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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

SXSW – Diary of a Festival Attendee

Our writer details her manic week in Austin, home of the biggest band showcase on the planet

Written by Laura Lotti

austin texas sxsw south by southwest festival laura lotti

Photographs by Laura Lotti

The South-by-Southwest Festival (or SXSW, no rx in the shorthand) is perhaps the world’s most infamous record company picnic. Every year, rx hundreds of bands turn up from around the world to play shows after show to rooms filled with A&R suits in the hope of securing a record contract and advance sizeable enough to be able to afford the gasoline for the ride home. We’ve been lucky enough to have had a pair of eyes on the ground for this year’s shenanigans, in the shape of Laura Lotti – she kept a diary of her blitz through four days of gigs and free parties, which we present to you here today. Tomorrow, she’ll be talking some more about some of the more noteworthy performances she caught over the week.

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Prologue

When I got to Austin, I didn’t know what to expect to be honest. I imagined a kind of musical wonderland, but I didn’t think I was going to actually be THE music wonderland I’ve always dreamt of. After all, Texas, apart from Dallas (I’m talking about the 80s soap opera) and cowboys, is mainly known for being home to one of the biggest dumb-asses/suckers on the globe, Mr. George W. Bush, so I had mixed expectations towards this adventure.

I didn’t think Austin was a little liberal hippie centre in the middle of such a conservative environment. I didn’t expect bearded tattoed gringos smoking weed on the streets, and I didn’t think I would have lived one of the best (actually, definitely THE best) festival experiences in my entire life. Forget Glasto or even Bestival, where people are more excited about swimming in the mud and about the amount of MDMA and pills they can fill themselves with (which can be quite entertaining when you’re 15) than the actual music performances.

Now I know why SXSW is still considered the best and biggest showcase for rising bands. The atmosphere is simply joyful and laid back, and for the first time ever I didn’t get that feeling of being at a stresstival that always assails me when it comes to decide which band to see, what to wear for the weather, and how to get to meet your favourite band.

At SXSW you simply breathe music: downtown is taken over by the biggest names in the music industry and you find yourself sharing beers with nice smiling people that turn out being members of brilliant bands like The Death Set and Yacht, or at house parties with the editor of Spin magazine.

It only happens there. It only happens once a year. Like Christmas, but better.

Anyway, what I understood after the first 24 hours is that it’s pointless to make plans. Letting yourself be guided by the music and the odd encounters you make in the streets is the best strategy to discover great acts you maybe have never heard of and to get surprised by the secrets this city has to offer.

As soon as we got there, my Austinian friend Lydia warned me about the few rules for surviving this 4-days of musical overdose. First rule: there are no rules.

Other rules are:
• Everyone for themselves
• Never pay for venues (there’s lots of free parties too – which are the best)
• Never queue for bands (they’re probably going to play somewhere else in a couple of hours)
• Start to RSVP for free-drinks parties one month in advance
• Be ready to walk a lot
• And be nice to everyone, ‘cos everyone here is nice!

This following journal is a collection of the first impressions I took of the festival. Some parts might not make much sense, and that’s because I was stoned all the time (I embraced the local habits pretty fast). I’ve deleted the most embarrassing bits, but I wanted to preserve the enthusiasm that was gleaming through those notes, what I was feeling in those moments. So bear with me.

People are actually so nice and friendly down there that for the first 36 hours I was properly puzzled, being, as I am, used to the detached British politeness. And apart from difficulties in food hunting (I’ve been vegan for a while, but it’s difficult to resist to those deliciously smelly BBQ and breakfast tacos, and at some point I had to surrender to the pizza and free vodka in the artist lounge – it was a matter of survival, for real), this is the heaven on earth I was looking for. Now I just need to start a band and be decent enough to be able to play there next year. Or maybe I could just become a professional groupie…

Wed 17th (First Night)

Maybe it’s because of all the ‘Badass Purple’ they’ve got in here, but I love everything about this city.

We arrive in Austin around 9pm after a 6-hour road trip from Mexico, and we get straight into the Texan groove. We start from Cheer Up Charlie’s, that I would later realize is something of a cool hangout for first-hand hipsters and trend setters. All the gigs put up here are actually NOT part of the official SXSW fest. Instead, they’ve been put together, totally for free and without age limits, by the legendary New York based promoter Todd P, the brain behind the other big festival that will take over Monterrey, Mexico, just on the other side of the border, one week after SXSW. A guarantee of quality, basically.

In fact, we start the night rocking with These Are Powers, preceded by our very own Male Bonding, which are doing pretty well in Austin (I see their name everywhere on the bills of the best venues next to all the up-and-coming bands for 2010-2011). These Are Powers play a supercharged set where the bass (played by ex-Liars member Pat Noecker) mixes with samples and drums – and Anna Barie’s incredibile voice – to create an explosive yet dark atmosphere in between acid house and urban music.

