Long days, hot into the evenings; a Shiner Boch saves all.
We were lucky. In two days we saw 19 bands, not counting the ones we walked away from. With 1700 bands in town, Steve Schnipper and I were busy and, I repeat, we were lucky. We saw Okkerville River, voted as Indie Band of the Year in the outdoor space of an art gallery that backed onto an alley. To the right was free beer; to the left were the beer outlets. In between was “hot rocks” sponsored by Schuba’s Bar – located at Belmont and Southport. Steve called his daughter in Chicago to say where we were and she replied, “Dad, you’re really pissin’ me off ”. (They made up later).
We first heard a classic rock set by Ben Jalean from New Jersey; good start! Then River took the stage and played four songs in a forty minute set. Wow – watch for this band. Lead, rhythm and bass electric guitars (rhythm does acoustic plug-in on two songs) keyboard, drums, mandolin, synthesizer, and shakers and tambourines and a Casio playing piano and lead singer and harmony vocal and the whole band does vocal chorus except the drummer who’s workin his ass off. This is “new” music – it is not your mothers’ rock n’ roll. It’s staccato and melodic with soothing sounds punctuated with raw poetry. I thought bands that could vary tempos in a single piece were, if not sophisticated, at least on the edge. River shows how close to the edge you should never try to be unless you’re willing to take risks.
River risks! In three songs (all written by Will Sheff) the back beat gives way to new pacing and all bass disappears to free the lead where it goes to what I’ve always considered alternative rock and finally to free-form styles until the back beat takes over – once with a thundering interruption; another time with simple snare and cymbal. As their last song ended, the gathering of maybe 250 people cheered and knew they’d just heard something special. Steve liked them; I soon was to consider them second best.
We had six bands under our belt by five P.M. and headed to an outdoor venue called Auditorium Shores. Three bands on the menu: Grupo Phantasmo, Del the Funky Homo-Sapien and lastly, the reason I came; Spoon.
Grupo is a Latin band that recently signed a contract to open for Prince every Thursday night at his Las Vegas showcase. Grupo has the Latin beat worked down to a twelve piece band with conga drums, four brass and two sax, drummer, three guitars and a pump organ and lead singer. They’re o.k. Their Momma loves ‘em. When Del began to sing I turned my back and had a long-running conversation with a young man from Austin who knew the ins and outs of this festival. Later.
The truth about spoon is they are no longer an “indie” band. In late 2007, they signed with BMI for a shit load of money and have cut an album and will be on the road the rest of this year; but, they made a commitment to SXSW and here they were. They played a 80 minute set and didn’t get paid in dollars. The band was six people that hot Thursday night, though their label says four. Lead, rhythm, bass, drums, keys and trumpet. Three more brass from Grupo Phantasmo joined for two songs and the stage was full of gear! I once saw Emerson Lake and Palmer in the early seventies and till now it was the most cluttered stage I’d ever seen – that’s not a bad thing and I don’t even think it means anything.(delete)? Spoon started softly. Melody was the rhythm. Piano kicked in and still was soft lead and keys until bass led them to a double tempo. From that point it was kick ass rock n roll bordering on frenetic. They rushed furiously to a calm. Started back up in a new key; Not a lot of people do that successfully – they’re good.
This was a two thousand people outdoor venue and it took us a while to get to Red River where we saw three more bands. Steve found his band of the day – I said I thought they were out of sync and Steve told me that was on purpose. WTF
Friday – more music – the only one I’ll talk about was a group from New Delhi. Yes, one guy did wear a turban and they came to the U.S. in late February. If this is the state of rock music in India, I’m buying some linen and leaving on a jet plane! There are concept albums that fall into a genre called symphonic rock, including the late works of King Crimson and even some Pink Floyd. This five piece band weaves what can be called a mystical sound amongst all its instruments; keys, lead, bass, rhythm and drums. Their lyrics remind me of why poetry is set to music. They sing of Home and Traveling Blues and Fly Away and Sweet Despair – all themes of a band searching for their own lost chord. They have a Moody Blues sound, but not so big. In many ways their music is gentle and “climbing on clouds to the mountain of dreams” until it reminds there is danger in not being home. Mystical lyrics layered into their sound. The name of the band is “menwhopause”. P.S. – they are on myspace.
A registration badge to get into all events of the week is $600. A daily pass for residents is $90. Steve and I paid nothing to see nineteen bands and drink free beer. The whole thing in music is change – the big four record companies don’t make a splash. Indies best bet is corporate sponsorship. Agents are everywhere and if your tune fits a rental car marketing plan, why not take the bucks for all the years spent on the road. You gotta live and it’s no longer considered a “sell-out” because corps do a very good job of paying.
Indie bands have been shocked in years past to see the risk that the big four take in signing on. It is less than zero! Most of us don’t know that. Let me ask you; are there more business failures in selling coffee than there are in the art of making music? If you didn’t get the answer right, you owe an ear to the gods of art. Make no mistake that SXSW was a business convention first; then glitz came in with strong marketing tools and big, very big bucks yet somehow, in that world of musical dreams from Saint-Sans to U2 people walked into the venue and said “that music is ours”. I would not have thought it possible until I saw it; the last time this happened was the late sixties.
To see it, you must reserve early and make your venue plan late; right before the start. With so much going on, don’t be surprised if you don’t see one of your fav’s. Besides, discovery is the adventure I was on. I found new music.