South by Southwest recap, Part 2: Fiona Apple, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello and more
(For Part 1 of Carole Liparoto's SXSW review, about Tampa Bay bands and performers in Austin, click here.)
At South by Southwest, seeing an unfathomable number of bands, overindulging in beef brisket and breakfast tacos, walking ungodly distances and waiting in line simply become the way of life for a week.
Like Christmas for music lovers, the annual Austin event is a gleeful celebration where musical shopping options abound. Bands and solo artists are everywhere you look — at bars and clubs, of course, but also at Tex-Mex restaurants, hotel lobbies, parking lots and churches.
Navigating it all was overwhelming at times — rewarding to the mind, yet punishing to the spine — but we came away with plenty of tales to tell. Here are some observations, favorite moments and a few letdowns from our inaugural SXSW journey.
THE TOAST OF THE TOWN: WOODY GUTHRIE
If the stalker-ish Highlight app (which picks up the Facebook profile info of the people around you), the controversial homeless 4G hot spots or competitive eating champ Kobayashi’s consumption of 13 grilled cheese sandwiches in one minute got the most mentions during the SXSW interactive sessions, it was Woody Guthrie’s iconic folk anthem This Land is Your Land that received the greatest play during SXSW’s music week. Guthrie’s daughter Nora spoke about her father, who would have turned 100 this year, and thanked the many musicians that paid him tribute. Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, Shooter Jennings, Colombian pop star Juanes, Alejandro Escovedo, Régine Chassagne, Win Butler and Will Butler from Arcade Fire, Eliza Gilkyson and Jimmy LeFave all covered the unifying, 1940 grade school staple throughout the week.
WHY THEY CALL HIM THE BOSS: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN KEYNOTE
Bruce Springsteen was late to his keynote speech, and when he did arrive, it looked as if he was going to read from a stack of unorganized papers. Would this be worth a two-hour wait? Yes, as it turns out. Yes it would. “Why are we up so f-ing early,” he joked. “All the decent musicians are asleep. Or at least they will be when I am done.” The Boss described his earliest inspirations, including Elvis, Bob Dylan and Eric Burdon of the Animals. Springsteen then strummed The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, saying declaratively, “That’s every song I’ve ever written. So listen up youngsters, this is how successful theft is accomplished.” Best of all, Springsteen made clear that the “purity of the human expression is not confined to a guitar, turntables” and so on. He encouraged musicians, no matter their genre – “Nintendo-core” included – to “learn how to bring it live, night after night.”
BEST WELCOME TO AUSTIN: KIMBRA AND SALT LICK BBQ
Our first show at SXSW was a quirky pop performance by Kimbra, and it was accompanied by forearm-sized free beef ribs from the Top Chef-featured BBQ joint The Salt Lick. Hello, SXSW! Kimbra is featured in a little song/video by Gotye called Somebody That I Used to Know. Maybe you’ve heard of it? If not, check it out now and you’ll be its 118,693,991st viewer on YouTube. Looking like New Zealand’s Katy Perry, Kimbra played sweet pop tunes, including the lovely Two Way Street, which came tickled with melodic keys.
THE HOTTEST PLACE ON EARTH: CULTS AT THE MESS WITH TEXAS PARTY
We knew going in that Texas, like Florida, would be hot and humid. But Cults’ show inside what looked like a grain silo at the “Mess With Texas” party was quite possibly the most sweltering place on earth. When Cults dropped the retro-pop, Phil Spector-styling tune You Know What I Mean, you could feel both unrestrained joy and unbearable soupiness in the air. It hurt so good.
THE HARDEST WORKIN’ MAN IN AUSTIN: GARY CLARK JR.
If you didn’t see Gary Clark Jr.’s name on a bill during SXSW, you just weren’t looking. The Austin native, its so-called “savior of blues”, laid down gritty, Black Keys-esque licks at a half a dozen gigs throughout the week. We caught him shredding Bright Lights, a song he debuted at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival two years ago. In 2001, when Clark was 17, Austin’s mayor declared May 3rd to be “Gary Clark Jr. Day.”
BEST COMEBACK: FIONA APPLE
Fiona Apple hasn’t released an album since 2005 but she’s slated to drop her new disc in late June. Of all the places, we got a sneak peak of said disc inside a candlelit Presbyterian church (in which Fiona was apologetic for cursing so much). The frail one still has big pipes, which she showcased manically on '90s favorite Criminal. The in-between song banter was a bit confusing (she rambled about things like herbal throat spray), but when she brought us back to the Bridesmaids-featured Paper Bag, all was well.
