Thursday, March 22, 2007

A couple of firsts...

Here it is. The inaugural edition of the Octopus Motor, and what better way to start this whole thing out than with a recap of my first South by Southwest (from here on out, abbreviated with the super cool “SXSW”) experience. Given that this recap is long as all hell, I hope you can get through it (there’s a nice story about the men’s room towards the end of Friday night, FYI). So here we go!

A few explanatory things about SXSW:

First, my entire experience at the festival was in the company of my lovely girlfriend Laura, who was in town for Spring Break. So you’ll see lots of first person, plural pronouns, as well as her name mentioned quite a bit. Just a heads up.

Second, for SXSW there are three ways for you to get into a show. You can get a badge, which is what press people and photographers have (or rich people who can afford to pay the $500 or whatever to buy one). Badge people get top priority when it comes to getting into venues. They get to go to the front of the line, always. You can get a wristband (which is what Laura and I had), which means you don’t pay a cover and you get priority over people just paying cash, but are behind the badges. Or you can just show up early to a venue and pay a cash cover, but you get stuck behind all the badges and wristbands.

Third, though the shows at night are the official SXSW shows, there are an abundance of free “day parties,” which are basically concerts during the day put on by either record labels and/or music publications. Besides offering you the chance to see twice the amount of live music, the day parties also tend to entail free beer and possibly food. So those were definitely attended.

Fifth and finally, I will list locations, venues, and general Austin landmarks as if you know them. So if it bothers you that I offer no explanations, well, up yours. Same with bands and people.

And off we go…


Wednesday
:
Daytime: We begin our adventure by heading out to the day party at Trophy’s (a little dive bar on the south side of town) to check out some local bands: She Sang (or She Said?), Fire v. Extinguisher, the Onlys, and the Ghost of the Russian Empire.

She Sang/Said were boring in the worst way. Once you heard the tempo (which rarely changed from mid-tempo) and the first chord, you knew exactly how the song would go. Really, it was just a painful lesson in patience, since after five seconds you just wanted the whole three minute long song to end. Thankfully Fire v. Extinguisher took the stage next. This band was awesome. They played their entire set while seemingly completely oblivious to the audience. Mostly they just stood up there, staring at their instruments, the floor, or each other as they blasted out some loud, heavy post-rock weirdness. The Onlys, whom Laura really liked, were nice mix of pop and rock with some keyboard flourishes (reminiscent of the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev as Laura pointed out), trading off vocals between two really good singers. Nice change of pace. Especially after the dreadfully boring pop of She Sang/Said, and a nice reprieve after the sonic assault of Fire v. Extinguisher. Finally the Ghost of the Russian Empire came on to dazzle us with their old man take on embarrassingly bad Trans Siberian Orchestra-style rock. We lasted less than two songs before the middle aged violinist’s playing forced us to give up and go home for dinner.

The entire experience was strange for a couple of reasons. Not the least of which was the fact this was a place that really needs to be patronized after sunset. It’s also the type of place that requires more than a few cheap beers in the bloodstream to really enjoy (reminds me a bit of the 8Ball in Ann Arbor, but not nearly as cool). There was something very odd about staring into a dark corner of the bar watching the band, and then glancing back over my shoulder to see sunshine coming in through the front door. Not exactly sure why, but that was a perpetually unsettling experience. By the time we left, spending a good four hours in a tiny (albeit kind of cool) bar in the middle of the day kind of got to us. We were more than happy when it turned out that the Ghost of the Russian Empire was unbearably bad, and we got to skip out early.

Nighttime: Our first official SXSW show was at Emo’s to see Blonde Redhead. We stood in line for 2 hours and 15 minutes, waiting in the wristband line, watching countless badge people get in ahead of us. We were really hoping to get in in time to see Calla, but we had to settle for hearing them through the walls of the club. We did get to see Kyle and his friend as they went back and forth to go to a bunch of shows. I never could decide if it was nice or frustrating to watch them have fun while we stood on a sidewalk for hours. Finally we got in.

Blonde Redhead were awesome. Though they’re one of those bands that I like every time I hear them, but never seem to get around to buying one of their albums, their live show was much more impressive than I expected. They really balance catchy pop song structure with left-of-center weirdness without falling into predictability (on the pop side) or needless experimentations and noodling (on the weird side). One song in particular had such a rumbling and bass heavy stomp, 30 seconds into it all I could think was “I bet the Apocalypse will sound something like this.” Not at all what I expected to come out of that trio. Plus, on top of all that, I got to meet an overly enthusiastic Canadian from Nova Scotia. In the midst of the show, a guy stumbled up next to me, wearing a frilly-ruffle-fronted tuxedo shirt, and proceeded to tell me over and over again about how much he loved Austin. “I had eight of your American beers and four whiskey-cokes!” he yells at me over the din of the show, while precariously holding three more of his whiskey-cokes. He did give me the inside scoop on where to hang out in the event I ever decide to vacation in Canada. Calgary is apparently the place to be (he claimed is was the most Austin of all Canadian cities because “they have lots of oil there too”). Or Montreal, but they speak French there.

