Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

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 own good.

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 alone.

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 speakers (Bob 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 started.

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 for me.

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 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 CD.

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 manager. 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.

 is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.

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