Headliners: RTFO Bandwagon

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Up against a wall in an Austin record store, surrounded by a few dozen vinyl collectors, RTFO Bandwagon rattles off selections from their superb new LP, Dums Will Survive. After touring from Columbus to New Orleans to Houston to Austin, the band is beat, but that doesn't keep their rollicking tracks from rollicking, nor does it rob their subtler offerings of their graceful sway.

It's South by Southwest time, when the music industry converges on Texas to assess a crop of the world's best up-and-coming musical acts. Since 1987, the festival has grown from one stage and 700 fans into today's sprawling network of showcases: 1,800 bands play for 24,000 listeners in more than 80 Austin venues.

Those are the official figures; frankly, SXSW might be twice as big. Every year, an increasingly thick swarm of unofficial concerts and parties, sponsored by magazines, blogs and even Rachael Ray, springs up alongside the official festivities.

Most of these shows are free, and many of them feature the same bands playing SXSW. From the colossal, corporate-sponsored Fader Fort to RTFO's modest in-store performance, the offshoots differ in size and scope as widely as the official showcases.

Conventional wisdom has long suggested that music fans can come to Austin and enjoy SXSW without paying several hundred dollars for a badge or wristband. For certain bands on the cusp of the hype machine, crashing the festival is becoming a viable option - the SXSW equivalent of leaking your music online rather than selling it in stores.

RTFO Bandwagon is one such band. The Columbus quartet grows its diverse fan base by playing in varied venues with a wide range of acts, none of whom quite mesh with RTFO's indefinable sound.

On Dums Will Survive, that sound has evolved from the sweetly unkempt folk-pop of 2007 debut Flagships into a raucous, rickety blend of folk and post-punk. From the skewed serenity of "Like a Dan Shearer Over Troubled Water" to the dissonant, harrowing hall-of-mirrors "Skipper Bunkum," it's as engaging as it is unusual.

"It's not important if people are blown away, like, 'Wow, they wrote such a strange song,' and that's all they take from it," singer-songwriter Andrew Graham says. "You want to write songs that resonate with people and that are unique enough to be memorable, but also make them dance or whatever."

Though RTFO scheduled an album-release "ceremony" Friday at Skylab, Dums is already out on Houston's Dull Knife Records and has been well-received by record geeks nationwide. The underground buzz scored RTFO an Austin house-party gig and the Sound on Sound Records in-store during SXSW.

"We applied to have an official showcase, and we didn't get in," Graham says. "Those offers came before we had gotten our rejection letter."

The band had set aside that week to travel, so they went anyway, routing the tour around their unofficial SXSW gigs. It's increasingly common.

Jordan O'Jordan, a cabaret folk musician who left Ohio in 2006, looks on at RTFO's show. His band, Polka Dot Dot Dot, isn't playing an official SXSW show either, just house parties.

Columbus indie-rockers Psychedelic Horseshit, for whom Graham occasionally fills in on guitar and bass, are playing two official showcases, but they tacked on 13 additional gigs in Austin, many of which draw larger audiences than their showcase gigs.

The SXSW brass isn't happy about the unaffiliated events, which decrease incentive to pay for the festival and, in the some cases, compete for sponsorship dollars. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Roland Swenson, managing director of SXSW Inc., reported more than 100 unaffiliated events to the fire department and sued promoters that used the SXSW brand name without permission.

Swenson's trepidation is understandable. The offshoot events threaten the institution that made them possible. But these parties aren't going away. For fans who can't afford it - and bands who didn't score a showcase - they're a chance to experience everything good about SXSW without actually being a part of it.

For more on RTFO Bandwagon's album release ceremony, click to the Sensory Overload blog at ColumbusAlive.com

What: RTFO Bandwagon

When: 9 p.m. Friday, March 27

Where: Skylab Gallery, Downtown

Web: myspace.com/rtfobandwagon