Updated Wed, Mar 20, 2013 4:45 pm
Day Five (March 16)
After four days of shows, panels, interviews, unforgettable experiences, new friends, old roadies and everything in-between, the last day of South by Southwest was here. The entire city was now overflowing with people, 6th Street being a literal shoulder-to-shoulder walking experience (the road is closed at the start of each festival).
There were too many shows to count: Justin Timberlake at the MySpace Show, Prince at La Zone Rosa and now Smashing Pumpkins at the Red Bull Stage. All venues across town are packed with artists of every genre you can imagine.
To start, I attended an morning interview with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis where they discussed their meteoric rise to fame. With a viral hit ("Thrift Shop," which has close to 170 million YouTube hits) and millions of album sales to their name, the conversation focused on their work as independent musicians and how they have charted their way through such massive success.
From there it was a host of panels for the afternoon, starting with an all-female panel (below) discussion of the lives and influence of country icons Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells. Featuring such notable talent as Kelly Hogan, Kristi Rose, Rosie Flores and Laura Cantrell, it was an interesting survey of both artists' lives, especially how they were viewed in their time and how they balanced success with their family lives. One great anecdote about Patsy Cline: She had a plane, which was very rare for country music artists at the time. The reason? To be able to get back home to take care of her 18 month-old child.
After that, I went to a panel on how artists are using YouTube to start careers and what strategies are available to monetize consumers. As with the other panels I've been to, there was a fairly fierce debate about how to navigate issues such as copyrights, label control and artistic choices. The panel was made up of entertainment lawyers, YouTube representatives and Jack Conte of Pomplamoose, who has successfully made a career on YouTube with his bands' unique video style.
Conte passionately argued for all of the benefits that are now open to any artist willing to make the time and effort to engage their audience through the video medium. If you aren't familiar with Pomplamoose, you should peruse their videos. The group was propelled into the mainstream when Hyundai used their music for a commercial. "We made half of our income for the year from that one email (from Hyundai)," said Conte.
My last panel of the day was led by the famous producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, Richard Thompson) and focused on his upcoming film project entitled Way To Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake. Along with Robyn Hitchcock and Davia Nelson (producer of "Kitchen Sisters"), they discussed the European concerts that Boyd helped organize, wherein Drake's catalogue was performed by contemporary artists using new arrangements.
The audience was shown a few segments from the film, as well as portions of Nelson's interviews with the artists. Boyd, who produced two of Drake's albums, shared several personal stories of working with him. "When he walked in and gave me his demo tape, I knew within 30 seconds of listening to it that there was something magical here," he said.
That night, I was able to catch sets by artists with ties to Athens, beginning with The Ridges (below), who churned out an energetic half-hour set at the Big Bang Showcase. The group, who have been on tour in the Midwest and South, ended up playing seven showcases at SXSW. All that playing has paid off: The band sounded like a well-honed folk-pop machine, with their interlocking strings, tight harmonies and driving anthems winning over the crowd, who sang along to the band's final song.
Since 6th Street is so crowded on SXSW weekends, I veered to other streets and made my way to a set by Samantha Crain (below). Samantha has played the Nelsonville Music Festival a handful of times and is gaining much-deserved national attention with her third album Kid Face, including a positive review in Rolling Stone. She played a number of tracks from the new album including my personal favorite "Somewhere All The Time."
I then went to see Brothertiger (aka John Jagos, an OU alumnus and former student of mine, photo below) who has been gaining a steady following with his brand of synth-pop. Jagos released his first full-length, Golden Years, on Mush Records and is now living in Brooklyn. His second showcase of the week, he played tracks from the new album as well as crowd favorites such as "Lovers."
For my last show of the evening, I went to see The Zombies (below). Another one of my favorite bands, this was a highlight for me. Original members Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone led the re-formed outfit into an hour-long set that covered most of their hits, selections from Odessey and Oracle and tracks off their forthcoming release. Blunstone's voice is still in fine form, and on songs like "Care of Cell 44" and their chart-topping hit "Time of the Season," he was able to deliver his signature sound to spine-tingling effect. Their set was fantastic, playing to a packed house that found an equal mix of young and old fans. I was surrounded by 60 year-olds and 20 year-olds, all singing their hearts out to songs like "She's Not There." They ended up doing two encores and even performed "Hold Your Head Up" (a 1972 hit for Rod Argent).
