Here at JP's Coffee, a garage turned coffeehouse a few hundred feet from the University of Texas campus, the band is already setting up. It's 11:30 a.m. and I'm a 45-minute walk from downtown, but this is the story of SXSW: If CNN, Pepsi, Sony, AOL, Fuze, InSound and the tourism boards of Canada and New Zealand have secured prime real estate around the Austin Convention Center (the headquarters for SXSW Music), setting up obscene Applesbee-esque restaurants (the puzzling CNN lounge) and piping Lady Gaga's latest single from super-cool HDTVs (Sony's boring product showcase), the nooks and crannies remain open to just about any band with the gumption to play before a mild-mannered coffeehouse crowd.
Or maybe that's more my prediction of what the story will be. This is my first time at SXSW, the 24-year-old music festival once officially named South by Southwest, and once exclusively devoted to music before the mid-'90s addition of components dedicated to film and "interactive," meaning all things digital and computer-related. I'll blog for the next four days from my homebase nearby JP's Coffee, an apartment abandoned during spring break by some Longhorn law students that I'm sharing with the team from Standard Recording Company, who are putting on an showcase Friday afternoon.
Given my neophyte-ness here, it might make sense to avoid drawing any conclusions early in the week. Not that the industry experts even have a track on the next big thing: Who knew that Twitter would hit its tipping point during 2007's SXSW Interactive festival, when attendees, helped along by Twitter's marketing presence at the festival, realized that the service was a really effective tool for telling others about parties to see and those to avoid?
So I'll just pass along this brief recap of last night's events. As mentioned, corporate sponsors vying for the most eyeballs have set up shop just outside the Convention Center, where all bands and attendees must stop to pick up wristbands and badges. And so after I sneered at Pepsi's setup (some sort of giant party warehouse) and CNN's aforementioned grill (which is hosting a lot of live performances and artist interviews that will most certainly never find their way to the cable channel), I stopped at a couple tents just adjacent to the Center: the Canadian Blast tent, indeed devoted to Canadian music and hosted by a DJ from CBC 3; and another one featuring the latest from New Zealand, including free samples of fresh, young New Zealand wine and the beer from down under — Miller Lite.
I saw a couple acts at Canadian Blast, which did not offer free alcohol and whose bouncer rebuffed me, despite my evident importance, when I tried to enter the VIP area: Karkwa, pronounced without hard "k"s in a rather difficult, perhaps Gallic way, who started off with a comically long soundcheck in French, then knocked it out with a rather dreamy indie-pop set; and Buck 65, who had a voice like Fred Schneider from the B-52s, and who rapped about a zombie apocalypse in a super-nerdy, blandly Canadian kind of way.
Over in New Zealand, Liam Finn is quite the force: the son of Neil Finn of Crowded House fame, his vocals and even his Beatles-esque songwriting are similar to his dad's, but he and his band injected something new in the second half of each song, after they had played the head, so to speak, with Finn occasionally moving from guitar to drum set to pound out a primitive beat, or his band moving into some really unexpected changes, really digging into a minor key and adding balls to what could've been pretty ordinary singer-songwriter stuff. Later on in the tent, Street Chant, a super-young garage rock trio that's still finding its voice, demonstrated that New Zealand isn't all about the Tall Dwarfs and other bedroom-recorded indie rock.
And from there, I marched into SXSW central: 6th and 7th Streets, lined with clubs, with most streets closed to traffic, except for criss-crossing pedicabs. Street parades criss-crossed as well: While munching on pizza, I watched a march for a moratorium on the death penalty pass one way, carrying coffins and chanting ("Death row? Hell no!"), then saw, about two minutes later, a less polemical street parade pass the other way.
