SXSW 2011 — The Recap: Don’t Believe the Hype, All Is Well In Festival Land

It seems that there has been a lot of bad press coming out this week, since the end of the ultimate music festival, and I take issue with much of it.  No surprise there, but it just seems that a lot of writers and attendees seem to be shocked that things can often go wrong when so many people converge on one city and put on an infinite amount of events — official and unofficial, legal, barely legal, and, perhaps, completely illegal.

Maybe I’m weird, but I live for this environment and the accompanying atmosphere, and I see all the hold-ups, traffic, and confusion as necessary evils when it comes to the greater good of artistic activity.  Keep in mind that I also like the chaos of Christmas shopping and I like being stuck in traffic because it means I’ll get to finish an entire album or playlist.  I kind of like when things go wrong, within reason of course.  A little chaos and unexpected inconvenience is involved and even expected when you want to throw a two-week-long celebration, invite the entire entertainment industry and have the city sign off on it.  Do people forget that?

I think part of it is that we just can’t handle it anymore when the real world doesn’t behave exactly like a Facebook invite — able to be constantly tweaked, renamed, or deleted at will.  Sometimes the places you’re going are crowded.  Sometimes the people there knock things over.  Sometimes the police show up.  Sometimes there is violence.  Some of it is awful and borders on tragic. But that doesn’t mean the whole thing has to be stopped.  In twenty five years of the event, these sorts of blemishes are the exception, not the rule.  It just means that there are neverending improvements to be made, as there are with any big annual event. I’ve had rough years there and driven home cursing the whole way, but it doesn’t mean I think there needs to be any drastic changes made on my behalf.  I just had to change my own expectations accordingly.

I can be quite a naysayer and have even been called a killjoy, a cynic, or worse.  But I’ve always tried to make the most of South By Southwest.  It’s been rewarding more often than not.  I have seen the tiniest obscure artist and I’ve seen Morrissey in the same day.  It draws the microscopic and the epic together like no other event, and I hate to see it changed, as has been warned already due to some ugly incidents this year.  I have gone without a wristband, I’ve had a wristband, I covered it free of charge for a blog, and have been assigned for a website.  It was always interesting at the very least and most years it’s been great.

What else are you going to do with Spring Break?  What do you think is better?

Most other festivals just can’t compete with the diversity of the event and that’s the thing I would miss the most were SXSW to change.  The dichotomy between big industry and thriving micro-industries that is represented, the opposition between the two that’s apparent, the artistic struggle involved, even the way some venues won’t participate at all, has long been a point of fascination and I would hate to see it change.

There are many other festivals, some of them are pretty good (Fun Fun Fun Fest and the All Tomorrow’s Parties franchise for instance), but most of them offer the same inconveniences and potential danger, and none of the benefits of so many artists and their supporters being at the same party.  They don’t cancel Mardi Gras because of a few bad apples.  Get over it.

Highlights from Thursday:

Gary Wilson at Red 7: There’s always a lot of “reunion rock” at these festivals and I admit to seeing my fair share of it, along with many others that should be too young to know or are into music that was “before our time.”  Blame it on the fact that many teens start listening to long-defunct bands or retired musicians around age twelve, especially if he or she is that certain kind of art and music outcast.  Speaking of which, Gary Wilson may be one of the most potent human realizations of art and music outcast synthesis that has ever walked the earth.

As if his music weren’t odd enough, his visual representation is odder still; tons of makeup, fake blood, latex gloves, sunglasses, wigs, “the works.”  Though these simple onstage effects have been exhaustively plundered by the less imaginative in the decades since Wilson’s career began, there is just something inspiringly different about seeing a 57-year-old originator of the shtick in action.

His group of much younger Austin musicians he employed as his backing band were his disciples in sound and presentation as well; their costumes seemed even more ridiculous and included members of Austin acts, Pataphysics, The Carrots, and Jetu.  Much credit is due to the musicians, their dead-on interpretations of the tracks (which I’m told were handpicked by the group) lent the show as much in youthful exuberance as it did in atmospheric accuracy.

One habit I love from Wilson was the way he would introduce a song like “I Wanna Lose Control” in the habit of an old lounge singer (“And now…I wanna lose control!“); which makes perfect sense since Wilson has played actual lounge performances where he’ll run through some covers from the ridiculed genre.

