For five days, Austin is inundated with rockers, journalists, music fans and general freaks for the madness that the music portion of SXSW has become, and the city puts on a pretty good front pretending not to care. The least I can do to return the hospitality is to report on the madness, let you know what we saw, deliver some news of bands to watch for and to tell you about some of the best the city has to offer.
If you're having a hard time visualizing what we saw, all of the photos are available here for your viewing pleasure!
While there were so many great bands at SXSW this year, some stand above the others. Most notably, Motorhead's daytime performance (along with Napalm Death) is the type of thing that will go down in history. Especially for one traveling to Texas from the frigid winter of the Motor City, the chance to stand in an outdoor venue listening to Motorhead manhandle metal with extreme prejudice is the type of thing I'll tell my grandkids about. With any luck, Lemmy will still be going strong then, too.
The Old School Is Alive and Well
TKO and Hellcat have long kept old school punk running strong, and their combined showcase this year simply hammered home the fact that they know how to make good music. The Heart Attacks, Complete Control, Nekromantix and Roger Miret and the Disasters created the only serious circle pits I saw at SXSW, and left no doubt that there are still plenty of amazing bands carrying the banner of the old school and holding it high.
Most Likely To Succeed
While we saw a lot of new and up-and-coming bands, when pressed for a "most likely to succeed," I'm going to have to go with Belfast's Steer Clear. These youngsters combine pop punk with old school and metal riffs with musical talent beyond their years. It's only a matter of time before they hit the U.S. scene - and knock it flat on its ass.
We did see a few disappointing things, but for the most part, a mildly disappointing band simply fades out of one's memory. It's easier just to forget that it ever happened, rather than dwell on it.
Therefore, a band has to be really disappointing to warrant mention here. In that vein I have to go with the latest Mick Jones project, Carbon/Silicon. It's not that they were bad; it's just that they weren't the Clash, and that's what I really wanted.
The other disappointments came from bands I'd wanted to catch, but was denied the opportunity due to scheduling. Sex/Vid's set time was changed from the listing, and the Slits canceled their performance at the Dog and Duck (although I did catch them in Detroit a week later). They were two on my list of "must sees" that didn't pan out.
Biggest Live Party
Each year, I come back from SXSW speaking of bands that I stumbled upon and was simply blown away by their live shows. This year, the Biggest Surprise Award goes to Austin's own White Ghost Shivers. Even if someone had the idea of combining vaudeville with The Grand Ole Opry and CBGB the first time around, it probably wouldn't have been this much fun.
A short step behind the Shivers is the Future Kings of Nowhere. Both are party-styled performances, just in a different vein. While the White Ghost Shivers bring their party in a grand fashion, the Future Kings do it a bit more subdued. The party is just as big, but it feels more intimate, like the difference between catching a big band in a dancehall and the celebration of drunken rabble in the sweaty basement of a pub.
The cowpunk experience comes from catching a band in just the right environment, with the right amount of twang, the right amount of sweat and a crowd that is energized beyond mention. Three bands managed to offer that feeling, and only two have southern origins.
Austin's own Scott Biram delivered his trademark performance, as he channeled his energy into his guitar in a way that had the whole crowd on its feet, even though he remained seated, while Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers sweated right along with their fans, blasting out a bayou boogie that was dark and dirty.
Even though they're based out of Chicago, the Waco Brothers, fronted by living legend Jon Langford, brought a manic set of cowpunk that was just as authentic as their southern colleagues, and did it with high kicks.
Best Bit of SWAG
Free SWAG abounds at SXSW, from CDs to stickers to flyers by the pound. There is so much that only the best is worth a second glance. While I am partial to the "I believe in unicorns" t-shirt I got from the folks at buyolympia.com, and honorable mention must go to the tasty fortune cookies with personalized messages from The Heavenly States, the absolute best piece of SWAG was the custom-printed paddleballs that the members of Midtown Dickins were giving out to promote their latest release.
Best Place to Spend a lot of Time (and Money)
The South Congress neighborhood happens to be my favorite part of Austin. Located a short cab ride away from the main drag of SXSW, South Congress is a world of its own.
In addition to having the best venue in all of SXSW, the Continental (where we caught Ceci Bastida this year), the neighborhood boasts a collection of art galleries and shops, the most notable of each being Yard Dog Gallery, where we caught some great music, free beer and picked up a painting, and Allens Boots, where we were coerced by an incredibly friendly staff into bringing back some of the official footwear of Texas. (Be forewarned: good cowboy boots ain't cheap, but a quality pair will be the most comfortable shoe you'll own, and these days they carry a lot more punk cred than Dr. Martens.)