UPDATE: Now with pictures!
They say everything's bigger in Texas, which is certainly true, but everything's hotter, too. The first thing you notice when you step out of the airport is that the air smells like barbecue and sweat. Austin in March is about as good as weather can get—high 70s, light clouds here and there, the occasional breeze—but for a visiting Northerner, everything's at just a little higher temperature, and a little more humid than one's used to. The only thing to do is to dial down one's heart rate, cease worrying about sweating through one's shirt, and grab a cold Lone Star. South by Southwest makes this very easy.
On Wednesday night, over a dozen Portland bands played the first-ever all-Portland showcase at SXSW, presented by Tender Loving Empire, Octopus Entertainment, Marmoset, A to Z Media, and others I'm sure I'm neglecting to mention. An impressive list of Portland's finest played all afternoon and evening at the Grackle, an indoor/outdoor compound on the far stretch of East 6th Street, about a mile from the main action in the heart of downtown. Judging by the walk out there, it looks as though Austin has fully latched onto the familiar phenomenon of food cart pods; I passed at least three in the space of a few short blocks and they were all hopping.
The Portland bands all performed on the Grackle's indoor stage (the outside stage was reserved for Austin acts like SXSW perennial performer Tia Carrere—for pete's sake, someone give that woman a deal already). It was a good sign that the Grackle's indoor was at full capacity. Once inside, Radiation City was in the middle of their signature song, "The Color of Industry," which sort of felt like the unofficial Portland anthem of 2011. Hearing it far from home, and at Portland's big event, felt especially appropriate.
Ramona Falls previewed some excellent new songs from their forthcoming record, all of which felt like they required space far bigger than the cramped, low-ceiling Grackle could provide. And Talkdemonic turned the dive into a laser Floyd show, with dizzying visuals and light effects that rendered the band almost totally invisible. They made quite an impression.
All 9,000 members of Typhoon then took the stage, filling every last corner of the stage area, near-bursting the room with their orchestral swell. They played a couple of songs that sounded new to me, and were easily the highlights of the already very good set. The band never fails to uplift. Y La Bamba followed suit, bringing the Portland party to a head. Requisite late-night tacos followed (taco count: three—I bought four but gave one away) and the stroll back downtown offered a weird distraction in the form of an old school bus parked by the side of the road. Abbey Road was blasting and handfuls of weed were being openly trafficked. It was the kind of scene you're surprised to see takes place outside of Oregon, but of course it does.
Thursday marked another slow start; this hotel's stupid internet is slow as shit and doing anything takes forever. Once out of the hotel and back on the main drag, two gigantic tacos proved to be a flavorless disappointment. (Size isn't everything.) Then, a dip into the the Hype Machine's Hype Hotel (all these places have dumb temporary names) revealed that the band I wanted to see wasn't actually playing. Saw some other band, couldn't tell you who, then went into a terrible bar called Jackelope's—one of those sleazy places where the bartenders are encouraged to dress like post-apocalyptic hookers—to see a few songs from the Mynabirds, who definitely did not fit in their surroundings. Their new songs sounded okay-ish, but nothing really grabbed me, although perhaps I just wanted out of the damn Jackelope. Soon after, found myself on the roof of another dreadful bar called Cheers Shot Bar (or something equally stupid) for Turf War, the snotty, sloppy band from Atlanta whose debut, Years of Living Dangerously, has been something of an obsession.
They delivered a raw, drunken set that could barely be held together. The band and their tiny crowd of around 12 or so (all of whom seemed to be friends of the band) poured beer all over themselves and their instruments. It was loud, stupid, messy, and probably what Holden Caulfield meant whenever he referred to something as "crumby." It was also a lot of fun. I bet all the members of Turf War were blacked out by sundown.
On to the Riot Act party to see the Ettes, except that the band that was playing wasn't the Ettes (set times were running a little behind). Soon enough the Ettes came on, and were great, as was Sea of Bees, who sound a little more graceful and unknotted each time I hear them. Their forthcoming album should be a stunner. Back to the Hype Hotel (I am embarrassed just typing that) to see Youth Lagoon, except I hadn't learned my lesson and the schedule I was referring to was, once again, wrong. Luckily, Alabama Shakes were playing, and they were terrific. I liked them a lot more than I did when I saw them at the Doug Fir a few weeks back; in the frenzy of SXSW, their musicianship really sets them apart.
Bleached followed, which worked out great, because that was the band I wanted to see the first time I got the schedule wrong. It was their eighth show of 13 and they said they were tired, but they delivered great poppy punk gems that infect like a virus. A Korean taco from the Whole Foods setup ensued (it totally counts! Grand total: six) and a solo acoustic set from Say Hi, then over to the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans party to see Brazos, whose Phosphorescent Blues is still fantastic every time I play it. (Prediction: At age 80, Brazos' "Tell" will still be one of my all-time favorite songs.)
I'd never seen 'em live before, so seeing the no-frills trio was a real treat, even if they didn't play a lot of my favorites in favor of some great new songs. Gardens and Villa followed, and I was impressed by their energy—they're going to be enormous in a few months. Dude had a quiver of wooden flutes slung over his back, and every now and then he'd reach back and grab one. He'd also perch on one leg, Jethro Tull-style, although I can't think of a band that sounds less like Jethro Tull than Gardens and Villa.
The rest of the SC/J/DO lineup was flawless, but I opted to wander over to St. David's to see the Barr Brothers. You'll hear about shows taking place at "the church" at SXSW—St. David's is not that church. It's actually a huge,
Catholic Episcopalian complex with two separate areas for shows. It's a welcome antidote to the scuzzy bars where most of SXSW takes place. At St David's, the Barr Brothers were playing in the big chapel, and I wandered into the darkened room—a breathtaking spot in its own right—to see one of the most amazing musical performances I have ever seen.
With a drummer, harpist, singer/guitarist, and occasional keyboardist/second guitarist, the Barr Brothers held the whole room in silent rapture. They played with immaculate taste and a mastery of dynamics; at one point, the guitar had some sort of wire threaded through his guitar strings, which he'd tug for a very eerie, unique bowing effect. They reprised this trick for the last song, too (I cannot wait to see them play Pickathon this year). It was a mind-blowing performance, a highlight that I don't expect any band to match—particularly Plants and Animals, who couldn't quite capitalize on the room's magic the same way. Their set felt meandering and a little jammy. Patrick Watson followed as well, but in spite of a crack band, his reliance on romantic, Rachmaninoff-type swells and a piercing falsetto didn't do a damn thing for me. His music ends up coming across like a mix of Antony and the Johnsons and Tony Banks, only less interesting than that sounds.
I scrambled down to a terrible downtown jazz club called Copa Bar & Grill (note: if "Bar & Grill" are in the name of your establishment, I won't ever want to go there) to see Seun Kuti & Egypt 80. I needn't have rushed; they went on well over an hour late, as the crowd grew increasingly restless. The band played very well, but the sound was shit, and they were cut off after only three songs. Still, an exciting performance.
Then it took an hour to get back to the hotel, and another two hours to get some food at IHOP, which ended up being a mistake, of course. A stupidly late night, and now another relatively early morning which was totally wasted trying to get this damn internet to work for hours. Oh well. Back at 'em.
Oh, and there was another taco in there somewhere. Taco count: seven. Hopefully I can double that number today.