SXSW 2011: The festival’s memorable moments
The 25th annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference concluded Sunday and with it the music world returned home to crash and sleep and attempt to digest the information overload. This year the festival, which brings together nearly 2,000 bands and clogs Austin’s main arteries with sounds and styles from all over the world, extended to six days from five, reinforcing the notion that while the music business may be in disarray, the music world is thriving.
At least one participant, though, found a gaping hole in the music being created in 2011. Expressing outrage at the economic inequality that’s permeating the lives of the many, keynote speaker Bob Geldof — best known for his humanitarian work in the 1980s with Live Aid — wondered where the voices were to convey that feeling: “What’s music got to say about it?” he asked the packed auditorium at the Austin Convention Center on Thursday morning. “I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it. Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives an illusion of talent. You can download a studio. Download any instrument. You can pick up any instrument for nothing. You can make, cut and paste to create fab artwork to make your CD. Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say. We need to talk about it.”
There was much evidence to the contrary, though, and one might whether Geldof’s mind had been changed by Sunday. Many people’s minds were. Over the course of the festival, Times writers followed the sounds emanating from seemingly every storefront, street corner, vacant lot and hotel room in the capital of Texas. Below are snapshots, highlights, low points and perfect musical moments. For complete coverage, visit Pop & Hiss online.
Belle Brigade’s clarity
It says something about the stickiness of the Belle Brigade’s songs that it can not only endure but also prevail during the onslaught of noise this weekend. On the festival’s main corridor, 6th Street, on Friday night, brass bands, funky street drummers and a general thumping din emanated from every open door. And yet cutting through that stuff were the voices of siblings Ethan and Barbara Gruska of the Belle Brigade.
The band had already played two other sets that day, and its members were finishing their work at music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas’ Chop Shop party on the Maggie Mae’s rooftop. The siblings harmonized and played guitars out front while the band behind them offered an intricate foundation. They created music that sounded like a combination of the more upbeat songs of late ‘70s Fleetwood Mac (specifically, the Lindsey Buckingham tracks on “Tusk”), early ‘70s Flying Burrito Brothers and classic Everly Brothers. Like both the Everlys and country duo the Louvin Brothers, you could tell the Gruskas were related because their voices combined to create a single, textured harmonic tone.
They’re naturals, basically, with songs that are supernaturally tight and catchy. Their better-be-a-hit anthem, “Losers,” is a gorgeous ode to the simple life, a protest against competition as lifestyle and a paean to quiet Friday nights at home, away from the social tangles of the city: “Don’t care about being a winner,” they sang, together as one, “or being smooth with women, or going out on Fridays, or being the life of the party.” Though its music wasn’t the loudest, the most shocking or the most forward-thinking of the festival, the Belle Brigade cut through the chaos with a moment of pure clarity.
— Randall Roberts
She’s in control
To get right to the point, Le Butcherettes singer Teri Gender Bender is something of a stunner. She can howl, she can yell, she can growl the letter “R” into multisyllables, and she needed little more than one ferocious drum beat to have her way with a song. When she repeatedly shouted, “Take my dress off” during the band’s Thursday showcase, it didn’t feel so much like an order as it did a threat. She wasn’t trying to seduce; she was letting you know who was in control. The Mexican punk rock trio has but one album to its name — the forthcoming “Sin Sin Sin” — yet already has an arsenal of throat-grabbing songs. And just in case anyone up front wasn’t paying attention when Teri sang that she was sick of you, she did a backward stage dive. Musically, the band was equally reckless and arresting, with guitar convulsions, a garage-rock keyboard and a rhythmic swamp.
— Todd Martens
If this is the future …
Heading into SXSW, the buzz about Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All was already deafening. Before the event in Austin, the act had scored a placement on late-night television and had graced the cover of Billboard magazine.
Odd Future appeared at numerous parties and events through the week, many of them drawing rave reviews. Yet when it come time for Odd Future’s official SXSW showcase, the act had two words for attendees, and one cannot be repeated here. All fine and dandy, except Odd Future’s Saturday night midnight performance was filled with just as many fans as industry and media types, as the venue had sold admission to the public for $20.
Odd Future, however, made it through part of one song before berating the audience and mocking SXSW, its members noting that they had already made the Billboard cover and were above such a gathering. Events like the MTVu Woodie Awards and a late-night party thrown by Vice, among many other corporate-sponsored concerts, appeared to be more to the act’s liking, as three songs in, members threw down their microphones and paraded offstage. (TM)
See Charles Bradley. Do yourself a favor. Pay this man money for his talent. He has earned it. Read his bio: It sounds like Dickens by way of Donny Goines. Murder, poverty, multiple failures and unimaginable setbacks. The sort of pain that can drive a man only to greatness or madness.
Thankfully, Bradley found the former, at age 62, with the help of Gabe Roth of Daptone Records. On Thursday night at Stubb’s, Bradley delivered one of the festival’s great sets. Yes, there were dozens of transcendent performances throughout SXSW. But wagering on a former James Brown imitator turned ancient awesome soul man with slick dance moves is a wise move. Bradley was a classic showman. He sold every syllable, dropping to his knees, outstretching his arms, shaking his hips. And that voice, both pleading and plaintive, anguished and extraordinary. Your mother would love it. Your dad will love it. Your grandparents would love it. Bradley did a cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” Young would have loved it too.
— Jeff Weiss
One angry Weasel
Punk rock? Suburban Chicago’s Screeching Weasel is a much-adored pop-punk band, taking the urban rush of the Ramones and bringing it to the ‘burbs, ultimately paving the way for the likes of Green Day and Blink-182. Yet a 50-minute set Friday night came to a close in somewhat shocking manner. Lead singer Ben Weasel is known for his irritability, and his rants, even at their most angry, have a healthy dose of sarcasm and humor. Yet after some time spent railing against the media, the audience and SXSW, Weasel was hit with either a cup of water or beer, and moments later was hit near the eye with a chunk of ice. Weasel then jumped into the crowd. A video posted online shows him hitting the woman he believed to be the perpetrator in the face. (TM)
Nate Dogg tribute
Though the officially advertised Nate Dogg tribute may have occurred later on Saturday night, it was clear from Snoop Dogg’s Funk n’ Soul Extravaganza that the Death Row Records alumni will spend the rest of their days paying homage to their friend, who died last week.
Backed by longtime crew Tha Dogg Pound and Warren G, along with recent collaborators modern funk messiah Dam-Funk and slick soulman Mayer Hawthorne, Snoop and many onstage wore matching RIP Nate Dogg shirts. But a visual reminder was unnecessary. Nate Dogg’s (a.k.a. Nathanial Hale) Swisher Sweet voice was omnipresent on nearly every hit the crew performed, including “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None),” “Regulate” and “The Next Episode.”
The other Dogg Pound members performed hits of their own, including a particularly ferocious version of Kurupt’s “We Can Freak It,” but Nate’s voice shone most within Snoop’s red-eyed but deceptively clear vision. His absence was conspicuously felt on some of Snoop’s later hits. Akon’s “I Just Wanna Love You” and Pharrell’s “Beautiful” worked fine, but it was impossible not to wonder how much better they would have been with Nate on the hook. (JW)
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