Mixtape: Highlights from the 2012 South by Southwest Music Festival (Podcast #275)

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Tracklisting:

1. Django Django – “Default”
2. Lower Dens – “Brains”
3. La Sera – “Please Be My Third Eye”
4. Ume – “Captive”
5. Coasting – “For Hours”
6. Frankie Rose – “Know Me”
7. Free Energy – “Electric Fever”
8. Bleached – “Searching Through The Past”
9. R. Stevie Moore – “California Rhythm”
10. Caveman – “Thankful”
11. Tycho – “Coastal Brake”
12. Purity Ring – “Belispeak”

Last Saturday, on our final evening at South by Southwest 2012, Christian and I were walking back to our East Austin rental house, and I found myself in something of a funk, complaining about reaching my saturation point with live music. I was tired of listening to bands’ sound checks, tired of standing around, tired of low-quality beer, and just tired period. Admittedly, it was not a great headspace. Thankfully, it did not last long.

Hearing a jangly racket coming from Trailer Space Records, we decided to drop in and see who was playing. It turned out to be none other than Oakland/Sacramento’s G. Green, whose sloppy DIY punk felt, in that moment of ambivalence, reinvigorating. A few songs from the band felt like a fine way to end the South By experience.

As we continued walking, we heard poppy sounds emerging from a lot where WNYU was hosting a party. By chance, the closing set by indie-pop charmers Tennis was still going, and we seized the chance to catch a delightful batch of songs by a band that had slipped through my fingers all week long. Alaina Moore said that they had played a lot of shows during the week, but that as far as audiences went, we were the best. I don’t know if she says that to all of the audiences, but the entire experience felt like an important reminder about the serendipity that seems pervasive during SXSW. It turns out it’s easy to lose perspective when you spend four days in a fog of loud music and cheap beer.

I’ve been going to Austin annually for South by Southwest for eight or nine years now. I remain as, if not more, confused now about its actual function, relevance, and value to the artists performing, but the simple truth remains as accurate as when I first started attending: it’s a listener’s delight, even if the listener ends up with sore feet and a desire to embrace temperance.

South by Southwest is also an absurdity, a creature that should not exist. The South By experience is at times reminiscent of a buffet and a zoo, with all of the attendant positives and negatives that might be drawn from either comparison.

I saw around sixty bands last week, sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for an hour, and in a variety of settings and sound conditions. Given all of the variables, the one constant that emerged was that the most successful performers seemed to be the ones who took everything in stride, accepting the idea that playing twenty minutes of songs in the back lot of a dive bar when you can’t hear anything on stage, and when people are more interested in free moonshine and planning their next destination than listening to music, could qualify under any reasonable definition of the word “concert.”

That idea of taking it all in stride and powering through may explain why some of the strongest sets I saw involved veteran performers’ newest projects. Not one but two Vivian Girls-related bands left strong positive impressions. La Sera’s sublime surf-inspired rock was delightfully louder and more rounded than I had previously suspected, and Coasting delivered full-bore pop nuggets that offered plenty of guilt for missing the band’s recent full length. Similarly noisy pop came from Japandroids, who tested songs from a forthcoming release that planted the band firmly within the school of loud and fast. The duo’s effort to cram as many songs into their set as possible left a heady buzz.

Bleached’s strong, harmony-driven show in the Mohawk’s small interior lodge room on Thursday called to mind seeing the Dum Dum Girls in the same room a few years prior. And speaking of (former) Dum Dum Girls, Frankie Rose and her band’s Wednesday afternoon Brooklyn Vegan party appearance delivered sharp renditions of gauzy pop songs from Interstellar, one of my favorite records of the year to date.

While the lowest-fi projects might be best equipped to adapt to SXSW’s frequently poor sound conditions, the subtleties of Lower Dens’ layered mood-rock worked at Pitchfork’s day party, suggesting that the band’s second album will be a dynamic leap forward from their already strong first album. An attention to dynamics also aided Caveman‘s percussive, synth-layered pop songs, which felt ideally suited to the warm Thursday early evening.

A similar highlight, perhaps the highlight of the festival for me, was a chance to see Django Django, a London art-pop band making its first appearance in the U.S. Other than the lack of stateside touring, I am befuddled by the curious expressions I get when I rave about their album, which successfully walks a tightrope balancing synth-driven weirdness and uber-catchy melodies; surely it’s only a matter of time before they get more well-deserved attention here.

Even though SXSW is nominally about discovering new music – and does anyone even believe that anymore? – three veterans rank among my festival highlights. I’d been familiar with R. Stevie Moore’s work since Ariel Pink started championing the outsider cult hero, but his Saturday afternoon set of affable, left-of-center art-rock was a testament to the relative meaning of terms like “weirdo,” leaving the focus primarily on the thoroughly enjoyable music.

No more obvious stamp of approval exists than the demand for one more song after the conclusion of a band’s set, and Future of the Left, to their credit, held their ground on stage until the venue acquiesced. The quartet rocked, sardonic yet intense, and I plan to revisit their back catalog (and forthcoming album) soon. Similarly, the MOG party once again provided my annual chance to reevaluate a hip-hop artist I’d unfairly dismissed. Last year, it was Big Boi’s “all hits, yes there are a lot of hits” set; this year, The Roots delivered a master class in why they are one of the tightest performing acts in any genre, even if their taste in rock and roll covers needs some quality control.

But rather than end a report on new music from SXSW with the conclusion that, “Hey, The Roots are a pretty great live band,” I’ll offer a bunch of other groups I quite enjoyed, and one experience I didn’t.

On the positive side: Deafheaven, Ume, Free Energy, Purity Ring, Tycho, Zola Jesus, 1,2,3, Eleanor Friedberger, Gardens & Villa, Chad Valley, and numerous others.

On the downright unpleasant side: trying a few of Taco Bell’s Doritos-shelled tacos. As it turns out, not every chance at South by Southwest is worth taking.

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