SXSW: Day 1 Recap

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Wow, that was a strong start. Actually, my SXSW Day 1 kind of petered along while the sun still shined, but the evening provided a series of performances so strong that it will be hard to top for the next three nights.

Click below for a recap and review of what I saw, plus some photos. And be sure to check the extended photo galleries posted below this entry.

After waking at 4 a.m. and flying about 1,250 miles, I landed in Austin, checked into my hotel and headed downtown to the convention center to pick up my wristband.

Upon my arrival, I stumbled on a familiar act performing under the fluorescent lights of the SXSW Day Stage. Say Hi To Your Mom, a Brooklyn band that makes excellent pop-rock with slight electronic touches, makes regular stops at Andyman’s Treehouse. Eric Elbogen uses a different lineup seemingly every time he comes through, and this time that held form as he employed a drummer and a female keyboard player/backup singer. The trio did well in a sterile environment like the convention center. Their set was short and satisfying, a nice appetizer for the day.

When I emerged from the Day Stage, I immediately spotted Spoon’s Britt Daniel and snapped this, my first ever paparazzi shot:

I was starved, so I looked for quick food, found some pizza by the slice and began ambling madly all over the town. Quickly, I ran into Mike Pace of another Brooklyn indie rock act, Oxford Collapse, whose show this winter at Little Brother’s was killer. He was bouncing along with a friend who I soon learned was Keith Murray, singer-guitarist for New York band We Are Scientists. Murray was on his way to DJ at the NME day party at Stubb’s, so I tagged along. At the door, Murray told some NME higher-up that we were with him, and because Mike and Chris happen to be the names of the other guys in We Are Scientists, dude thought we were them. All this scored us was admission (and its accompanying free BBQ), but that was enough for me.

Murray’s DJ duty was more like checking in on two female friends as they toggled between an iPod and a laptop, playing NME-friendly tracks (the Strokes, Arcade Fire, Supergrass, etc.) While they did that, he joined Pace and I at the pool table for a piss-poor game of cutthroat. We were soon joined by extremely young-looking British people who turned out to be members of a band called Mumm-Ra (nice Thundercats reference). We had a UK vs. USA game of pool in which we Yanks disgraced our country, then Murray disappeared to do some interviews for MTV Europe—his band is huge over there—and I grabbed some of the free BBQ.

Stubb’s is a big touristy BBQ restaurant and an outdoor concert venue. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the outdoor stage at LC Pavilion, only with wood instead of steel and dirt instead of concrete. And, for today only, it was packed with mostly English people. The BBQ, I was told, was not indicative of the best Texas has to offer, but it was still quite delicious (and free!).

I caught the Young Knives, who mine the same territory as the Futureheads—fast, poppy post-punk with lots of vocal harmonies and a crush on the Jam. In other words, they were just what I was expecting to encounter at an NME party, only good. I appreciated how they pissed off the sound guys by hanging a microphone cord upside-down on the stand and causing feedback, then deciding to play one more song even though they were told not to. Mischievous and talented: That’s the Young Knives.

Mumm-Ra was much younger than the Young Knives. The singer, whose name I forget and am too lazy and time-crunched to look up, is 20. His band, luckily, has maintained the good part of youth while cutting out the bad: They kept the boundless energy but ditched the awkward uncertainty. I guess if I had a record deal with Columbia at age 20, I’d be pretty confident too. Their music wasn’t much to speak of—more utterly British pop and post-punk, but catchy at least. Aforementioned singer dude was going wild on stage, so it made for a decent show, but not the kind of thing SXSW dreams are made of.

I cut out early from Mumm-Ra at about 5 p.m. and waited in line down the street at the Red Eyed Fly, where Peter Bjorn and John were set to make the first of approximately 547 appearances this week. In line I met a guy by the name of Matt McCord who used to play drums for acts such as Cake, Beth Orton and Ed Harcourt. He informed me that you had to be on the list for this show and then proceeded to help me get in. It was a long wait, though, and I missed at least one PB&J song, the retro gem “Let’s Call It Off.” (I could hear it, muted, from afar.) When I got in, the place was packed, so I was stuck in the back. Here’s this picture anyway, to give you an idea:

The band, whose album Writer’s Block has been my obsession since early this year, did not deliver on that recording’s brilliance, offering a set that was only competent. They seemed a little lackadaisical, especially Bjorn, who seemed to either be drunk or lack singing confidence. Their reimagining of “The Chills” as a rock nugget was ill-advised, and the quiet, sparse take on “Amsterdam” was interesting but ultimately lackluster. The more rocking closing trio of “Young Folks,” “Objects of My Affection” and “Up Against the Wall” redeemed the set, even if that last number was stretched out for a bit too long.

