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It's time to let the ringing in my ears stop, catch up on my call sheet, perhaps start sleeping again, and count this as another great SXSW in the books!
SXSW: IT'S A WRAP
HITS’ Jeff Leven and "Carrie Underwould" Complete Their Weekend in Austin
FRIDAY: After some meetings and a stop at the BMI Acoustic Brunch, I hit the music early, catching Little Boots at Emo's.  For a lot of acts, SXSW is the moment of truth where you can check out the emperor's wardrobe on bands with particularly breathless buzz, and Little Boots at this point clearly qualifies, which, as it turns out, is completely deserved.  With a beautiful voice and a knack for deftly laying it over the hook, Victoria Hesketh beamed from the stage about a recent critical comparison to Human League, which is pretty much dead on, and in a really great way. Ranking up there with M83 and Neon Neon as the best reclaimers of ‘80s synth-pop, it was one of the most pleasant surprises of the festival. 

Both Friday and Saturday afternoons for me necessitated the lawyerly version of a pedal dance, as pretty much all of my acts played within the same hour in multiple parts of town. Thin-slicing in 10-15 minute increments, I actually covered the spread both times, catching great sets from Monte Negro, Dizzy Balloon, the Henry Clay People and the Crash Kings.  After a loose and triumphant final set from the Henry Clay People on Friday, it was time to catch the Hold Steady, who were commanding a livewire crowd on the Mohawk porch, as they reeled across their increasingly deep catalog. 

Friday, the fest swells a little, and in a few cases the lines were intimidating.  The reunion show for The Sonics, a seminal Seattle psychedelic band (and truly proto-proto-punk) was a particular mob scene, and as much as I would have loved to hear Larry Parypa crank out the opening guitar stabs on "The Witch," the math of jamming 400 people through a door in the space of an hour set seemed a bit much, so instead I caught the High Dials at Little Steven's party.  Also intimidating was the line for Shiny Toy Guns at their SXSW Live taping, so I caught bits of Deastro, Boston stalwarts Wheat, and the killer pairing of Barcelona and Alberta Cross

By dinner time Friday, you could see the black T-shirts started to swarm on Red River as people prepared for Metallica. With one of my own bands playing opposite the first part of their set and having recently seen their excellent Forum show, I instinctively veered away, although multiple reports suggested that it was ultimately easier getting in than anyone expected (perhaps because enough people were spooked from it in exactly the same way I was), and that the band played a hits-packed, nearly two-hour set to a crowd that included rock celebs like Blasko (whose face surveyed Sixth Street on a giant Affliction sign).   

Interestingly, the most metal portions of my night were technically not metal at all. At the World's End showcase, the Crash Kings finished the night with an absolutely smoldering version of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," made all the more amazing by the fact that there is no guitar in the band (although a clavinet with a whammy bar goes a long way towards melting your face).  It was one of those shows where the energy was absolutely electric as the band fed off a packed room and vocal crowd. 

Also bristlingly intense was Wovenhand, which features David Eugene Edwards, formerly of the amazing undersung Southern gothic act 16 Horsepower.  Utterly witchy as he struck his banjo and howled, Edwards' band rumbled out giant waves of sound that felt like the sonic equivalent to the sickly green color a southern sky gets before a hell storm.  It was truly more metal than metal and quite amazing.

After a few minutes of being walloped by the hectic theatrics of Skeletonwitch, I headed over to catch an absolutely stunning performance by Dredg, which premiered some amazing new material alongside old favorites to an enraptured audience.  With drumsticks flying and vocals soaring, the band gorgeously marries emotional intensity and technical proficiency. 

There just seemed to be something in the air on Friday. The shows were an extra bit more impassioned, the crowds were an extra bit more responsive, and the music was even richer and louder than usual. Maybe it is today's harder times that on some level make those perfect notes that much more important and a rock show somehow that much more of a necessary act of community catharsis. Turns out that there were quite a few faith healers in downtown Austin tonight...

SATURDAY: An important and under-discussed thing that has changed about SXSW over the years is the way the dual mix of energy drinks and blackberries/iPhones coupled with branded afterparties has impacted the festival.  With multiple events ranging from Red Bull's excellent Moontower to the Purevolume warehouse, the seminal Vice party, Beauty Bar's amazing hang and Perez Hilton's gig, suddenly these nights increasingly go until dawn, particularly as the text message network alerts roving partiers to what is open and where everyone else is going.  While inevitably fun, the parties tend to add a two-ton weight to the overalL endurance contest.  I mean, sure, you could be more responsible and head home a bit earlier...

There's a principle of improv comedy that if something is proposed by another character, the only way to really develop the skit is for the party receiving the proposal to pretty much always agree to play along with the idea and start to add their own twist to it, which if you think about it, makes some sense. Every improv sketch would turn into dead air if the performers contested each other's evolving roadmap.  While it's not always a good idea to say "yes" to everything, in some ways the rules of improv often apply at SXSW.  

