all. I had a more difficult time holding my tongue when Chuck told Patrick he could just as easily eat the shell. I was about to say that was a bad idea when I realized I had never tried it, so I shouldn't knock it. To each his own. I started in on the crawfish, which were too spicy, if there is such a thing. Same goes for the gumbo I had as an appetizer. I asked the waitress for Tabasco before I tasted it, doubting some Austin Cajun place was gonna get me in a tizzy, and she said, "Taste it first." Sure enough, it was so concentrated with spice that I had to dilute it with icewater. I hope people don't think real gumbo is like that. Dave went his own way after the meal, and I went to see The Giraffes at Friends Bar.

The Giraffes were the earth-explosion sequence of my SXSW, and though they ruined the rest of the night and fest with my first official show, I couldn't have been happier that I experienced it. I knew about The Giraffes' music before Wednesday. I had interviewed them, and through my research, I became a fan of their blues/metal. My girlfriend had also seen them in Connecticut a few weeks earlier, and she related how crazy and awesome their live show was, so I was pumped. I wanted to see some insane shit, and I wasn't disappointed. I had been talking up The Giraffes to Antigravity Associate Editor Noah Bonaparte Pais, so he met me at Friends.

The Giraffes hit the stage, and from moment go, the bald drummer was cursing up a storm, telling everyone to fuck off. He was out of control. He hocked major loogies into the crowd with no warning, and he pointed to two blondes in the front and said, "You've got a gang rape in your future." He wore a "Swallow it, you crippled bitch" t-shirt, complete with the illustration of one wheelchair leaning into the lap of the other wheelchair. It doesn't get much scarrier and offensive than him. The one hour set was like a circus of debauchery. The bassist spit on the lead singer, Aaron, who spit on the lead guitarist, a bad-ass metal/hardcore shredder. Whiskey was passed around onstage and poured by Aaron into the crowd. It was also spit into the crowd. A lot of bodily fluids were exchanged between the audience and band. Aaron was the charismatic focus of The Giraffes. He sported a handlebar mustache, and resembled Bill The Butcher from Scorcese's "Gangs of New York." He took aristocratic poses, twisted and shimmied, bellowed an insatiable anger, and grabbed the lead guitarist's ass for fifteen seconds for no reason other than he wanted to. No holds barred(no pun intended). The homeroticism added another level of danger and freedom into the show, because that's not what metal dudes do, is it? At the beginning, annoying photographers staked out the space next to the stage. Once Aaron made it clear that he wanted that space clear by breaking a bottle on the ground, they moved back. Eventually, people like Patrick and Chuck showed up to make the front row fun. This was the first show in a while where I felt I was actually taking a chance by being so close, and that was fun. Not enough bands are dangerous. Aaron left the stage with the mic stand and balanced it above his head, people all around him. If he would have let that thing go, my head would have been putty, and you better believe I had my eyes on it the whole time. What a way to get the crowd's attention! I think Aaron took Patrick for an effete indie boy, because at one point, after he said, "my boy," he pulled Patrick to his waist and petted his head there for a bit. Pretty funny. Aaron also watched one of the lead guitarist's solos from the audience with Patrick. I think I covered everything. This was an exhausting, ball-busting, good time. Noah and I walked out with big smiles on our faces.

We met at Stubb's thrity minutes later. Considering there was no line for badges, I was basically assured a place inside to see The New Pornographers and Belle and Sebastian. Noah had the lesser-status artist wristband, graciously supplied by Chris Watson of Park the Van Records. There was a wristband line, but only for regular wristbands. I didn't notice the distinction in color until Noah had taken off down the street in hopelessness. I called him up and told him we should try again. He walked up to the door dude, and when he asked to get in, I could see the wheels turning in the door dude's head--"Should I let him in?" Luckily, he let Noah in, and there we were, inside. Noah thanked me for calling him back, and he bought me a beer in celebration. So, Noah and I got a decent spot in the middle, maybe 25 yards from the stage. We spent the next fifteen minutes making fun of Brokeback Morning Light, the band opening for The New Pornographers. They weren't bad, but their tribal, hippie, ethereal essence had nothing to do with the power pop of The New Pornos. They seemed like the kind of band that was perpetually stoned. The kind of band that had to be led like children from gig to gig. They probably didn't even realize where they were, much less that they had the best opening slot of SXSW.

The New Pornos began playing, and I realized a dream. It may seem dramatic to say seeing The New Pornos is one of my dreams, but music is my life. Add another band to the list of bands that I've seen that I wanted to watch before I died. I've seen Beck, but only acoustic. Seeing him with a full band is the only mountain left. Carl Newman, the lead singer/main songwriter/guitarist, said that he had been in front of Stubb's before the gig and that no one had recognized him. He then said that the next forty minutes were gonna be what everyone was talking about. Not really, but it wasn't a crazy boast. Everyone at that show was expecting to be blown away, so if they were blown away, they weren't gonna go spreading the news of a revelation. Still, it was everything I hoped for. Some of the sweetest melodies accompanied by energetic, rockin' beats. And the harmonies between Neko Case and Newman! ABBA plus The Beatles plus The Who. I had hoped to hear "Centre for Holy Wars" or "Letter from an Occupant," but I can't remember one song that was played from the first album. I'm sure there was at least one that I missed. Highlights from the second albu included "Miss Teen Wordpower," "The Laws Have Changed," and "It's Only Divine Right." The New Pornos drew most of the conert from their new album, Twin Cinema. "Twin Cinema," "The Bleeding Heart Show," and "Sing Me Spanish Techno" were less direct and slower, but they paid off in emotion because I had to dig deeper. After the show I had to piss really bad, and the port-o-let line was very long, so I just left and hit the restrrom at Club Deville across the street. Predictably, I wasn't let back into Stubb's when I returned, and guess how long the line was at that point? Very long, so I called Noah, gave him the bad news, and headed over to Elysium to catch Lesbians on Ecstasy at 11. Not a huge deal, though, as I had seen B and S at Coachella two years ago.

Lesbians on Ecstasy was horrible. A few people were dancing up front, but most people looked like they were only there because of hype. LOE played techno with the energy of punk, but the bass wasn't loud enough to get my legs moving. Also, the girls(electronic drums, bassist, vocalist, and synthesizer) performed loosely, like they were fooling around in their backyard. It's fine if bands don't take themselves seriously, but at least have the chops to back up your aloof nature. A complete novelty act with a great name.

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