The Search For Fun at SXSW 2011

SXSW2011DannySouth By Southwest music conference packed 6th street more than ever. Headlines at the Austin American Statesman told of worries about fire hazards and choked streets. My own experience was a bit dreamier, I suppose, as there was never a place I needed to be at a particular moment. The only musts I jotted down were The Buffalo Lounge local showcase, a curator’s presentation of David Foster Wallace’s archive at UT, and Surfer Blood (the latter because I retained stubborn feelings from missing them last year). With these things in the bag, and much more, I dedicated a week to sunshine, random musical encounters and companionship.

I’d like to approach this story with the fiction that I’m some sort of scout. I began my writing career at 19, penning music reviews for the prolific Preston Jones at The Oklahoma Gazette (a highlight last week was attending a Ft. Worth showcase with him). The search was always for a new piece of creation. What are the young people making of their raw resources, with guitars, with voice? For whatever reason, I still care about this, even though music “writing” has become a hobby in my life. And actually talking about music with people gets on my nerves 85 percent of the time. But, if one has a car and an imagination, one will always need some music.

The process of scouting interests me. It’s one of the reasons I look up to Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse. Not only was he digging up interesting ways to scream and play the guitar, but on his travels he would find talent with abilities very different from his: The Shins, Iron and Wine, Holopaw, Wolfe Parade. And he would relay these bands to Sub Pop. This appeals to the treasure hunt narrative of our childhoods, and it comes back to me most often in music. The fevered demand of the shows at SXSW fuel this innate desire, and feed into the thrill. I wasn’t working for any record label, but I’m a person who can relay stories. And I realize that there’s so much music, that whatever I’d catch, surely someone might not have heard and would like to.

Rick Rubin is another guiding light in this kind of endeavor. I was trying to tell a friend last night that I had a secret: I was Rick Rubin in a former life and had indeed chosen the eclectic mix for the Less Than Zero soundtrack. The film was playing as I re-wrote my SXSW run-down. I noticed: Roy Orbison and Glen Danzig songwriting partners? Only under the guidance of a visionary scout. And that guy’s still at it, finding projects like The Avett Brothers to keep water in his river. I think of guys like Rick every time I’m in a heavily saturated music scene. They compel me to consume it all with alternating omnivorous and discerning appetites.

So I’ve broken musical, anecdotal and literary stories into sort of vignettes. Being a self-designed scout does have its drawbacks – there’s some shows you just can’t get into. So I’ll also talk about how to sneak into hot shows, one of the tricks of the scouting trade. No one said the beginning of this kind of work offers aid or badges or guidance of any kind.

At any rate, let’s see what I found about some things.

Ted Leo (solo and solid)

I dropped my things when I saw a free Ted Leo concert advertised outside of Venue 222. Leo was by himself. A guy outside seemed to find this disappointing. It wasn’t at all.

When Ted Leo wears a guitar, it’s like a quality pen that won’t bust, or a shovel or a really cool pistol. His quips between songs are also bullet-quick. The topic of the night Monday was this business with the huge, strange screen above him which advertised rows of t-shirts. Not very punk. You could take a picture of the concert, send it to the company and the t-shirt would be ready to go (or something along those lines). Every three songs or so Leo would smile wryly and say, “put it on a t-shirt.” “Here, take a picture with him,” he said pointing to a balcony friend. “Put it on a t-shirt” became the refrain of the night, and seemed to illustrate well enough the constant conflict between the big money of SXSW and the DIY drive and grit of its most endearing artists.

No BioMusicology this night. But there was some “Where Have all the Rude Boys Gone?” and some serious “Me and Mia.” Sharp strums rang out in metallic razor cuts into the two-story place. There’s a beautiful economy to what Leo did on Monday night that felt like a knife had cut right through all the fat of this spectacle (the sometimes vapid self-congratulating and networking, the 6 hour wait for the wristband to get into the free party, the literal fat of the delicious food). Leo’s lines are metered and sharp and often good stories. His voice is thin yet forceful, without being shrill. His chord changes don’t fuck around. It rocks.

Some of Ted Leo’s best

Ted Leo at Venue 222

Lemurs and Bad Veins were the able openers. A voice next to me says the Bad Veins are perhaps too precious. With a telephone strung from mic stand to a flower painted “phone box,” I agree. But their Black Key’s style drumming and indie pop voiced energy was good. They were on the hunt, and I wished them well.

Some of Bad Veins’ best

Bad Veins at another venue during SXSW 2011

Sneaking into TV on the Radio

The night before the Wallace presentation I had 12 hours to kill, I’d felt the need to pull a David Foster Wallace Memorial All Nighter for lack of an early morning ride (9:30 is not time for anyone to start off at SXSW). This would prove detrimental to my intellectual faculties at the actual presentation.

The folks who invented Farmville, Zynga, must’ve had Sean Parker tell them that the right band to headline their party was TV on the Radio. There’s perhaps nothing cooler. A guy named Tunde who performs with bravado, spits word and sings really well. Post punk guitar meltdowns, well graphed digital blips, just enough to fit the internet company vibe.

No matter how good TV on the Radio would break it down, I’d have a sort of dubious opinion about the showcase anyway, personally believing Farmville a waste of time, a guilty pleasure not worth indulging. A man I met from Philadelphia, hearty and with wife, had this to say about Farmville.

“It’s like having another job you don’t get paid for.”

I heard the band had started, the deep bass of Tunde’s voice beckoned. I talked to a nice skinny guy at the door who nicely said no blue wristband, no dice. I caught some roadies catch their friends behind the loading dock.

“Come here, come with me.”

Wearing a Wal-Mart blue hoodie, I fancied myself to have a little weirdo Mark Zuckerberg pluck, subterfuge and ambition, so I followed this gang and gave a very purposeful nod to the security gentleman. And in I was. Inside, white smoke and licked scenes dominated; the faux patio with low slung white lawn chairs eerily tried to reproduce a poolside sense of sociability, but the turned backs, tired necks and drowned out conversations conveyed something more of isolation. Next to that was the always occupied arcade of vintage games. TV On the Radio came through so clearly that I couldn’t hear what the auburn haired bartender was asking of me. She was pointing at her wrist. I pretended to laugh, and hid my left wrist in my pocket and took the Miller to the center of the sweaty throng. The swaggering “DLZ” was in progress.

Some of TV On The Radio’s best

TV On The Radio at the Zynga party

The core heated with TVOTRs “Staring at the Sun.” These Brooklyn beat poets never disappoint. Jingle bells dangled from guitar stems. Scientist glasses over arched songs about Dear Science. They were missing a bassist, but didn’t miss many beats. It was a mix of tech and soul, the soul being the thing this new age of ours will need plenty of.

TV on the Radio is still the barbershop quartet of the future.

—to be continued….

(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved. Contact Danny through email

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