South by Southwest (SXSW) occurs annually in Austin, Texas. All of your favorite websites have liveblogged the event, millions of camera-phone photos are available to recreate each second of each show in panoramic vision and enough scratchy audio has been recorded to fill your 80-gig iPod. I myself was probably photographed several times by magazines, zines, blogs, police cameras, nightlife photographers and friends. And not because I’m particularly particular, or because I have friends. But because I was there, and it’s 2009. The Internet knows more about my experience in Austin than I do.
From March 18 through the 22, Austin was home to 1,700 bands, which makes Austin both the temporary live-music capital of the world and its least-showered city. From among the 1,700, I giddily assembled a schedule of bands, but I’ve been to enough shows, enough showcases, to know: a) Nothing starts on time, b) Nothing sounds like you expect it to and c) Bleed something out of everything or leave jaundiced. So I showed up as free of hope and expectation as one might be in the Internet age. I didn’t take any pictures. I didn’t write any reviews. I don’t remember all the bands I saw. I went to SXSW to leave as many footsteps, hear as many bands, and eat as many barbecued foods as my body and soul would accommodate.
I arrived Wednesday without much of a lineup to look forward to, though I was particularly excited for Ty Segall, an apprentice of the great John Dwyer (Coachwhips, Pink & Brown, Thee Oh Sees), whom I expected to be a one-man rhythm machine. Rather, I was treated to a three-piece suite, with Ty only taking guitar and vocal duties. The sound was similar to the one-man incarnation heard on record —bluesy garage rock with Ty’s yelped staccato delivery — but the intrigue was lessened.
To set the scene a bit more: Austin’s youthful downtown, where Ty was playing, looks like a fleshed-out Hollywood film set from 1995. I also seem to remember it being dusty, but maybe it was the people. For SXSW, downtown and its fringes are converted into a string of places-that-serve-alcohol and places-that-serve-alcohol-plus-have-live-music-inside-and-on-the-patio. Music, mostly unctuous or dull, was playing from every square foot. You could not avoid sound, and if you tried, some bumpkin would stand on top of the Daily Herald dispenser and sing to you his love of rainbows and his soiree with the devil. The place was a carnival, a carnival of ragamuffins, pagan ragamuffins, music-loving pagan ragamuffins.
Particularly fervent shows included every damn Todd P show at Ms. Bea’s. (Todd P is a famous Brooklyn-based promoter of “for everybody, by everybody” shows.) Every Austin-bound band worth their salt has played at Ms. Bea’s. It was a struggle for most bands to elevate themselves from the corporeal weight of the festival trudge. Many of these bands — I think the Vivian Girls played every show at the festival — played multiple gigs every day.
The best shows occurred when the crowd was assembled and eager. Thee Oh Sees, H.E.A.L.T.H., Crystal Stilt – they all fed into the smiling sway of the crowd and played roaring sets. The Dirty Projectors, despite the lingering illness of their frontman Dave Longstreth, played mouth-frothing sets every day (judging by my experience and fellow reports), each one a force of nature with glowing harmonies and Fela Kuti-rhythms, after which was required much hugging between band members. Another blip of energy came from an indoor solo set by one Matt Mondanile, a.k.a. Ducktails. He quietly setup for a solid 30 minutes as the crowd watched on unharried — just glad to be in a cool room with comfortable, if inappropriate, comedy-club seating. The set began with a building, swarming drone, from which emerged a song of rhythmic loops: we nodded and smiled. It was delicate and honest. Ducktails plays expressive, electronic-filtered, ballad music. The lyrics are no more lyrical than the sounds are. He finished in profile to the audience, standing behind the heated electronics to play a guitar-only peon to girls that sparked like Daniel Johnston. When he finished, Matt turned, smiled bashfully, and the crowd arose from their seats. 1,699 bands are playing.