It could've been a warm weather retreat for Detroit area gigging musicians. There they were: members of SSM, the Paybacks, the Dead Bodies, the Hard Lessons and Saturday Looks Good to Me as well as the media types and fans who'd made the trip from Michigan all crammed into an Austin, Texas, haunt called the Ale House for a D-Town double bill featuring SSM and the Paybacks. Ale house? More like the Alley House the flagstone-and-timber venue's only door is a storm shelter-style foundation ramp special that opens onto an alley off Sixth Street, the town's main entertainment drag. But the club's cramped environs only made it easier to find a familiar face at South by Southwest, Austin's annual schmooze-and-music (schmoozic?) festival that swells the city with more than 1,400 musical acts and even more fans and hangers-on for five chaotic days each March. (In all, nearly 30 Detroit acts made the trip this year.) At the Ale House on Thursday, the various Motor City locals shook hands, smoked cigarettes, shared cold Lone Stars and Shiners, and yelled "Detroit City" at the stage with every one of Paybacks vocalist-guitarist Wendy Case steel-wool screams.
Well, maybe the guy shouting loudest about Detroit was me. Because as it turns out, the most effective way to experience SXSW is to migrate through it buoyed with a little comfort from home. That and Lone Star lager.
What's the buzz?
It's impossible to see everything at South by Southwest. Each day there are seminars to consider, keynote artist interviews to attend, and trade show tables jammed with conflicting information about which music Podcast or method for promotion through user-generated content will dominate in 2007. (Despite the options being hawked, no one at the festival had a solid answer for that.)
Of course, all of that is usually forgotten in favor of attending the slew of parties sponsored or hosted by record labels, music magazines, clothing companies (Diesel, Levi's), name-brand indie scene comedians (David Cross, Michael Showalter) and automobiles (Toyota's niche-cute Yaris) that turn the festival's daylight hours into a boozy, schmoozy pre-game for each night's stretch of musical showcases.
Each party features music, of course. But SXSW is also an enormous platform (shaped like a dollar sign, probably) for these entities, personalities and companies to fire branding messages at their target markets.
And South by Southwest is a study in target markets.
While hip-hop has a foothold (Chamillionaire, Redman, and Boots Riley were among the emcees in Austin) and DJs appear in the margins, mostly as party-rallying support acts, SXSW is dominated by indie rock in all its permutations, from the epic psych-metal of Boris and frizzy Stroke Albert Hammond Jr.'s strutting pop, to Los Angeles combo We Are Monsters' shoegaze echos and the gothic country of Detroit's own Blanche.
And what that really means is that the festival is dominated by the fan archetypes who equate themselves (and their wallets) with indie music. Thousands of white dudes in tight pants roamed the streets of Austin, and thousands more college-age fans (male and female, but still mostly white) looked like they stepped out of an American Apparel photo shoot with their Lyrca tights still on.
There were also plenty of European music fans who actually succeed at looking cool, as well as a significant number of musical acts and fans from Japan, who inevitably look the coolest of anyone. The Japanese kids are not hipsters. They are, simply, hip.
But fortunately, the SXSW day parties are about more than collecting free shit, working on your sunburn, or gathering intelligence on the latest secret shows. (With Pete Townshend as the festival's keynote guest, rumors shifted by the second about where he'd pop up next. I swear I saw him working the drive-thru at the Wendy's near my hotel.) The festival's daytime events are also a great way to catch acts you won't have time to see after the sun goes down. On Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, Bourbon Rocks, an otherwise generic barroom on Sixth, was full of Detroit sounds. The Sights were their usual selves on Wednesday, and on Thursday Ann Arbor pop kids Tally Hall applied their precise music-school harmonies and playing to a spot-on, completely unironic cover version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird." ZZ Top or Lightnin' Hopkins might have been a better choice; after all, we were in Texas, not Jacksonville, Fla. But the waving Old Glory, confetti and bopping inflatable Uncle Sam at the end of Tally's set were a nice touch.
