48 Hours In Austin
Sixth Street at night on Friday March 17th: Take a Music City’s Main Drag and fill it with nothing but drinking bars, blues joints, concert halls, billiard rooms, the occasional restaurant and several street-side pizza stands; then fill those spaces with bands playing showcases on the hour, every hour, so much live music that seemingly every single storefront for a solid mile has rock music blaring out the front door; give people wristbands and badges so they can parade up and down the street under the illusion of free and continual access to each and every venue; close the Street down to vehicles….. Then throw the annual Bacchanalia of St. Patrick’s Night into the mix, recall that every white American is convinced they’re Irish, note that Austin is a major University town with 40,000 students at peak of season… And try not to collapse from delirium as thousands of excited music fans, music biz freeloaders and drunks dressed in Gaelic Green walk, weave, sway and occasionally fall up and down the drag amidst the bright lights all night. Manchester City Centre at 2am on a Saturday night has nothing on this scene.
Too many bands, too much time: 20 years old now, South By South West has gotten so massive that it’s not enough to come in and play your label’s showcase. You’re expected to play at a party thrown by a hip magazine the preceding day; another party at a clothes store the following day; and at least one other gig on one other night for all the people who missed your other shows because… they were too busy attending other shows.
A round of drinks runs as little as five bucks.
A slice of pizza on the streets run as much as three.
Being chauffeured round Austin for an hour in the “Gibson tour bus,” wherein the table-top looks like a Les Paul and a real version of that famed guitar, along with an SG, an Explorer, an SG bass and sundry other electric beauties hang from the walls for your picking (up) pleasure; a couple of small amps encourage you (or at least me) to plug in and practice those self-taught solos from ‘Quadrophenia’ and ‘Tommy’ and pretend, just for a moment, that you’re living the life of a rock star.
Hate to state the obvious, but in Texas even a ‘small’ city like Austin feels vast, the roads spread wide and reaching long and the office towers curiously disconnected from each other.
Running into Geoff Travis in the street and Alan McGee in a club; just as some musicians wish to die on stage, some A&R people must hope they’ll pass away in front of a stage.
Britain is almost embarrassingly over-represented amidst the live performances. Not only the tipped-up newcomers you’d expect to see trying to prove themselves on foreign soil, but veterans like Billy Bragg, The Gang of Four and The Charlatans.
On which note, their new album Sympatico is their best years, and it shows them growing gracefully mature with a surprisingly authentic reggae lilt, but are The Charlatans so desperate for American acceptance that they had to play two small venues and a hipster party in just two days?
They call it a festival, but it’s not: a festival implies a commitment to the audience. SXSW is a music conference accompanied by dozens of artist ‘showcases.’ Bigger artists who often DO play festivals or at least sell out clubs, find themselves slumming it on rented equipment with an absence of soundchecks in venues operating way beyond their station, regulated by SXSW rules to sets that start on the hour, every hour. No wonder so many bands seem underwhelming.
On which note, who recommended The Kooks above all others? At a BBC 6 showcase that also included The Editors, The Feeling and KT Tunstall, they were flat and uninspired.
And what American record label decided to launch itself with Britain’s Five O’Clock Heroes, as trad-rock a band as their name would suggest? It’s always worth considering, before signing an act from overseas, why they’ve yet to be signed in their home country.
Walking out of The Five O’Clock Heroes patio show at Spiro’s and into Allister’s tent show at Emo’s Annex. Like their British counterparts, Allstar are also trad-rock, or at least trad power-punk, one of the surely many thousands attempting to replicate Green Day’s secret formula. But the difference between the British and American approach to rock is ever apparent: while Anglo groups like tend to be gleefully sloppy, yanks like Allister tend towards being loud, dynamic, and polished – and Allister projected themselves like they knew they were good and want to be big. Is this pandering, or is it merely professionalism?
Running into old friends on the street, and even older friends in the clubs.
Struggling to drink beer on St. Patrick’s night: is it me, or am I just getting old?
The stupendously loud feedback-ridden noise-rock of Dungen, all the way from Sweden, at the wonderfully-named Buffalo Billiards.
The phenomenally unlistenable one-man screech fest of My Way My Love, all the way from Japan, at Nuno’s Upstairs….
The joyously brief songs and, yes, gleeful sloppiness of The Brakes, all the way from England, at Blender Bar. Echoes of The Buzzcocks in ‘Ring A Ding Ding’ but hints of something greater throughout.
