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Babylon by van, a littered land of hope and dreams, the thousandth street corner where a street hustle street hassle plays its way in the shadow of a song, it’s the mass collective ritual of Austin in March and, as always, it’s exhilarating, exhausting, embarrassing, electrifying, eviscerating and exalting all at once.
JEFF LEVEN'S SXSW WRAP
There's Music Blasting from Every Corner, and Our Man Is There to Capture Most of It
As HITS went into the weekend, I gathered up my thoughts on Friday and Saturday in preparation for the final volley from SXSW 2012.  To be bluntly honest, at times the festival gets hard to write about. There are a limited handful of themes that become the obvious conversation piecesstuff like “wow, there are a lot of hyper-celebrity appearances this year” to “Wow, 6th Street just gets to be more and more like Bourbon Street every year.”  

It’s also easy for a summary of a day/night out to turn into something like “And so I went here, and then I went there, and then I went and saw this other thing.” The spirit of the festival lives somewhere beyond simple documentation of who came and what happened, or even the nuanced opinions/gripes of festival veterans. As the old TV broadcast used to say “There are 10,000 stories in the naked city,” and in a town bursting with bands and happenings, perhaps the best way to wrap up my take on this year’s experience is with a sampling of impressionistic moments from Friday and Saturday, the fragments I might remember years from now:

Friday afternoon: The sun cracks a smile on the sheltered cove of the Ginger Man’s backyard.  Craft beers bubble on wood benches and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck stands nearly presidential with silvery locks, a patterned shirt and aviator sunglasses as the day’s lineup plumbs the Rickenbacker/Telecaster ring of fire that began somewhere around the Byrds and flows to the Parson Red Heads, who open the set with shimmery harmonies before ceding the stage to the Undersung Rushmore faces of a distant West’s once-and-paisley heroes.  Chuck Prophet slashes through songs with a subtle wit and fierce guitar lines, while Buck dons a 12-string to join Peter Case and Paul Collins for a romp through the Plimsouls’ still-smouldering “Million Miles Away,” soon followed by the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone.” Among and between and through the day come the dBs, Ken Stringellow and others, all sketching an alternate world where the cherished hits of power pop’s past reanimate the hearts of girls who got away and vindicate nights spent feeding the jukebox and dreaming of possibilities. For a moment. that 5,000 square feet in Austin became Athens, GA, circa 1986, Mitch Easter’s NC studio, the Roxy 1983, Ardent Studios and the best room in Portland all at once. And the earth shook just slightly

Sitting at the summit of Red River, the Mohawk is a giant space broken into a collection of a dozen cozy ones. In the warm and slightly humid cocoon womb of its interior, Quilt sketches pastoral dreams on Friday afternoon. Outside, Dan Deacon and his brace of drummers and ringleaders has led the crowd in a celebratory mass interpretive dance that marks the exact shift point when hipster irony shuffle steps into real transcendence. Dragonette’s melodic vocals resume outside as the last notes of Quilt’s set ring out and the music goes on and on and on…

The next day, the Silent Comedy, Blitzen Trapper and a focused and driving set from the War on Drugs take that MOG party crowd on a dazzling journey that will ultimately end with the Roots, but only after a beaming Bob Mould tears through Sugar’s Copper Blue from end to end.  Transitioning from the scabrous walls of distorted guitar grind that marked his best moments in Husker Du, Sugar was where the modern Mould found his voice and planted his flag. Still very much a flag to rally around.

There’s no doubt Jack White is somewhere within Stages on Sixth on Friday night. John C Reilly and Karen Elson have played and now the PA blasts soul music. Men in suits and bowler hats set up gear, the blazing yellow Third Man truck is parked regally outside, and a parade of music biz heavy hitters line up insidemanager Ian Montone, Sony’s Rob Stringer and Mark Williams, managers John Silva and Phil Costello, producer George Drakoulias, the Shins’ James Mercer, Norah Jones and the list goes on. Things hit fever pitch as White takes the stage, first with a group of white-clad women and later with a group of black-clad men. Amongst these two ensembles are an incredible brace of musicians singer/songwriter Brooke Waggoner and members of Autolux, the Mars Volta and Old Crow Medicine Show populate the groups, while White the ringleader tears through his back catalog with abandon, veering from White Stripes chestnuts to new solo material to country standards to the Raconteurs’ “Steady As She Goes,” to Dead Weather cuts and back again to the closing drawl of “Good Night Irene.” As the crowd stirs more wildly, Jason Sudeikis close-dances with Olivia Wilde.  Not to be outdone by any other celebrity in the room, Bill Murray eventually winds up dancing on the bar with the bar staff, all while a giant sprawl of fans litter Sixth St. outside the venue’s open windows. White sculpts moments to perfection, and then razors them away with a guitar tone from the darker corners of a Delta dog’s id.  