Tally Hall was followed by Washtenaw County's own Great Lakes Myth Society, whose performance seemed infused with new urgency. Maybe it's the upcoming release of their new album? Whatever the motivation, the louder, more rocking moments were offset perfectly by the band's five-part harmonies. Too bad there wasn't time for an encore of bawdy Michigander drinking songs. By the end of GLMS's set, the good-sized throng of indie-rock fans at Bourbon seemed soused enough for more from the Mitten.
With more than 60 official venues to choose from the opposite of "official" being the eager hippie busking for change on Sixth or the metal band who set up their gear on a Ford F-series flatbed parked off Fourth Street the nightly musical options at SXSW are overwhelming. But only at first, because the variety makes it simple to build an a la carte, multi-genre night of your own design. On Wednesday night, I caught a bit of elder country statesman Charlie Louvin (he of the hugely influential Louvin Brothers) and his band before seeing Michelle Shocked sit in with Timbuk 3 vet Barbara Kookyman, all before landing a few blocks over for Thunderbirds Are Now! at Red Eyed Fly, a half-indoor, half-outdoor bivouac that feels more like a really cool fort than a rock club.
And Thunderbirds absolutely killed.
It was the first of numerous SXSW performances for the Ferndale quartet, whose members seemed to burble out of the nearest bat cave, barbecue pit or open tour van all week, constantly on the way to another gig. Jumping on performance showcases all over Austin is one of the oldest buzz-building tricks in the fest handbook; just ask nice-guy pop Swedes Peter, Bjorn & John, UK lads the Fratellis (Glasgow) and the Kooks (Brighton), girl group-throwback (and fleeting stars-in-the-making) the Pipettes or grinning Brooklyn duo Matt & Kim, all of whom were omnipresent all week. TAN! proved with their set at Red Eyed Fly that the group deserves as much buzz as the others. But their attitude toward the contemporary music scene's fleeting attention span was even better. As music fans, the guys in the group noted the absence at this year's SXSW of previous, supposedly buzzworthy groups such as the Editors or Bloc Party.
Buzz dulls quickly in 2007. Will it even matter in 2008?
The veil comes down
"What day is it?" That was the question the various groups of competing hipster music fans asked each other Friday morning in the lobby of my hotel, as they peered into their SXSW pocket guides. And they were right by Friday, two full days of carousing, show-going, consuming too many free drinks and eating way too many slices of propane-drenched street vendor pizza was starting to catch up with everyone. Even the incessant, breathless reports of Pete Townshend playing an impromptu death metal set had died down. But there were still two days of listening, boozing and schmoozing, despite the dwindling supplies of energy, antacid and Parliament cigarettes within the city limits. And besides, any complaining would have been drowned out by the noise-punk racket of Los Angeles combo Mika Miko, clattering riotously through a set just across from my hotel as if it was 11 p.m. instead of 11 a.m. And they sounded pretty good too.
It was easy to enjoy the Dead Bodies, who played an early set Friday night to a respectable, if intimate crowd. The Detroit-area group swollen to a quartet with the addition of Jason Croff on keys made the most of playing a glorified picnic deck attached to the side of the Co-Op Bar on Sixth. Their milky, twisty indie pop was right on for twilight in Austin, with the lilac breeze blowing, and even if people make too many David Bowie references when describing the Bodies' sound, it's kind of cool when at least a few of them are valid.
Later on Friday evening, the Hard Lessons brought their maximum R&B to the Whisky Bar on Fifth Street. I caught myself yelling "Detroit City!" again. But I also ended up waylaid and bleary-eyed, being ferried through the streets of Austin in the trundle carriage of a bicyclist-powered pedicab. South by Southwest had done a job on me.
And I'm still pretty sure that it was Pete Townshend pushing the pedals.Johnny Loftus is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org