SXSW ’07

sxsw_stubbs2And then there are those who intricately plan their schedule down to the last detail, making certain to include alternates in case of disappointment. I fall squarely in the last group.





Beer & BBQ. Ringing ears. Buzz bands. Day parties. Hordes of Brits. Secondhand smoke. Sixth Street. Exhaustion. When approaching South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, the largest annual music event in the world, you've got to take the good with the bad (and the queen). With performances from over 1,300 bands, this year's conference held March 14-17 appears to have broken all former records. Fans and acts heaved from within the confines of the 59 designated venues, not counting the dozens of unofficial backyards and parking lots that also hosted live music.

In the past, SXSW has always featured a full schedule of musical acts from Thursday through Saturday. But this year, Wednesday really broke out on its own. Wednesday used to be for picking up your badge, settling into your hotel, getting acquainted with Austin, and for a few hundred diehards, attending the Austin Music Awards. But now it's a full-fledged conference day, with about as many musical events booked as the other days.

SXSW continues to be a popular spring break for bands and music fans from across the pond. Our U.K. brethren are eager to trade their cold climate for a bit of Texas sunshine, and this year's visiting talent included old hands like Buzzcocks, Donovan, and keynote speaker Pete Townshend, alongside buzz acts Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, and up-and-comers like Mika, the Fratellis, the Pipettes, the Rumble Strips, the Horrors, Jamie T, and Loney, Dear. It's part of the special magic of SXSW that you can catch a soon-to-be legendary band like the Good, the Bad and the Queen (featuring Blur's Damon Albarn and the Clash's Paul Simonon) at a day party in a tiny club, or an insane double bill featuring Rickie Lee Jones and Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Everyone has their own individual SXSW experience. No two people are going to completely agree on the same schedule. Some folks prefer just wandering down the main music drag of Sixth St., popping into club after club on a blind voyage of discovery. Others prefer to eat and drink, and if a band is playing in the vicinity, well, that's a bonus. And then there are those who intricately plan their schedule down to the last detail, making certain to include alternates in case of disappointment. I fall squarely in the last group.


Upon arrival, I head straight for the afternoon NME party at the outdoor Stubb's amphitheatre. Mumm-Ra is just finishing their set and I'm anxious to catch the jazz-metal riffage of the next act, Enter Shikari. Then I'm told they've cancelled. I cut my losses and head to the hotel to check in and get sorted.

sxsw_batforlashes_2My evening begins at the Dirty Dog on Sixth Street. Thanks to favorable recommendations from Brett Anderson and Mojo magazine, I decide to take in an 8:30 set by Bat for Lashes. Adorned with flamboyant eye makeup and beads in her hair, lead vocalist Natasha Khan makes for a striking earth mother, singing sweet invocations while gingerly squeezing an autoharp. There's a definite air of Nico about her, and the similarly clad female accompanists provide airy but able musical support. Without having heard her debut album, Fur and Gold, I find it hard to totally immerse myself in the set, especially considering that there's about five other things going on that I'd like to see. I make my exit only to be told later that the group played an ethereal take on Springsteen's "I'm On Fire."

Arriving back at the NME party at Stubb's, I'm disappointed to find that I've missed the U.S. debut by Leeds indie rock outfit The Sunshine Underground. Instead, I stake my place near the front of the stage to catch The Automatic, a young Welsh quartet who impressed with a brash and flashy stage show that left no doubt of their stadium aspirations. While the girls swooned for handsome vocalist/bassist Rob Hawkins, the obvious star of the band is impish prankster Alex Pennie. When not playing keyboards, banging a cowbell, or strolling amid the audience, Pennie was climbing the speaker stacks and inciting the audience to chaos. Initially coming across as desperate and laughable, Pennie stayed his course and won a huge cheer by gig's end. The largely U.K. crowd already knew most of the Automatic's songs by heart, so with a bit of stateside touring this band should make an impression here as well.

