POSTED ON APRIL 4, 2012:
Producing Ecstasy Through Music
A musician's view of South by Southwest
I have been going to South by South West for two decades, and I have come to see it as a place to renew my vows to the creative spirit, to charge my batteries. I have seen some many great performances, got to ask Pete Townsend a question, rock out with David Byrne and any number of experiences that are just so cool. I have discovered a universe of music that I do not think I could have found any other way. This is a stream of some of the things from this year. Maybe next time I'll see you at South By.
My SXSW always starts at Stubbs; I don't know why, it's my tradition. This year was no different. But this year was different because the Stubbs main stage was the NPR stage. NPR may be many things, but it is not commonly associated with a rocking good time. They may be known for taste in music, but not for the fraternity-party-on-steroids vibe that is always a part of the flavor of the festival.
This year's critics' darlings, the Alabama Shakes, are here to seal the deal with the press. In the first half of their set they didn't, but by the end they had won me over. Last year the buzz band was Fitz and the Tantrums -- they nailed it so hard -- an object lesson on how any band should build an audience by putting on a great, great show.
Back at Stubbs, the black and white NPR banners seemed out of place with the constant smell of Texas barbecue, beer and medical grade marijuana. Maybe it's just me and I need to change my impression of those mellowed out voices. Next up is Andrew Bird (Now this seems more NPR). I had been a fan since his appearance on ACL; tonight his show has all the elements of preciousness required for critical success. It seems like the last music you would put on a party at midnight, but I can tell you it made a whole bunch of very pale girls very happy to hear. I had my share of preciousness for the evening, so I headed out.
There is a big Doritos bag towering over 5th and Brazos visible from the heart of the festival at the Austin convention center, and at closer inspection I see it's actually a two story vending machine with the stage as the vending door -- and it is ugly and obnoxious. I guess the new "jacked" variety is supposed to be a younger, hipper snacking demographic. It really bothered me to see the people dancing in front of the giant vending machine as the DJ 's blasted the generic dub step. Something about it seemed so wrong.
The next morning I sit in on a panel discussing the scientific investigation into producing ecstasy in the human mind through music. The gentlemen on the panel ought to know -- they are the greatest minds and ears in music production: George Massenburg and Tony Masserati. These guys have made some of the most famous recordings. Hell they invented the machines the recordings are made on, the ecstasy machines.
I get together with some friends from Tulsa and we go over to the MTV party where it was about as interesting as an insurance customer appreciation event, giving away Life Water mixed with Sake. Icky. More lead singers beating on big drums for some reason.
We go see Fiona Apple at the Presbyterian church -- we are almost an hour early, but the line is around the block. So much for these special badges. Though without the badges you are not getting in. We sit in what are the nosebleeds of a Presbyterian church.
Fiona Apple comes out and takes her place on the pulpit, the band surrounds her and she preaches the gospel of an unrepentant artist who will only let you see the painting until it's finished. I was told later that in the set I missed at Stubbs she seemed too high and was raked over the coals by the press for her show. On this night she seemed nervous but focused; it was jagged and eery, but it was the music of an unrelenting visionary -- very, very good.
Then it was off to sample the great eats of Austin, sea food. Most excellent. Then off to the IFC showcase on 6th -- the Heartless Bastards are killing it -- but seven bucks for a Shiner Bock? Come on. I guess Independent films must have big budgets.
Headed up to Maggie Mays and sat on the top deck. The band had a singer playing tom-tom drums. They need to get the memo, that's about 24 months ago. Their music is banal and boring. Those indie bands who are very influenced by arcade fire and the like are gonna have a hard time competing with the energy of the new electronic bands that are influenced by punk. I think next year there will be some really interesting hybrids. They are probably already out there, but I didn't run across them this year.
Back up on 6th Street, Oklahoma film commission was hosting an evening at Friends. Mary Beth Babcock was doing great job representing the city and the state. She is hero of mine here. Erin Austin did a great show, caught her here last year.
Then I went down and listened to a band at the Bat Bar called Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Bird. The guitarist said this song is "I was dressed like Elvis from hell." They launch in to psycho surf music -- the Ramones crossed with the Kinks and played by Dick Dale. Cool man. At the end he says this song means a lot to me. It's about a surfer in a REALLY rusted coat of armor (from the the sea water I suppose). The bands burns it up; looking around as they play it's obvious this song is now a favorite of some of the crowd.
The corporate logos, the endless stream of sponsorships staggers the mind, the money being spent, wow. I know why, it's not just being seen but is also because a large portion of the worlds Mojo is here in Austin for the week. These companies know that creative energy is the competitive edge for innovation and it is here in an almost visceral, physical form everywhere you go, it is extraordinary.
--More to come next week.
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