The pleasantly retro Beatlesque pop of Voxtrot at the NY2LON daytime party at Velvet Spade on Saturday. Though the party was ostensibly for groups from, well, NY and LON(don), Voxtrot were one of the few bands to play in Austin who actually hailed from Austin.
Not being around for the Interactive Festival and the people who designed a real-life version of the old video game Frogger. Their robot apparently made it across the street several times before being crushed by, what else, an SUV.
The lack of dance music.
Hitting it off with Hot Chip. Us South Londoners have to stick together, you know.
Sia’s soaring jazzy voice on her finale. More than a Six Feet Under one-hit wonder.
Calling it a night at just 1.30 on the Friday, and then waking up, like (my everyday alarm) clock-work, at 7.30 on the dot the following morning. EST. Which means it was only 6.30 am CST. Nice way to prepare for a full day and night of work.
Deciding the only way to wake up from the lack of sleep is by going for a run.
Except that it’s raining in Austin.
Forgetting, after an Upstate winter (even a mild one) how humid and relatively hot it can be in Texas – the sweat dripping from my nose after a mile on the hotel treadmill serving as necessary minder to slow and shorten it down.
The anti-war protesters marching down Sixth Street to mark the 3rd Anniversary of the Iraq invasion.
The bottle of Carneros Pinot Noir placed backstage at the Astralwerks showcase that no one else seemed to want. All the more the merrier for me.
Small Sins’ cross of indie melody and electronic rhythm at The Parish, Saturday night.
Hot Chip’s Britboy take on Kraftwerk: four geezers lined front of the stage on keyboards giving it loads, with dollops of deftly-stated lyrical humor.
Leaving the BBC 6 showcase halfway through The Kooks, knowing full well I would never get back in for The Editors or KT Tunstall. And I was right.
Knowing equally well that a SXSW badge means nothing if a venue is already full, and thereby unable to catch The Magic Numbers and see if they’re more exciting live than on record.
Not even bothering to try and see The Arctic Monkeys. Americans remain highly susceptible to British buzz and there were more people waiting outside La Zona Rosa before doors opened than the venue could ever hope to get inside over the course of the night. Americans, though, also remain highly suspicious of British hype and seem almost collectively unwilling or unable to “get” the Monkeys. It doesn’t translate, goes the general sentiment. To which my answer tends towards: So what? It translated to the south of England despite the northern vernacular. Why must it also translate to heartland America to be considered a success?
The Juan MacLean’s left-of-centre dance music. Live drums, live vocals and pounding keyboards. Not only do electronic musicians have the benefit of pre-sets, but they can get a lot of volume out of their equipment without risking feedback off the amps.
Catching ‘Sprouston Green’ for the one-thousandth time.
Trekking it down S. Congress for the Factory People party Fixed in an art gallery. We get there at 2.30am; I guess the inner nite owl is not yet extinct.
Free beer makes the walk worthwhile.
As does the roof deck.
And the company.
The dancefloor’s not bad either.
Though how many more times must we hear Soulwax’ ‘E Talking,’ Blur’s ‘Girls and Boys’ and Shannon’s ‘Let The Music Play?’
Getting in a verbal altercation with someone I’ve known too long for him to get away with threatening a friend of mine. Clearly not the E talking.
After two days and nights of clogged streets and unavailable taxis, the five-minute cab ride home at 4am.
Finally sleeping on until 11. That would be 12 on the east coast. The last Sunday I pulled that one off I was surely not a father.
The Power Bar breakfast. A lot cheaper than the a la carte option – and better fuel.
This is the Wi-Fi World That I’ve Learned About: spending Sunday lunch listening to Chris Coco’s Radio 1 show from earlier Sunday morning on the web, calling my mum via Skype, booking my Easter Holiday vir Orbitz, sending music round the world to friends, Moderating the Comments queue on iJamming!, making telephone calls on the cell phone – all without a plug or a phone cable.
Not being in town long enough to attend the actual convention.
Not having time to spend all Saturday hanging at daytime parties drinking free beer and watching the same bands that played last night.
Meeting good people.
The journey home: the mini-van doesn’t arrive to take us to the airport, the first flight is delayed an hour, the second flight is delayed an hour and a half, the bags take 45 minutes to emerge on the carousel and the driver at JFK appears never to have driven through Brooklyn before. Getting to bed at 2.30am, being woken at 8.00 by mine host: his street is being repaved and my car is about to be towed. Jumping out of bed and straight behind the wheel.