All in all, Blonde Redhead ended up being totally worth the long wait in line. On the downside, Laura really wanted to get a taste of some Texas BBQ, and unfortunately, being a poor grad student and having only lived here since August, I don’t eat out a whole lot and didn’t know of any really good BBQ places (besides the Salt Lick, which I had never been to and only really knew three things about: 1. it has awesome food, 2. it’s roughly 20-30 minutes outside of town, and 3. I have no idea where it is). So, since we were the first wristband people in line for well over an hour (most of the wristband people in front of us in line had given up and left), we got to know the bouncer pretty well. He recommended a BBQ place on the East Side, and well, that’s a story for another day…

Thursday:

Daytime: We headed out to the Yard Dog Folk Art Gallery for another day party. This venue was much more suited to day time activities. A little folk art shop on South Congress had set up a big tent in the alley behind the store, tapped a couple of kegs, began dispensing free (unfortunately Miller Lite) beer, and let the good times role. The weather was sunny and hot, and the bands were all good from what we saw. Trophy’s was pretty cool and all, but this is more what I had in mind when I first heard about Day Parties. We caught the Cold War Kids (pretty good upbeat pop), Midlake (really good lush melancholy pop), and Bishop Allen (still a little undecided – between just OK and pretty good folksy pop/rock). Plus we actually had something to do during set changes, with South Congress’s densely packed little shops and stores all within a few steps. All in all, a good day in the sun, with a lovely lady, and good music. Good work Yard Dog Folk Gallery.

Dinner: We decide to checkout the BBQ place that the bouncer at Emo’s recommended the night before. He said to take MLK east, and that it will be on the south side of the street just before Airport. Easy enough. Well, first of all, I totally underestimated how for east you have to go on MLK before you hit Airport. We drove and drove, as the city sort of fell away and it just became a series of relatively poor neighborhoods. Finally, with Airport in sight, the only thing we could see that even resembles a restaurant is a tiny, white paint-chipped, stand with a faded sign that read “Lewis’ BBQ”. That was it. The “restaurant” we were pointed to by the bouncer turned out to be a broken down, little, neighborhood BBQ shack. And I don’t mean “shack” in a descriptive sense. I mean it in a literal sense. Basically, we drove by it, looked at each other, and on we went to a new place. (Weirdly enough, after over an hour of driving, we ended up at Ruby’s BBQ, which is about 3 blocks from my apartment, where we ran into an Ann Arbor pop band called Tally Hally, composed of guys Laura and I went to college with).

Nighttime: Tonight involved a lot more bar hopping and a lot less line-standing. Though, the night didn’t necessarily start that way. We headed to Buffalo Billiards to try and catch Bob Mould, but underestimated the line. After about 30 minutes in line, listening to a homeless man sing out in a booming (quite impressive, actually) baritone, what seemed to be an endless medley of ‘60s and early ‘70s pop-hits, we decided it would be best to just move on. That and the fact that the Bob Mould show had actually started about 3 minutes prior.

We headed over to Antone’s to get in line for the Astralwerks Showcase (really just to watch Norwegian heartthrob Sondre Lerche, as Laura put it, play “the guitar and girls’ heartstrings”). We watched some crappy band (the Small Sins, maybe?) and met a pleasant young man we affectionately nicknamed “Seattle Sam” (who was in fact from Seattle, but we never got his name, and we are ever so fond of alliteration). But then Sondre came on with his bright-eyed-big-grinned enthusiasm. Even though his new “rock” album did reek a bit of the straight-laced honor student trying to play the rockstar, it was good clean fun nonetheless.

Following Sondre, we headed back to the other end of downtown to check out the line at Stubbs, hoping for a chance to see the Dears. That didn’t work, so we walked to Emo’s Annex, which was basically a big tent across the street from Emo’s. Even though the line was too long for us to get into the show, the plus side to a giant tent as a venue is that all you have to do is stand next to it in order to hear all the music. So we hung around in the street for a while listening to JESU. But standing in the middle of the street, staring at a tent, listening to blaring/sweeping drone metal did get old after a while, so it was time to move on again.

