Thursday, March 17
The first important lesson that everyone would do well to learn from SXSW is that most lines aren’t worth standing in. The line to pick up a badge for the Fader Fort on Wednesday was a reminder of how patient people are willing to sometimes be in the name of free entertainment. But the thing about SXSW is that most artists who make the trek down to Austin will make good use of their time and play as many shows as logistically possible throughout the week. So chances are, if you’re spending more than 30 minutes waiting for something, with few notable exceptions, you’re probably wasting your time.
Unfortunately, Thursday presented more opportunities for wasted time than I anticipated.
1 PM: Before heading inside to catch any of the acts for the day, we ran into a makeshift St. Patrick’s Day parade on Sixth Street, headed by, of all things, a New Orleans brass band! Clearly, the combination was a little confusing, but nonetheless, this kind of crazy fun breaks out all the time at SXSW. And Mardi Gras wasn’t that long ago, I suppose. And it’s also Spring Break for some. So why not combine as many celebrations as possible!
1:30 PM: The afternoon got off to a good start at the Paradise, which was hosting an all-Canadian day party that lent the venue the unofficial name, “Canada House.” And despite a pretty solid lineup, the venue wasn’t anywhere near capacity. However, there was a pretty long line for free nachos and tacos. And yes, I waited in it, and I don’t regret that decision. After indulging in some nachos and Lone Stars, Candice and I caught an abbreviated but high energy set from Cadence Weapon, one of the highlights of our experience at SXSW. This time out, Rollie Pemberton was joined by not only a DJ, but also a drummer, who gave a little extra oomph to his left field hip-hop.
2 PM: The main event at Canada House, at least as far as I was concerned, was Kingston, Ontario duo PS I Love You, with whom we had the pleasure of chatting earlier in the day. Though the band comprises merely a drummer and guitarist, the band’s sound is much bigger and more hard-hitting than one might imagine. Their riff-heavy indie rock style recalls the vintage crunch of Dinosaur Jr. or the amiable aggression of Archers of Loaf, and though they only had about 20 minutes to do their thing, they made excellent use of their time, churning out one of the highlight performances of the day.
2:40 PM: One of my must see acts at SXSW 2011 is Wild Flag, the brand new band featuring members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium and the Minders. Mountain Goat John Darnielle seemed to agree, having Tweeted earlier in the day that there’s really no point in going to the fest this year if you’re not going to watch Wild Flag. As it just so happened, the group was playing early in the afternoon at The Parish at NPR’s party. And it’s at this point I realize that I’m far from alone in my quest on being hell-bent on seeing Carrie Brownstein shred this week. The line at the Parish was at least 75 deep, and not moving particularly quickly. Nonetheless, we stood patiently, slowly roasting in the sun, which had been hiding for most of the morning. Fifteen minutes pass and we get closer to the front, but at this time the band would likely have already started. A few more minutes. A few feet closer. Soon enough it’s 3:10 and our opportunity is looking grim. Optimistic that we’ll have better chances at one of the five other shows they’ll be playing later, we move on.
3:30 PM: Over at Beerland, Stereogum was hosting an all day, free party that leaned heavy on goth-tinged acts, with a little bit of metal just to add some burly flavor. We arrived in time to see New York avant garde metal band Liturgy, whose own take on extreme metal is truly something to behold. Though the band seemed unusually shy between songs, saying little more than “Thanks,” their sound was an entirely different matter. Massive and powerful, complex and eerily beautiful, it’s something akin to a hybrid of Lightning Bolt, Krallice and Glenn Branca. So let that swirl around for a minute, and you realize just how amazing of a combination that is. Color me impressed.
5 PM: Attempt to see Wild Flag, number two. The band is scheduled to play early in the evening at the Village Voice party/showcase at the Austin Music Hall, which, it’s worth noting, is kind of a hike from the Red River/Sixth Street Corridor. As I arrive I cringe at the sight of a painfully long line. Offensively long. Disgustingly long. Far longer than the queue at the Parish earlier that day. But the Austin Music Hall, one should note, is enormous. So I had trouble believing that the line was a result of overcapacity. Rather, everyone was waiting because the doors hadn’t opened yet. Things run late, it’s understandable. So we get in line, patiently anticipating that the doors will open soon. They don’t. Fifteen minutes pass… Thirty… This is getting annoying. I walk way the hell up to the front to see what the deal is. I’m told “we’ll be opening shortly.” So, I throw up my hands and go back. Another fifteen minutes pass… And all of a sudden I’m overcome with the all-too-familiar feeling of futility. If a venue can’t be bothered to open their doors 30, hell, 45 minutes after they advertised they would, then I’m not going to bother with indulging them.
