Four days spent chasing the dragon in Austin
MUSIC South by Southwest was completely overwhelming, and my feet are killing me. It's hard to avoid the constant feeling of missing out on something, because you always are. But once you get over that fact, it's possible to have a really good time. Here's a highlight reel from my first time at the Austin festival.
Wed/16 Made it to Dallas on the early-early flight from SFO and found the gate for Austin, a hipster ghetto in DFW's sea of middle Americans. The first musician sighting was Toro y Moi, then it was off to the live music capital of the world. Post-credentialing, we attempted to catch Raphael Saadiq at the much-hyped Fader Fort party ... but the line stretched for hours. The first of many scrapped plans. We then stumbled across the Palm Door, where Anamanguchi was playing irresistible Nintendo-core power pop. Later that eve I saw the sweet Icelandic troubadour stylings of Olof Arnalds and caught an amazing version of "Benny and the Jets" by piano gods Marco Benevento.
Thurs/17 Biked straight to a loft party featuring Brasileira MC Zuzuka Poderosa, who was spitting out Funk Carioca lyrics on top of beats by DJ Disco Tits. Tried to go to the NPR showcase, which was done, then tried to see Big Freedia, the "Queen Diva" of Bounce ... all I got was a taste from the sidelines. Ran into SF local Meklit Hadero as she and her band tried to find the venue where they were showcasing. Saw Boston's David Wax Museum at the Paste party and crossed paths with J Mascis on my way out. Caught the tail end of Meklit's show at Marco Werman's "All Music Is World Music" showcase, then Abigail Washburn's stellar bluegrass set. Rode clear across town in the hopes of catching Devotchka at Lustre Pearl, but the line nixed that plan. Came back for the Atlantic Records showcase hoping to check out Lupe Fiasco, but B.O.B was playing in his place. Decided to forgo Janelle Monáe's show (she'd been subbed in for Cee-Lo) so I could get off my feet.
Fri/18 Ran into Red and Green of Peelander-Z, the outrageously festooned Japanese punk band, who sweetly obliged a snapshot (they'll be playing DNA Lounge on April 7th with Anamanaguchi). Got dished up a tasty burger at the Alternative Apparel Lounge as my cohort Matt Reamer was summoned to take pics of Linda Perry. We shared our table with Shane Lawlor of Electric Touch, who chatted about his band's road from getting signed to playing the big festival circuit this year. Checked out James Blake at the Other Music/Dig For Fire lawn party. It was kind of like listening to all the sexy backing elements of a Sade song, without Sade. I loved Tune-Yards' pygmy-esque vocal layering and percussive fervor. Her last song got everyone to their feet with a Fela Kuti vibe. And !!! brought the crazy dance party. I finally felt like I'd arrived at SXSW.
Later that eve, the Shabazz Palaces set was weighed down by sound issues. Ran into the ladies of HOTTUB as I went to see Toronto's Keys N Krates, who killed it: two DJs and a drummer juxtaposing amazing sampling and turntablism with live percussion. Cubic Zirconia's electro funk set at the Fool's Gold showcase was also great. Singer Tiombe Lockhart held court. The closer was seeing Chief Boima during the Dutty Arts Collective showcase.
Sat/19 Last day in Austin. The hot daytime ticket was the MOG.com party at Mohawk. That meant getting there early and committing the entire afternoon ... but the payoff was catching headliners TV on the Radio and Big Boi with just a few hundred other folks. Austin's Okkervil River was playing the outdoor stage when I got there, and then Brooklyn's Twin Shadow was playing inside. Even though they're on the '80s synth-pop bandwagon, they managed to keep things fresh. TV on the Radio's SXSW shows officially put an end to their two-year hiatus and previewed their highly anticipated upcoming album Nine Types of Light. Next up on the outdoor stage was Big Boi. Songs from his recent release had some traction, but whenever an OutKast jam dropped, the crowd lost their shit. A funny moment: when he invited a sea of hipster girls to the stage to shake it with his ATL crew.
That eve, the rumor mill about surprise shows was alive and well. Kanye, Jay-Z, and Justin Timberlake were breathlessly being mentioned around town. The conundrum became one of whether to chase those dragons or stick with a confirmed showcase.
After briefly checking out the Red Bull Freestyle DJ contest, I decided on the confirmed showcase approach. The globetrotting Nat Geo showcase at Habana Bar was stellar. I walked in as Khaira Arby, the legendary queen of Malian desert rock, was rocking the house. Up next was Brooklyn's Sway Machinery, then Aussie roots-reggae group Blue King Brown. Things really got packed for the closing act of Austin's own Grupo Fantasma. The recent Grammy-winning group marched the crowd through the paces of their super tight cumbia, salsa, and funk grooves while experimenting with heavier psych rock influences. I enthusiastically made it through about half their set until my feet cried uncle. I made my way through the sloppy Sixth Street madness, dodging teenage lotharios and puddles of sick on the way to my bike, and then home.
A PHOTOGRAPHER'S ADVICE FOR SXSW FIRST-TIMERS
• You have to let go. You will not see half the acts you want to, but there is always a good band within a few hundred yards — so be where you are and enjoy it. Discover some new music.
• Live music photography is best when there's a mosh pit. It's much easier to move through a swirl than a dense crowd. I'm not the type to post up 30 minutes before the band starts — but I am the type to push up once they're on. Sorry, short people.
• Wear comfortable shoes.
• There is a lot of free booze — but not as much as I thought. (Matt Reamer)