One of of my best memories from my SXSW trips in college was a night where Guided by Voices' Doug Gillard and I somehow paired off and wandered around Austin in the rain looking for a Spin party we never found, but doing an interesting ad hoc bar crawl along the way.  Likewise, this year, Dredg's Dino Campanella and I ended up doing two nights worth of extended party-seeking missions, ultimately landing at the Moontower one night (taking in Kid Cudi's performance, among others) and hanging out at the Palm Door with the Beauty Bar's Michael Stewart and members of ....And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead the next.  While we ended up missing Kanye West's surprise appearances at the Fader fort and the Perez Hilton party, adding the extra mile to the marathon just seemed like the right thing to do.  When in Austin...

In the first half of the day, after seeing several client shows, I caught a smouldering Arc Angels reunion set at Antone's.  Doyle Bramhall and Charlie Sexton's guitar work was a revelation, particularly on the extended encore.  While in past years there has been some activity in the blues-rock space from John Mayer to Los Lonely Boys and Susan Tedeschi, the Arc Angels promise to fill a void that their original separation in the early ‘90s left wide-open. With hits like "Sent by Angels" and "Living in a Dream," the Arc Angels bridged the gap between the Fabulous Thunderbirds/Stevie Ray Vaughan scene and the alternative rock explosion that was happening at that moment.  Today's event, a tribute to the late, great Clifford Antone, began with Austin's mayor proclaiming Saturday "Arc Angels Day" in Austin, which seemed just about right.

Switching gears, I celebrated the rest of Arc Angels day with a trip to the Mess with Texas party at Waterloo Park, where Lucero played a loose and vibey catalog-spanning set, followed by great performances by Akron/Family and the Circle Jerks. Taking a page from the Black Lips (who finished the show with a hot, hamburger-slinging performance), earlier Israel's Monotonix played a dizzying and confrontational set that included extended crowd-surfing on and with the drum kit (the first and only time I've seen a drummer play a solid snare line sideways while being passed around), partial nudity and apparently the band's third experience of being cut off in as many shows.  Crazy stuff.

After a brief dose of Enter Shikari, I caught Hot Leg, the new project from The DarknessJustin Hawkins.  With teased hair and theatrical flash, it struts down a Steel Panther lane with self-realizing abandon—time to hit the Sunset Strip!  I followed my rock with a little extra soul, catching another vivid and elegant Arkells show followed by the amazing reggae rockers Bedouin Soundclash before meeting hot shot producer and manager Matt Radosevich at the Dredg set next door.

As the week wore down, there were inevitably dozens of things I would have liked to have seen, including oddball super-group Tinted Windows, indie-rock guitar goddess Marnie Stern, and then Cage the Elephant, Glasvegas and Late of the Pier, the last three of which will at least be at Coachella. In the meantime, though, it's time to let the ringing in my ears stop, catch up on my call sheet, perhaps start sleeping again, and count this as another great SXSW in the books!    

CARRIE UNDERWOULD (aka Joan Myers [email protected]) REPORTS: With attendance down 10%, it was a pretty manageable year, as far as getting into the clubs... that is, if you didn't care about seeing Metallica... One of the best speakers by far was Little Steven, and who knew? I thought I would ask him if he remembered me saving him from getting a ticket outside of his apartment in NYC a few years back by telling the cop, “Don't you know who he is?,” but his time and advice were pretty impressive. He made a pretty interesting point saying how "in all the countries I visit, the arts and culture are so important to them and their governments spend money on great facilities and grants and here well, it's considered a luxury, go figure.” He also said that with the industry the way it is today, "I'd take a Leonard Chess deal any day as it came with a guarantee for a 50-year career, and these days, there is no artist development." Asked by a young musician if he recommended guitar lessons, he said he took one once and still couldn't master the riff in “Old McDonald,” but where he and his peers learned how to play were from all the great TV shows where you could actually see fingers moving across the necks.. He promises he's working on a TV show... All sorts of great people were here this year. Clem Burke from Blondie looking as good as he did, well, how many years ago? And Michael Des Barres handing out business cards to everyone saying, “Be my friend on Facebook”… It was definitely the year of the Doug Sahm tributes. Sadly to say, I couldn't make a one and that meant I didn't get to see Bill Bentley...Red Cortez, from East End, the house that Tony Dimitriades built, just back from opening for Morrissey, having a gig a day and sounding like they are finally  ready to be heard by the masses… Delta Spirit, the Americana/soul band on Rounder, played to a full house while Rounder founder Ken Irwin could be seen headbanging at stage right,.. And while we tipped you off to the Travelin McCourys, no one told us they they played bluegrass "plugged in.” "Man,” said WRLT Nashville's Rev, “Those boys ROCKED the pinstripes,” referring to the suits they wear!!!... And we would be remiss not to mention some of Austin's finest for their great music who help give the town its ambience, including Jimmie Vaughan, Alejandro Escovedo, the Gourds, Kelly's Hub, Bruce Robison and a special congratulations to town sweetheart Kelly Willis, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame this year… Kudos, too, to some of the clubs and club owners who have the best places on the planet, including Susan Antone, who keep's Clifford's dream alive, and the Continental Club's Steve Wertheimer (who swears he does it just  to keep his classic car habit going!!)…

 

      

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