Jamie T, a 21-year-old troubadour from Wimbledon, didn't fare so well. With a guitar stance that recalled Joe Strummer, and an "every bloke" demeanor in line with Mike Skinner (the Streets) and Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys), the plaid-clad youth delivered his ramshackle ska/pop tunes in an accent that was totally lost on us yanks. Plus, the massively distorted sound mix on the bass guitar proved to be an ear-splitting annoyance for the length of his set.

sxsw_lilyallen_2A crowd surge to the front of the stage signalled the late start of Lily Allen's showcase. A bona fide sensation in the United Kingdom, and with a Top 20 debut album to her credit in the United States, Allen strolled on stage with a cig in one hand and a Budweiser in the other, and simply went through the motions. Her creativity and energy were saved for hurling insults at the NME, the presenters of this Stubb's showcase. I'm not sure what her beef is with the publication, but the bitchiness didn't win any fans. It was up to her brass section to enliven proceedings with a few synchronized dance steps.

Exiting Stubb's, I next headed for the nearby Elysium, a long-running goth club in which I saw Skinny Puppy and Revolting Cocks in my misspent youth. I arrived in time to catch the last two songs by Bird, a group fronted by Mark Burgess of the '80s band the Chameleons. His swirling, hypnotic brand of shoegaze rock captivated, and the warm reception from the audience seemed to have made his long trip from Hamburg worthwhile.

Another longtime veteran of the rock wars was up next, Hugh Cornwell, the former vocalist of the Stranglers. Since leaving the Stranglers in 1990, Cornwell has continued to tour and has recorded a string of solo albums, the most recent being 2006's People Places Pieces. Shortly after arriving on stage past midnight, Cornwell recalled his first and only previous time in the city. "Austin, you've changed," he said. "When I was last here in 1980 there were no tall buildings." Cornwell was referring to the Stranglers' 1980 gig at Clubfoot, a time when the first song from his SXSW set, "No More Heroes," was fairly new and winning fans in the States. Cornwell played this sxsw_iamx_2Elysium gig solo and acoustic, alternating new songs with Stranglers classics. Many have forgotten what a powerhouse U.K. chart act the Stranglers were during their day, placing 21 Top 40 singles in the charts. His warm, honeyed voice intact, Cornwell enthralled with versions of "Duchess," "Goodbye Toulouse," "Golden Brown," "Always the Sun," and the rousing singalong "Hanging Around." Before launching into the notorious "Nice'n'Sleazy," Cornwell remarked, "For some reason when we used to play this, women would come up on stage and take their clothes off," referring to widely circulated footage of a concert the band played at Battersea Park in 1978. The best of his post-Stranglers output performed tonight were "Nerves of Steel" from 1997's Guilty and a humorous ode to Bob Dylan, "24/7," from 2004's Beyond Elysian Fields.

My one true revelation of this year's conference was up next. I had first discovered IAMX on MySpace, and quickly tracked down the 2005 debut album Kiss + Swallow. Late last year, a second set, The Alternative, was released in Europe, and it's due out in the States next month. Dressed in a tight black coat and a sequined top hat, Chris Corner of IAMX moved across the black stage at Elysium with the physicality of Prince while looking like a live action version of Jack from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Berlin-based Corner previously enjoyed success with Sneaker Pimps, but IAMX is an altogether more immediate and aggressive vehicle. Backed by an industrial trio that wouldn't look out of place alongside Marilyn Manson, Corner writhed through a fog of dry ice and strobe lights, delivering muscular dance tracks with pervy titles like "Spit It Out" and the aforementioned "Kiss + Swallow." His dramatic half-hour set was a sleek modernist upgrade of Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine that will serve him well among the goth and industrial dance set.

Sleep finally came my way as the clock approached 3 a.m.



My day starts with the much-hyped Pipettes taking the stage at the Levi's/Fader party around 1:30 p.m. Like the Fratellis, the Pipettes were inescapable at SXSW, playing in the neighborhood of five gigs over the four-day length of the conference. Dressed in matching B&W polka-dot dresses, and backed by a quartet of musicians wearing green sweaters, the three smiling lasses of the Pipettes hoofed their way back and forth across the stage, Colgate smiles gleaming in the spotlights. It remains to be seen whether their girl-group stylings will catch fire when the self-titled debut arrives here in June.


