Tuesday, May 5, 2009

South By Southwest 2009 - a late review from a former Twister, Tim Garvey

Perhaps it’s too little too late – it’s definitely too late – but for what it’s worth, I went to SXSW in March of 2009, and this is what I have to say about it.

I spent most of my twenties working at Twist and Shout. When I entered my thirties, I decided it was time for me to try something new. Not one for slow progressions, I opted to leave the happy confines of my all-time favorite record store and explore my academic side and enrolled in law school. Having spent the past year and a half studying books rather than liner notes, I was ecstatic when I discovered that this year’s spring break (woo!) coincided with SXSW 2009. While I have no regrets about trading my life as a record store geek for a real-life academic geek, it sure was nice to be around people that I could talk about music with once again.

What follows is a brief description of what happens when a law student tries to recapture his former life as a music enthusiast:

Day One:

I started the festival off by going to a lecture on the art of song writing by the one and only Jarvis Cocker. Some of you may have no idea what this means, but to me this was the event of a lifetime. Jarvis Cocker was the main songwriter and lead singer for the Brit-pop group Pulp, which provided the soundtrack to a large portion of my formative years. Had I never discovered Pulp it’s quite possible that I would never have fallen in love with music the way that I did. Pulp affected my life in the way that few other bands ever have.

During this lecture, Professor Cocker explained to a standing room only crowd why Noel Gallagher was wrong when he said the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” was proof that one could write a load of gibberish and call it genius. He broke down every aspect of the song exposing the true genius that it was, while at the same time exposing the ignorance of the Oasis songwriter.

The next step in Prof. Cocker’s lecture was to denounce the unfortunate trap that many songwriters fall into when they embrace “rhyme whorism.” To demonstrate what he meant by the term “rhyme whore,” he sang Karaoke to Des’ree’s hit song “Life.” Seeing a bespectacled gentlemen in a bespoke suit sing karaoke to such a trite song was thoroughly enjoyable. At other points in his lecture, he pointed to subtleties of great songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, and Scott Walker, and explained the differences between them and modern-day troubadours such as James Blunt. While discussing Scott Walker, he played a video he had made as a student for one of Walker’s songs. That was a treat. Not necessarily for the quality of the film (which was obviously that of a student), but rather because of his willingness to share such a project with those assembled. Clearly though, the biggest thrill (at least for the many Pulp fans at the lecture) came when he broke out the acoustic guitar and played a few of his own songs to demonstrate the point of his lecture. Hearing him play “Babies” (an all-time favorite of mine) was among the highlights of the festival.

With my day off to a proper start, I was in a great mood to check out lots of bands in the evening. I’ll confess, having been away from music for so long, I had to trust the advice of some friends. Let’s just say I haven’t talked to a few of those friends since I’ve returned . . .

The Bands:

Dananananaykroyd – Probably my favorite band of the whole festival. They’re a young Scottish band that just blew me away. It’s hardcore pop music with hugs. A bit like Les Savvy Fav meets Belle & Sebastian – only with a lot more hugs. At one point they got the crowd to form a mosh pit of sorts, and then instead of having everyone run into each other they had everyone run together and hug. Truly a great energetic live band. Sadly, they have no domestic label, and therefore no domestic albums, but expect that to change soon.

I also caught several other bands, though not all deserve mention. Ty Seagall from San Francisco was a lot of lo-fi indie fun; Blank Dogs, Wavves, Vivian Girls were all worth seeing too.

Day Two:

Many people will tell you that one of the best things about SXSW is all the free booze! I can only partly agree with such statements. Free booze can be fun, but when you combine it with a lot of heat, a lot of people, and a lot of time, you have the possibility of making a lot of bad decisions. Fortunately, my decisions were not nearly as bad as those made by three friends of mine who all decided to get tattoos to celebrate their partying spirit. I cannot decide which of those three made the worst decision but have narrowed it down to two – either the seal with a ball on its nose that said “Party!” or the sombrero that said “Fiesta!” I’ll let you decide. In any case, here are some of the bands that I remember seeing, and remember sort of enjoying...

