BLACK PRAIRIE HAS IT ALL. Despite an existence totaling a few scant months and a single live performance, Black Prairie has a record deal, a booking agent, manager, and a built-in fanbase that politely requests autographs before they perform (this would be due to the trio of Decemberists in the band). Yet when the Portland bluegrass quintet stares down the cameras for a live IFC performance hosted by charismatic Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, they are outdrawn by a noble foe which is stiff competition for even an important band like Black Prairie: free breakfast.
While the cable network cameras rolled and Black Prairie filled the studio with a wondrously textured bluegrass sound, there were more people in line for the complimentary tacos than were interested in witnessing this band perform their second show ever (and Austin debut). Welcome to South by Southwest (SXSW), where even the most anticipated names in music are forced to humbly accept their role (which is evidently somewhere behind tacos and free mediocre coffee served in mugs emblazoned with the synergistic sponsorship of some free credit score website).
There are close to 2,000 registered bands at SXSW, although the impossible-to-determine unofficial number is probably twice that. If you are lucky enough to perform, you will do so opposite hundreds of other bands from all over the world, some looking for that ever-elusive big break, others hoping just to stand out in the swollen crowd, a few notable names pining for career redemption (Courtney Love's reboot of Hole), and some simply happy to be remembered at all (Tia Carrere, of Sweet-covering "Ballroom Blitz" and Wayne's World fame).
Ironically, Black Prairie fits none of those labels. They are, fundamentally, a SXSW rarity. The purpose of the flight to Austin and hustling to three shows in a matter of hours (plus more in the coming days) in a crowded, rented Kia minivan is to introduce their music to anyone willing to listen. Their sound is a tempered, mostly instrumental take on the intricacies of bluegrass, alongside brief bursts of Klezmer (sans the Eastern Bloc pandering) and barren-landscape country. It's a humbling endeavor not suited for those with sensitive egos, seeing as how the SXSW crowds vary from the rare enthralled superfans to the more common smart-phone distracted—those who frantically search for something else to watch nearby, the ultimate act of looking over someone's shoulder in the hopes of finding superior company. All bands performing under the SXSW umbrella struggle to make an impression in the dull gaze of an audience submerged in the sheer sensory overload of festival life. How can your music gain staying power during an event of this magnitude? Repetition.
With the casual ease of well-worn professionals, Black Prairie reeled off three shows in a matter of hours. There were the breakfast faithful at IFC—in a room where belching smoke machines and red-gelled stage lighting were determined to give the illusion that this 11 am studio performance really took place in some cavernous rock venue. This was followed by a show in a massive back-alley tent sponsored by some energy drink (in a well-placed jab at one of the over-hyped bands of the festival, Black Prairie's Chris Funk said from stage, "Thank you, we are Neon Indian"). And then finally, before the sun fully set, a performance in the rolling grass at the most unlikely (yet most fitting) of venues, the French Legation Museum. This hectic schedule is not unfamiliar to Funk, who one year previous was in a similar role, performing for the Decemberists as they introduced their The Hazards of Love recording to the masses for the very first time. Albeit from much larger stages.
With a new band in tow and starting once again from the bottom, Funk remained unfazed: "Compared to the Decemberists, yeah sure, it's different. But I don't have any expectations but to have fun." He continues, "For us Black Prairie is an outlet for us to write. We're about 80 percent instrumental and I don't have any expectations that there is any sort of market for this, beyond the bluegrass/folk nerd market that I secretly like. It's satisfying to do something without the expectations that the Decemberists now have."
While it's easy to view SXSW as an ego-crushing clusterfuck that makes/breaks bands and holds the city of Austin hostage for nearly a week, it's also the sort of event that most financially strapped cities would kill for. A 2009 impact analysis report found that last year's festival injected nearly $99 million into the local economy, with this year's larger draw scheduled to easily top the century mark. The finances of SXSW exist in a bubble where recessionary economics and the music industry's well-publicized financial woes do not apply—at least for a few days. After that, it's back to reality.
SXSW Day by Day
When you first arrive at SXSW, it's hard to resist the temptation to see all your favorite bands, but on the first night a gamble to see the little-known and hard-to-pronounce Vadoinmessico paid off. The London troupe performed shambling, acoustic tunes with a south-of-the-(English)-border bent, like Dexys Midnight Runners or the Rumble Strips after a pitcher of sangria and a run through the streets of Pamplona with the bulls. NED LANNAMANN
You might not know Rose Elinor Dougall as anything but Pipette number two (or three), but the former faux-girl-group popster has rebounded nicely since getting the boot from the Pipettes. Her solo material no longer leans on the Spector wall of sound, and instead takes full advantage of her knack for syrupy sweet pop melodies that are closer to the Cocteau Twins than the Crystals. EAC
Delorean may hail from sunny Barcelona, but their gorgeous club music has an icy, bracing quality to it. On record, their sounds are generated from repeated loops and delicious digital tidbits strung together, but live they're a powerful, almost sloppy garage band—the loping beats are there, but they're given a Krautrock-like propulsion. Meanwhile, Brooklyn's Small Black are definitely a band to watch out for. They perfectly split the difference between 1979 arena rock and 2009 chillwave without falling into any poseur traps—and as luck would have it they're playing Holocene on Monday. NL
The British Music Embassy could have tapped any number of shaggy-haired dude rockers from their isle to headline their show, but thankfully they went with an artist not influenced by the brothers Gallagher. Estelle had a minor hit in her search for an "American Boy," but as a live performer she has little in common with her peers ascending the R&B pop charts. Backed by a ferocious six-piece ensemble, including a co-ed pair of tuxedoed backup dancers/singers, Estelle captivated the crowd in a way that few performers—at SXSW, or anywhere for that matter—truly can. Highlight of the festival? More like highlight of the year. EAC
The focal point of Bristol duo Malachai is frontman Gee scowling and grinning at the audience like a character from Lewis Carroll—right down to the Mad Hatter hat perched atop his head. But the band's real power comes from Scott, who mans the turntables and decks, weaving a colossally intoxicating blend of hiphop, indie rock, and vintage British psychedelia. NL
Poor li'l Joe Pug. An Americana singer armed with a harmonica and acoustic guitar is little match in the volume war of playing outside, mere feet away from a deafening nü-metal band. Tenacious as he is, the Chicago folk singer was forced to make (barely audible) jokes while his unlikely metal neighbors expanded their palette to the Judgment Night soundtrack style of rapping (poorly) atop their drop-D riffs. If you wanted to witness the worst part about cramming thousands of bands into a single city, this was it. EAC
Denton, Texas' Sleep Whale played the Western Vinyl showcase in a church, and the peaceful, austere surroundings were a perfect match for their gorgeous, glacial post-rock. On the other hand, London's the Wave Pictures played a crowded bar, and their chatty, gregarious pop tunes were as welcoming as a pint and a handshake from your local publican. Guitarist/vocalist Dave Tattersall writes songs that wrinkle and curl up right alongside your heart, but then he astonishes you with a surprisingly fierce guitar solo. NL
Paging Charles Hamilton. A few summers back, this fresh-faced emcee was primed to be the next Kanye West, until he skipped the quality recordings part of his career and dove headfirst into the public meltdown stage. His stand-by single "Brooklyn Girls" has aged well (although the subjects might be "Brooklyn Women" by now), but Hamilton's odd behavior hasn't helped things. Case in point: He never showed up for his show. Despite a bouncer taking the mic and threatening to kick him off the bill if he failed to take the stage in 10 minutes' time, Hamilton never set foot in the building. EAC