It was a satisfying end to this conference. I was even able to turn in early (12:30 a.m.), as my flight was very early the next day. However, as I was getting close to my tram pickup, I heard some very familiar music and saw hundreds of people standing on a sidewalk, looking across the street (below). What they were watching was the Smashing Pumpkins' secret show at the Red Bull Stage. What was crazy, and why everyone was standing there, is that the fence was chain link, and the distance and view of the stage was no different than the back row of seating at Blossom Music Center, back home in Ohio. As I pondered whether to get back home at a reasonable hour, they launched into their classic song "Disarm." So I found myself not getting home until 2 a.m. And with that, my 5th year at South by Southwest finally came to a fitting conclusion.
Day Four, Part Two (March 15)
As another evening began, I made my way to Auditorium Shores for The Flaming Lips. Anyone expecting Wayne Coyne and company to entertain this nearly 20,000 person crowd with a confetti-laden, mascot animal, bubble-riding show was sorely mistaken.
Instead, the Lips unveiled their new album, The Terror, in its entirety. The album, which has yet to be released, is the product of Steven Drozd's personal recordings during the height of his drug addiction and depression. Those recordings served as the basis for the album, which make for a dark, downtempo and ominous experience. It certainly wasn't what these festivalgoers (nor myself) were expecting.
Donning a silver suit and cradling a tentacle-laden plastic infant, Wayne Coyne (above) rarely moved from center stage. Wrapped in sparkling tentacles, he delivered songs that no one knew, could dance to or feel happy about. It was a bold artistic move, but I'm not sure how well it connected with an audience ready for the traditional Flaming Lips experience.
At one point, Sarah Barthal of the band Phantogram came onto stage and demanded that Coyne pull her hair as she sang her part. In all, it was a dark departure for the band, who openly admitted at the start, "We're going to try and do something we've never done before. If it doesn't work, please forgive us and keep it to yourselves."
After making it through The Terror, Coyne assured the crowd that he would now give them what they wanted: The Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots album, played from beginning to end. The closer found My Morning Jacket's Jim James on stage to sing along. Had I known this is what the Flaming Lips were going to deliver, I might have felt a little better about the band's set. However, since I was expecting a more uplifting show, it turned out to be a vast detour for my evening.
With tracks likes "The Terror," "You Are Not Alone" (which was especially eerie) and "You Lust," the entire experience was a visual and musical descent into the heart of darkness.
Lake Shore Auditorium was a 20-minute walk from the next venue on my list, Stages on Sixth. This is where Jack White played last year and where Paste Magazine hosts its Day Stages. The much-hyped ZZ Ward (above) was doing a set. After not being able to get in on Tuesday night, I dropped in to catch her performance. You can tell why she's getting so much attention here. As a singer, she's developed her own style: A mix of a young Lucinda Williams crossed with the white soul influence of Adele. Still, it wasn't quite what I was looking for. I wanted to find a show that would rock. I had to walk another half-mile but I found it: A set by none other than Thee Oh Sees (below).
Thee Oh Sees are a San Francisco garage-rock band that are blowing up; their showcase demonstrated why. The venue, Hotel Vegas, was filled to capacity, and a block-long kept me from getting in. I love this band and was a huge fan of their album last year. Fortunately, the stage was set up in the backyard of the venue, with a chain link fence around it. Right as I got there, they started.
As they roared into their first song, I was shown a side entrance that gave me access to side of the stage. It was from that vantage point that I witnessed one of the best sets of the festival. Unhinged, raw and undeniably propulsive, they tore through a half hour of songs that sounded like the MC5, 13th Floor Elevators and The Velvet Underground all wrapped into one perfect and addictive package. On a small outdoor stage, surrounded completely by fans on all sides, they took this crowd into garage rock Valhalla. The crowd was jumping and moving so much that the entire stage and accompanying canopy looked like it would collapse at any point. It was total mayhem...and totally amazing.
