South by Southwest | 03.18-21.09

The Grates’ singer Patience Hodgson has more stage presence and enthusiasm than quite possibly anyone I’ve ever seen.

The Grates

Ahh, South by Southwest. Spring break for music types. Catching up with old friends and schmoozing with new. Music from everywhere: every club, every car, every street corner. Spotting the famous, maybe-famous and wanna-be famous. Heavy metal pizza and sidewalk tacos. Long-tailed birds cackling day and night. Sun, shades and burns. Austin in March.

We saw a lot of bands, some of them unremarkable, others worthy of every single pixel I give them here and more. So let’s focus on the tops in categories I’ve made up to suit my purposes.

Most Charming

Without a doubt, the blue ribbon goes to The Grates. Singer Patience Hodgson has more stage presence and enthusiasm than quite possibly anyone I’ve ever seen. She spent the entirety of the show bouncing, dancing, jumping, leading crowd interaction-all the while singing. It came off as slightly and irresistibly awkward, like a child caught up in the pure expression of joy. She had an amazing vocal range and depth, too-all this while delivering an ass-kicking, aerobic workout.

The Band So Nice, I Saw It Twice

It was my birthday, and what better way to spend it than seeing As Tall as Lions? With the second most entertaining bassist I’ve ever seen (second only to The Faint), the band crafts smoldering, textured indie pop-rock. Vocalist Daniel Nigro slips effortlessly into falsetto, his voice at times hauntingly Jeff Buckley-esque. A lesson in tightly controlled chaos. I caught ’em the next night, too; my only complaint being duplicate sets.

Boy, Do I Feel Old

The female members of buzz band Ra Ra Riotcellist and violinist—added a much-needed spark of personality to the three guys who, let’s face it, were probably called geeks before they started a band. With just a microphone in his hand, the singer looked a little uncomfortable, yet almost lived up to the task of delivering an energetic performance. The cellist did a commendable job of dancing with her unwieldy instrument, and the members without microphones still sang along; nice. Oh, and did I mention they all look like a bunch of art school kids? Young, young, young.

A Gift to My Husband

Our arrival was perfectly timed, down a dark stairway into a dimly lit basement venue with piss-poor sound. Chicago trio Sybris finds three individuals maniacally floating about the stage, approaching but not colliding. Hair falling in her face, eyes closed, the singer plays and sings with intensity, infusing the energy of Carrie Brownstein into her manic performance, showing more than a little low-end Bjork in her vocals. I had seen them before; Jim hadn’t. He thanked me afterward.

Catch Her While You Can

Elusive, innovative chanteuse PJ Harvey made SXSW one of three stops on her U.S. tour…if it can be called that. Appearing with John Parish in support of their latest project, Harvey captivated for her all-too-brief set (which, by the way, was scheduled before Indigo Girls and Third Eye Blind…really? In whose mind was that lineup a good idea?), which drew heavily from the new album. She was dressed head to toe in white, making her an otherworldly, angelic figure bathed in white light. The huge crowd at Stubbs was utterly captivated.

Best Lyric

It didn’t hurt that Frank Turner was charming. The British songwriter—who, visually, resembled a cross between Ryan Stiles and Damien Rice—delivered songs with a hint of protest á la Billy Bragg. But he won the entire crowd over when he dissected his fellow musicians, proclaiming, “There’s no such thing as rock stars/ there’s just people who play music/ and some of them are just like/ and some of them are dicks.”

Most Anti-Climactic

Though I’d had a chance to catch frontman Andy Hull solo, I’d not yet seen Manchester Orchestra. I was so excited (even stood through shitty Seattle band The Annuals in wait…if that isn’t dedication, what is?). And I was so let down. Their performance was meandering, hard-rocking, unremarkable…in short, everything their debut wasn’t. Hull’s weak-assed excuse—”We forgot how to play all of our old songs; it’s the damnedest thing”—was understandably met with more than a few boos.

The British Are Coming

Let’s face it: Part of SXSW’s job is introducing attendees to new bands from across the Big Pond. This year, one of the more entertaining offerings was British band Wild Beasts. They traded and shared lead vocals, one of them doffing a perfect Klaus Nomi operatic effect. The Beasts delivered upbeat, catchy pop, complete with much onstage dancing.

Taking One for the Team

It’s definitely not about the words; it’s about the beats. Repetitious beats. And the crowd was eating it right up. When he wasn’t delivering his lines—and, let’s face it, there were maybe four lines per song, max—the singer of The Whip was instead punching the air for emphasis. And punching. And…well, you get it. For her part, the drummer was doing a respectable job of dancing on her stool. As for me, well, I’m really too old to be in front of the stage amid a teeming crowd.

That Song Sells Face Cream

As they were openers for PJ Harvey, Parachute was a band we were forced to sit through; truth is, they weren’t bad. When they launched into “She Is Love,” though, a beautiful song retrofitted for a Nivea commercial, I was sold. Not wholly original music, but thoroughly pleasing.

If You Like Joy Division…

…then you probably like Interpol. And if you like Interpol, then you probably like Editors. And if you like Editors, you’ll undoubtedly love British newbies White Lies, because they sound just like them. This isn’t wholly a bad thing, as their songs are tight and passionately delivered, and their set quite entertaining. Besides, hasn’t it all been done before?

There’s Always One

Each year, there’s a lot of buzz about one (usually British) band, and each year, said band seems to get stuck in one of the smallest venues possible. This year it was Pete and the Pirates; though they played a number of day parties, their night show at Cedar Street Courtyard—on the same bill as Peter, Bjorn and John, for chrissakes—was the one we’d scheduled to attend. With a capacity of no more than 150, it was packed out well before showtime. Ah, SXSW…always out to foil us on something, eh?

Was It Worth It?

Though they tried to infuse energy into their stage performance, Seattle’s Barcelona just missed wowing…save for uber incredible song “It’s About Time.” The swelling harmonies and addition of xylophone to their live show were pluses, but the vocalist’s overused falsetto, especially on the slow songs, tended to grate. Maybe this is a band best enjoyed on its winning CDs.

Hey…They’re Not Grunge!

This one’s just my own misguided assumption. Somehow, I’d always thought that Sub Pop band The Thermals were a grunge back; I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rather, they were a welcome surprise of melodic rock and super-tight arrangements.

Why Bother?

I’d heard that Razorlight‘s third album was a major disappointment. Still, I don’t think it could have held a candle to their positively atrocious attempt at entertainment at this year’s SXSW. With a set that drew heavily from the shit—er, new—material, Johnny Borrell and Co. raced through their songs like all they wanted to do was to get offstage. Luckily for us, that’s all we wanted, too.

That Was Unexpected…and It Sucked

We were forced to endure bad comedy—seriously…comedy at the SXSW music festival? Margaret Cho‘s tribute to dick wasn’t at all funny; nor was Andy Kindler; the crowd was damn near violent during his pre-Hold Steady rant. | Laura Hamlett

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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