SXSW 2009: Trials and Triumphs

Note: wherever possible I have linked to the artists’ SXSW pages, which contain free MP3s.

Is there any place other than SXSW where you see both hipsters and frat boys pumping fists to the Hold Steady on one night and hipsters and frat boys pumping fists to French nouveau-disco princess Yelle the next night?

The Hold Steady at the Mohawk patio on Friday night:


Setlist on stage

I have no good video from Yelle at Emo’s, but picture a younger, cooler Celine Dion wrapped in a gold lame minidress, flailing her long limbs non-stop and shouting “Are you ready to get craaaaazyyyy, Austeeeeeen!!!!”  Ah, bien sur.

Mais bien sur, SXSW revels in its diversity and the wide variety of musical options offered by nearly 1900 artists over four days.  The intoxicating effect of stumbling on a great band by accident is matched only by the joy of unexpected reactions as the crowd basks in the experience and by the dedication of bands playing their hearts out under challenging conditions.

Some of my favorite of these instances follow:

We were crammed like sardines into the Yard Dog Gallery’s tiny tented back alley for the Bloodshot Records day party on Friday (perhaps not coincidentally, this was also one of the few places this year with free beer).


Commemorative cup contained delicious free beer

Justin Townes Earle, armed with his guitar and his harmonica/banjo/mandolin player, was entertaining us with his retro rockabilly.  (This guy could star in a wrong side of the tracks version of Pleasantville.)  As he turned to the quiet, gorgeous ballad “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This” from his terrific 2009 release Midnight at the Movies, the din from the free-beer crowd became annoying.  A very large dude in front of me, sporting sunglasses with skulls and black nail polish, clearly wanted to hear the sweet tune and shot some nasty looks that went ignored.  Finally, he asked the offenders to quiet down or take it to the alley.  He was promptly invited by the offenders to “suck a bag of dicks” before they retreated.

Since we could barely hear or see that set at Yard Dog, on Saturday night we rushed over to catch him at the second to last set of the official showcases.  This time, we were not disappointed.  But it can be a long stretch for these artists:

Before the next song, Earle informed us that his accompaniest had literally woken up an hour before their set, to which he replied “Hey, it’s fucking South By”.  Also awesome: Earle’s guitar neck has his full name inlaid in mother-of-pearl.

On Friday night, Atlanta’s Gringo Star was called away from dinner to step in for the Blakes (whose absence was never explained).  After their set, I couldn’t have been happier about it.  These guys are very entertaining live, playing Kinks-esque catchy numbers while switching instruments, making animated expressions and sharing mics like it was the second British invasion. [Note: this band is not to be confused with Ringo Deathstarr, also playing at SXSW.]

At the Home Slice Pizza day party on Saturday, Canadian new waver Gentleman Reg, playing the tiny side stage filling in between main acts, expanded his set from 15 minutes to nearly 40 minutes as a result of two mishaps.  First, Deer Tick failed to show up (apparently the bass player showed right before the set, saying their singer’s voice was shot).  No problem, said Home Slice, the Uglysuit will start a bit earlier.  Unfortunately they broke the key off in their (awesome) trailer:


Poor Gentleman Reg had only prepared a short set.  As the Uglysuit struggled to get set up, Gentleman Reg informed the crowd, “If you were here for our first set, you may want to go to the restroom or grab some coffee, because we have to start over again now.”

Mais bien sur, since this is SXSW, instead of getting angry, the crowd responded generously.  A woman with a tambourine and a maraca brought another crowd member out to perform an impromptu dance number that had the crowd clapping and the band smiling ear to ear (they even invited her to play at their official showcase).  Finally, mercifully, Gentleman Reg was allowed to quit and the Uglysuit’s long, building, and expansive guitar-driven songs meshed perfectly with the warm breezes and bright sunshine of the Austin afternoon. (Unfortunately I have no video of these guys, who were the hairiest band I saw and banged their heads like they were Metallica instead of updated Skynard.)

Earlier on Saturday, witness the struggle that comes when Scots meet the Texas sun, courtesy of We Were Promised Jetpacks:

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