If you’ve ever been to a convention center for any reason, you can understand how it feels like an airport without planes. Add to that, the security is almost more annoying, and to get anywhere you have to depend on your own feet, or a taxi—or bus—or, in environmentally conscientious Austin, a pedi-cab…
So, it’s a bit odd to kick off the rock-fest in the confines of the Austin Convention Center; but singer/songwriter David Dondero (www.myspace.com/davedondero) is the leader of this experience, and he is performing in the convention center’s SESAC (originally, the Society of European Stage Authors & Composers, which is oddly, currently based out of Nashville, TN…) Day Stage.
Regardless of location, Dondero is an amazing writer of both music and lyrics; and has become recognized in the wake of the popularity of Saddle Creek founder and artist Conor Oberst. This is a strange fact, as Dondero in actuality has been a huge influence on Oberst’s style, having been making music far longer that the Nebraskan sprite; but Oberst just happened to make that quivering, emo vocal style hip with the kids first.
If it doesn’t go without saying, any fan of Bright Eyes needs to experience this ‘source code’ to really understand the impetus behind much of the folk-emo-indie rock that is on the cutting edge today. Dondero has been at it for years; and just one listen lends an obvious credulity to the style that—and don’t get me wrong; Bright Eyes are fantastic—has a bit more depth of character through Dondero’s originality.
Acknowledging all that, I flee on foot to the Counter Café some fourteen blocks down Austin’s 6th Street to find Jamin Barton—who incidentally first introduced me to Dondero, whom he occasionally accompanies. Today Barton is performing with Kevin Ink—collectively, the Ramshackle Romeos from San Francisco. The pair of neo-rat-packers perform acoustic covers of classics like “Moon River” and “Tiny Bubbles,” and then rip on frumpy classics like Barbara Streisand’s “Feelings,” all with exaggerated instruments like the plastic plumbing horn, slide whistle and Theremin.
Make no mistake however; Ink is not to be underestimated with his guitar-strumming charm, and Barton is as capable of playing the saw with a bow as Souza was at conducting an orchestra… And Barton does it with a sinister grin.
Back into the already thumping center of downtown, I enter The Fort—an expansive lot that must serve some purpose during the other 359 days of the year, but during SXSW is home to the huge Levi’s/Fader Magazine party. Attached to the back of the Levi’s store, this shindig has free-flowing liquor, beer and malt on the daily, as well as an always amazing line-up.
We catch Britain’ The Whip, who perform an intense, bassy electro-dance-rock set. Having heard them online and not been all that impressed, I am proved wrong immediately and am stoked seeing them perform. Highly recommended.
And onward to Emo’s for the Danish Raveonettes!
As expected, the much-prettier-than-any-American-duo unassumingly belts out an onslaught of Jesus and Mary Chains-meets Primitives dark-o-pop that, well, we kinda expect. However, it’s kinda too much of what we expected; and too unassuming. A great album can be taken seriously, but a live performance should always have an element of good natured fun to it. Even Robert Smith and Morrissey can do that.
After all the hype, Raveonettes come off simply campy and snide. OK, now I feel like a dick. They’re probably just shy.
A block up the street at Red Eyed Fly, the Noise Pop showcase offering of Two Gallants leaves nothing to be desired. The passionate lyricism of Adam Stephens and the ferocious drumming (and accompanying vocals) of Tyson Vogel bring goose-bumps to the skin and a mist to the eye—especially when they play their mesmerizing masterpiece “Steady Rollin’.” It makes the heart both hard and fond.
Upon a quick stride back to Emo’s, Los Angeles’s the Mae Shi are setting up for a blistering set riddled with the bands signature raucous stage antics, including an interlude in which the band cover a portion of the audience under a white canopy and only performed to them. M.S. offers little in the way of new material, but the oldies are goodies, and watching these guys perform their antics is an inspiration in itself.
Another long walk brings me back to Counter Café, where still only a small crowd has formed for Willmington, NC singer-songwriter Kelley Stoltz.
With the prolific multiple-musician Barton and his Ramshackle Romeo partner, Ink in the fold, along with a fully accompanying band, Stoltz offers up samples from his extensive catalog. He’s a very odd storyteller, but very interesting, and a great musician. When the term ‘singer-songwriter’ gets thrown out there, it’s usually associated with boring guitar-strummers; but Stoltz rocks with the best and his vocal hooks dig deep on tracks like “Everything Begins,” “Birmingham Eccentric,” and “Your Revery.”
Stoltz will probably be packing houses as words spreads during his several upcoming SXSW performances.