Following, are Javelin, whose style has been cleverly defined (after several Lone Star beers) by the illustrious music expert Atti as, “very 90s, with a bit of the Shamen.” I find them more tropical than ‘shamanic’. On stage the percussions play a primary role, accompanied by fuzzy guitars, samples and distorted vocals.

Glad to see that finally bands are finding the key to put together electronic music with a satisfying visual show on stage. I’m glad to see that people dance at gigs in this country! Yeah!

We move to the indoor stage where Vivian Girls are causing a riot. It’s fun to see a whole army of big boys going nuts for these three fairies from New York.

Thurs 18th

We start the music day at the Insound day party at Club De Ville. Small Black, exponents of the hip chillwave genre that’s bursting out of Brooklyn, are pretty awesome. We’ll hear a lot of them in the next few months. I suddenly realise I haven’t had any food for the last 20 hours, and I haven’t had any water because, “sorry ma’am, we don’t care about water,” but I’m fine! The sun and the music feed me for now!

Vivian Girls are playing again. I think I’m becoming they’re biggest fan. They seem they’ve just come out from a Sofia Coppola movie. They’re fairy but powerful, feminine but tough. And their music reflects all the different angles of their being young women in the 21st century. Liars follow and they’re amazing! Raw and powerful as always, but with the sun shining on me and a cold Lone Star in my hand make them sound even better.

It’s getting dark and we decide to make a move and check out London’s Crystal Fighters at Barbarella. Despite the venue being not literally packed, they are doing a surprisingly good show. Definitely the best I’ve seen of theirs. Their music reminds me of the choruses that hooligans sing at football matches, but with an allure of coolness. And it works. Their beats are very masculine, almost primordial, no wonders the majority of the audience is made by over-excited pogoing guys.

We then move to Cheer Up Charlie’s again, where the gritty surf punk grunge of the losangelenos Shannon and The Clams is rocking hard. At the Iron Gate we manage to see Maluca, the last discovery of the Mad Decent crew, kind of M.I.A. meets Santigold. She looks good on stage, but do we really need another urban princess?

And then we go *back* to Charlie’s for The Morning Bender. They’re considered one of the up and coming bands for 2010 but to me the look like a bunch of 18 year old kids with the attitude of an old crooner. I find their performance a bit flat. Fans of Coldplay and Frank Sinatra might like them (I know someone would kill me for this comparison). I personally don’t.

Then it’s the turn of Tanlines, another Brooklyn band. They’re another electro pop outfit in the guise of Memory Tapes and Neon Indian. Maybe it’s this amazing loveful weed but I really dig them! There’s something powerful in their tunes and I’m totally moved by them. Their use of percussions is great. I personally like percussions. I like seeing people banging on the drums. I find it sexy. Primordial.

Lemonade follow. I’ve seen them already back in London when opening for Aliens and to be sure, I think this was not one of their best performances, but they do good. Their psych-droney pop is catchy and loud. Delorean, from Barcelona, are better than expected. Their noisy acid electronic sound is pretty good, but I’m not 100% sure about the performance.

Fri 19th

Enough live music. Today I decide to hang out with Brick Lane glory The Coolness. They’re a band people love to hate and hate to love, but they’re doing well in the States. Their glam cock rock camouflaged in Shoreditchian outfits is well received at Emo’s Annex, one of the best stages to play. After finally succeeding in dragging the boys out of the artists’ village – indulging in free massage, free food and drinks require time, you know – we get to Mohawk Patio for These Are Powers and – finally! – SALEM.

Brooklyn’s These Are Powers confirm the first impression I had of them at Charlie’s: singer Anna Barie is tough and cool and funny and she’s a great performer, too! She’s probably one of the new acts that would deserve to be compared to Grace Jones. SALEM just get on stage and they are already visually amazing: a mix of metro-hippie grunge with a touch of Marc Jacobs allure. But yeah, the visual impact is much better than the aural one. Theirs is a show built as a dialogue between airy melodies and junkie white rap. Still, in my opinion they sound much better recorded than live.

After leaving Mohawk, I manage to grab a bit of Neon Indian’s set from the street. He’s playing at Club De Ville, but I can’t be bothered to queue to get in (after all, that’s one of the main rules of SXSW!). The sound quality is awful (still better than certain London venues). The band is good though. I think I’m rediscovering my faith in electronic music.