The old guard of the U.S. media contingent was out in full force at the Rhino-sponsored, invite-only party thrown for Emmylou Harris in the Ballroom of the Driskill Hotel. Artists on hand to perform and fete Emmylou included Charlies Louvin and Sexton, Allison Moorer, Paula Cole, and Kelly Willis. To cap the festivities, a radiant Emmylou was presented with a framed plaque commemorating over 15 million albums sold.

As the afternoon gave way to evening, I ventured back to the Levi's/Fader party to catch the much-buzzed Fratellis. With an iTunes commercial under their belt and a Friday afternoon set looming with guest Pete Townshend, this young Scottish band can do no wrong at the moment, and they certainly didn't slip up during this wonderful 20-minute acoustic performance. The same couldn't be said for the Austin-based Young Love, a bland pop/rock act with a pretty boy lead singer who performed on the flashy new main stage of the Austin Convention Center.

After a quick meal, I was off to see The Cinematics, another Scottish act that friends have been hepping me to for the past several months. For the most part, they are on the money, although at this early date the band only has a few classic tracks ("Break," "Burning Light," and a cover of Beck's "Silver Sun") in their arsenal. With looks that live up to the name, frontman Scott Rinning really gave his all, furiously attacking his guitar while putting every ounce of passion into his vocals. The group's just-released A Strange Education CD will appeal to fans of Interpol and the Bravery.

As a devout fan of Sweden's Eurovision contestants the Ark, I couldn't resist the lure of Norway's New Violators, a new group that is oft-compared to the Ark. Their performance at Emo's Jr. left me unconvinced. Despite the best efforts of flamboyant frontman Per Borten, the band's synth-heavy recordings didn't translate in a purely rock live setting.

sxsw_maryweiss_2Worried that I might be shut out of the Norton Records' showcase featuring the comeback of girl group legend Mary Weiss, I hoofed my way over to Red 7. Arriving in time to catch original ‘60s garage group The Alarm Clocks and a talk-heavy set by Sam the Sham ("Woolly Bully"), the night only really ignited with a lengthy set by contemporary Brooklyn garage champs The Reigning Sound. That band also provided the musical backing for the night's headliner, Mary Weiss of '60s bad girls the Shangri-Las. Wearing black-rimmed glasses and with her signature long blonde hair intact, Weiss, the only surviving member of the original quartet, was obviously apprehensive about taking the stage after 1 a.m. Having only played two shows since 1989, Weiss was on edge and the audience understood her jitters. We felt for her as she good-naturedly complained about the intense overhead light shining directly into her face. Our hearts went out to her even more as she tried to make her way through the songs while a constant barrage of camera flashes went off from every direction. Comeback gigs can be a real bitch. Greg Cartwright, the leader of the Reigning Sound, who also wrote nine of the songs on Weiss' new comeback album, explained his apprehension about first meeting the long-out-of-circulation vocalist. "When we were driving over to meet Mary, we were all chain smoking in the van to calm our nerves," said Cartwright. "So when we pull up, we see she's waiting outside, and this big cloud of smoke comes out of the van. We were so relieved when she looked at us and said, ‘Can I have a drag?'" To which Weiss added, "Yeah, we'll all die together." Interspersed between the terrific material off her new album were a handful of "Shangs" numbers which met with wild adulation from the audience—"Train from Kansas City," "Remember (Walking in the Sand")," and the lone encore, "Give Him a Great Big Kiss."

With eyes stinging from the pervasive cigarette smoke, I hit the sheets shortly after 3 a.m.


