Of the major music festivals in the United States, tickets to Austin’s South by Southwest festival are by far the most expensive. Still, in the “world capital of live music”, Austin brings in more groups than any festival in the country, likely in the world. As your average citizen, I did not have the money for a SXSW wristband or badge, but during the time of SXSW, many unofficial, free shows take place all around the city.
In three days, I managed to see 26 different artists at countless different venues. Instead of writing a full feature profiling every performance I saw, I decided to forego some of the tediousness of a 26-band review of my experience and simply give some highlights of the festival.
Minus the Bear: Starting from the end, Minus the Bear were the very last group I saw, going on just before midnight on Saturday night at Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop. The show had two purposes—a promotion of Dangerbird Records artists and a benefit for the Pablove Foundation, a fundraising organization for children’s cancer research. Clearly, everyone in the crowd that night had been waiting to see Minus the Bear, and the anticipation was high. Audience members told Dangerbird Records CEO and founder of the Pablove Foundation Jeff Castelaz to “shut the fuck up” so Minus the Bear could play. Castelaz made them feel like dicks after he explained how he founded the Pablove Foundation after his child, Pablo, died of cancer at age 6.
Minus the Bear played a 30-minute set with only two songs from previous records—opening with “Knights” and closing with “Pachuca Sunrise.” The rest of the set featured five new songs from their upcoming record Omni, making the show a unique preview of the album for the diehard fans in the crowd. They of course played lead single “My Time” and “Into the Mirror”, but the rest of the songs were a mystery, as they did not even announce titles of the songs. One song, judging from interviews was probably “Secret Country,” has a tasty, complex riff that beats any riff on Planet of Ice easily. Otherwise, the new songs from Omni focus more on groove than complexity, in the same way that Thrice moved from The Alchemy Index to Beggars. It looks to be a good record, but certainly not the group’s best.
Maps and Atlases: I must admit, I did not like Maps and Atlases much when I listened to them on their record, but their live show certainly changed my opinion of them. Despite awful sound mixing at the Yard Dog Gallery, they remained tight and hit all of their complex riffing and two-hand tapping to perfection. Vocalist Dave Davison kept the atmosphere light, soundchecking on Iyaz’s “Replay” and leading the audience in a sing-a-long.
Andrew W.K.: Andrew W.K. played all over SXSW, including in a one-time cover band with J. Mascis and Thurston Moore called Demolished Thoughts, but I happened to see him at the Mess with Texas Festival on Saturday with his full band. He was the second-last performer of the day, just before Gwar, so the audience was half ready to party and half ready to get him off the stage and bathe in blood. But Andrew knew his audience, perfectly summarizing the set by addressing the audience: “This is not a show. This is not a concert. This is a party.” He also knows where his strengths are, playing mostly songs from I Get Wet including “Party Hard” and “She Is Beautiful.” He spent a small amount of time promoting his new double release Close Calls with Brick Walls / Mother of Mankind, but for now, Andrew still only seems concerned with partying in the moment.
Surprise of the festival – Codeine Velvet Club: The latest acquisition for Dangerbird Records, Codeine Velvet Club also played at Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop in the middle of the show. From Glasgow, Scotland, Codeine Velvet Club may just be the next darling baroque indie pop band, with horn and string arrangements abound. The side project of Jon Fratelli, their debut album came out last year in the UK, and will see its US release through Dangerbird Records on April 6.
Disappointment of the festival – The Hood Internet: The mashup DJ duo played at the Yard Dog Gallery, but in a day of all kinds of sound trouble, the collective took half of their set time setting up and never really got anything going. They only played four songs before having to leave the stage. The transitions between the songs were awkward at times, and the success rode solely on the quality of the mashups.