The Bands:

School of Seven Bells – Newly-signed to Ghostly International, SVIIB quickly differentiate themselves from the rest of that label’s roster (at least as I knew it a year and a half ago) as they are neither dancey nor glitchy. They are simply pretty. I saw them early in the day, so my memory is pretty good. However, this was at the party where the free booze started being served at noon.

Graham Coxon – another hero for me here. Graham was the guitar player for Blur. While he’s been quietly putting out some fantastic solo albums for more than a decade, he’s evolved from a noisy guitarist into a finger-picking guitarist. That he is amazingly adept at both styles is a quite a pleasant surprise.

(Post script: I managed to record one of Graham Coxon's sets. It's posted on youtube (with Graham's permission), and can be found here: http://tr.youtube.com/user/pannieliner)

Abe Vigoda – different party but more free beer. Abe Vigoda are kids who like loud and noisy music, and make the kind of music they would like to listen to.

Beach House – more pretty soundtrack music.

Tricky – I had been really excited to go see Tricky. That much I remember. I remember being there too. I’m sure it was good, it was Tricky.

Freeland – Former DJ Adam Freeland, re-born as rock and roll frontman. I got talked into going to see this show by an ex-Twist and Shouter (Liz, the former danceroom diva). Not something I would have chosen to see on my own, but I kind of enjoyed it nonetheless. Sounded like The Faint meets ... nope, just sounded like The Faint.

Ended the night in a parking lot where a bunch of smaller bands were playing acoustically under an oak tree until the wee hours of the morning. Decided to leave while The Fresh and Onlys were playing because some random guy asked me if I wanted to buy a bullet-proof vest; when I asked him if I needed one he told me I might.

Day Three:

Nothing was fun this day, but that wasn’t the fault of the bands, it was the fault of all the free booze from the day before. Nonetheless, I managed to check out the 5th Annual Mile-High Fidelity party. While the label I used to run (Public Service Records) helped organize the first two, I was shocked at how many people showed up to the party this year. With bands like Born in the Flood, Photo Atlas, Young Coyotes, and Dressy Bessy playing, I can totally understand why.

The Fresh and Onlys – I finally got to see this band play a proper electric set, and they are fantastic! Lots of lo-fi fuzzed out indie fun. Featuring another former Twister, Wymond Miles, on guitar, this band has the potential of becoming quite big. Think the Modern Lovers meets C86.

Tinted Windows – not nearly as good as I had hoped. This pseudo-supergroup features members of Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, and Cheap Trick, with Taylor Hanson on lead vocals (yes, HANSON). Sometimes a group is less than the sum of its parts.

Glasvegas – I’ll admit I never saw the Jesus and Mary Chain play live, but I love that band. My guess is Glasvegas has never seen them play live either. However, whereas I’m content with that fact, these guys spend every ounce of energy they have trying to re-create exactly what they think that experience would most likely have been.

Camera Obscura – smart, intriguing, intelligent, Scottish pop music. They looked, and sounded exactly as I thought they would. That would be delightful.

Hot Leg – I have a friend who got a “Party” tattoo at SXSW this year – you know, ‘cause that’s what you do when you drink for three days straight. Anyhow, he told me I was gonna love these guys. You know how Tropic Thunder is about a bunch of actors who think they’re making a movie, but it turns out they’re actually in a war. Well, Hot Leg is kind of like that. They think that they’re Spinal Tap, but no one’s told them that they’re actually playing to real audiences yet. I sure do hope someone does that soon.

All in all, another great SXSW experience. But, I’m starting to realize that I might be [gasp!] too old for this. It keeps getting bigger every year with stages spread out across the town. I just can’t run from venue to venue as fast as I used too. I also can’t appreciate all the free booze in the way that it should really be appreciated. But then again, where else are you going to get the chance to see 1600 bands in four days, and everything from Metallica to, well, any of the other 1599 bands at the festival?

-Tim Garvey

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic to see you Mr. Garvey! And FYI, Tricky was OK but he was too stoned to really deliver and we were too drunk to care. - Liz, the former danceroom diva (I may get this tattooed somewhere... perhaps on someone else's ass.)