My last showcase of the day featured Cold War Kids and a full set by British legends The Specials (above). I only caught the end of the Cold War Kids' set but was able to get up into the "dancing section" for The Specials. With a crowd that was ready to dance and sing along, The Specials came on and played a string of punk/ska fan favorites, including a roaring version of "Monkey Man." In terms of bands with storied histories, The Specials are one of a few bands I had not yet seen, so it was great to finally experience one of their shows.
There is one day left here in Austin and, with the weekend now upon us, the streets are crammed with thousands of people looking to enjoy the last fruits of the conference.
Day Four, Part One (March 15)
Day four at South by Southwest was filled with some memorable moments.
After getting my Express Pass for Stubbs tonight (Cold War Kids and an extended set by The Specials), I headed down to the Convention Center for an intimate songwriter workshop with Richard Thompson. As far as writers and guitarists go, he is second to none, with no less than Elvis Costello declaring that Thompson "is the greatest songwriter that Britain has ever produced."
With guitar in hand, Thompson played songs from his six-decade career, including material from Fairport Convention and his new album, Electric. After talking about his approach to songwriting, he closed with an exhilarating performance of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." I was seated less than 15 feet away with barely a stage between us. Imagine your musical hero playing a personal concert in your living room. Simply amazing.
The SXSW Day Stage had an unbelievable lineup which included Dawes, Vampire Weekend, Charles Bradley, Divine Fits (Spoon frontman Britt Daniels' new band) and my favorite new find from the conference, Pickwick (above), a ferocious, soulful and raw rock and roll band with a singer who drew comparisons to Eric Burdon. The Day Stage runs all day, so attendees can easily stop in to catch a few minutes or a full 40-minute set from any act.
I managed to see Columbus, Ohio's own Andy Shaw Band (below), who had an afternoon showcase set. It was great to see Ohio represented here. A few Athenians are in Austin this week, including Brian Koscho with Aquabear Legion and Scott Winland of Blackout Booking. Skeletonwitch's set at the Mohawk garnered rave reviews in the paper today and The Ridges have been playing several sets around the city.
The afternoon also included lots of thought-provoking panels. The two I attended dealt with the future of digital royalties and the current battles for paying artists through emergent streaming applications. This continues to be a topic of fierce debate, with disagreements rising up between the panel and the audience about where the music industry is going. Everyone--indie labels, hip-hop moguls, touring musicians and content distributors--is wrestling with The Big Question: How to have a healthy partnership with the technology companies, including the Big 3 or Big 4: Google, YouTube, Amazon and Apple.
The other highlight of my day was an NPR interview with Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent of The Zombies (below). All Songs Considered and Tiny Desk Concerts host Bob Boilen talked with the duo about the band's history, development and recording and writing of their 1968 classic Odessey and Oracle. As a music geek, I was in heaven as Boilen, Blunstone and Argent played recordings and discussed the process, problems and developments of the tracks.
Two great anecdotes came from Blunstone, who noted that the only reason mellotron was featured on Odessey was because The Beatles and their engineers had left it in the studio after recording Sgt. Pepper. The other was that the session for "She's Not There" began with a drunk engineer, whom they later carried out to a cab and sent off. "To this day, I have never heard from him again," said Blunstone. The engineer was replaced by his assistant, who turned out to be the now-legendary engineer Gus Dudgeon (Elton John, David Bowie, Ten Years After), and they finished recording and mixing that night.
And now another evening begins with Depeche Mode, Green Day, The Flaming Lips and hundreds of other undiscovered and rising bands, all competing for my time and attention.
Day Three, Part Two (March 14)
After some Day Stage performances (Paste Magazine and Spain Day stages) and a flurry of panels and interiews, another exciting evening was underway at South by Southwest.
I started out by heading to a Grammy Party for National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences members at the Four Seasons. My friend and colleague Dwight Heckleman (founder of Columbus, Ohio's Groove U) and I shared a few great moments (photo below), which included walking alongside music legend Ray Benson and enjoying a few songs from Austin band Quiet Company.