I bounced around town for a while and headed to the Blender Bar at the Ritz, where Columbus resident Dustin White was set to play keyboards for LA folk-pop band Sea Wolf. I chatted with Dusty for a while in the “VCast Lounge,” an elevated, curtained-off area fitted with red couches and black pillows with Verizon logos. Verizon stuff (and copies of Blender magazine—it really is Blender Bar) was everywhere. The place was expansively tall, with red curtains on the walls, various couches and TVs around the place. Adding some appreciated local color to the ultra-slick venue was a giant Texas flag and smaller flags representing UT and other universities.

Sea Wolf proved to be worth the trip. The band played a brand of folk-pop that could equate Bright Eyes + Belle and Sebastian, only good. (Yeah, lots of surprising successes yesterday.) More precisely, the group recalled Ohio acts such as Southeast Engine, Paper Airplane and Chris McCoy and the Gospel, only with a more delicate sheen.

After Sea Wolf, I hiked over to Mother Egan’s for Two Cow Garage’s CD release party. The Columbus band, masters of rootsy, power-charged classic rock, is more appreciated in Austin than it is back home. This was evident from the large crowd there, though many might have been attracted by “secret” performer the Drams and opening act Tim Easton. Before the bands began, I snagged a turkey leg. Check it out:

I didn’t even come close to finishing that much dark meat.

Anyway, Easton used Two Cow drummer Dustin Harigle, then the whole band, to play a wonderful set of Dylan-aping folk rock. Even though he no longer lives in the Buckeye State, it’s no wonder Easton is one of Columbus’s most treasured musical sons. The question is why Two Cow is not so beloved. The band began its own set quickly after Easton vacated the stage, performing an electrifying rundown of the best from its new album, III. The only song missing was “Camaro,” but I can deal. This was an absolutely perfect display of classic rock prowess. People were raising their fists and singing along with all they had. For at least 45 minutes, these guys from Columbus were the greatest band in the world. Good luck topping Two Cow Garage, SXSW.

Bleary-eyed and nearly broken, I decided to tough it out and finish the night at Antone’s for the Merge Records showcase. I knew I could still catch the Rosebuds, the Broken West and the “special guest from Austin, Texas.” (Obviously, it was Spoon, who announced they have a new album coming out in July.)

Antone’s is set up in such a cool way. It’s a long room with the stage set up on one of the long walls, creating an intimate environment in a seriously big room. The wide stage allowed North Carolina's Rosebuds to spread across the front of the stage, a setup that only increased how damn cool they looked and sounded. The booming sound system no doubt contributed, but the Rosebuds miraculously managed to keep up the buzz I had acquired from Two Cow, matching them in power and soul but not in heart. The Rosebuds should really be more famous than they are, considering how catchy and sophisticated their music is. The style is hard to describe, but it’s like punk mixed with old Motown stuff, dressed up with plenty of “Ooh-ooh-oohs” and “Whoa-oh-ohs.” Last night added a new dimension to their sound. Their music was loud and massive, as if they’ve been taking lessons from label-mates Arcade Fire (who did not appear). They topped it off by inviting the crowd on stage to dance for the last number.

The poor guys in the Broken West had to follow the Rosebuds’ enthralling display (with Two Cow’s greatness still lingering in my mind). Still, the LA pop band did the best they could have in the situation, delivering solid takes on their rich, melodic songs. Despite the tough act to follow, their main problem was actually that they’re too polite. They’re the guys your mother hopes for when you tell them you started dating a guy in a band. They kept repeating stuff like “Thank you kindly,” and when they made a joke about Spoon being some new band and how we should be nice to the rookies, he followed it with an unnecessary “I’m joking, of course.” Good set, though, recalling Big Star more than anything else.

Yes, the day ended as it began: with Britt Daniel. I was beginning to ache all over, so I was glad when Spoon finally appeared to play tunes new and old. Unfortunately, “old” only stretched back to Girls Can Tell. (I wish they would do some stuff from A Series of Sneaks these days. Sure, it's a little different from what they do now, but it would still mesh.) Anyway, they played several new tunes and a cover and inexplicably left out “The Way We Get By,” but Spoon has a deep catalog, and it was still a solid set, highlighted by the tense, rollicking “They Never Got You” and the noisy-but-minimal “Paper Tiger.” Drummer Jim Eno kept eyeballing the bassist and keyboard player with a look that seemed to say “Quit screwing up.” I didn’t hear any mistakes from the keyboard dude, but bass guy had a couple noticeable flubs. They didn’t detract from the show, which proved to be a wise choice to close out my night.

I dragged myself down the street until I found a shuttle going back to my hotel. At this point, my eyelids were practically glued together, my back was in pain, my legs were nearly inoperable and I had some idea of what Jack Bauer feels like after spending 24 straight hours fighting terror. (I was up to 22 1/2.) OK, so flying to Texas and watching rock bands isn’t quite as difficult, but as Franz Nicolay of the Hold Steady explains in this week’s Alive, “rocking is harder than it looks.”