It's a no-brainer: If you want to get booked for a showcase at SXSW, and you happen to be an un-established, Austin-based band that probably won't be officially accepted to the festival itself, you really ought to offer to bring your robot to said showcase. Your 20-foot-tall punching, beer-drinking, longhorn-bedecked robot. Named Punchy the Party Robot.
At least that's how the band Asleep found its way to Standard Recording Company's Commodore von Keepsie's Craftacular Music Carnivale, a celebration of arts, crafts and music presented by the Indianapolis-based label Friday afternoon. Punchy doesn't do much except punch and drink — although he lights up when he takes the town at night — but he's quick and easy to set up, and he's the perfect kind of lure to set one showcase apart from the others. I certainly haven't seen any other giant robots during SXSW.
Two Indy-based outfits presented showcases Friday afternoon: Standard, which set up shop a little outside of downtown Austin's craziness, and My Old Kentucky Blog, whose Glitter Taco Smoosh Party took place at a second-floor bar, Peckerhead's, in the belly of the beast.
Location is everything: Dodge and Jessica at MOKB booked a busy slate of bands for the downtown, music-hungry crowd, including locals We Are Hex and Andy D and headliner Das Racist, the politically-aware and sometimes hostile hip-hop act performing April 1 at White Rabbit. They ran them alternately on two stages, packing as much music as possible between noon, when everything starts here at SXSW, and 8 p.m., when these free, promoter-booked showcases give way to official SXSW concerts. So while the location was a little cramped and the hike up the stairs onerous, MOKB was on plenty of people's minds yesterday afternoon, including those in the line stretching outside of Peckerhead's into the early evening, hoping to see Das Racist for free before their ticketed show later that night.
Of course, it's not all about being downtown and super-visible. Standard's showcase, located about 15 blocks east of downtown in a more laid-back, Austin-y part of town, had a more relaxing, grassroots feel, even if its schedule wasn't quite as packed, even if it didn't close with a big-name headliner. And while both Standard and MOKB are Cultural Vision Award winners, I'll venture that Standard's showcase was the more visionary of the two, a combination concert and mini art fair that melded scenes in a organic way. On one side was the concert space, a dirt patio area behind the small but charming Gypsy Lounge, whose one game was bar shuffleboard and whose free Arnold Palmers were not too shabby. And on the other side of a fence in an adjacent parking lot was the craft fair, which featured ten-plus vendors, including Martha Latta, who brought her Sunday Afternoon Housewife wares from Indianapolis, as well a local who makes lamps festooned with children's dinosaur toys and the ubiquitous decorate-your-own-T-shirt-with-felt craft circle.
And I differentiate between the scenes partly because Mark Latta, co-founder of Standard and husband to the aforementioned Martha, does as well. They did this combination art fair/concert downtown last year, and it just didn't draw the right crowd, according to Latta. And a little bit east of downtown, things are a little weirder, Aol. and MTV don't have a presence and people aren't tripping over each other to get to the next showcase.
Maybe you want to hear about the music? I can oblige: I saw a couple bands at Standard's showcase, David Karsten Daniels & the Polyglottal Handclaps, led by a Lubbock, Texas-based songwriter with a slight voice and a pleasant feel for Afro-pop, and Church Shoes, a kind of abrasive rock trio with plenty of chops but an off-putting manner exemplified by their "Wanna die" closing number, which numbered all the ways the lead singer would like to die, including the ever-popular erotic asphyxiation. Church Shoes is on Fort Wayne's Chain Smoking Records, whose label head Anthony was down at SXSW for the first time, supporting his bands and staying somewhere idyllic and ranch-like a half-hour out of town. (Not that I need complain; I'm digging my digs a short bus ride from downtown, where I'm sharing space with the Standard Recording crew, who did not put me up to this.)
And over at MOKB's Taco Party, local acts could chalk one up in the win column — NUVO cover band We Are Hex packed and worked the room, benefitting from all the Third Man juice behind them this week, and while Andy D seemed to have a loyal fan base towards the front of the room during his early-evening set, I spotted some converts to his thing a little further back, smiling at his contorted grimaces and anti-gym body, nodding along to his vintage flow. The non-Indy bands weren't too shabby either. EMA, whose lead singer, Erika Anderson, wore a blingy gold necklace bearing the name of her band (and her initials) in easy-to-read letters (not a bad idea at all, given how hard it is to distinguish one band from another sometimes), delivered a noisy, slow set that peaked with "California," which set Anderson's double-time stream-of-consciousness monologue against a deliberate, languid soundscape. And I was glad to see Asobi Seksu, an NYC band that has been around for about a decade, setting sing-song, girl-band vocals against a thicket of guitars, nicely matching lightness and sweet and kind of moving beyond the bubble gum pop that was all the rage among bands with female, Japanese lead singers back in the '90s.
If there's one thing Indy is missing, it's patio stages. I find myself wandering into the most amazing spaces, including the corrugated metal stage overhanging a river that's out back of Red Eyed Fly's. With the breeze blowing through on a relatively mild night, with trees popping up through the deck to give the setting a less urban feel, with an indoor sound system in an outdoor setting, I couldn't think of a more perfect place to watch a band (weather permitting). Red Eyed Fly's hosted the Sounds from Spain showcase, where I saw a pretty good psych-rock band, Capsula, whose lead singer was conspicuous in a bright red cowboy shirt and matching bright red jeans, doing a Mick Jagger thing, as well as pretty-good Ramones-esque garage rock band, Mujeres, that knocked out a cover of the Velvet's "Run Run Run" without any art rock trappings.
Just down the block at Elysium was Japan Nite, where SXSW was taking donations on behalf of Red Cross for victims of Japan's multi-modal disaster, and where a diverse lineup of bands I'll probably never again have the chance to see did their thing. A couple hermetically focused on a couple eras of American pop music, as Japanese bands tend to do way more successfully than their American counterparts: the Zukuna Sisters, who went for a girl-band soul sound, complete with sequined dresses and a lead singer growling out "What a Wonderful World" in English and Japanese (seriously, she imitated Louis Armstrong in an un-self-conscious, un-parodic way); and Oh Sunshine, a kind of post-Ani (or post-Alanis) alt-rock band that sounded best in an electric setting.
A little tired and in a weirdly intense amount of foot pain that's new for me, I decided to sit down towards the close of the night with the old folks. But you can't go terribly wrong at SXSW, and my safe pick of St. Peter's Episcopal Church brought me to Ron Sexsmith, the quite gifted Canadian songwriter and subject of a feature-length documentary, Love Shines, that premiered at this year's SXSW film festival. Sexsmith has that way of gracefully getting to the pith of big, common themes, while individuating those themes with his own foibles — he's a really good writer, in other words, and has a smooth, honest voice to boot. My favorite line: "This ain't no random shuffle / There's reason in these rhymes."