Last night's music choices were staggering. Among the major shows happening simultaneously: Dave Grohl's Sound City show, The Flaming Lips (who are playing again Friday night), Public Enemy and LL Cool J, Kid Cudi and Sleigh Bells. And all this in addition to the hundreds of venues hosting veteran and up-and-coming acts.
Each morning, SXSW badge holders can pick up one Express Pass. Basically, you can pick one venue for the night and this pass grants you an immediate jump to the front of the line. So, if the line for badgeholders is two blocks long, you can walk up to the front door and they let you in. In other words, it's the trump card for the venue.
I went down early to try to get an Express Pass for the Warner Sound Showcase with Flaming Lips, Joy Formidable and Atlas Genius at The Belmont, but Express Passes were gone in 10 minutes. Instead, I chose a pass for Antone's (below), which boasted one of the hottest lineups of the night: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller and Josh Ritter.
As expected, the legendary venue was already filled to capacity when I arrived. However, I showed my Express Pass and made my way in. One sad note: Antone's is being forced to move out of Austin, which meant this evening's showcase was one of the last shows at the current location. This is the stage where people like Stevie Ray Vaughan cut their teeth as performers, and one of the primary reasons Austin became known as "the live music capital of the world."
Buddy Miller and David Lauderdale played a great set, mostly made up of songs from their new album, Buddy & Jim. Buddy's trademark growly voice and grizzly guitar-slinging made for a rollicking set that veered between swampy rockabilly and electrified country.
Richard Thompson (below) took the stage next, with his newest touring band, The Electric Trio. Opening with his classic "Tear Stained Lettter," Thompson and company ran through several songs from his latest release, Electric, all of which translated very well to the stage. Thompson's agile and angular guitar approach, as well as his vocal and songwriting prowess, were on full display.
Following Thompson's set was a truly incredible performance by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (below), a legendary duo who first worked together at Austin's Armadillo World Headquarters back in 1975. Backed by a band of ace musicians, the set featured material from their new album Old Yellow Moon, as well as songs from Harris' long and storied career. The highlight was a knockout cover of the Townes Van Zandt classic "Poncho and Lefty." With a sold-out crowd and a bill of heavyweights, this was an unforgettable show.
From there I dashed off to catch the last bit of a showcase with British ska legends The Specials. The group brought the house down, with the entire club turning into an explosive dance party. I'm going to try to catch them again Friday night, as they'll have a longer set at Stubb's, playing after Cold War Kids.
To close the night, I caught some of the MS MR set. MS MR has slowly built a rabid following and are one of the bands that have been getting alot of press here at SXSW. If you watch Game of Thrones, their song "Bones" was just used in the trailer for Season Three.
So ends another day at South by Southwest. Tired feet, not enough sleep...and ready for another day of musical explorations.
Antone's photo credit: listen2mysmile.com
Day Three, Part One (March 14)
It was another frenzied day as Austin burst at the seams with music lovers of all stripes.
The morning started off with David Grohl's keynote address, which was a poignant, personal and geniuniely moving survey of his life before, with and after Nirvana.
Grohl demonstrated from the stage how he used to record himself with cassette decks in his bedroom as a kid (armed with dual cassette machines and an acoustic guitar) and shared a story about a cousin who converted him to the world of punk rock.
He detailed his journey into music, from dropping out of high school to hitting the road for a few years until he heard "the five words" that changed his life: "Have you heard of Nirvana?" He had indeed, and word was out that they needed a drummer.
With an eye for detail and at times growing very emotional, Grohl shared his story with Nirvana, their global conquest (selling 300,000 albums per week at the start of 1991), Kurt Cobain's death, and his subsequent re-invention through Foo Fighters (which he noted "is the stupidest name for a band ever").
From there it was a host of great panels and interviews, including hip-hop sensation Kendrick Lamar, who is now the king of this year's SXSW with multiple showcases and huge buzz with the release of "Good Kid, Maad City."
Music industry titan and former head of Columbia and Arista Records Clive Davis (below) shared stories about music legends and his much-publicized rift with Kelly Clarkson.