COOLEST NON-MUSICAL SIGHTING: BATS
According to the driver of our shuttle van (who we’re going to count as a reliable source here), the largest urban colony of bats in the world resides underneath Austin’s Congress Avenue bridge. If you were lucky enough to be in the area around sunset, you’d have seen millions of bats take off into the sky. Quite the sight.
BADGES? SOMETIMES YOU NEED THOSE STINKING BADGES
When it came to the most buzzworthy showcases (Fader Fort, Hype Hotel), you often needed an official SXSW badge, a RSVP, and even a pre-arranged wristband. If you gave up altogether, you’d have seen about 10 different bar acts in the same amount of time it would have taken you to figure out the system.
FUN WITH CORPORATE SPONSORS: BEST COAST, WAAVES, SNOOP DOGG, LIL WAYNE
Austin locals and SXSW veterans will complain to you that there’s way too much corporate presence at the once-venerable indie ball. Snoop Dogg played on a stage made to look like a giant Doritos vending machine. Lil Wayne promoted DEWeezy, his new mixtape sponsored by Mountain Dew. And Best Coast and Wavves played at a Taco Bell-sponsored party (something they made the butt of their jokes early and often). During the cheesy, beefy bash, singer/guitarist/Breeders fan/cat-lover Bethany Consentino led Best Coast in an expert tackling of vintage, surf-style guitar pop about crazy and/or lazy relationships. When I’m With You, the real “Teenage Dream” anthem, and Boyfriend were spot on. Later, a nutso Nathan Williams and noise-rock band Waaves went wild and fuzzed out, shredding, stage diving and hurling hard-shell tacos into the crowd.
BEST ALTERNATIVE TO THE SOLD-OUT MUMFORD AND SONS SHOWCASE: PUNCH BROTHERS
We won’t lie. We would’ve loved to have seen Brit banjo band Mumford and Sons and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros perform after the screening of their film Big Easy Express. But so did everyone else, apparently. Luckily, the finger-pickers of Punch Brothers had lots of strummy goodness to hold us over.
BEST LIVE SHOW RARITY: THE-DREAM
It wasn’t all beards and skinny jeans at SXSW. Terius Nash, who famously co-wrote Rihanna’s Umbrella and Beyonce’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), spends more time behind the boards than on tour. So it was a treat to see Nash, aka The-Dream, flaunt his falsetto on the Fader Fort stage with gold chains a’flinging. Shawty is a Ten and Rockin’ That Thing had a capacity crowd (dominated by salivating women) hyped and shaking.
BEST STREET PARTY
Tom Morello had been hinting at an outdoor “occupy SXSW” march all week. Lucky for us, we were in prime pouncing position when it all went down. Outernational, Anti-Flag, Black Top Demon, Wayne Kramer and Morello all played power-to-the-people-style anthems, including’s Morello’s One Man Revolution. For Black Top Demon, whose two members rode to SXSW from Aberdeen, Wash. in a Toyota Corolla and were later solicited by Morello to come play with him, it was a dream come true.
BIG-CITY FASHIONISTA MEETS TEXAS: CLASS ACTRESS
In a barnyard-like atmosphere (the same place Kendrick Lamar threw down the night before), fierce fashionista Elizabeth Harper, a former drama major from Los Angeles, and her group Class Actress played synthy, delicate tunes, including Keep You and Weekend. Hitching posts and Gaga glasses never worked so well together.
BEST BETWEEN-SET ENTERTAINMENT: WALK THE MOON AND 'PORTLANDIA'
While we waited for Ohio’s peppy, face-painted act Walk the Moon to perform, the IFC Crossroads party was running Portlandia scenes on a loop. What a hilarious warm-up to Anna Sun.
CELEBRITY CHEFS COME TO PARTY HERE, TOO: RACHAEL RAY’S FEEDBACK
Rachael Ray and her musician husband John Cusimano take three vacations a year. They celebrate Christmas, their wedding anniversary and South By Southwest. This marked Ray’s fifth “Feedback” party at Stubb’s BBQ, where she brought Givers, Jimmy Cliff, Blitzen Trapper and Train to the stage and served sloppy chicken suiza sliders and smoky brisket biscuits. Yummo. The party’s finale found Train lead singer Pat Monahan and Ray dueting a karaoke-style Don’t Stop Believin’. Monahan also introduced Meet Virginia as the tune “really about a girl from Austin." The crowd dug that.
