Austin’s culture already distinguishes itself from the region around it but every year I visit for South By Southwest —this March marked my fourth trip— it quickly becomes apparent that South By institutes its own replacement hierarchy, economy and rule of law. Performing artists, VIPs and badge- and wristband-holders form the bourgeois that keeps the market bubbling while the corporate sponsors and venue owners rake in their marketing data, brand impressions and alcohol sales. Meanwhile tens of thousands of plebians flood the streets in search of unofficial fun and scraps from the tables of the major showcases.
Hotel rates skyrocket after the new year, the closer to downtown the more expensive. Leave a day early and your badge or Fader Fort wristband is suddenly worth something to someone, and if you find parking within three miles of the convention center for less than $30 then it’s certainly worth tweeting home about. But the ultimate form of capital during South By is the social kind: “I know a guy.”
That’s how I scored a room to crash for a few days but it wouldn’t much help in slipping into venues, so I chose my battles carefully this year, going early to everything and avoiding the mega-showcases. Not exactly the coolest strategy, but it paid off, and after making the second night of Oklahoma festivities at the Buffalo Lounge I found myself waiting outside the gates of the French Legation Museum Thursday morning, ready to spend seven hours at the Pitchfork day party.
Sorry if the folks at Pitchfork skewered your favorite album but they know a thing or two about efficiency. With stages at opposite ends of a closed-in courtyard, bands alternated between 30-minute sets that began as soon as the one at the opposite stage ended, and if it weren’t for a no-show by new Top Dawg Entertainment signee Isaiah Rashad, they would’ve cleared through 12 acts in seven hours. It was a nice mix of sounds too, everything from Future Island’s literary, snarly new wave to Kelela’s lithe voice tiptoeing around jagged, warped R&B.
Two performances stuck out to me. First was the terrific five-piece Eagulls, whose fixation with loud and rude but melodic and guitar-oriented rock suggested an alternate form of history where the Flaming Lips came of age in the UK. Frontman George Mitchell doesn’t sing so much as groan, moan and shriek, which suits the general state of mind he describes in songs like “Possessed” and “Soulless Youth.” If you’re looking for post-punk with good lyrics then look no further.
But the best show at the Pitchfork day party by a mile was Lunice, the talented young Canadian producer whose work as half of TNGHT earned him work on one of the most-talked about songs on last year’s most celebrated hip-hop record, Kanye West’s Yeezus. Lunice trafficks in only the dirtiest rap verses from the hardest-hitting, most menacing voices: the Young Jeezys, Rick Rosses and Waka Flockas. There’s rarely anything smooth about what he does. It’s jagged, mean-mugging trap beats adapted for dancefloors and amplified by almost comic sound effects (the dark horn riff from “Blood on the Leaves” is a prime example).
But for how exciting Lunice’s production was he was even more fun to watch, a wildman with an arsenal of dance moves that kept the crowd on the balls of its feet for nearly an hour. Every few minutes he’d leave the safety of his MPC to get right up in the front-row kids’ faces, whether to shout along with Juicy J or Chief Keef, and otherwise inspire general recklessness. I only saw one rowdier crowd all week and it got dispersed by cops.
The great Canadian hardcore band with a name this paper can’t publish —it sounds a lot like Funked Up— finished the day with some truly exciting stuff off their new record and I spent the rest of the evening recouping with the biggest burger I could find, made complete by a side of street tacos.
Friday turned out to be a mixed bag too. I tracked down Bearden native John Fullbright just before the stuffy basement he performed in reached capacity. Most everybody in attendance seemed unfamiliar with Fullbright’s stuff, but he held them rapt nonetheless, and even played three tunes off his forthcoming sophomore record Songs, due out May 27. They were tightly written and edited, even more economical than most of the stuff on his Grammy-nominated debut, “From the Ground Up.” I hadn’t seen John live in well over a year but it’s obvious that extensive touring’s sharpened his game. He had that crowd (and yours truly) in his pocket.
No trip to Austin’s complete without a visit to Waterloo Records, so I checked out Cate LeBon (The French do Pavement!) and Protomartyr (They definitely didn’t sound like they should be called ‘Protomartyr’!) before copping the new Men record and a copy of Kacey Musgraves’ “Same Trailer Different Park” on vinyl (seriously, one of last year’s best pop albums, she’s gonna be huge someday). Eventually I found myself on Red River, South By’s sketchy east side, just before Sacramento hardcore goons (and Odd Future Records signees) Trash Talk plugged in. Took less than five minutes for moshers to climb a nearby roof and jump into the pit, less than 20 minutes for frontman Lee Spielman incite a riot.
Friday night was a blur but the great Brooklyn rock band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart left the brightest streak in it. They were out shilling for their new record, “Days of Abandon,” which sounds like its got just as much heft as their last one, but because of prettier, more complex vocal harmonies instead of fuzzy guitars. There were a few of those still, though. Frontman Kip Berman’s gotten married between albums and you can tell it in the lyrics: “I’ve never found anyone so absolutely fine / as I’ve found in you.”
And so my South By effectively ended, save for wandering into that missing Isaiah Rashad set in search of Tennessee’s mighty Diarrhea Planet (Coming to a Norman Music Festival near you!). As far as getting to see bands I otherwise normally wouldn’t, I definitely took advantage but at great cost to my body, which toggled between hunger and soreness for three straight days as if they were moody emotional states. If the thing were a little smaller, a little more reigned-in, maybe fewer sponsors and less pressure to play up big acts (I mean c’mon, I heard the words “Lady Gaga plays the Doritos’ Bold Stage!” much too often for a festival that made its name showcasing unsigned talent) then I’d happily return but Matt Does South By 2015 is currently in doubt. Unless maybe you’ve got a Segway scooter for me to borrow.
Matt Carney is the pop music columnist for LOOKatOKC and appears on KOSU radio each week to discuss new music with All Things Considered host Ryan LaCroix.