Showcases officially sanctioned by SXSW begin at 8 p.m. I started off the night by seeing Freedy Johnston, the plain-spoken, elegiac Kansan who had exactly one hit in the mid-'90s with "Bad Reputation." The former Austin resident was given a perfect setting: a chapel in the St. Mark's Episcopal Church, where his some of his songs practically soared: his "Neon Repairman," based on the structure of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" and written while in Austin after he observed that the town has quite a bit of neon, and that, as such, there must be a lot of neon repairmen; his perfectly-stated, perfectly sad "This Perfect World," which he followed up with the ironically more upbeat "Mortician's Daughter." Johnston, who wore a Wisconsin hat at the show (recall this fact, for there is a theme here), is also playing in a trio with Susan Cowsill throughout the week, trying to raise money for their new record with a Kickstarter campaign. A little after the show, I ran into a couple Indy ex-pats: Otis Gibbs, whose show later that night at the Velveeta Room I missed, and Cameron Smith, the once creative director for the Indy Jazz Fest who now manages Johnston. Like New York or Chicago, Austin is quite the destination for anyone involved in music; funny that I managed to run into two Indy movers and shakers outside of one show, though.
And onward I marched to the Secretly Canadian/Dead Oceans/Jagjaguwar showcase at Red 7s, a sort of Communist Ed Debevics, its walls plastered with sub-Che Guevera T-shirt agit-prop posters, its doors tended by what must be the meanest staff in Austin. Yeah, I guess I hated the venue (I was actually collared by the doorlady!), but it was great to see the diverse lineup that the Bloomington labels mustered up, from NYC piano-pop songwriter Lia Ices, who may not have overcome being pissed off at hearing the sound bleeding from the other of the venue's two stages and struggled to make her delicate ballads quite work, to the Luyas, a rather strange, Montreal-based atmospheric pop band that wanted for a little direction and coherence, or at least a direction away from a show-stopping French horn solo. I was outright puzzled by Gayngs, a Jagjaguwar band dedicated to slow jams. Nine persons strong (including a rather unpleasant soprano sax player), they played one endless song, and I can't tell if they're involved in a rather-too-cute exercise in performance art or if they really are aiming for airplay on The Quiet Storm.
Later, I slipped into Brooklyn Vegan's showcase to see much of Ted Leo's set, a definite highlight of my night and others'. Performing solo with electric guitar, Leo, a kind of standard-bearer for power-pop, reminded me of Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello — and played a couple covers to that end, Woody Guthrie's "Union Song," which was first recorded by Bragg on his Mermaid Avenue album, and Nick Lowe's "So It Goes." He dedicated "Union Song," which is, as one might expect, a tribute to the power and legacy of trade unions, to the people of Wisconsin, making him the second typically non-political performer of the night to align himself with the crowds in Madison.
I made a couple more random stops, looking to hear bands from outside the U.S., and not emerging completely convinced by Chile's Francisca Valenzuela, a traditional balladeer on keyboard who wanted for a full band, and Nigeria's Beautiful Nubia and the Roots Renaissance Band, a trio on guitar, bass and keyboards that could've used a full-time percussionist or horn section (boy, is it depressing to hear a synthesized horn section in any context). I'm certainly aware that it may not be economically feasible for a full band to fly across continents for one show, so kudos to any international performers that make do with what they have.
And then I ended up at the Secretly Canadian show again, hearing a couple more bands from different sides of the spectrum: The Cave Singers, an appropriately-named group that works with the basics, just guitar, drums and bass, to play gravelly, gruff blues; and Small Black, a sort of goth rock band with quite a bit of style (kaleidoscopic light show, fog machine, stark lighting), baroque keyboards and a nicely dissipated feel. Closing out the night was Okkervil River, the Austin-based band led by the erudite, terrific songwriter Will Sheff, who recently lost his nomination for "best liner notes" (or something like that) at the Grammys. It was a predictably solid performance by the longtime Secretly Canadian band, and appropriate end to that night's showcase.
I'll throw in the towel now and get back out there, armed with a new pair of shoes (the heels finally gave out on the old ones and I'm nursing a rather large blister) and looking out for those unofficial showcases that rule the afternoon. Back again tomorrow, same time, probably the same coffeeshop, where the hard rock band setting up at the beginning of this blog is now playing terrible hard rock. So it goes.