CALM BEFORE THE STORM: A$AP ROCKY
Fledging rapper A$AP Rocky, not to be confused with Aesop Rock, was coolly “trill” with Black Hippy’s Schoolboy Q. on tracks like Peso at the MTVU Woodies. Unfortunately, at another show early Sunday morning, the Courvoisier may have gotten to Rocky’s head. The party came to screeching, violent halt when the rapper and his crew ASAP Mob jumped into the crowd and began fighting folks who had thrown items on stage.
COOLEST DISCOVERIES: THE BARR BROTHERS, POLICA, BLOOD ORANGE
We had never heard of sacred-sounding folk-act The Barr Brothers; Minneapolis act Polica, with its dueling drummers and ultra-feminine vocals, or man-with-guitar-and-laptop act Blood Orange, a.k.a. Brit Devonté Hynes, who’s written tunes for Florence and the Machine and The Chemical Brothers. You better believe we’ll be downloading feverishly all this week.
YOU CAN’T BE EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME
1987’s inaugural SXSW drew about 700 registrants and 200 bands. There are thousands more today. And with that kind of volume, travel time becomes an issue. Unlike major festivals like Bonnaroo or Coachella, SXSW parties stretch across an entire city, making it nearly impossible to get everywhere you want to be. There was a hip-hop and banjo show at The Belmont featuring Jurassic 5’s Chali Tuna and Dead Confederate that we didn’t make. We also missed The Roots, Tennis, Erykah Badu and The Shins due to distance dilemmas.
AUSTIN HAS (SOME) AFFINITY FOR EMO
Yes, the spirit of Willie Nelson is still alive and well in Austin (his name adorns Second Street signs), but the kids showed up in full force to see a little emo. Master of disaster Max Bemis and his band Say Anything led with I Hate Everyone and played awesomely self-deprecating breakup tune Every Man Has a Molly.
Every year, SXSW has its share of surprise performances. We had hoped Jack White would repeat his bus-side performance (something he did in 2011), but it never came. As for his evening showcase in front of a capacity crowd, which included Bill Murray and John C. Reilly, the line stretched to San Antonio. Needless to say, we’ll have to catch White another time.
BEST FREE, NO-WAIT, NO-NONSENSE, KID-FRIENDLY PARTY: WATERLOO RECORDS SHOWCASES
Legendary Austin record store Waterloo Records put on some of the best free parties for SXSW-goers. Talib Kweli, Nada Surf, Fun., Lucero and Norah Jones all performed. Backed by an all-star band, Kweli’s set was particularly bouncy and thought-provoking, but never preachy, with Get By as its closer. He also performed with Mos Def (as Black Star) at another showcase.
BEST EARLY-MORNING PERFORMANCE: KEANE
Austin radio station KGSR broadcasted live performances throughout the week at the W Hotel, beginning at absurdly early hours. If you were brave enough to rise between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., you may have caught one. Our favorite set came from Keane, the group too often compared to Snow Patrol or Coldplay. The band debuted Silenced By the Night, due out in May on their first record in four years. They capped that off with an incendiary performance of Somewhere Only We Know (or as some said, “that song from the Winnie the Pooh movie”).
BEST ANALYSIS OF SXSW TREKKING: THEOPHILUS LONDON
During Theophilus London’s scaffold-climbing day set (he was filling in for an absent Spank Rock), he made this careful observation. “If you ain’t walking with a limp by 6 p.m., you didn’t do SXSW right.” So true, Theo.
SXSW GOES GREEN -- FOR ST. PATRICK’S DAY, THAT IS
As if there weren’t enough people on the streets of Austin already, Saturday brought a sea of green-clad partiers to downtown and the surrounding areas. Theophilus London added confidently that he can still out-drink any Irishmen. We’re really starting to like this guy.
SQUEAKIEST PERFORMANCE: KREAYSHAWN
At the Converse/Thrasher party, two Oakland residents, a freestyling Mr. Fab and the wacky rappin’ Kreayshawn, catered to skateboarders and scene kids. Like Popeye-pal Olive Oyl, pint-sized wonder Kreayshawn played a song about breakfast and her hit Gucci, Gucci with an unmistakable squeal. She also questioned whether anyone had a place for her to stay that night. I am pretty sure she was serious.
ANYTHING TO GET YOU IN: BEST PROMOTIONS
With so many venues to choose from, promoters will do just about anything to get you through their doors. From gluten-free snack giveaways to knife throwing, door-people did their darndest to get you in. The fact is, it’s big business at SXSW. Attendance and financial figures are still being tallied for this year, but in 2011, the week brought in a record $167 million.
-- Review/photos by Carole Liparoto, tbt* (except top photo, which is by the Associated Press)
GARY CLARK, JR.:
WALK THE MOON:
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