Though Wilson has continued to play music sporadically over the years, his radar blip seems much more conspicuous lately; his recent appearance on The Jimmy Fallon Show coupled with last night’s well-received performance in front of longtime fans that they would never get the opportunity.  And along with new fans altogether likely made in the process, this wasn’t really a reunion performance as much as it was an artist justifiably receiving attention long overdue.

With the fact that he had obviously influenced an army of musicians half his age, it was almost as if Wilson was reuniting with himself.

Silent Diane: After popping in and out of the Victory Grill all night, it was pure luck that I caught much of Silent Diane’s set.  As I mentioned earlier this week, Silent Diane goes down much more smoothly than a lot of other shrill synth-duo acts.  Many of them either get caught up in their switches, patches, and dials and endless number of sound options, or give little in the way of vocals other than heavily reverb-ed monotone.  Though that can really make for some compelling music (and I count myself among the compelled) I find that the acts sometimes overlook an x-factor to set them apart from their philosophical counterparts.  Silent Diane’s x-factor is the almost soulful singing that snakes in and out of the buzzing and whirring and I implore you to explore their music or at least catch it live, even if this sort of thing usually turns you off.

Edwyn Collins: It’s rare that I smile throughout an entire performance; well, it’s rare that I smile period.  But that’s exactly what I found myself doing during the entire duration of Edwyn Collins late-night set on Thursday, and I would have been perfectly satisfied had this been the climax performance of the entire festival.  Perhaps it was.  Hearing some of your favorite songs of all time (“Dying Day,” “Rip It Up and Start Again,” and “Falling And Laughing”) will do that to you.

I admit there is probably no artist I’m a bigger fan of at this year’s festivities (Yoko Ono and Anika are pretty close but more on that later), and Collins’ old group Orange Juice is in my tiny handful of untouchable all-time acts, specifically in the realm of pop.  He also tore threw some newbies along with the classics, with unexpected seamlessness as a result.  Throw in a touching surprise duet by the singer with his son William, and you have a Hollywood-perfect set that had me fighting back tears on occasion between smiles.  Along with the meat market of new bands playing twenty times a day to be sized up for the industry, it’s moments like this why I have kept coming back every year since 2002.

Lowlights from Thursday:

Blissed Out’s random take on a local critic: Not quite a lowlight but hilarious, running into the remaining member of Blissed Out, Alex Winter, who sized me up on the street when we realized we were headed to the same show, and then he asked “Are you the guy that gave me that bad review?”  He was referring to DC-9’s take on his 35 Conferette performance at Hailey’s last week.

I assured him that I was not, and playfully suggested that I would gladly help him find his critic at the show we were attending, if he felt like asking him about in person.  He seemed enthused.  Paraphrasing, (as this was an impromptu encounter) he then went on with “I think it’s good when an artist gets to face the critic in person.”  Indeed.  It always goes much more smoothly than one would expect.  The author and I had a funny discussion about it later.

Grass Widow at Red 7: Grass Widow is basically a good band.  A clunky punk trio that covers songs by Wire and The Urinals sounds right up my alley, but there is something about the attention to detail that works against them.  The covers are too perfect.  When they opened up with “Black Hole” (The Urinals) (when I  caught them at Andy’s last week) and then later worked “Mannequin” (Wire) into the set, I was just underwhelmed by the ease and obviousness of it all.  With a slight tweak, if the band just made them their own a little bit, I don’t even think I’d be typing this right now.

It’s the most minute complaint in the world, but it got me to thinking about how 4AD 90’s act Lush also covered “Mannequin,” but completely made it their own.  I’m no defender of that era, and I suppose that’s one thing you can say about music today; there is no mistaking the influences, nobody will be called a “poser.”  But I am just sometimes curious about the flawless emulation as opposed to reworked appropriation.  It always seems a little unbalanced on occasion.

Highlights from Friday:

Friday was more aimless than I had anticipated, and it seems that more time was spent in North Loop coffee shop Epoch than anywhere else.  North Loop seemed less active than it has in past years of the festival, but Epoch was overrun with out-of-towners with writing habits, judging by the non-Austinite accents heard on business calls about the “great coffee shop I just found.”  And truly, there is maybe no Texas coffee experience I appreciate more than Epoch, even if for some reason they chose to beat us all to death with the respective soundtracks to Wes Anderson’s entire filmography for four hours.  But get this, Dallas: the place stays open for 24 hours.  Even on New Year’s Eve.  Imagine that.

