19 March 2008

sxsw roundup pt. 2: bragging rights


got our bikes in gear and cruised down south first to bouldin's cafe, where we had a late-ish tacos breakfast and spotted jeff lewis and some of the jitters. n and i tried to infiltrate the austin convention center to catch billy bragg's 3pm showcase set, but after four escalator flights we found out it was off-limits to mere wristband-holders. so we joined bobby at emo's instead for the shout out louds, a perfectly competent and affable pop-rock band from sweden who nevertheless fail to excite me even as passable peterbjörn+john substitutes. i did enjoy their interpolation of a verse from "train in vain" though, and how long it took me to realize that the second guitarist's hair wasn't actually a hat.

we wandered across to the annex for lykke li, surely one of sxsw's busiest performers (she had no fewer than 9 scheduled performances in three days, which is a little insane), who showed up with her band late and harried (no surprise as she'd had been a busride away for a set scheduled to start an hour and fifteen minutes earlier - but no problem as it meant we had some time to dance to the dj stylings of men aka 2/3 of le tigre, including a sweet "with every heartbeat" remix and some kind of bmore-club-esque track based on "orinoco flow" which i heard again later in the week.) her set was short (five songs) and somewhat stilted - though reading her bio and remembering that she's only 21, her stiff stage manner starts to make some more sense - but the music was enjoyable enough for what it was. (she ain't no robyn, though, that's for sure - but give her some time.)

then on to mohawk, where the clipse closed off an excellent lineup at the rhapsody party, all of which we'd missed except for a catchy final song or two by sons and daughters through the fence as we waited in line. took them a minute to get on too, but when they did they treated us to a lengthy, body-rocking, hit-packed set with most of hell hath no fury (though not "trill"), a couple throwbacks to lord willin' (though not "when the last time") and even "what happened to that boy," and a bunch of other material that i assume is from their latest mixtape. now, i like the clipse as much as i like any straight-up, traditionalist, street-minded hip-hop (save maybe sway, more on whom later), but that's nothing compared to some of the heads in this crowd, singing along with nearly every line. and pusha and malice seemed genuinely touched and even surprised by the level of crowd enthusiasm, basking and revelling in our presence and energy as much as we were in theirs. they put on a professional, spirited performance, and seemed fully at ease in the slightly incongruous all-white-hipster crowd and sunny outdoor setting, but what surprised me was how warm, affable and humorous they were considering their tough, deadly-serious, hardcore lyrical personae. they're obviously very self-aware and incredibly savvy, not just as artists but as businessmen ("it's all in the spirit of competition...we just think we're the best"), and it's clear they recognize this crowd as a core constituency of their fanbase. basically it was a big love-in.

after a somewhat extravagant dinner at miguel's, we headed south of the river to catch the world's greatest active rock band, austin homeboy's spoon, alongside a few thousand of their fellow citizens in a sprawling riverside festival-stage area. i didn't bother getting in a place to really even see the stage (at least until the set-closing "underdog"), was perfectly content to sit back in the grass and smile along. i've now seen them outdoors twice as many times (four) as indoors.

got a little stressy after that, as i scrambled to figure out the location and time of a sway performance i'd just gotten wind of that morning, the delay causing me to wind up at the end of a long static line for the secretly canadian showcase and miss the two low-pro bands i'd been there to see. once i did finally get inside to see the tail end of explorer's club, there was some miscommunication and some exhaustion and some ambiguity of priorities that led to me and nava going back outside and sitting on the lawn opposite the venue as bon iver played his/their set. it sounded great, certainly loud and clear, and it was sorta nice to just sit and listen and not have to worry about the crowd or trying to watch it, though i do wish we'd managed to see something in this prime-time slot, if not bon or sway then, as i now remember and realize we actually should have done, the retribution gospel choir at st. david's church.

got it together and biked over to the cedar st. courtyard an hour early for billy bragg, on the way passing by the english beat on stage at the bizarre, fake 'smokin' music' venue that i'd forgotten they were playing. wish we'd stopped and gone inside there too (the crowd looked pretty sparse), but i'm happy with the bits i did catch: the opening fill and groove of "twist and crawl" and the final verse/chorus of "stand down margaret," which they rather disconcertingly changed to "stand down hillary." hmmmmm. it was no trouble getting into cedar street, though as lovely a space as it is, it's long, narrow, cluttered with furniture and just generally poorly chosen as a sxsw venue. probably would have enjoyed devotchka's late, lovely set even more if i'd been able to see a bit better, but it was good enough catching occasional glimpses of the suave, expressively-eyebrowed lead crooner, goofy sousaphonist and toy-looking squeezebox player.

in any case i'm glad we got there early because it made it easy to get almost up to the front before mr. love and justice, aka billy bragg, the iconic (more like a st. bernard than the eiffel tower, he says) commie troubadour i've been wanting to see for at least a decade now. and he did not disappoint, churning out the jams for as long as they'd let him (it still feels a little funny that the venues have to cut off every show at two on the mark, as they did with every 1am-slot show i saw all week except for the tough alliance.) some material from the new album (!) - "farmboy," "i'll keep faith," "oh freedom" - which is being touted as a return to worker's playtime form (nice to hear that recognized as perhaps his best work), though those songs at least seemed a little mawkishly propagandistic to me - and an excellent sorta-silly "johnny clash" song which i assume is on the album but i'm not sure. but mostly he stuck to golden oldies - "accident waiting to happen," "power in a union," "levi stubbs' tears" (!), "little time bomb" (!!), and of course penultimate sing-along "new england." [also "way over yonder in the minor key" and "world turned upside down."] he also talked a lot - he's very funny, even if he occasionally takes his jokes farther than even i might - and he just generally seemed to be enjoying himself, which was great to see. he offered us a choice between the carpenters and dylan for a 'busking-style' acoustic cover, but after the carps (of course) squeaked a win nobody sang along with the chorus [of "superstar"], so he cut himself off, bemoaned it a 'travesty of democracy' and launched into "don't think twice" instead - okay, but a little whatever. (i heard he did a shangri-la's tune - "give him a great big kiss" - in duet with kate nash saturday afternoon - how effing cool!) anyway, so so good to finally see the man in person, and easily a highlight of the week.

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