Or Was It South By Screeching Weasel?
The 25th annual South By Southwest Music & Media Festival
brought together over 2,000 bands, singer/songwriters, rappers,
turntablists, comedians, belly dancers, (and probably at
least a couple of ventriloquists,) along with 14,000 paid
registrants (and an untold number of random fans who glommed
onto the free parties, showcases, and concerts all over
town.) Austin ran out of hotel rooms, parking, and cell
phone bandwidth; and if it wasn't for the monster trucks
that rumbled down Sixth Street every afternoon, they would
have run out of beer too. Old-timers complained it was a
lot more fun when things weren't quite so crazy; at the
end of the conference, SXSW's director went on the local
TV news and announced that Austin had reached the saturation
point and something would have to give next year. 2011 was
the year that SXSW finally got a little too big for its
But if you were there for the music, you couldn't really
complain. Yes, there were lines around the block for some
of the buzz-band parties, but I managed to see a good number
of the buzziest bands at the conference - Yuck, the Smith
Westerns, Odd Future - and only stood in one line for more
than a few minutes. You just had to pick your spots. It
used to be that a band would come down to Austin, play its
one showcase, and then spend the rest of the time networking,
shmoozing, and trying to "work" the music industry.
Since that industry pretty much doesn't exist anymore -
at least, not the way it did in the Nineties, when bands
came to SXSW single-mindedly pursuing that lucrative major-label
deal - acts come now and play five or six or seven times
in the space of four days. An electro-pop act called Zorch
crammed in 17 appearances in seven days. And they were hardly
And then there were the "heritage bands," the
heavy hitters, the dinosaurs from the days when A&R
and payola still meant something; bands like the Strokes,
who started a riot when fans trampled a fence at their free
concert, viewed by perhaps a dozen badges and tens of thousands
of beer-swillin' pickup-drivin' hipster-wannabes from the
Austin suburbs eager for some of that New York cool they'd
read about online to rub off on them. Foo Fighters had a
big show too; at least I think they did. Nobody but programmers
at Lite Radio have known who they are for a least a decade.
And of course if you were really really really famous and
super-duper popular and an act that tons of people would
absolutely kill to see, then you just had to perform at
the Fader Fort or the Perez Hilton afterhouse soiree at
4 a.m. or at some other top-secret location that no ordinary
mortal would ever find, let alone gain entry to, in front
of 15 people, 12 of whom had already nodded off from not
timing their cocaine exactly right. I'm sure when the bosheviks
stormed the Kremlin in 1919, the tsar's private loo was
the last thing to fall too. British soul balladeer James
Blake came poised to absolutely rule SXSW '11 and might
have, if people didn't keep confusing him for a bus boy
and asking him to clean off tables. The man has the voice
of an angel and the charisma of a dish towel.
You'd think that with all that free stuff going on, and
with official SXSW badges for $750 for late registrants,
that the festival itself would be taking it on the chin.
But according to figures reported in the trades, business
was actually up a tick in 2011, with over 14,000 people
shelling out money for badges (or the less inclusive wristbands,
which allow entry to official showcases but not other convention
activities.) One suspects a lot of that has to do with the
weakness of the dollar overseas; America is a bargain for
foreigners right now, and they were all over Austin. You
couldn't tipple a margarita or cross the street without
bumping into someone with a European accent.
Where one there was just SXSW-Music, there's now also a
film festival and an interactive conference that brings
additional thousands to Austin; some of them hang around
for the music, which is probably why I bumped into Anton
Yelchin on Sixth Street and the cast of MTV's My Life
As Liz at one of the clubs. Old pal Matt Savage (of
Boston's Godboy) introduced me to his friend Eugene (as
in Mirman.) Michael Cera was there with his indie band too,
although I didn't see him. But I did ride a hotel elevator
with J Mascis.
During the day at the Austin Convention Center, there were
discussion panels about music industry topics and guest
Geldorf, Yoko Ono,) as well as a poster exhibit, a "Gear
Expo" for musical instruments and accessories, and
a combined Interactive/Music trade show that featured booths
from dozens of start-up dot-coms, reminscent of the early
2000's. (That alone convinced me that the economy may finally
be turning around.)
