I started and scrapped at least 15 versions of my SXSW journal because I felt myself writing the same damn thing I wrote the last four yearsâ€”just with different band names filled in the gapsâ€”like a SXSW MadLibs or something. And if you’ve been keeping up with my comrades Gordon, David and John, you already know all about the walking, the waiting in lines and the sore feetâ€¦ so I’ll try to just highlight the highs and lows that made 2012 unique, all presented in easily digestible, taco-sized bites. Mmm.
**Best Stevie Nicks impersonation**: One of the first acts I caught this year was Swedetronica duo **Nikki + the Dove**. Singer Malin DahlstrÃ¶m was draped in beads from her neck to her wrists which drew the outline of wings whenever she spread her arms. Little lights twinkled from her fingers as her ethereal voice glided over synth and drums.
**Most improved**: I’ve been a fan of Bear In Heaven for a year or so, but their past live gigs Atlanta didn’t make a huge impression. That changed this week. I caught the band at the Brooklyn Vegan party, and was delighted to see Jon Philpot has really come into his own a frontman. A rejuvenating breeze and a light mist seemed to sweep over the crowd in time with music, setting the mood for the band’s cool electronic indie rock. Despite the imposing backdrop of a cemetery rolling over the hills in the distance, everything about his set was pure joy slathered in confidence. Grinning ear to ear, Philpot waved at friends in the crowd while shaking his hips. He seemed to over-enunciate every word, enjoying the feel of the lyrics on his lips in between rock star poutsâ€”gesticulating boldly for emphasis. His demeanor was of the sort a photographer would try to elicit with the command “make love to the camera.” I ate it up.
**Person I never talk about except during SXSW**: Rachael Ray. How did this lady become the day party queen? While the bands she booked for her big showcase at Stubb’s were questionable (her husband’s band The Cringe, as always, but also headlinersâ€¦ Train??), her “Greenhouse” party during the week was my favorite spot to unwind. The gorgeous courtyard space was lively but never overcrowded, with lots of places to lounge and opportunities to recharge your phone and your body. I caught a few great sets from folks like Brendan Benson, Jonny Corndawg and Lissy Trullie, but bahn mi tacos and and tequila popsicles were perhaps the biggest stars.
**Spotted**: Our photographer, Mike White, got to meet Matt Pinfield and I spotted John Norris at the Under the Radar Party. MTV DJs FTW! (I also mistakenly and embarrassingly referred to him as Kurt Loder on Twitter. Sorry. It’s been a while since I watched MTV.) I also kept running into the members of Arcade Fire which was exciting. Unfortunately, as far as I know, their only set during the fest was joining Bruce Springsteen at a lotto-winners-only concert. Gordon kept an eye out for Robert Plant who was rumored to be in Austin as well. Alas, we did not spot the Golden God. Bill Murray was rumored to have returned to SXSW this year, rocking out to Jack White alongside John C. Reilly. From my vantage point with all the other sad rejects out on the sidewalkâ€¦ well, we couldn’t really see anything except the back of the drummer and, on rare occasion, Jack White’s profile would enter the frame (to much exaltation). That was probably the hardest show to get intoâ€”biggest star in the smallest venue. I lined up two hours before his set to no avail. Apparently fans lucky enough to make it inside The Stage on 6th for his two sets lined up five hours or more in advance. No thanks. There is no reason to stand around for that long when there is SO much else to see at SXSW. It was fun peering in the window with the massive crowd outside anywayâ€¦ and I was able to distinguish at least a couple White Stripes songs through the walls.
**Silence Is Golden**: I loved Glen Hansard’s quote that he wished to earn the audience’s silence rather than demand it, and I think his point was underscored during the obnoxious turn at The Magnetic Fields’ show. David Fitzgerald thought the band handled the (very few) conversationalists smoothly, but found their tone to be annoyingly pretentious and condescending. “To all the people who are talking right now. To all the people who are talking right now. To all the people who are talking right now. To all the people who didn’t hear me say that three timesâ€¦” Claudia Gonson sounded like an elementary school teacher, and I didn’t appreciate being lectured. And Stephin Merritt’s snarky request that people stop filming him rubbed me the wrong way, too. Shame, because otherwise the set was remarkable in that sublime room. The acoustics really showcased the distinctive bass tones in his voice. It was indeed stunningly deepâ€¦ As *Flagpole* writer Christopher Benton whispered to me amazement during Merritt’s introductory banter, “his voice is like that all the time!” It really takes you be surprised.
**Most inspiring**: Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address blew me away. I pulled out a notepad to jot down a few key points but quickly found myself scrambling to transcribe everything he said. Every line was poetry. The sensual way in which he described doo-wop made be blush. His tribute to The Animals made feel like a teenager again. The history of rock and roll is well-trodden ground, but by framing his speech around his life, The Boss injected a level of intimacy and passion into the address that was truly unique. I was particularly struck by his observations on the growth of the industry. I’m paraphrasing here, but he noted that here we were at a festival with 10,000+ bands and when he started playing in the ’60s there weren’t even 10,000 guitars in existence. Rock and roll itself had been around for only 10 years. Can you imagine if artists today were only drawing on music created since 2002? It was a scenario I had never pondered. I left wishing that every musician in Athens was in that room to glean some of his sage wisdom. Luckily NPR has [the entire keynote streaming on their website.] Even if you aren’t a Bruce fan, if you have any interest in rock or the music industry, please watch this speech.
**Snore**: I didn’t see anything absolutely terrible, but there were a few disappointments. I had to endure two sets by Neon Trees who just happened to play right before bands I really wanted to see. I was never a fan of their cheap Strokes imitation, and the singer’s flamboyant and hackneyed front man gimmickry is just not my style. But the kids seemed to like it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have been listening a lot to dreamy indie band Blouse, and was let down by their dull set at the Fader/Converse Fort. Seeing the band in action, it became quickly apparently that their songs are limited to a very specific formula: strum a single strum drenched in reverb, sing a few sad lines with the same, sleepy mid-range vocals; add a layer of keyboard drone; pick out a few minor key progressions somewhere around the 12th fret; add post-punk rhythms. Key: do not smile. There was zero personality or charisma here, but perhaps that will come with time. I did like the drummer’s Where’s Waldo glasses, though.
**Phantom musicians**: A growing trend I noticed across the board was the use of samples and pre-recorded loops and layers. Computers aren’t just for “electronic” bands any more. More frequently it was difficult to even figure out what band member was stealthily hitting play in between tunes to trigger whatever extra boost was needed- more bass, drums, noise, vocals, etc. Then there are bands like The Big Pink who feature a sweaty frontman, a badass lady drummer, and two dudes checking their Facebook. Dont get me wrong, the Big Pink sounded explosive and it was an excellent set, but damn, playing on computers is so boring to watch. If I want to see a bunch of dudes tool around on a keyboard and stare at a screen I’ll go to Starbucks.
**Phrase I most overused**: “Does anyone want to drink avocado margaritas with me?” My eternal gratitude to the lovely gentleman of Brooklyn band Les Racquet for driving me to Curra’s and making my dining dreams come true. Go see them at Flicker on Thursday, Mar. 22!
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