There are endless solutions on any night where you don’t feel like it’s happening downtown during South By Southwest. I got a tip from some New York pals (who know what’s good in your town better than you apparently) that there was something going on at Big Medium, located pretty deep east on Airport Boulevard.  As soon as I drove up, I realized I had been there before; it was once known as Bolm Studios, and the venue is a non-profit that’s participating in the 2011 TX Biennial. (Correction: This was actually Wurhaus, located at 5305 Bolm Rd. #2, and not Big Medium which is located at 5305 Bolm Rd. #12.  I apologize for the mistake.)

After being entertained by the most existential hot-dog grilling I’ve ever seen outside of the studio (a couple of rather intoxicated characters kept relighting the grill and never really seemed to cook the same hot dogs for what felt like hours), I caught the tail-end of Kunst Fascion.

Kunst Fascion features Mariana “Kunst” Saldaña, who also performs in the darker Wax Trax-inspired //TENSE// and the beautifully minimal Medio Mutante.  It seems almost unfair that one individual can be involved with so many quality acts, but that simply seems to be the reality for Saldaña and her co-conspirators.

Just when I thought I was ready to leave the studio I heard the familiar yet alien and naturally cold strangeness of the singer’s voice cutting through the fog and darkness of the cavernous studio, yelling out something about a “fruit snake.”  “Oh, this is the new band from Mariana,” I’m told.  It’s a duo called Boan and it features her band-mate from Medio Mutante, José Cota. Oh, so these two are in yet another project that somehow mines from various obscure influences and manages to pull off a legitimate modern artistic achievement without sounding like some retro synth joke?  I’m shocked.

There is always cause for much civic-minded soul-searching every year at the festival, and if you run down the list of participating Texas Biennial organizations, you’ll see that many Dallas institutions are involved, including Centraltrak and The Mckinney Avenue Contemporary.  I hope the day comes when one of these places has insanely loud music blaring out of it at 3:30 in the morning during a successful Dallas music festival that’s in its twenty-fifth year, but I’m not holding my breath.

Though I think the Conferette has improved quite a bit in only three years, I still wish Melodica had continued to be an annual event in Dallas proper, and I know many that feel that way.  After all, the Conferette is trying to fortify the economic health of a fairly small town.  All Dallas really needs is to breathe some life into what it already has.

Lowlights from Friday:

The gratuitous amount of fake fog spewing out throughout this late-night show at Big Medium.  Don’t the organizers know most of their peers are allergy-prone asthmatics?  Dry ice and fake fog are little slices of hell for this crowd.

I attempted to see DFW act Most Efficient Women (a huge multi-pronged group featuring Sarah Alexander, Daron Beck, Britt Robisheaux, Nevada Hill, Darcy Neal, Justin Lemons, and David Saylor) play at East Austin Record store Trailer Space.  While the one and a half songs they struggled through, due to equipment and power issues, were great, what was not so great was the Trailer Space staff that I heard discussing whether or not to physically assault the group because of a dispute over whether they were to blame for said power issues.

Highlights from Saturday:

After purposely avoiding most of the day-drinking crowds, I did catch a little of The Dead Milkmen’s headlining early evening performance at the Mess With Texas stage.  This was one of the few times where I suffered along with my fellow attendees, as I’ve pretty much refined the whole process down to its most essential and minimal effort while still seeing everything I want to see.  There was a lot of dust at this event, that’s the main thing I took away from it.  However, the entry process was very smooth and it was nice to see so many families walking around while the band played it’s ridiculous comedy-punk; something I usually detest.

Tearist: Later in the evening was the  “Synthsisters: Women In Electronic Music” a showcase that was put on by Switched On, the increasingly famous Austin music store that specializes in rare synthesizers, analog equipment, off-brand guitars, and music-related gizmos and electronics.  Needless to say, Switched On is not only a favorite stop for visiting musicians but also has its little robotic hand in just about every honey-pot of tasteful music activity since it opened in the city last year, from slick dance to aggressively formless noise.

