Amerikaland #3: South By Southwest

“Stephen, you’re the Hunter S Thompson of legal highs”
– @vgan

Vivian Girls are the first band we see. They aren’t great this time round (doing a ton of gigs here) but they’re zippy, will be better later in the weekend and the bassist’s auburn winnie-fringe stretches one’s patience into the fourth song. Just what all-girl bands appreciate: being judged on their looks.

Queue for ages to score a wristband, then queue again round the corner to access a party run by a famous clothes store. A recurring motif on the first day, til we’ve aquired enough wristbands to get everywhere fun. Party involves a free bar serving Southern Comfort with obscure fizzy-pop mixers, so despite the early hour and lack of food I’m well disposed towards Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head from Seattle, a keys and drums quintet doing bouncy disco-pop where Ting Tings meet Shy Child or even Scissor Sisters. Lily Allen’s US tour support. Sarge dances loon enough to earn a shout-out. It’s fascinating how the US west coast picks up these ‘edgy’ Brit pop fads (like nu rave or 60s chic) and softens them for their own, more controlled and ‘talent’-driven musicians.

We can’t sneak into the rammed 4AD bash, though Annette from 4AD is our housemate. She’s at a label dinner in their hotel when we go say hi. We stand around chatting at a table containing Mr Coxon and various Future Of The Left members, none of whom I notice until Sarge tells me off afterwards for not saying hello. I’m still a shit networker after all these years.

Annette is super lovely (ah Christ I’ve picked up the American use of ‘super’) but she’s running around like crazy all weekend and we’ll hardly see her. I hope she’s comfy, I suspect Frank’s bunch of local guests on the final night will keep her awake. Annette also officially has the best haircut of the whole weekend, her fringe at a slight angle is intense.  

I’m more excited about Decemberists playing Hazards Of Love than anything. In the end, they’re brave and the music is great, an elaborate, beautifully realised folk-prog-metal concept piece about a love triangle (I think). The weakness is hesitancy or even nervousness in performance. Broadcast live on NPR too, to add pressure, yet still terrific. Guest singers Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) playing the protagonists almost steal the show and ‘I Was Meant For The Stage’ as second encore is fucking perfect.

Frank Turner with Steve Soto’s band backing him sets me thinking as well: last night Frank showed up at the condo at 2am after a nightmare journey and was then out before 9am to go rehearse with this bunch of much older, American bar band musicians he’d never met. At the British Music Embassy (wtf!?) it’s fun but not brilliant, they have the chops but not (yet) the love, though the tour should fix that: to play half a set after a few hours rehearsing was damn good. I miss Nigel though. Positives: St Francis is on fantastic vocal form, I suspect he’s stepped his singing up a level through the Gaslight tour. New song ‘Try This At Home’ gets the best audience reaction – always a good sign when your new material competes with your best-known stuff.

Catch up with Oliver at the Six Shooter Hootenanny, where the heroically good-looking Luke Doucet (pronounced, I’m told, Doo-set, rather than my choice Douche) is storming this little alt-country bar. I already loved some of his darkly self-abusive country-rock songs (especially heroin one sung by Oliver at his 60th birthday a few months ago) but I wasn’t prepared for this ferocious, quiffy guitar work, the guy is brilliant.

Hold Steady play a bunch of times, so we catch a celebratory singalong at an afternoon outside party. Kicks total arse, damn right. I steal a poster off the wall which is on thick card and beautifully printed, frameworthy. If FT hadn’t already got a Hold Steady tattoo I’d be considering it as part of my current “5 tats before I’m 40” obsession.

The @Vgan Cvar shows up and instantly fixes our condo’s wifi. He’s out with us sometimes but spends a chunk of time working. Afterwards we’ll almost convince him to join our roadtrip back to the coast, instead of flying home. He makes the right decision though, because he pulls as soon as we leave on Sunday. Maybe we’d jinxed him up til then.

Also catch up with D and N from SF who have special cookies, herbal E and big smiles. Yup, lovely to see them! We won’t cross paths often over the weekend because they’ve got a whole big groovy agenda of their own – but it’s nice when we do see them. Same deal with Countessian really, she’s out and about snapping bands and living too hard, as per. Sally too – but none of those LA girls’ scenester barriers come down: face-time is rationed according to whether our pool is heated and sadly it isn’t.

By day two-and-a-half we still haven’t hit a market for breakfast supplies, we’re still eating almost nothing of value, consuming far too many naughties, beginning to get a little crazed. I think SXSW is the weekend I ate least for a long, long time.

To a Canadian showcase for Sarge’s friend Trevor’s band Wet Secrets who dress as a marching band, with two women at the front playing trombone and trumpet. It’s great fun and they have songs too. Cleverly they walk around in costume all day inviting people to the show.