Back at the Levis/Fader Fort, I intended to cover Chiquita Violenta from Mexico City; however, as I am setting up, rock trivia challenge occurs. The question posed is ‘What is the only Bad Brains album that DOESN’T have a reggae song on it?’ Yours truly chimes in, I Against I and am forthright escorted into the store to be fitted for a pair of Levi’s, a custom screened shirt, and limited edition Puma shoes—and signed up for a year-long subscription to Fader magazine.
By the time I also participate in a Ray Ban promotion called “The Confessional” (at least that’s what I believe it was called), which scores me even more swag, the Chiquita Violente has played and I haven’t heard a note. I am sorry; check them out. (Apparently these are the harrowing consequences of introducing fun and games into the workplace.)
We stick around for another UK group, Does It Offend You, Yeah, who brink hardcore dance rock with an interesting twist; Fugazi-like vocal intensity matched with intentionally sloppy back-ups. This starts out to be a bit annoying, but it grows on me, and I end up staying for the entire set. Of course, it could be the liquor. I have a feeling DIOY,Y is strictly a live experience.
One day in Texas and already I am a redneck. Ducking inside as my sunburn sets in, I enter the DIRECTV studio at Austin’s Convention Center. LA’s Earlimart is waiting for the cue for them to play live on televisions across the country. An uncomfortable silence settles in the expansive room filled with expensive gear.
“This is fuckin’ weird.” Singer Aaron Espinoza tells the audience. “Stick around; Daryl is up next. That’s fuckin’ weird.”
Finally, a stage director cues the audience to give a “BIG applause” and the bands goes through its lilting set. This experience is so strange that it’s not about the band but rather the room, the people, the gear, the lights. It’s just uncomfortable—in fact, it’s unbearable. Nothing against Earlimart, but the intensity of the surroundings is just off-putting. And to add to it all, I get spooged on in the restaurant bathroom by another one of those automatic soap dispensers!
With that, it’s time for a much needed meal and a shot of something strong. The sun has settled and the free daytime parties are over. The liquor now costs, but people are buzzed enough by now to be willing to spend frivolously. It has to be a conspiracy.
After being satiated, I head to Bourbon Rocks for Sweden’s Graveyard. I don’t smoke weed, but this stoner rock SLAYS. Skinny legs and all, these guys are, to quote a friend, “like if Witchcraft rode motorcycles.” Rikard Edlund plays every fret on the board, even playing chords like a second lead guitar at times. Amazing!
Switching it up a bit, I hit Habana Calle 6 for some hip-hop. Kidz In The Hall, from Chicago, are on stage as we enter, and we’re immediately impressed with the control they have over the crowd. However, when they go into their freestyle session, I’m less than impressed. Rhyming ‘sale’ with ‘sail’ and ‘incredible’ with ‘not credible’ just doesn’t cut the mustard. That being said, the premeditated material is awesome. Check out the track “Cruise Control” for a panty dropper.
Drifting over to Emo’s outdoor stage the The Von Bondies are front and center.
Bored stiff, I head to Wave for The Details from Manitoba, Canada. These youngsters shell out poppy, introspective emo that’s decent musically, but a bit derivative. I suppose that’s understandable, though. Unrequited love and forlornness are inherently derivative musical concepts.
Back at Emo’s lounge, the adorable Kimya Dawson is performing with closed-eyed concentration on her little chair with her acoustic guitar. Widely recognized for her musical contributions to the film “Juno,” Dawson is also co-founder of the Moldy Peaches and has been rocking her neo-folk in the New York music scene for years. Her between-song banter is hilarious as she interacts willingly with the crowd.
“What? You’re pregnant?” she replies to a stranger in the crowd. “Is it mine? God; I’ve just been sticking my dick in everybody!”
Back to Bourbon Rocks, Earthless plays the longest end-of-song wankering in the history of all of eternity in the whole wide world of rock and roll. (I pick up a pen and write this after realizing the absurd length of their closing note, and as I stuff my steno back into my bag, the wankerage continues…)
At what point does the band crack a smile in recognition of their audaciousness?
Witch follows with another blistering delivery of stoner rock; and while I’m thoroughly impressed, I just have to switch up the pit at this point. No diss. Check them out.
We finally round out the night at Elysium where Austin’s punk rock titans, The Dicks are playing. You can’t fuck with a 300 pound, 60 year-old-man in a blue polk-dot sun dress. Especially not when he’s belting out songs called “Shit On Me,” “Little Boys Feet,” “Shit Fool,” “Dead In A Hole,” “Dean Nazi,” and “Dicks Hate Police.”
To spice it up, this show offers the first mosh-related bloodshed of the festival. Having almost bailed out of exhaustion, I am inexplicably happy that I caught this set. Hands down, The Dicks are the high-point of SXSW day one.