I also attended a fantastic panel covering the history of The Beatles with Robyn Hitchcock, Ron Sexsmith and Rodney Crowell. They went through the Beatles' history, examining how the group transformed popular music and the enduring legacy. As a huge Beatles fanatic, it was great to witness an enthralling discussion and dissemination on the "miracle of the 20th century."
I had a chance to visit a few other day stages and ended up at the Digital Music Panel (above) with Chuck D of Public Enemy, DJ Spooky, executives from Emusic and Live Nation, Alex Winter (Bill of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) and Bill Flanagan, a top executive at MTV and VH1. It was a survey of the disruption and reinvention of the digital marketplace post-Napster and where the future of music consumption is going. They helped to channel the growing concern amongst the music industry regarding corporate chokeholds on music monetization and provisions for artists.
Day Two, Part Two (March 13)
Wednesday night proved to be another cornucopia of both high-caliber and grassroots showcases, providing a dizzying array of choices to SXSW attendees.
This year, the festival has a "guaranteed access" model of ticketing, where attendees can enter a raffle for access.
The winners get their own line for a given venue. However, they do provide a second line for badge-holders as well.
The first of these shows was the Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds/Yeah Yeah Yeahs show at Stubbs BBQ. Since I didn't get a raffle ticket, I was relegated to the second badge line.
After sprinting across town to wait an hour before the show, the line was already two blocks long. After I got there, it stretched to nearly twice that size. The wait was worth it: We got in about 10 minutes before the show and ended up pretty close to the stage.
As far as icons go, Nick Cave (below) ranks high on my personal list. Also, he's one my few musical heroes that I've never seen live. His set was a propulsive and rancorous journey through his fantastic new record, Push the Sky Away, as well as classics such as "Mercy Seat" and "Stagger Lee." At the start of the set, he declared, "We are going to get dark." He achieved that aim...mightily.
Mexican alt-rock superstars Café Tacuba (below) followed Cave's set. Mexican fans in the audience were in disbelief, telling me that this band typically plays to sold-out stadiums in their home country. Their combination of high-energy pop and melodic new-wave was fun and joyously exuberant. They had big shoes to fill, as their set was sandwiched between Nick Cave and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. However, The Stubbs audience loved Café Tacuba, with many in the crowd dancing, jumping and chanting along in Spanish.
Next up was Yeah Yeah Yeahs (below) and the venue reached capacity once again. Stubbs is one of my favorite venues. Holding about 1500 people, it's an outdoor stage crunched behind the BBQ restaurant and open to the night sky. When lead singer Karen O took the stage, the crowd erupted. Her frantic showmanship was a highlight of the evening, along with a set that included songs from their new record, Mosquito, (including one performed for the very first time), as well as crowd favorites. In short, the Stubbs show was unbelievable.
After leaving there, I headed over to see Foxygen and Jim James (below). Things were running late since Foxygen's set went on longer than expected. Jim James and his backing band were fantastic, playing most of James' new album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, with an air of transcendence and urgency. Regularly stepping down into the audience to sing, he demonstrated one of the most enthralling voices of our time.
To summarize: Day two of SXSW was phenomenal.
Day Two, Part One (March 13)
Now that the Music portion of SXSW has started up, a renewed energy has overtaken Austin. Literally thousands of musical options are being presented daily to festival attendees.
Convention Center activities include: high-profile performances; panel discussions with music industry people; interviews with legends; book signings with music notables; and professional meet-ups and expos stretching across the bottom floor. All are beckoning for attention and attendance.
I had a chance to catch some truly great content today, starting with the ever-lively Martin Atkins. The legendary punk/industrial drummer talked about his years of experience and shared his hard-fought wisdom on growing artist success.
From there, I got to sit in on a packed panel discussion with Amanda Palmer and her business partners. They talked about their KickStarter strategy that upended the music industry last year and fundamentally changed the way musicians think about crowdsourcing money from fans. Those in attendance were rewarded with an impromptu performance of a rousing ode to the ukelele, drawing a rapturous response from the crowd.
