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SXSW

The Weekend in Review

Day 2

One of the coolest things about the set-up at this festival is the variety in type of venues throughout the city, which claims to be the music capital of the world and just might have every right to say so. Thursday, for example, I started at The Backroom -- a dusty old pool bar outside the downtown area where I was joined by a total of 25 people for a mid-afternoon show. From there, I headed to Ticketweb's party at Moonshine, a chic restaurant with a sunny patio where a stage was created for SXSW. After a break from music and a stop-over at Spin Magazine's awesome house party for some free booze, I ended my day at The Parish, situated above the street and with the appearance of a regular ol' college bar, where Merge Records staged its showcase.

One of the strangest things about this festival is the virtual caste system that dictates who gets in to what show, party, etc. There are badges, wristbands of varying colors, secret parties, and not much left over for Joe Music Fan. SXSW is designed for the industry more than it is for the commoners, so it makes sense. Still it's funny how much discussion you can overhear on the streets regarding access and invites to this, that and the other.

And finally, one of the worst things about this festival, as referenced yesterday, is all the waiting in line. It's very difficult to judge when you should show up for any given venue, and I ended up missing M. Ward's set at The Parish. People tell me it was good -- but that's about all I have for you.

On to the music I did see:

400 Blows
A newish band from LA. Not sure what 400 Blows they are referring to, but sadly, they also blow. I found them sort of annoying and needlessly noisy. That's all.

Erase Errata
I'd seen these SF-based women a few times before, but yesterday was the first time I was truly impressed. Something about the show really grabbed me, and the engaged crowd seemed to agree. If you're not familiar with the trio, their music is often experimental and frenetic, but it's a good sort of energy merged with a confident sound and personality. They've also moved in a more melodic direction recently, and yesterday I even heard some similarities to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (lead singer Jenny Hoyston also talk-sings the way Leo does). All in all, an awesome performance for a band that has already made some waves but is ready to move up to the next level.

Crooked Fingers
The day's biggest revelation for me. The lead singer and frontman for the band is Eric Bachmann, who was the principal songwriter for the legendary indie rock band Archers of Loaf. When the Archers disbanded in the late '90s, Bachmann created Crooked Fingers as a solo project (they later became a proper band). The band's music is categorized as melancholic indie pop, and is rife with lyrics about the holy triumvirate of depression, drinking and loneliness. Take a step back, however, and it's not all sadness. Crooked Fingers combines a vaguely country-tinged sound with lush orchestration including a warm string section, and the result is tight and extraordinarily listenable. A band I'd like to spend some time getting to know.

Spoon
Despite the rumored Arcade Fire appearance in the evening's final "special guest" slot, when Spoon took the stage I was pleased to check them out for the first time. (Besides, The Arcade Fire doesn't really need any more hype or attention at this point.) Spoon hail from Austin and are SXSW regulars, their 2001 showcase earned them a healthy buzz that saw them end that year on many top-10 lists for Girls Can Tell -- and they've maintained a well-deserved reputation as one of indie rock's most challenging and interesting bands ever since, supported by a strong collection of recorded work. They have a new album coming out on Merge in May and previewed some of those songs at The Parish. The show was certainly solid, though not entirely memorable. They're playing again here Friday night, as well as at Coachella in May, so I'll wait to pass judgment on their live act for the time being.

Day 3

A shorter update today because there's so much left to see as we head into the final day of the SXSW Music Festival. I'll have a full wrap-up mid next week.

It's already been a terrific experience, but from a journalist's perspective, SXSW is quite the challenge. It's virtually impossible to catch every act you'd like to see, so you make your choices, shrug your shoulders and hope you've out-smarted everyone else. We all have a not-so-secret urge to be present for those legendary breakout performances, but of course there's no surefire way to predict who and where they will be.

There are two underlying issues involved. First off, if you want to see any of the "name bands" that are here, you're looking at arriving 2-3 hours before showtime and are forced to see whoever else is on the bill at that particular venue. It's frustrating when you know there are at least 10 other bands playing about 100 feet away from you, any of which could be a golden discovery. You'd certainly increase the sheer volume of acts you can see here if you avoid the big guys and never wait in line.

The other issue is the Next Big Thing Syndrome. It's hard to avoid feeling obligated to check out the bands that come into this preeminent of industry events on a wave of escalating hype. Examples this year include Bloc Party, Dogs Die in Hot Cars, M.I.A. and the Futureheads. Do you believe the buzz or go off on your merry way in search of your own propaganda to build? It's an odd concept since the Next Big Thing Syndrome is completely media driven to begin with, so it's tough not to end up in a virtuous cycle.

With all this in mind, I spent Night #3 at Antone's for the Billions Corporation showcase. I felt okay sticking in one spot because of the diverse final three acts, none of which I had seen previously but already knew about to varying degrees. There were no big names or super-buzz acts on the bill, but Jolie Holland, The Frames and Calexico could all be considered somewhere in the middle. Best of all, I was thoroughly impressed by each of them.

Holland is from Texas and calls San Francisco home, but I'd never explored her stuff previously. It's tempting to place her alongside Iron and Wine and Joanna Newsom in the category of people making music that seems to come from a different time and place, yet is wonderfully evocative and inexplicably popular given recent music trends. She writes and early Americana folk, jazz and blues tunes, and sings them with a hauntingly beautiful voice -- it all comes together as a fascinating and unique performance.

The Frames have had a lot of success in their native Ireland, where some consider them "The Irish Pixies", but they haven't made much noise in the US. The band hopes that will change with the recent release of their 8th album, Burn the Maps on Anti, and Friday night's performance should help that cause. They delivered a terrific set of chaotic and melodic rock tunes that had the crowd moving -- definitely a band worth spending some quality time with.

The night closed with a sublime performance by veteran Tucson rockers Calexico. I've listened to much of Calexico's recorded work, but always seemed to miss them when they passed through SF. I think it's unfortunate that everyone doesn't know and love this band. They do such an amazing job of combining so many different elements in their compositions -- including jazz, country and mariachi -- and manage to execute each part perfectly. The live act proved to be even better. Calexico will probably never rise any higher than their current mid-level status in the music world, but that doesn't make them any less important and influential. They'll have a spot reserved at SXSW for years to come.