March 29, 2010

SXSW for the Northeast

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Every March, thousands of bands convene in Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. Running parallel to sister festivals for film and technology, it’s an idiosyncratic event in that performances are scattered throughout not only every music club in the city, but nearly every restaurant, coffee shop and even a few private homes as well. Live music can be heard from nearly any indoor vantage point downtown — country, jazz and punk music all competing in the air and attracting their respective partisans. Many of the bands play up to six separate shows throughout the duration, day and night. And while some gigs are packed, many are scarcely attended. Poor attendance doesn’t bother anyone because unlike a big outdoor festival, the point here is not the “fans” but rather badge-wearers — those who pay hundreds of dollars for all-access passes and, for the most part, represent labels, agencies and licensing companies. Bands only perform for new fans indirectly, because while shows might be full of them, the purpose here is to get “noticed,” to make contacts with industry people who can provide opportunities. Of course, regular music fans inevitably take advantage, and flock to purchase “wristbands,” less prestigious than badges but useful for access to most of the shows. “Hype” is the keyword for SXSW. Audience numbers are generally defined by how much press a band has gotten from blogs, magazines and review sites like Pitchfork Media (indeed the line for Pitchfork’s showcases and parties normally stretched around entire blocks). The culture of the festival is focused on what is “new,” or “in,” and the point of many shows is, unlike the usual logic, not about how many people attend, but by how small and how influential the audience is. Look no further than the festival-closing Perez Hilton party, at which the Hollywood gossip writer housed only a few hundred people to watch “secret” concerts by Snoop Dogg and Courtney Love.I was in town to play with my own band, Mother Falcon, but I was able to catch a handful of other acts with an “artist wristband.” What follows is hardly a “best-of-the-festival” list, but rather a handful of bands I happened to enjoy. The purpose of playing, for them, was to get press, so here they get a modest little bit of it:Riding standby on a packed flight from North Carolina, I sat near a large, sunglassed and particularly flamboyant music promoter who was quick to both establish his credentials (“I used to book Big Boi” he proudly mentioned) as well as make me feel as though I would be inherently lame by not going to see his newest discovery: the Israeli six-piece Terry Poison. On a whim the next night, I took the bait and was promptly stunned. Terry Poison features four glitzy, heavily made-up divas playing dance-focused electronic pop, hints of French and Middle Eastern influences hovering over intricately constructed yet deeply thumping beats. One wonders how far the band is even trying to go with their recordings, because the point is obviously to rivet the audience to the eroticized on-stage personae of the band members. Several of the girls wore outfits that came straight out of the heyday of British glam-rock. One singer wore what could be described as an American Apparel dolphin costume, complete with floppy ears standing in for fins that the other singer would pick up with one hand, dramatically pretending to sing into her ear. As is obvious, the sound of Terry Poison is secondary, because the music, danceable and fun though it was, is far less memorable than the performance, though I don’t think that is necessarily a problem.The second discovery of the weekend was a band called Freelance Whales. Although nothing they do could be described as particularly novel, they extract the best elements of precocious innocence from recent music, including high pitched harmonies, quivery yet graceful melodies, bright, innocent expressions, and, with seeming inevitability, a banjo. Big sing-along’s reminiscent of the Arcade Fire were dramatically pressed up against quiet whispery passages of acoustic guitar and harmonium. Warm feelings all around the crowd peaked at the quietest moments, and while the band will probably ignite the cynicism of many, they managed to charm the small crowd that stared with glazed eyes throughout their short but sweet set. Although none of these bands need my ink to find fans, perhaps the act needing the least help is Sarah Jarosz. This singer-songwriter-mandolin-guitar-banjo-virtuoso is being hailed all over the national bluegrass/old-time scene as the next savior, to the point that I didn’t even know she was originally from Austin. Now a freshman at New England Conservatory of Music, Jarosz has been nominated for a Grammy, and proceeded to impress a huge crowd of old-Austin music scene regulars with traditional, honest vocals and almost comically fast mandolin playing in the vein of Chris Thile (ostensibly her main precursor) or Ricky Skaggs. Already hailed as the prologue to a new generation of Americana virtuosi, Jarosz clearly has to navigate between traditionalist expectations and a weirder, more “hip” side that covers songs by the Decemberists and takes after Thile’s atonal explorations. She plays a style of Americana that rides a fine line between comfort and cliché, excitement and boredom, and I just hope she ends up picking the right place between expectations and experiments.   SXSW was defined by a play between expectations and experiments. Many bands got written off quickly by crowds and industry people who found them to be simply a rehashing of tired genre tricks. Other bands suffered the opposite problem: Their experiments, whether radical or modest, simply failed to rouse anyone’s attention. Such is, of course, a common theme in music, especially in the instant-assessment world of pop and rock bands around which SXSW is focused. The festival, for all the fanfare and attempted pretension, basically just reinforced this axiom. Watching it do so, however, was surely exciting.

Other new bands to check out:

1. Speak – From Austin, they might be the next MGMT or Vampire Weekend if the pop bug doesn’t leave too soon.

2. Tom Brousseau – This quirky, vulnerable songwriter finished his set by singing into the hole of his guitar for nearly three minutes.

3. Dosh – Andrew Bird’s drummer produces intelligent and accessible rhythmic atmospheres.

4. Wye Oak – Relentlessly touring and recording stark, dramatic songs for several years, this husband/wife duo will play Castaway’s this weekend.

5. Roky Erikson and Okkervil River – Austin’s old and new generation crowd-pleasers have teamed up for a highly anticipated album arriving in April.

Original Author: Maurice Chammah