With nothing on our massive, nerdy, ├╝ber-organized SXSW personalized schedule/spreadsheet for the rest of the night, we decided to just head down Sixth St. and look for the shortest line, which happened to be Bourbon Rocks. We stepped inside only to be assaulted with some extremely intense, prog/electro metal courtesy of a Portland band named Danava. Even though we only heard about 5 minutes of them, they seemed pretty rad. The rest of the night was fairly uneventful. Bourbon Rocks was a pretty cool venue, so we hung out on the porch and had a couple of beers, listening to the music coming from inside. The only other thing of note was the next band on, that, as Laura astutely observed, “looks like Kurt Cobain got together with Charles Manson and Jack Kerouac to form a band with an Amish guy.” Their name was Cheeseburger-something-or-other, and their music wasn’t noteworthy at all (I couldn’t even tell you what style of music it was), but they were a sight to behold.

Friday:

Daytime: Friday marked the darkest part of the week for me, and thanks to my relentless pouting and complaining, probably for Laura too. The Stooges were set to headline a pretty huge night at Stubbs on Saturday, and I desperately wanted to see them. After one look at the line up for the night, though, which included Spoon and Kings of Leon among others, we knew that we’d have to get there at noon for us to have a chance to get in (damn badge people!). Luckily, earlier in the week we went to Waterloo Records to do some shopping and found out that the Stooges were doing an in-store performance Friday afternoon!!!

Knowing that it was going to be huge, we get to Waterloo at 1pm. The workers inform us that we can stick around if we want, but that the line for the actual performance won’t be allowed to form until 4:30pm. We go out to eat a delicious sushi lunch, after being turned away by an Indian restaurant. We get back to the store around 3pm and begin to mill about the parking lot for an hour and a half. 4:30pm rolls around and Waterloo, treating their customers with the same amount of respect and courtesy usually reserved for packs of elementary school children or convicts, decides to send an employee to the sidewalk behind the mob of people and announce, “The Line Starts Here!” Of course the mad rush of the crowd pushes everyone onto the sidewalk and into the street. Now, granted we were not the first people there, but probably in the first twenty or so to be at the store. Thanks to Waterloo’s ass-backward system and complete disrespect for their own customers, we end up in the back third of the line.

After a long while and lots of yelling on the part of the Waterloo staff, the line becomes more or less single-file, allowing them to do a “count” of sorts. Basically, a couple of employees wander to the back of the line and say, “Well, probably right around that telephone pole [which we were definitely in front of] is going to be the cut-off. The people behind it might not get in. The people in front of it might get in. But we don’t really know.” Awesome. We may or may not get in. Way to “count” boys. It’s really a wonder why you’re 40 years old and work in a record store. Long story short, after another hour and a half of standing around, they start to let people into the store. We get progressively closer and closer to the door. The capacity for the store was 300 people. Laura and I end up being, roughly, numbers 314 and 315. We came downtown 5 hours early, skipped a showcase at Red 7 hosted by David Cross, waited in the parking lot for an hour and a half, waited in line for 2 hours, and were denied entrance. Thank you Waterloo for running your establishment with the obvious knowledge that you can do whatever the fuck you want to your customers and treat them however the fuck you want, knowing that they’ll stick around. The only consolation was that while we were waiting in line on the sidewalk, Iggy Pop’s Towncar got stopped at a red light right next to us. We didn’t get to see them perform, but we got to see Iggy in a car. Thanks to Laura’s quick hand, she snapped a really good picture of him.

Well, after that massive cock-tease of an afternoon, neither of us were in anything resembling a pleasant mood. After driving in an emotional state that doesn’t really lend itself to that particular activity, we parked in the convention center parking structure and sat in the car for a while. Eventually working up the energy to find some coffee and head down to the river to watch the bats come out from under the S. Congress bridge. For those not in the know, the S. Congress bridge is home to the nation’s (possibly the world’s, I don’t remember) largest urban bat colony. Every evening at sunset 1.5 million brown bats fly out from under the bridge and off into the deep orange sky. The tranquil setting of the riverside at sunset, followed by watching bats fly off into the evening sky, really did the trick to calm some nerves, gearing us up for some of the greatest rock this side of the Pacific has seen since, well, I guess last year’s SXSW. Get ready for JAPANESE ROCK NIGHT!!!


Nighttime
: Laura and I walk from the bridge up to Elysium around 8pm. Elysium is a cool, kickass venue that usually serves as Austin’s primary goth club. It’s where I saw My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult last November. Their men’s room is also where I met the Thrill Kill Kult (not in a weird way, we just happened to be sharing the same urinal/trough after the show). Try and remember that, it’s important for the story later.