So I’m standing here outside the venue with other tons of people and a suspect-looking guy comes to me: “Hey do you wanna get in?” I DO want to get in, I’m ready to prostitute my time to talk to this dude in front of a beer (which I don’t like, anyway) even if he looks weird and sleazy: “Yeah”. So I follow him, he whispers something to the bouncer and we’re inside! He then turns towards me, makes a big smile and: “Have fun!” – he says goodbye and leaves! Welcome to Texas, the friendly State for real!! Nice people do exist in the world!

From this new perspective I can see that Alan Palomo is an great performer and he’s got a full band – American Apparel girl included – helping him to translate his bedroom synth-pop in live music. His tunes are weird, quirky but sophisticated enough (the guitarist is pretty good) and the band in itself is visually appealing. Catchy. Pop. But not dangerous. They remind me of Cut Copy – which I used to love 2 or 3 years ago. I look around and suddenly realise I’m surrounded by second and third class hipsters, moms and industry people. And I want to leave straight away. Sorry Neon Indian, I believed in you.

Pit stop at Papparazzi Pizza – pretty healthy by American standards (I had to surrender to cheese, again – sorry, but I can’t live on peanuts and tortilla chips forever).
There’s a party going on in there, kids dancing to Human League and Madonna. Great vibe. In exchange of the sticker I’m wearing (someone stuck it to my jacket the night before – I think) I get to sign their wall (And get a half price pizza!) I love Austin more and more.

Time to catch up with the crew. After seeing electronic dandy Daedalus giving a great performance at Independent – though not on his best ones – we leave, drunk stoned and knackered, but fulfilled by this music overdose.

Sat 20th

After a late breakfast (can a meal at 4pm be called breakfast if it’s the first thing you manage to get into your stomach since the night before?) at Magnolias’s – massive list of tex-mex, the food is clearly unhealthy and damaging, but it’s so colourful and cartooney that put us all of us in the best mood for the last day of our stay at SXSW -and listening to Talking Heads, we down our tacos and get ready for the evening!

It’s fucking freezing today, but we don’t care (we will do later) and head to Cheer Up Charlie’s, where I finally manage to see Toro Y Moi. It’s a semi-acoustic set: he, his Fender and his voice create beautiful airy atmospheres. It feels good and helps bearing the cold. Following is a psychotic performance from Canadian Duchess Says. Singer Annie-C is a sort of Kap Bambino on speed, and the band uses real instruments, which is always better. During their set a spontaneous mayhem explodes and everybody dances among hay bales, sheets and (mic) wire jumping.

The cold is almost as bad as in London, I need something hot to hold in my hands, so we head off to Progress, an ethical coffee shop frequented by the fixed-gear crowd not far from Charlie’s. It works. All warmed up we head back to see Cloud Nothings. It’s always strange seeing a band performing live after listening to their tracks online. Giving a body and a look to someone you’ve heard maybe just online could be misleading. It’s easier when you see someone first: you get excited if they’re good, you start searching information on the internet and then buy records and stuff. But it’s harder for blog bands to keep up with the expectations. And if they do, they’re good for real! Cloud Nothings is actually the solo project of Dylan Baldi, the lead singer, but the band manages to convey the same carefree summer-y vibe given by the recorded version. This is pure surf garage rock. It’s quite relieving after all these bleeps and glitches. They still lacks of the rockstar self-confidence to put up a properly involving show. But maybe they don’t care about that. These are kids happy to make noises with fuzzy guitars and banging drums. Their raw, drunken, lo-fi sound is pure joy after all this electro.

To follow, more surf rock from Beach Fossils. The reverb plays a big role for them as well (like for most of the bands I’ve seen these days) giving to their music that 60s lo-fi vibe that’s so hot right now. After them, one of my favourite rising stars: Pearl Harbor, an almost all-girls band from Los Angeles who make beautiful drone-y psychedelic music. I can see that the 60s are back in full force. Lots of bands show clear psychedelic and surf influences but updated with shoegaze-y guitars and 80’s synths. It’s a winning recipe for new decade’s music.

More psychedelia with a noisy touch from Texan Indian Jewelry: they’re one of the hotly tipped bands for 2010-2011. Someone compared them to Led Zeppelin. Not sure about this, but they are brilliant anyway. Change of atmosphere (and temperature) at Stubb’s where we dine listening to Scissor Sisters playing in the backyard stage (embarrassing, I know – I’m stoned and cold, every place is good as long as its warm and close – and serves food. I’m so starving I could actually eat a roast!).

The venue is packed and at the bar we hang out with Mischa Barton (well, we’re standing next to each other waiting for drinks). Today is such a surreal day. This freezing wind has nothing to do with the summery weather we had yesterday. We give up and go back home, dreaming of a hot cup of English tea as soon as we get there.

Sun 21st

I can’t believe it’s over. Austin, I’ll definitely see you next year.

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