The 2 Sides of SXSW

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Sam Machkovech


The Sunday morning after SXSW found me at a patio table at Austin's Eastside Cafe, enjoying a sunny brunch whose every egg came from the hens clucking 15 paces away in the restaurant's garden coop. Food was on my girlfriend's Texan parents, who'd graciously waited until noon after the South By Southwest Music Festival to roust us from our slumber and buy us French toast. And coffee.

I have enough trouble decompressing the musical overload of SXSW the morning after, but rarely do I do so on the behalf of 50-something Texans who count pop-country and hair metal as their top genres. To their question of "how was it?", I wondered, should I gush about the twee-pop of former Beulah lead singer Miles Kurosky? Maybe talk at length about the impressive 9-piece Afro-pop frenzy of Fool's Gold? Or would I be better off listing mainstream acts I didn't attend, like Hole, Stone Temple Pilots, or even Shins side-project Broken Bells, to induce a parental smile-and-nod of recognition?

I settled on talking about the big-name bands, muttering to myself afterward, "That's not the SXSW I attended." Or, well, was it?

When Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore played in a small nightclub, smothered in red lights, how could I resist using my fancy press pass to push to the front of the line and witness his somber, 12-string guitar solo performance? When illustrious troubadour Billy Bragg had a similar, overpacked solo set at an even smaller venue, and my badge allowed me to squeeze in, squeeze I did.

On the Friday of the fest, when Austin country legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore ambled onto a private, badge-only stage hosted by Rolling Stone, I couldn't help but affix a capital V, I, and P on my presence as I held my badge aloft to enter. At that moment, I saw famed Rolling Stone contributor David Fricke standing at the edge of the room, smirking along to Gilmore's immaculate set—yet not moving a bone in his music-writing body. The scene saddened me: Gilmore's slightly nasal voice boomed with the confidence of a living legend, and the half-empty room of middle-aged, jacket-clad badge-holders seemed happier to be at the private party than to witness such a standout performance by one of the original Flatlanders (complete with his son, Colin, dueting on acoustic guitar).

Really, I'd become guilty of attending the "other" SXSW—the public face aimed at folks who could care less about digging through thousands of up-and-coming bands. But, dude, that's the whole point of SXSW! To put the hype-filled schedule print-outs down, to stop reloading Twitter in search of the next big tip, and to walk into a random room and see something glorious. So I did (or, at least, tried to).

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Sam Machkovech

But I know better than to expect to "break" any bands. As Smokey Robinson put it during his SXSW keynote conversation, "There aren't any 'new' artists." The best female-fronted acts I saw at SXSW were Seattle's Visqueen and San Antonio's Girl In A Coma, each led by 20-something belters.

Visqueen's Rachel Flotard is a dead ringer for Neko Case, as much because of the long, red hair as because of her voice (deep and full of range, yet combustible with just a bit of squeak) and her demeanor (cracking wise with the crowd and bandmates between songs). And Girl In A Coma's Nina Diaz switches between grumble and all-out cry in a manner that sounds surprising even when a song plays on repeat; I named her Gwen Jett after two minutes of listening with my jaw on the floor.

In Diaz's case, it's not a bad moniker; her Latina-rock trio has been signed to Joan Jett's record label for years and has already toured with the likes of Morrissey. And in Flotard's, er, case, she's worked intimately with semi-Seattlite Neko Case for years. So, yeah, not discoveries. But the feeling of intimacy, of newness, of "screw the badges and rock out" at both bands' small-ticket sets had few curmudgeons in the crowd—and far more young, enthusiastic women putting their hands in the air and attaching themselves to the moments.

As usual, the young groups proved the most exciting at SXSW. One of Seattle's newest hot hip-hop acts, the two women of Thee Satisfaction, proved imaginative in their treatment of hooks, short songs, refrains, and even blatant touts of their open sexuality (the best of their Saturday set was a powerful-yet-slinky dance track called "Bisexual"). And the kiddos of West Palm Beach, FL's Surfer Blood—faces so chubby, it's amazing SXSW didn't collectively pinch their cheeks—sounded like a band who'd been run through the concert wringer for the past few years, not a band fresh out of high school. ("One of my high school friends has one of my songs as his ringtone," a band member gushed mid-set on Saturday. "That is the coolest thing.") Their rock attack, fitting squarely between the likes of The Shins and Rogue Wave, proved fresh thanks to frenetic stage presence, multi-part songs that escalate with dramatic pauses and multi-part harmonies, and even an attention to extra, dance-friendly percussion.

Because I caught that Surfer Blood set, I couldn't get into the much-ballyhooed Alex Chilton tribute concert, held because his band, Big Star, was scheduled to perform before he died of an apparent heart attack earlier this week. It was a glorious tribute by all accounts, complete with a cast of SXSW superstars like REM's Mike Mills, The Lemonheads' Evan Dando, X's John Doe, and She & Him's M. Ward. And it was held in Antone's, a mid-size venue that simply couldn't service the full crowd hoping to pay Chilton his fair tribute for Big Star's pop-rock legacy.

I would have loved to attend, and I'm sure Chilton would have appreciated the crowd and the rousing performances on his behalf. But I bet he was fine with me running across Austin, choosing to see new bands instead of waiting in line for his old one. And I'm sure somewhere, he laughed when Rolling Stone's David Fricke reportedly tried waving his badge at the tribute line's bouncer to cut, only to be sent to the back of the line.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.
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