Anyways, we get to Elysium and there is a long cash cover line, and our wristbands payoff and we walk past them like a couple of arrogant badge-people and into the bar. The first band we see, Oreskaband, is a high school-teenage-all-girl-ska-punk band. I really doubt that I could ever explain or describe the energy, craziness, and just downright fun of Japanese night. Watching six or seven teenage girls giggle and trade stage banter in broken English before launching into a raucous, bouncy ska tune, filled with coordinated hand gestures and call and responses with the audience was one of the coolest things I had seen in a long time. That is until the next band came on.

But first, Laura and I stepped out on Elysium’s patio to finish our drinks and get some air during set change. We notice a pack of very snazzily dressed Japanese men sitting at the table next to us. We then hear a girl in the cash line yell “Emeralds! I love you!” At which point we realize that the young men are a surf-punk trio playing later in the evening, called the Emeralds. They were polite enough to pose for a picture with Laura. The picture is completely rad, possibly better than the Iggy picture. Then we felt we had accomplished all we could on the patio and stepped back inside for the next band. Soon to experience what was possibly the highlight of the festival for me (occurring only a few short hours after the low point).

We walk into the venue and see three men in matching old-timey tuxedos standing on the stage. The50Kaitenz had arrived. These three gentle souls performed garage/surf rock with such furious enthusiasm and unbridled energy that I really thought they might pass out at any given moment. Filled with anguished facial expressions, constant shouting, and synchronized head nodding and stage running, their show was one of the greatest things I have ever seen. Mixing furious garage-punk nose with sharp, crisp surf rock riffs, the band played like they were going to either save the world or destroy it with their retro rock’n’roll.

I had been hearing a lot about how great Japanese night is from many people. Pretty much anyone who had witnessed it said that it was an annual must-see for SXSW goers. It was everything they promised and so much more. If I go to any shows next year, Japanese night will definitely be at the top of the list. Given that SXSW is a chance to see as much music as possible in as short a time as possible, we decided it was time to move on after witnessing the genius of the50Kaitenz.

We headed down Sixth St. to Eternal to make sure we had plenty of time to get in line for the Faint. We underestimated the size of the line (I think the Bob Mould experience kind of threw us for a loop and we didn’t really know what to expect from the line situation). We got into the bar a good 3 hours ahead of time. Laura and I settled in, got a beer, and talked our way through some openers. I have no idea if they were good or bad, but apparently they were forgettable since the only thing I can remember about them is that one of them at some point played some Pixies cover. Eventually 12:30am rolled around and the stage was set for the Faint.

In typical fashion, the Faint put on an intense live show. One forcing you to jump, dance, swing, and generally move in that goofy way white people dance when listening to loud, beat heavy, electro-tinged, techno-goth. The Faint did their usual shtick of mixing blatant (at times downright silly) sexual lyrics with in your face glitch rhythms and pretentious visual accompaniment for a great live show. Of course, the venue was packed to the rafters with drunk hipsters and assholes. With all that rhythm and dancing, arms were flying, people were pushing, temperature was nauseatingly high, and a girl accidentally put her cigarette out on my hand. Now, I enjoy a tightly packed concert as much as the next guy, but this was above and beyond uncomfortable, straight into the realm of the unpleasant. In short, the show was good, the crowd was bad, and the experience ultimately yielded mixed results. On the plus side, realizing that the show was coming to an end soon, I rushed off to the bathroom, knowing that it would take me a while to push myself through the crowd. As I stand at the urinal, taking care of business, some guys walk in, stand around, and I hear, “Hey, pass that over here.” I glance over and see the lead singer of the Faint take a giant joint from the keyboard player. I look around (after I’m done with my business, mind you), and the only people in the bathroom are me, the lead singer, the keyboard player, and the drummer from the band. (Remember the Thrill Kill Kult, huh? Apparently all you need to do to meet a band is head to the men’s room during the final song.) I asked, “I know this is weird, considering this is the bathroom and all, but could I get a picture?” To which the keyboard player responded, “Bathroom?! This is our backstage.” And lead singer responded, “Oh, I got these earplugs, and I think we need to do an encore or something.” In short, keyboard player, pretty cool and funny. Lead singer, kind of a dick, and he totally looked pretty rough up close. So take that lead singer of the Faint! You’re not as pretty as you look on stage. And your hear-line is receding. The Faint – 0, Scott –1.

