"That is a terrible idea."
I heard this again and again, from the mouths of coworkers and even from the bands I was supposed to cover. There is nothing clever—or practical—about traveling halfway around the country to see bands I could see on a weekly basis in my hometown. Yet here I was on assignment deep in the heart of Texas at the South by Southwest music festival, drunk on Shiner Bock and desperately trying to slice through the thousands upon thousands of festival attendees in order to catch another Portland band. Everyone was right; this was indeed a terrible idea.
In all, there were 21 local bands playing SXSW in Austin, Texas. The largest industry festival of its kind, SXSW hosts nearly 1,500 bands from the world over, plus scores more who just show up to play unofficial parties or awkwardly busk in the streets. The clubs are located dangerously close to another, making everything a convenient walk—or drunken stumble—away. My goal for these next four days: to see every single last Portland band, document their live show, and maintain my sanity.
Sorry Portland, I did not succeed.
Wednesday, March 14
Day one at SXSW is always a well-intentioned, liver-damaging affair your body isn't prepared for. Tonight's assignment is a breeze, however—four Portland bands, all close by, and only one show that overlaps.
First up was Matt Sheehy, frontman of Gravity and Henry. Seeing Sheehy was pleasant. His bittersweet pop songs echoed softly around the empty room, which is the downside to performing early during a festival's opening day. But the lack of crowd didn't seem to bother him or his two-piece backing band, which rollicked about the stage and just seemed happy to be in Texas. I Can Lick any Sonofabitch in the House doubled up on showtimes with Sheehy, so a quick hustle down the main drag found the band halfway through their set. As it turned out, I Can Lick was actually Thee Loyal Bastards—the new project of the SOB's frontman Michael Dean Damron (the band split up after registering for the festival). They were sloppy, loud, and filthy, like the not-quite-right illiterate cousins of the Drive-By Truckers. I hated them with a passion that not even alcohol could cure. Labelmate Fernando was up next, playing solo because his band "ditched him" before he headed out to Texas. The crowd may have thinned out, but Fernando kept his cool and tried to make light of his position as the token sensitive-guy-with-guitar that has to follow a raucous band. A quick waltz up the avenue and it was an ASCAP publishing party with epic popsters To Live and Die in LA. The first crowded show of the night was a blast, as the band's bombastic rock tunes chummed the water for A&R dudes who busily switched from approving head nods to furious text messaging.
Thursday, March 15
Tonight, eight shows in a row, spread all over town—plus a few that overlap each other. Alela Diane began the evening at a venue that resembled your drunken uncle's rumpus room, complete with that sweet Dos Equis neon sign he scored in Tijuana. Her set was in competition with some terrible grunge band, playing mere feet away on the patio. Not phased, Diane was joined by her father and longtime friend Mariee Sioux, as they plowed through their set as best they could, given the situation. Within minutes of Diane wrapping up, Old Time Relijun took the stage, about 100 yards away, performing at the Asthmatic Kitty (home of Sufjan Stevens) showcase.
The highlight of SXSW to date, OTR was led by the captivating Arrington de Dionyso, who was absolutely possessed as he torched through a set of unyielding art-punk, clad only in his boxers. There was no A&R douchebaggery here—just a full venue of fringe punks, all of whom were treated to a downright miraculous set. If that wasn't enough, after their performance, an employee of Asthmatic Kitty took the stage and dryly quipped, "Anyone who came because you heard a rumor that Sufjan will be here, you can leave now."
Sufjan or no, I now had to hack through the teeming masses of people to find vintage rockers the Village Green, all the way across town. I flipped through my map like a sad little tourist. I got lost. I tried to find a cab. I arrived at the venue, hunched over in drunken exhaustion, only to walk in on some girls playing keyboards and singing something called "Titties." Oh hello, Bellingham's the Trucks. Hey wait, you aren't the Village Green. Turns out the schedule got changed and Village Green moved to a later time, one they now shared with the Gossip. Crap. More map gazing and power walking, and suddenly I'm at Bourbon Rocks, a faux-French Quarter bar complete with authentic New Orleans staples such as multiple disco balls, Lone Star beer signs, and Hooters castoffs slinging vials of Jell-O shooters. Hurricane Katrina rules! Wooo! Danava quickly kicked off a set of Black Sabbath-ish riffs and muffled vocals that sounded like Ozzy with a mouthful of decapitated bat heads. For a brief sweet moment, the frat-bar resembled a hostile hesher takeover, as the knuckle-draggers in the back where forced to flee due to the band's ear-shattering volume.