Unfortunately, my digital SLR died after half a day at
the festival, so I am woefully short on photos this year.
But here are some of the highlights of the bands I saw:
Ted Leo - Performing solo with his electric
guitar at a Brooklyn Vegan party, Ted ran through a thorough
selection of his original tunes and threw in a cover of
Nick Lowe's "So It Goes."
Screaming Females - The Jersey trio played
quite a few times. I caught them at a day party at a club
called Barbarella, where they absolutely killed it. It was
one of the few shows where I stood in the middle of the
pit and got to watch the fans around me go absolutely crazy.
This band has come so far, and they're still just getting
Wild Flag - Two parts Sleater-Kinney with
one part Mary Timony (ex-Helium), these gals proved to be
one of the other big buzz bands of the conference. They
mix mellow beachwave melodies with riot grrl intensity.
Sadly they didn't do their cover of Patti Smith's "Ask
The Angels" at the set I caught, but people were talking
about this band all over SXSW.
River City Extension - I know (and like)
this 7-piece alt-Americana troop from Asbury Park but seeing
them totally dominate an Austin audience was a revelation.
With tribal drums, trumpet, cello, and gang vocals, RCE
turn acoustic music into the craziest frat party you've
ever experienced. Playing mostly songs from their excellent
The Unmistakable Man album, they had the audience
whooping and clapping and demanding one more song (which,
this being a very tightly-booked festival, they didn't get.)
Kevin Devine - I remember seeing Kevin
play SXSW with his band The Miracle Of 86; how many years
ago was that? Now something of a veteran presence with an
impressive discography, Kevin and the Goddamn Band performed
favorites like "Cotton Crush" to a rapt audience
to end my St. Patrick's Day on the perfect note.
Delicate Steve - It's rare that I check
out a NJ band for the first time at SXSW, but this set at
Emo's Jr. was my first live Delicate Steve experience. The
instrumental post-modern combo does put a little more oomph
into its intricate compositions onstage than on record,
but this is all still just a little too fussy and cerebral
Smith Westerns - My buddy Jim DeRogatis,
expert on all things Chicago, told me not to go out of my
way to catch this hugely hyped brother act. As good as their
new Dye It Blonde might be, they didn't really
cut it live, he said. Of course Jim said the same thing
about Cymbals Eat Guitars last year; and while he was wrong
there, he proved dead right about the Smith Westerns. While
the melodies and harmonies (and the hair) were there, the
band just didn't have the muscle to do the songs justice.
But like I said, they're young; they'll get better. Definitely
one of the bands I expect to see back next year playing
even more and bigger shows.
Anamanaguchi - After Fergus & Geronimo,
this was my second favorite set by a new band for me. These
Brooklyn kids play 8-bit instrumental electro-pop inspired
by old video games. I've seen photos of kids moshing their
brains out to this stuff at Todd P. venues on Brooklynvegan.com
and now I understand why. This band is so much fun, so ridiculously
catchy and energetic and yet original, that it's surprising
they didn't get a bit more attention at the festival. Definitely
check these guys out if you get the chance.
Yuck - One of the most ballyhooed bands
at the conference, they're impossibly young and skinny,
and mix indie shoegaze with Dinosaur Jr.-styled guitar heroics.
One of the few bands who lived up to their hype, their dynamic
performance inspired me to check out their excellent self-titled
Laura Stevenson & The Cans - So good
I wound up seeing them three times, once inside the Convention
Center and twice in an afternoon (when they wound up playing
three times in the space of a few hours at venues on the
same block.) The band mixes frontperson Laura's hearty vocals
with blasts of indie-Americana, trumpet, and accordion.
Don Giovanni Records will be releasing the group's debut
CD in April. There's something about what they do that appeals
to a really wide spectrum of fans; there's some folk, some
country, some indie, some noise, a lot of melody, moments
of quiet beauty, and yet they can rock too. Write this down;
they're gonna be your new favorite band by Christmas.