6 PM: Okay, I’ll catch Wild Flag on Friday or Saturday. All hope is not lost. But Lambert’s is nearby, and their gourmet barbecue sounds delightful. Some tender and flaky brisket, some creamy mashed potatoes and a cocktail, and all is right with the world. The irritation from having to wait in lines to nowhere just melts off. The wind had picked up something fierce outside, making the patio dining a little bit more of an adventure, but otherwise, a perfect break.
8 PM: And now for something completely different. Pitchfork is hosting three separate events this week, their official showcase taking place at the Central Presbyterian Church, an unusual venue to be sure, but one that was unexpectedly perfect for the occasion. With no booze being served, and ample pew space, the church offered a chance to rest and decompress a little bit as well as catch some amazing acts. Julianna Barwick took the stage first, and as her amazing new album The Magic Place would suggest, she’s a perfect fit for the kind of acoustics a church provides. Looping her voice over and over into a breathtaking one-woman choir, Barwick sounded heavenly. In another venue, it might not have had the same effect, but here, the performance sounded absolutely amazing.
9 PM: I can’t be the only one who finds it ironic a band called Cults is playing in a church, right? Anyhow, the New York band, fronted by a duo of San Diego transplants, found a cool niche between twee pop and soulful, bluesy rock. Doesn’t sound like a mix that should work, but it does. More importantly, the band had a very refined look, all of the men in the band (save for the odd-man-out keyboard player) wore white shirts and dark pants, and had long straight locks of hair, while their female singer was also clad in white, giving them the look of, perhaps, being their own cult! Not bad.
10 PM: Los Angeles’ Glasser sat near the top of my must-see list for SXSW, in large part due to her amazing 2010 album Ring, a stunning work of electronic art-pop. And after seeing Glasser’s performance on Thursday, the act shot to the top of my favorites. Building strange and incredible effects from MIDI through guitar and other means, the band made a stunning backdrop against which singer Cameron Mesirow beautifully cooed, chirped and yelped. From the opening, tribal stomp of “Apply,” the group set an impossibly high standard that few bands that evening would be likely to follow. Mesirow, clad in a black and white dress with an odd, triangular top skirt made of heavy brocade that floated around her, proved to be the kind of frontwoman that was born to be a performer. Not only was her voice absolutely mesmerizing, but her jerky, eccentric dance moves were absolutely entrancing. I don’t even mind that they skipped “Mirrorage.” Their set was perfect.
10:45: Back to Beerland to close out the evening with a heavy goth mood. Shortly after arrival, Cult of Youth took the stage, and their goth Pogues act proved to be an interesting addition to St. Patrick’s Day. Keeping in the theme, Pop. 1280 turned the sound to a sort of mixture of dissonant post-punk and coldwave, which was cool enough, primarily because of their vintage synth sounds. But a little bit of drama erupted when TRUST took the stage. A trio comprising a highly affected singer, a keyboardist that primarily cued 303 patterns and a drummer, the band had a fairly simple setup, but due to some monitor issues, had trouble getting off the ground. The drummer even angrily shouted “Does anyone here want to be a soundman?” That probably didn’t do them any favors, and with the show already running pretty late, their window to perform was rapidly coming to a close. After about five songs of fairly generic dance pop that extended far longer than they should have, the band’s set was cut short by the sound men, who were looking at closing time just around the corner. On the one hand, I felt bad for the band for having to go through a frustrating technical setup. On the other hand, I didn’t miss them when they left.
1:30 AM: You knew this was leading somewhere, and here it is: Zola Jesus. Nika Roza Danilova, the California goth queen who made a stunning name for herself with EPs Stridulum and Valusia, closed out the evening with her only performance in Austin this week. And while the setup was simple, just her and her keyboardist, the impact was nonetheless quite heavy. Her vocals were massive and gorgeous, a lot more so than one might imagine from such a tiny woman. With a fair amount of tall dudes packed in a small dive bar, it was a little difficult to see the goth pixie at times, but Danilova, ever the charismatic performer, climbed on top of monitors and amps, and crawled out into the crowd, which was a delight to witness. With a set closing at 2:15 AM, the lateness of the evening/morning started to catch up with us, and it was time to catch a shuttle back to our hotel way out across Lady Bird Lake before we missed our window.