By midnight, with ears ringing, I was at the most crowded SXSW show I have ever been to, for the Gossip. When Beth Ditto and pals took the stage to a seemingly endless horizon of screaming fans, she teased us all with snippets of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Ditto's voice sounded absolutely unstoppable and the band closed with the usual disrobing and onstage fan hugging.
How will Menomena, Portland's most artistic pop band, handle the swelling hype of being one of SXSW's "it" bands? Quite well considering the huge crowd that waited out a punishing 40-plus minute technical delay and a set time pushing 2 am. Menomena were quick to joke, "Welcome to Coachella 2007, woooo!" before launching into an excellent set of beaming pop that filled the cavernous billiards hall that hosted the show. Other than one rescheduled Village Green show, I considered my evening a success.
Friday, March 16
Since Menomena ended late, and cabs were scarce, I accepted an invitation of a friend-who-shall-remain-nameless to sleep on his motel room floor. I awoke to find this horrific sight.
After some much-needed rest (and an Iggy Pop sighting), I was ready for Stars of Track and Field. Despite playing at the Boat Show (AKA Austin's massive convention center), SOTAF's sparkly shoegazing drew a huge crowd. Granted, the open bar and free wings didn't hurt attendance. Next it was a journey up frat-bar row—past actual bars named Chuggin' Monkey, Dirty Dog, and Mooseknuckle Pub—to find Swan Island cramped tight on a tiny stage. Singer Brisa Gonzales resembled a teenage Grace Slick, as she belted and howled out a wonderful set of deconstructed rock jams that drew a crowd outside the venue's open windows. A trip to the clusterfuck of Emo's clubs (there were four of them this year), found me scrambling to see the Clorox Girls. The outside schedule had their name scratched off, the bouncer had no clue who was playing, and when I finally got in the club, I was greeted by Albino rapper Brother Ali on stage. Huh? Where my punx at? With no time to investigate, it was out the back door, through the alley and into another club to catch brand-new Portlanders, Saturday Looks Good to Me. Fred Thomas, backed by a full band clad entirely in white, was like a ponytailed Ted Leo, blasting through '60s-influenced pop at a frantic speed. More crowd dodging and it was time for Laura Gibson, whose decadently rich voice and calm presence will surely help bring me down from the impending chaos of these drunken crowds.
But of course, that never happened. Again, another venue without a schedule, and in addition a dickhole of a doorman who, when asked about Gibson, snorted, "I don't know her, does she work here?" I'd argue more, but fuck it... I give up. I'm headed to the Chuggin' Monkey for some blended daiquiris.
Man, that was a nice daiquiri—finished just in time to catch 31Knots. Singer Joe Haege kicked off the show from within the crowd as he angrily blew on a marching band whistle... a move that almost got him the boot from the club's meaty bouncers. Escaping to the stage, Haege led 31K through a punishing set of rigid post-prog and cathartic dirty pop.
Saturday March 17
Since I missed them on opening night, I gladly walked the two-plus miles to see the Nice Boys perform an afternoon show. And by afternoon, I mean 1 pm, which might as well be 6 am here. Bleary-eyed and rocking some serious (yet possibly deliberate) bedhead, the perfected glam-pop of the Nice Boys were closer to Big Star than their punk roots, which was a perfect fit for this sunny Texas morning. Another long walk led to the realization that I am screwed. With more performances now added to Sunday (featuring YACHT and the Misfats), seeing all 21 shows is not humanly possible. While 17 is still an impressive feat, I failed at my lofty task. So, Village Green, Laura Gibson, Clorox Girls, and YACHT, sorry I missed you. I owe you all a soda pop or something. The Misfats, I'm not getting you anything, really. I'm just not.
Again, everything about this is really a terrible idea.