They’ll also be at the Six Shooter hootenanny where we’ll catch Luke Doucet… oh, so that happened later? Sorry, linear time is a victim to the mix, the weekend slides towards Jeff Noon territory and I can’t remember when I saw what but it doesn’t matter. Everyone is tweeting like crazy, til you find yourself tugged this way and that by different enticing tweet opportunities.

A moment of peace and sanity: Oliver hosts a dinner for us. Cast includes his friend Paul who hated Decemberists, John Parish and his band, minus Polly, plus me. We’re in a lovely Mexican place opposite Stubbs, where Paul talks us past the maitre d and makes a friend for life in the process. I’ve not met EDF before, sitting next to me. He’s bass and keys in John’s band and amazing company, really cool but I’m a bit overawed.

Thankyou Jay Jay Pistolet for solving my plectrum-loss problem on Saturday evening. I only caught a couple of songs of one of his sets but his singing was superb. And Beans On Toast has cut his hair! Looks quite attractive.

At some point during the morning I actually make it up and out to see Little Steven Van Zandt speak at the convention. He’s a charming, funny speaker but I disagree so vehemently with 95% of what he says, I’m working on a rebuttal blog entry. Be warned, it is coming.

…donate so we can buy the next keg…

The finest small band I’ll see is when Sarge drives us out to a suburban party in back of a bike shop where Local Natives are playing. 90% of the audience don’t have wristbands or owt to do with SXSW beyond hitting the edges and getting fucked up. Kids in the backyard pump beer into plastics from kegs and get off with eachother. Local Natives are a superb, duo frontman proggy outfit with unbelievable harmonies (especially given the crummy gear). Frantic keys, violin, electric lead lines. Hints of British Sea Power (especially in the two frontblokes) but more choruses. Fucking superb, basically. 

PJ Harvey & John Parish Utterly staggering. Beyond any expectations (and they were high) the show is all new album and the previous Dancehall… collaboration. Yet the songs and band are so impossibly good, PJ on such unbelievable vocal form, that the audience reaction is ecstatic to every track as if it’s a ‘hits’ set. So calmly they steal your breath. This is in my top 10 shows of all time, and I’m going to see them at least twice more 🙂

Stand through most of (post-Andy) Razorlight to make sure we get into the JP&PJ show. I’m prepared to give them a sincere go with an open mind, because Borrell still has a voice I enjoy… but it’s no good, a demoralising half-hour. No energy, which always sprang from the man behind the kit. No personality, ditto, and JB doesn’t give a fuck. They go off after 35 without playing America or a couple of the other biggies. Were they expecting an encore? 

In other circumstances Alessi’s Ark – who I know vaguely from doing songwriting workshops in schools – would be a real highlight, she’s developing into a classy songwriter and is shaking off the Newsom-isms to find her own voice. But it’s mere minutes since PJ&JP (oh, I’ve got my linear timeline back) so I’m too dazed to let her sink in. She makes me smile though.

I chased around all weekend but missed (every time) both Bearsuit and Graham Coxon. Can’t believe I didn’t even see the Bearsuiters in some social way. When I discover they have no more sets to play I really start thinking I’ve been at one SXSW and there’s been 100 others around the corner to have experienced and you’ll never know if yours was the right one.

Me After loving the beautiful woodeny old upstairs hotel bar venue and being treated well since I arrived, my 1am showcase set starts in a mess and struggles for a hellish 20 minutes of bad tuning, tinny sound and distracting street-noise spilling through open balcony doors around me. I’m wishing quite hard that I’d never been born.

I wonder how you recover, once you start to be embarrassed with yourself as a performer.

Thank fuck something clicks and it’s, well, it’s, I guess, not bad. A patient late-night audience which grows throughout, til luckily it’s really busy just as I improve – so at least more people see the better bits. Far too much American bourbon in the small hours with the charming organisers (a thousand thanks Chris and Wendy if you ever get near reading this). 

You know, I’d had a vivid pre-gig fantasy of destroying the room, then piedpipering the crowd out to the foyer to play a last song on the hotel’s delicious baby grand piano. In reality, I smiled, said “thankyou” and snuck tiredly into the backroom for more booze and contemplated getting a job and moving to the Isle Of Man. Like Piglet when he realised the Heffalump was Pooh.

Then we went and partied as hard as we could.

So, an un-fucking-believable few days – sublime and ridiculous. And it’s not done, I’ve got five more shows between here and the Pacific coast on this tour, before flying home at the end of the month…

I’ll post photos on Facebook.

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2 responses to “Amerikaland #3: South By Southwest

  1. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

  2. A little thank you, I am now enjoying The Decemberists, thanks to Spotify! Quality;) I bet the Polly Jean experience was like moments made of gold-dust… MrsD x

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