The event was very well-attended and naturally attracted many DFW musicians and Metroplexpats, who don’t have some incredibly neat equipment shop that specializes in and caters to their highly particular interests.  One memorable performance was by Tearist, which features former Dallas resident Yasmine Kittles on vocals (along with band-mate and active LA musician Will Menchaca) and who gives it her melodramatic best; contorting herself while emoting to the point of rasp and beyond, over aggressive percussion and mangled electronic sounds.  In stark contrast to all of the gloomy reports coming out about this year’s events, Interview Magazine deftly combats the cynicism with intelligence and in-the-know attitude with this rather upbeat piece on Tearist that mentions their earlier Victory Grill performance.

Anika: I was feeling optimistic ahead of the festival, after reading that the mysterious and anomalous Stones Throw recording artist, Anika, was included, gem-like in the rough of product and hype.  Though it would be a DJ set and not a live band performance, I was still just enthusiastic to hear what the artist would spin.

I admit to being downright annoying in endlessly praising Anika, but her debut, even though it’s stacked with enough covers to be much like the spotty girl-group platters of the industry’s yesteryear, is simply one of the most original and ear-catching sounds I’ve heard in years.  Especially from a label as well-known as Stones Throw (home to Dam Funk, Peanut Butter Wolf, the late J Dilla etc.).  And there is nothing spotty about the record, not a second is wasted.  Recorded with Geoff Barrow (of Portishead and Beak) in merely twelve days (total not successively), its intimidatingly deep and bass-heavy revisionism captures more of the imagination and innovation of its rare Nihilist No Wave and also its popular 60’s influences than most albums that take years to record and waste hundreds of thousands of label dollars.

Anika, Barrow, and associates have made the first musical statement that hints at where we might be headed this decade and it’s an encouraging direction.  Anika’s DJ set at the somewhat swanky Malaia World Lounge was great, and the spruced-up crowd was the closest I felt to being in Uptown Dallas all weekend.  She played everything Mark Lane’s “Who’s Really Listening” to The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette,” to a 12-inch instrumental version of “(You Don’t Stop) Wordy Rappinghood.” Though I saw better-attended DJ sets over the weekend, this was the most novel.

Yoko Ono: Finally, the aforementioned Anika does a genius cover of Yoko Ono’s “Yang Yang” on her album, and I was hoping for a live duet after discovering that Ono would be performing as well.  Though that didn’t happen, Ono’s late-night show at the Elysium was the best ending I could have hoped for to finish off the packed week, and judging by the overwhelming response from the crowd, I wasn’t alone.  I have pleasant memories of the Elysium ever since experiencing ahead-of-their-time, French, drum machine-punks Metal Urbain at SXSW 2004, yet another opportunity afforded by attending so many of these things over the years.

I admit to being a little tough on Sean Lennon’s recent work, but he completely blew any doubts I initially had away with his guitar playing in his mother’s updated version of The Plastic Ono Band.  Lennon was noisy when the music called for it and soloed quite capably when it called for that too.  He played with simultaneous subtlety and venom.  This was not the smiling cover boy, iconically rendered in orange marker from his first album’s artwork.  Lennon led the band and conducted them to the will of Ono’s wonderfully otherworldly vocals, which echoed with peace-mongering yet agitated fervor.

Ono completely proved why she is still by far, one of, if not the most relevant artists of her generation in spite of having to endure a lifetime of personal tragedy not to mention the enduring sexism and racism of the supposedly liberal worlds of art and music.  With six recent dance-floor hits at the age of 78, and yet able to put on an entirely convincing experimental rock show, and with her work still requested in galleries the world over, Ono sets an impossibly high standard and should act as an inspiration for just about everyone at the entire festival.  In a week where everyone complained about the brevity of performance, she played two encores.

Lowlights from Saturday:

The sickening feeling brought on by seeing Anika play to a mostly empty room for much of her all-vinyl DJ set.  This is the dark side of official showcases, which can sometimes contrast the often well-attended free party shows, and it made me wish she had been playing to the fairly packed backyard of the Gypsy Lounge at the “Synthsisters” show happening over on the East Side at the exact same time.  Even Austin’s Ramesh had a much better set, crowd-wise, immediately after her.


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