I was faced with a difficult decision for Friday afternoon. Should I attend the Spin party at Stubb's with Buzzcocks, Kings of Leon, Galactic, Young Love, Mew, and the Fratellis with special guest Pete Townshend, or the Island U.K. party at Bourbon Rocks with Mika, Amy Winehouse, Rumble Strips, the ubiquitous Fratellis, and singer-songwriters Josh Pyke and Scott Matthews? I opted to go with a balancing act between the two, planning to catch Mika (1:00) and Amy Winehouse (2:00) before heading over to Stubb's to see Mew (2:20), etc. But my plan was for nought. Instead of Mika kicking off the party as scheduled, Island pulled a fast one on the packed house and put on Josh Pyke instead. This was a big blow, considering I wasn't able to get tickets for Mika's sold-out NYC show, and that I've been eager to see what all the fuss is surrounding his recent U.K. #1 single "Grace Kelly." Eventually, Mika did turn up at Bourbon Rocks, but to my knowledge he just made a cameo and walked through the crowd. Doubtless the circumstances didn't help, so Josh Pyke's performance barely made an impression. After that, things went from bad to worse. Although the emcee teased us that Amy Winehouse was up "soon," it turned out to be a loooong 80-minute wait between Pyke and Winehouse. This kind of playing fast & loose with a performance schedule is inexcusable at SXSW. Although Winehouse's vocal chops were impressive, her set turned out to be bittersweet. Only four songs were played, accompanied by a lone guitarist. Hardly worth missing Mew, Fratellis and Townshend.

sxsw_buzzcocks_2Licking my wounds, I limped over to the Spin party at Stubb's. Relief was not in sight as the woefully out-of-place jam band Galactic was just starting to pummel the hipster crowd with their lumpy rap-rock hybrid. Blessedly, I engaged in conversation with several friends and Galactic's set passed quickly and without incident. Beards shorn, Kings of Leon was much more to the crowd's liking, and they turned in a solid set which included selections from their imminent third album. But it was up to Buzzcocks to truly save a rather lackluster afternoon. Launching into "Boredom" off their debut Spiral Scratch EP, these class of '76 stalwarts delivered a generous set that, for the most part, was a recreation of the Singles Going Steady collection—"Fast Cars," "Love You More," "What Do I Get?," "Autonomy," "Fiction Romance," "Sick City Sometimes," "Noise Annoys," "Breakdown," "Promises," "Harmony In My Head," "Orgasm Addict," and "Ever Fallen in Love?," among others. As cherubic Pete Shelley smiled at the crowd and Steve Diggle performed Townshend-esque guitar cartwheels, an admiring audience which included Perry Farrell, Hugh Cornwell, and Sally Timms looked on. Still, after all these years, few things bring a lump to the throat faster than the hyper-adrenalized rush of joy that is Buzzcocks.

sxsw_thesaints_2Not ready to abandon nostalgia, I hurriedly made my way several blocks to the parking garage. With pedal to the metal, I sped to the Pop Culture Press party at the Dog & Duck Pup on 17th Street to catch two of Australia's finest, the Hoodoo Gurus and the Saints. Sadly, the Hoodoos had finished their voodoo, but I was fortunate enough to catch a full set by The Saints. Mind you, this version of the group is a far different animal than the band responsible for one of the first albums of the punk era, (I'm) Stranded, released on a U.K. major label in 1977. The sole original member from that lineup is vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Chris Bailey. The last time I had seen Bailey was in '03 when he was touring as the opening act for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Since then, Bailey has slimmed down considerably and now appears to be in rude health. Playing underneath an outdoor tent to a large open-to-the-public crowd, Bailey was visibly moved by the adoration of his fans. This was his crowd—a motley assortment of young and old punks, clad in MC5, Stooges and Devo T-shirts. After a rugged but beautiful selection of songs that drew heavily from the early Saints days, Bailey held court and signed autographs and posed for photos with fans.

Which is, of course, one of the great things about SXSW. It's a conference in which the artists are often allowed to greet and meet their heroes on a level playing field.

And that wraps up my SXSW scene report for '07. I know you're wondering, "Hmmm, what about his Friday night and Saturday schedule?" Well, the truth is that I came down with a nasty stomach virus on Friday so there's absolutely nothing cool to report about my activities for the rest of the weekend… | Randy Haecker

View Randy's full SXSW ’07 photo gallery

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