Saturday:

Daytime: At this point, Laura and I have been waking up around 10am, going out around noon, taking an hour or so break for dinner, and then going out until 2am for the past three days. We decided a less stressful day was in order. So we stuck around my apartment until 4pm-ish and drove downtown to checkout a free concert poster art show at the Convention Center. While we were walking up to the Convention Center we hear a strange sound. A sound that was strangely familiar. We were intrigued. As we turned the corner, we discover that the strangely familiar strange sound was the Buzzcocks. The Buzzcocks playing a free show in a tent on the side of the road. So, what the hell, we walk in and catch the last two songs of their set (“What do I get” and “Ever Fallen in Love”). Fun little accident. We then head into the Convention Center to check out the art show. It was awesome. Tons of artists displaying some very rad concert posters for just about any band you can think of. Totally worth seeing.

Nighttime: Following in the tradition of the daytime activities, we decide that it’s best to lay low and wait until the 11:30pm Detroit Cobras show at the Red Eyed Fly. We leave somewhere around 9:30pm to head downtown. Low and behold, traffic is about ten times worse than it has been any other night. Pedestrians are everywhere. What is going on you ask? Could is be that it is Saturday night? Maybe that it is the last night for SXSW? It may be both those things. But what else was Saturday? Hmm… Oh right. It was fucking St. Patrick’s Day! Drunks in stupid over-sized green hats seemed to have taken over downtown.

As we waited in stop and go traffic to get to the Convention Center parking structure, where we had been parking all week, the unthinkable happened. A free street spot opened up right in front of us! Some drunk sorority girls apparently decided that they had had enough St. Patty’s fun for the night and were taking off early. So I snag the spot in an amazing, one-move parallel parking job, not even requiring any adjustments, in bumber-to-bumber traffic. Good thing too, since as we walked by the parking structure on the way to the show, we see a guy place a barrier in the driveway saying that it’s full. Everything’s comin’ up Milhouse.

Laura and I saunter down to the Detroit Cobras show, really with absolutely no idea how popular they are outside the greater Detroit area. Apparently they are quite popular, seeing as the badge-only line was at least 30 or 40 people deep. We didn’t even see the wristband line anywhere, and decided it wasn’t worth sticking around. Instead we just head right over to our final destination for the night, and for SXSW. Junior Senior is playing a 1am show at Exodus.

We stand around drinking some insanely strong mixed drinks from the bar. My Jack and Coke is basically whiskey. Laura’s vodka sour looks clear. We nurse those for a while as we watch Lesbians on Ecstasy play mind numbingly repetitive songs with so much bass it almost made me have to poop. Finally they finish and an OK French band called the Prototypes play. About this time Molly and Dave show up, having been turned away from the huge night at Stubbs (they were more interested in Spoon than the Stooges, though). We chat for a bit while we wait for the Danish duo to take the stage. Then it happens.

Junior Senior come on like the anti-Faint, playing irresistible dance music of the cheerfully fun variety. The music is upbeat, party music. The audience obliged by dancing our little hearts out. Singing along, even when we didn’t know the words. Even the audience was the opposite of the Faint show. It was crowded, but not uncomfortable. It wasn’t pushing and shoving (no cigarettes were put out on my person), it was jumping and waving. It was cheering. Truly an amazing, nay, perfect, ending to the week. Their set ended with the one-two punch of “Move your Feet” and “Shake your Coconuts” (and one other song that I didn’t recognize came last). Ultimately Junior Senior provided the greatest possible outro for an amazing week of nonstop music.

Now, back to St. Patrick’s Day. We left Exodus around 2:15am, stepped out of the bar and on to Sixth St. We were then greeted with the entire street still packed, almost shoulder-to-shoulder with SXSWers, St. Patty celebrants, and just general Saturday night crowds. Keep in mind that throughout the week, Sixth has been closed to traffic, so when I say “Sixth St.” I literally mean the entire street, not just the sidewalks. It was hands down the craziest crowd I have ever seen downtown, only made that much crazier by the fact that they were still around and showed no signs of going anywhere despite the fact that the bars had stopped serving any sort of alcohol a half an hour before. Austin sure is crazy.

Epilogue:

Well, my SXSW experience was a crazy one. I learned a lot. Don’t underestimate how popular bands are (if I want to see them, probably means other people do too). Japanese Night is totally fucking rad. In-stores at Waterloo aren’t as good as they sound. Spending roughly 14 hours a day going to bars and listening to music can be quite exhausting after a few days. Will I do it all again next year? Still undecided on how much I want to commit to it. Wristbands are a maybe, but Japanese Night and day parties are a definite. All in all, a good but exhausting time.

For those of you who made it to the end of this very long and rambling story (sorry about that), future updates will more than likely be reviews of whatever movies I happen to watch, or possibly new music I hear. Thus they will be shorter, probably more informative, and just plain more interesting. Except the second edition will probably be about my first trip to the rodeo, taking place tomorrow night!