The Henry Clay People are on a mission, tearing through one sweaty set after another at day parties all around the Eastern half of the main crawl.  Crashing through tunes from their sophomore record to be released this summer, they are that rare band that gets more affirmatively punk with age, taking the up-and-comer’s angst and redirecting it as a call to arms. Squeezed at the tail end of their Austin City Limits festival set a few years ago, their crashing cover of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” was a celebratory moment then, but now it’s something deeper.  A tip of the hat to this year’s festival anchor, yes, but beyond that it’s a lapel-grabbing urging for the half-drunk crowds that mill on the street. “Baby we were born to ruuuuuuuuun” they howl and it feels like a rocket crashing around the room. No technical difficulties, no misshapen stages, no thousand vans parked on the same block can screw up your SXSW if you just go out and grab it by the throat they seem to say, and the room all but burns to cinders every time. 

Walking in late night to the 1100 Warehouse at the tail end of the Skrillex set, the bass is in headcrusher mode, amped to near-infinity while seemingly thousands of teens scream their heads off and wave hands around.  He’s thrashing and the hair is doing its thing, but there are sparks coming off the cartwheeling Lamborghini that is this set. There’s almost a sense of danger to how powerfully his stuff is connecting and no one in that room gives a half damn about whether anyone outside that room gets it or not.  It’s all they need and it’s cracking in at a billion decibels and a zillion miles an hour.

Late night, the PureVolume party is a huge bleary drunk tank. Motion City Soundtrack are playing a mannered by zippy set, all while various dudes in sweaty T-shirts slur their way through vodka drinks and occasionally lapse into dancing. Later, Doomtree ask the crowd how many people accidentally took acid that day and people are lying because a lot of hands get raised.  That or we’re keeping Austin weirder than we might have previously imagined. 

There’s love in the air between Austin and the Railroad Revival Tour, the first incarnation of which is captured with typical Emmett Malloy excellence with the film Big Easy Express. Documenting the RRT’s six-city trip that included a stop in Austin, a large crowd on a beautiful rolling green on the UT campus cheer when the film reaches a scene where Mumford & Sons rehearse for an Austin City Limits taping with the marching band from Steven F. Austin High School, or when clips from the Austin play are threaded into the film’s thrilling performance footage.  Later in the night, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros and Mumford & Sons repay the favor with sets that embrace the crowd and bring them into the bands’ extended family for a night. A nostalgic ride on a train bound for glory and a moment in time shared amongst fans and bands, Austin’s a perfect screen on which to project the type of magic that a visionary tour, a well-shot film and a host of stringed instruments can be added up to conjure.

Music and music and more music. Voxhaul Broadcast churn a set of amazing new songs.  Transfer lurk in black reeling out powerful sounds before ceding the stage to Replacements/GNR legend Tommy Stinson. The dulcet tones of Best Coast’s “Girlfriend” waft over Stubbs.  Chali 2Na looks back over the gate to the C3 house and winds up a sea of passersby. Sleeping with Sirens dazzle enraptured kids at the AP day party with a line down the block. The Dunwells reel through a set both precise and airy, while Reptar turn through corners with guitar lines that pivot and whirr.

Somewhere around town there are sets by Eminem, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne and other big names, all as a thousand local bands fight to defend their turf from several thousand more invaders. There’s sound pouring out of virtually every building in the entire downtown, lights and stage smoke in the sky. Babylon by van, a littered land of hope and dreams, the thousandth street corner where a street hustle street hassle plays its way in the shadow of a song, it’s the mass collective ritual of Austin in March and, as always, it’s exhilarating, exhausting, embarrassing, electrifying, eviscerating and exalting all at once. And it will all happen again a mere 360 days from now, if that’s enough time to recover.

Thanks for reading.

 J. Leven, Esq. 2012   

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