Strolling through Austin on day two of our visit, we realized that South by Southwest is something of a Woodstock for the 21st century, in the sense that it is a cultural event that perfectly encapsulates its era. Whereas Woodstock represented a time of love and unity and drugs, “South By” (as the locals call it) represents a time of apps and diversity and stuff. Moreover, it represents an era of supreme accessibility, both spatial and temporal: bands from all over the globe mining sounds from every conceivable decade to create music that is both extraordinarliy eclectic and undeniably familiar. In short, it’s everything we love about the world in 2012, plus tacos.
This musical mix of the eclectic and the familiar was the theme of our second day. Learning from our own mistakes on day one, we decided to follow FP’s newly minted “SXSW Rule #1″: wherever the crowds are, go somewhere else. Overwhelmed by the cacophany that is 6th street, we chose to cross the highway into East Austin to check out the Mess With Texas Party, a spectacular indoor/outdoor event that takes place in something like an old horse shed. The first band we caught was Razika, an all-female group of smiling Norwegian post-punks who borrowed heavily from 70s acts like The Raincoats and X-Ray Spex, and who Kurt Cobain would have loved had their music been released during his lifetime. They played on the outdoor stage, and their conclusion began our afternoon long-process of moving from indoors to outdoors, a simple trick that managed to keep the crowds energy level consistently high. Razika gave way to Chairlift, a male-female duo from Brooklyn or, in other words, “a band.” Chairlift’s latest record Something is a marvelous one, but given it’s precious, Joseph Cornell-type-quality, I can’t say that we were expecting a thundering live show. Thankfully, we were proven wrong, as the duo transformed into a five-piece stage band that filled the barn with raucous energy, while vocal ingenue Caroline Polacheck flew around the stage with the type of manic energy that suggested an exorcism was in order. It was as if the lilting pop of the great band XTC were released from its staid British inhibitions, only to give way to something explosive and marvelous, and also with a hot girl singing it.
Speaking of explosive, Chairlift was followed by punk neophytes The Men, whose debut we ranked as the 25th best album of 2011 and whose follow-up is an early contender for this year’s album of the year. Our own Peter Lillis had seen the band on his own just 12 hours before, and this time I accompanied him stageward for a performance that could only be described as “punishing.” It was a delirious affair the likes of which I have not been witness to in many years, and, while I was sadly afflicted with what I estimate to be a 70% loss of my natural hearing, I was rewarded with a reminder of the majesty of punk rock at its finest. I think this drummer’s eyes say it all.
“Majestic” is a word that applies without fail to one of my favorite bands Girls, who unsurprisingly followed up The Men’s performance with a contender for show-of-the-day. Taking the stage with 3 back-up Gospel singers, Christopher Owens’ group of rock revivalist tore through 7 of their best songs, including a stunning performance of 2011 hit “Vomit” and a rendition of 2009′s “Hellhole Ratrace” so moving that someone actually put a liter in the air. Co-editor Keith Meatto commented that he had not heard so many guitar solos in 5 years, and he meant it in the best way possible.
It was at this point in the day that we realized we’d had too many beers (this point = 3:30 PM), so we decided to attend to our personal health by having cheeseburgers slathered in barbeque sauce (the healthiest lunch available in Austin). Adequately re-fueled, we sauntered into South Austin for a solo performance by Old Ceremony frontman Django Haskins at the downright majestic Continental Club. (Full disclouse: Haskins is a longtime friend of Keith’s). Performing on lone acoustic guitar for a group of what appeared to be genuine music afficionados, Haskins managed to rouse the crowd from its late-afternoon cortisol drop with an energy and enthusiasm only a true performer could supply. It was just the kickstart we needed to head into the evening.
After sharing a cab back into downtown Austin with a friendly stranger (or, as they’re called in Austin, “strangers”), and after inadvertently stumbling into what appeared to be a Scorpions show circa 1984, we went over to Mohawk for the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar Records showcase. We walked in on a band called Gardens & Villa, a band about whom I have to claim ignorance but whose synth-heavy grooves were instantly captivating. They were followed by Bear in Heaven, a fantastic band whose performance was unfortunatley marred by serious sound-mix errors. All was forgotten, however, by the time Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs took the stage for what was (in one man’s view) the best performance of the festival thus far. Along with his fearless group of jammers, guitarist/vocalist Adam Granduciel absolutely tore through nearly the entirety of the band’s latest record, lacing each song with lilting keys, thumping bass, and absolutely earth-scorching guitar solos.
It was the kind of performance that reminded us why we love live music so much, the kind of performance that made us feel like, here at SXSW, we were really part of something. And, while this was a feeling all to common to those who came of age in the ear of Woodstock, it is one area in which our time is sorely lacking. Perhaps that is what all of this 60s, 70s, and 80s revivalism is about after all: reclaiming the best of the past in an effort to stake out a meaningful space in the present for ourselves. Perhaps we’re about more than apps and stuff after all.
But enough philosophizing; time for another beer.
L.V. Lopez is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. This is his first trip to Austin, but definitely not his last.