2005 marked my ninth or tenth sojourn to South by Southwest (I honestly can't remember), but it was the first year that I decided to make no advance plans. Making too many commitments has always led to my disappointment after all, one person can only see so many bands. So I was off to Austin, Texas, with a only a handful of friends' cell numbers and two goals: have a good time hanging out with friends and business associates, and see M.I.A. perform. (The former was a success; the latter was ... well, read on.)
Anyone who's even remotely a fan of music is familiar with the South by Southwest conference (2005.sxsw.com), and anyone who's ever been there knows that it is absolutely insane. SXSW is really just too much: 1,200-plus bands "showcasing" over four days to all sorts of "industry" folk, plus unofficial, label/corporate-sponsored daytime parties that have turned from hair-of-the-dog gatherings into full-on hype machines for well-funded artists, easily making every day an 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. affair. That is, if you feel obligated to be everywhere at once. Thankfully, I was under no such obligation, but I still managed to see great stuff.
But first, a little disclaimer: The fine folks at Fighting Records sprung for my plane ticket and gave me a bed to sleep in.
And a bigger disclaimer: Most of this accounting is incredibly self-referential and far from comprehensive.
THURSDAY, MARCH 17
Rode in on the same plane as Rick Wheeler (Axis magazine), David Beame (local entertainment lawyer) and Dan Verduin (of the ever-craptacular Big 10-4). The best part was hearing Verduin schmooze the girl sitting next to him with hoary business-speak: "I don't have a showcase or anything … I mean, I might play a couple of acoustic sets or something. My manager and lawyer are gonna be there, so, you know, I'm just gonna be networking and stuff."
He probably got himself a record deal by talking like that, but I still thought it was funny.
First up, Biirdie, featuring ex-Gainesville-ian Jared Flamm along with his girlfriend/keyboardist/minor celebrity's sister Kala Savage. They made an impressive album, but put forth a less impressive live presence. Maybe it was the fact that at 8 p.m. I wasn't in the mood for their organic, downtempo chamber-pop. Within the next 20 minutes, my mood was definitely improved: I saw a decent, if somewhat nostalgic, band from Reykjavik (Ske), the last five minutes of the Austin Theremonic Orchestra and three bananas walking down the street.
Vindication comes when we arrive at La Zona Rosa and the line to get in is a block and a half long. "Hey Paul, can we get a drink now?" We had several, and our largely political discussion was the most intelligent one I had all week.
Speaking of stupid lines, the one outside Elysium for M.I.A.'s set was ridiculous, especially since the venue was nowhere near full. "Oh well," I said after hauling ass over there. "I'll just see her at the Vice party tomorrow." The Fates rolled their eyes.
On to Stubb's for Graham Coxon and Fatboy Slim. I see friends from Astralwerks and Warner Bros., but what's cool is Bradley he's all atwitter at seeing Coxon, and it's cute in a wish-I-wasn't-so-crusty kinda way. According to my Astralwerks friend, Damon Albarn is backstage, a fact that Dan finds ironic in some way connected to Fatboy Slim, but I'm too drunk and cold to stay with his logic. I shiver and nod.
We split in order to make it to the Merge showcase in time for the "Special Guest." "It's Dinosaur Jr.," I self-assuredly proclaim. "Wait," I say later. "It's totally Arcade Fire." (I say these things in a state of drunken cluelessness.) The band starts to play and Dan says, "Is that Spoon?" "Dude, it's totally Spoon. I so knew that." So did Michael McRaney (The Social) and Chuck Dinkins (House of Blues), who were cool enough to be there and smart enough not to think Arcade Fire was playing.
FRIDAY, MARCH 18
Show slate? Limited. Baltimore's Oxbow was heavy and weird and excellent. The first night of Japan Night (which I haven't missed since my first SXSW) hosted i-Dep, a semi-spazzy soul-funk group from Tokyo, as well as The Pillows and other decent bands. But I was beat and relatively uninspired by the schedule, so I caught just two more bands: Big Business and the trashy, predictable Black Lips.
SATURDAY, MARCH 19
An innocent shopping trip quickly turned into free beer at a party hosted by Yep Roc Records and Harp magazine. Some solid bands played (Chatham County Line, Thad Cockrell/Caitlin Cary), but what was cool was running into people I hadn't seen for years (an excellent writer I've worked with at national publications, my first record store boss and my first publisher). Leaving, I run into a friend who works at Wind-Up Records (can you believe that someone at Wind-Up Records actually likes someone at Orlando Weekly? Me neither!) and an independent publicist I've worked with forever. I head back to Flatstock, hoping to help Dan Stone score a pair of free shoes. Sorry, Dan!
Undaunted, we moved on to a massive party hosted by the folks at New Times. In the past, I've said many bad things about New Times generic format, high employee turnover, unfair business practices but I will say this: Those assholes can throw a party. Seeing Be Your Own Pet, a high-energy batch of teen punks from Nashville was the goal, and though we only saw their last two songs, there was free Jack Daniel's and beer! But for some reason, we decide to leave and a few minutes later, we're at the Misra Records party where I get to gloat to a couple of friends from L.A. that Centro-Matic (and Will Johnson) play Orlando all the time, so their set here isn't that big of a deal. More parties, featuring the ultra-awesome Panthers, The Witnesses (great garage rock), Young Heart Attack (good irony rock) and another band (so shitty I've forgotten their name).
Sought refuge at Japan Night 2 and wound up disappointed. Suns Owl was so treacherously nü-metal awful, all present agreed that if they were from Orlando, they'd be called Grumpy. (I won't mention who was there, but it doesn't bode well for Grumpy.)
Although I hung around for a bit of Niño Astronauta's set, it was clear that I was done for the night, so I headed up to a nearby corner to catch a cab. There, I encountered not one, but four familiar faces. One of them tried to steal a cab from me, and when I saw how drunk she was, I gladly allowed her. The cab driver offered to drive me too, so I hopped in, fully expecting her to puke all over me. Thankfully she didn't, and as we pulled into the traffic circle of the Hyatt, who do I see but Erykah Badu and her big-ass head of hair. "That's pretty cool," I thought. My African-born cabbie thought it was really cool and rolled down the window to tell her what a beautiful sister she was and how she was an inspiring light to the world. Badu was gracious (if condescending), but one of her handlers was less so. "Get the fuck out the way, Mbubu!" he bellowed.
It's almost as classy as when I get back to my hotel and I see the guys from Apocalyptica loading their gear inside, I ask 'em how their show went and their only response is a grunt that sounded an awful lot like "Fuck you." Hey, you're welcome, fucker.