One other panel I attended featured major players in digital music's future, including Tunecore founder Jeff Price and leaders from Spotify, Amazon Music and Big Champagne. It was a passionate, and at times heated, discussion on whether or not the new era of digital is benefiting or destroying an artist's ability to make money. One of the most challenging questions facing the gathered music professionals: How exactly do today's musicians make money from selling music?
Beyond that, two great interviews closed out my afternoon, along with an intimate set from Devendra Banhart on the SXSW Day Stage. The first interview was with Jim James, frontman of My Morning Jacket (photo below). It was a very interesting exploration of his motivations, passions and aspirations as a writer.
From the way he talked, James sounded like he could have been from Athens, Ohio (which makes sense, as he hails from Louisville, Ky.). In any case, his informality, transparent attitude and genuine love for music made for a highly revealing and enjoyable interview. Favorite quote: "[The My Morning Jacket song] "Highly Suspicious" is like Prince...only stupider."
The second interview was with the legendary Depeche Mode (below), discussing their history, struggles and musical influence, as well as their new album that is being released this year. The audience was clearly excited for this opportunity to be in a room with a band of this stature, as many of their answers were followed by shouts of adulation or applause.
Tonight is the first of five big shows here, with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds joining Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Stubbs BBQ for the NPR showcase.
Some big announcements today: Kid Cudi, Diplo and Sleigh Bells will be headlining the MySpace secret show, Public Enemy, Ice Cube and LL Cool J are hitting the Doritos Stage and Prince will be joined by A Tribe Called Quest for his performance at La Zone Rosa.
The Prince show is open to SXSW badgeholders via raffle, which I entered earlier today. If I win, I'll throw Prince my Blue Eagle Music shirt. Now off to hit as many shows as possible on night two of South by Southwest.
Day One (March 12)
As the South by Southwest Interactive and Film Festivals drew to a close, the music portion kicked off to a rousing start. Imagine a city as an amusement park of sorts, with hundreds of official SXSW events and accompanying shows hosted by companies and labels, all with long lines of fans spread out over miles of city blocks...you begin to get the picture.
This is now my fifth year at South by Southwest, and each year the feeling is the same: A near-breakneck pace of trying to experience as much great music as possible.
For those with SXSW Program badges, the whole experience is divided into two parts. First, you gain access to all of the exclusive daytime events, interviews, panels and artist and industry contacts at the Convention Center, located downtown.
Beyond that, badges grant you VIP access to all of the official showcases across the city. Music programming begins at the convention center on Wednesday, but there were scores of shows across the city on Tuesday night, including a high-profile party at Stubbs BBQ with DeadMau5 and The Joy Formidable, and sets by Cold War Kids, Polyphonic Spree, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
My evening began with a set by Anti Records artist Sean Rowe (below). He turned in a great set at Central Presbyterian, one of the three historic churches that open their doors for performances (Neko Case's sidekick Kelly Hogan performed later in the evening).
Sean, who lived in the Athens area for a few years while starting up his career, just wrapped a European tour with JD McPherson.
From there, I waited in line for two buzz artists, ZZ Ward and Atlas Genius. But even with a badge, the lines were too long and too slow, so I made my way to the British Music Embassy for a great set by The 1975 (first photo, below). To wrap up the night, I headed to the Hype Hotel Showcase for a set by Little Green Cars and Ra Ra Riot (second photo).
So, here is the deal with buzz bands: Basically, most SXSW Music attendees are trying to read the signs on the wall with showcasing artists to figure out who is currently "breaking" at the moment.
For instance, last year the talk was about a few up and coming bands called The Lumineers, Alabama Shakes and Of Monsters and Men. Of course, now those bands have exploded, but for all of them, their showcases at SXSW were part of what helped them gain recognition.
Music fans like myself have a number of established artists we want to see, but also a lot of bands that are just starting to attract attention. So you move from venue to venue, hoping to catch these artists at night or during the day, inside or outside of the convention center.
One advantage badge holders have is access to exclusive "day stages" inside the Convention Center where many of the showcase artists perform.
Anyone that comes to South by Southwest with a badge will tell you that it's a bit like running a marathon: Pacing oneself and trying to balance what to do with nearly every waking hour of the day, being torn between the good, the great and the awesome at every turn.