Panache Showcase - Panache threw together
a bunch of like-minded bands at a club called The Mohawk,
including the bluesy Turbo Fruits, the
more twangy Pujol, and the Meat Puppets-y
Jeff The Brotherhood, all of whom provided
entertaining sets. Turbo Fruits just get better every time
I see them.
Oberhofer - The young Brooklyn quartet
also played multiple times during the conference. I caught
them twice, once inside and once outside. Brad Oberhofer's
unique finger-strummed electric guitar puts an interesting
spin on indie pop, and while their few recordings were all
one-man-band studio projects, they play very well as a group.
Fergus & Geronimo - My favorite discovery
of SXSW '11, they claim Sparks as a major influence and
play weird but irresistibly catchy indie-pop that's as much
Beach Boys as it is Zappa.
Odd Future (aka Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill
Them All) - Everybody
was talking about these L.A. teenagers, who bring inventive
beats, crazy costumes, and enormous stage energy to a new
vision of gangsta rap that's even more offensively vile,
misogynistic, and violent than what we're already used to.
Nobody talked much about the lyrics because people like
Kanye and Diddy and Perez were proclaiming these kids the
future of the music industry all week. I caught a little
bit of them at a Brooklyn Vegan party (where Mellowhype,
Tyler The Creator, Hodgy Beats and Left Brain got on stage)
and frankly, didn't get it; but then, I'm not much of a
hip hop fan. I do know that after what were reportedly several
bravura performances at various free parties, they showed
up at their one official SXSW showcase with a huge chip
on their collective shoulders, basically flipping off the
crowd and leaving the stage after 15 minutes. (You can read
Greg Kot's account of that here.)
Screeching Weasel - You've probably heard
what happened here; after a hugely entertaining 50 minute
set, during which Ben Weasel harangued, insulted, and offended
SXSW, his record label (and its owner,) the music industry,
rock critics, and most of the audience, a melee broke out.
A woman in the crowd (a regular at the club) took offense
at Ben's comments about the venue and started throwing ice
cubes at him from the pit. One hit Ben in the eye so he
dared the crowd to point out the offender. Someone ratted
out the woman, who stepped up to the foot of the stage and
spit in Ben's face. He lost it, jumped into the crowd, and
swung a punch at the woman. In the ensuing pandemonium,
he also took a swing at another woman, reportedly the venue's
It's all over YouTube so you can watch it all unfurl
if you want.
Clearly, Ben's actions are indefensible. At the point at
which all this happened, the show was essentially over.
Screeching Weasel had already played its encores; Ben should
have left the stage and everyone would have gone home happy.
Was he provoked? Clearly. Does that justify throwing a punch?
Never. Has the incident been blown insanely out of proportion?
You can decide that for yourself. For nonsense, hysteria,
over arching political correctness, and rigid moral platitudes,
visit your local punk message board. For a slightly more
reasonable response, try here.
I'll just say this: I watched the show with two music business
professionals, and we not only enjoyed the show, we were
all laughing at Ben's banter. It was sarcasm, it was show
business; it was Ben Weasel being Ben Weasel. He ranted
about SXSW ripping off bands, bitched about his guarantee,
complained about bugs in the dressing room; he called rock
critics parasites and told anyone who wrote reviews for
a living to "go get a real job." And then he sang
"Hey Suburbia" and "My Right" and "My
Brain Hurts" and "Cindy Is On Methadone"
and "Cool Kids" and we all sang along. It was
a funny, entertaining, and generous show (despite Ben's
early declaration that he'd cut the set in half because
he was only getting paid a fraction of his usual fee.)
And then it all went terribly wrong. As a fan, I was horrified.
As Ben Weasel's friend of 25 years, I'm saddened. It happened.
He's apologized. And he's going to pay for this for
the rest of his career. He knows that. And the rest of us
are going to remember SXSW 2011 as the year Ben Weasel hit
a girl. Life sucks. Move on.
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