Bobby Silver, Blueprint and DJ Rare Groove
Back in Austin for my fifth South by Southwest! I saw lots of performers Wednesday, but I started my afternoon with a visit to one of the myriad music industry panels that go down all week at the Austin Convention center. This particular assortment of panelists included several web strategists and the singer of Los Angeles band Grouplove discussing how to parlay a growing Facebook and Twitter following into actually making a living with music. Some good tidbits:
•Web videos should be no longer than 3 minutes 40 seconds.
•A band's official site (not its Facebook page or MySpace or whatever) should still be the center of its online efforts. That's where your most valuable content (i.e. your music) should live online. Trickle out other content (lyrics, photos) on the networking sites and use them to drum up interest in the main site.
•When giving your music away online in exchange for some gesture of loyalty, a fan's e-mail address is a lot more valuable than a "Like".
You've Built a Social Network... Now What?
Scooted out of there for a few minutes to pick up my Fader Fort by FIAT wristband and thanked the Lord there was a separate press line about 100 times shorter (no lie) than the general public queue. People were willing to wait because Fader has built a reputation for putting on the best unofficial SXSW party, with the most complete and exciting array of up-and-coming musicians (with a few legends sprinkled in). Plus there's free booze.
I popped in long enough to catch four or five songs from Toro y Moi. Former chillwave prodigy Chaz Bundick opted for a live band on sophomore LP "Underneath the Pine", and they accompanied him here, kicking out breezy psych-funk that probably would be better after dark. His album is one of my favorites of the young year, but in the afternoon sun the music lost some of its mystique. No complaints about the free tequila, though.
Toro y Moi
Headed back to the Convention Center next for another panel. The topic was Michael Azerrad's book "Our Band Could Be Your Life", in which Azerrad tells the tale of 13 underground rock bands from the 80s. In honor of the book's tenth anniversary, "Our Band Could Still Be Your Life" compared today's indie landscape to that of the 80s with lots of thoughts well-worn concepts like "paying your dues" and "selling out."
What made this particular panel so intriguing was former Columbus resident Ahmed Gallab, who now lives in Brooklyn, plays with Yeasayer and continues to pursue his solo project Sinkane. Gallab talked a lot about his time in Columbus during the panel: "I earned my stripes in Columbus. I know everything I know because of Columbus."
Other panelists included Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs, Jarrett Dougherty from Screaming Females and Mookie Singerman of Genghis Tron and Lovepump United. Pitchfork editor Scott Plagenhoef moderated. Everybody was eloquent and insightful enough to make such a done-to-death topic seem lively and intriguing again. Gallab summed things up well: "Music is kind of a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book. You can define 'selling out' for yourself. You shouldn't define it for someone else."
Merrill Garbus and Ahmed Gallab
After that panel I wandered over to Club DeVille (natch) and caught a few songs by Tennis, a lite and punchy beach pop combo who didn't really snag me. At first I found them snoozeworthy and a bit TOO back-to-basics — "No alarms and no surprises, please," as a wise man once put it — but by the end of the set they had me humming along. Still one of the less notable acts I encountered Wednesday.
Checked into my hotel, where J Mascis was being interviewed in the lobby, then headed back down Red River to Beerland, only to find Columbus hate-rock combo The Unholy Two was nearly finished with their set. Thus my first brush with the many locals down here lasted mere minutes, although as I noted on Twitter, they left my eardrums feeling like I was there longer.
Next up was a return to the Fader Fort by FIAT. I thought I was arriving in time to see Raphael Saadiq, but the R&B icon was nowhere to be found. That didn't turn out to be a problem; Welsh trio The Joy Formidable provided the day's most jaw-dropping rock show instead.
The group, which played Wexner Center last year and returns to The Basement April 4, trades in blustery, shoegaze-influenced arena rock. They basically exploded awesomeness all over the stage. Singer-guitarist Ritzy Bryan was wide-eyed and bursting with enthusiasm as she led her bandmates through music loud and heavy as it was imminently hummable. Textures of noise and melody seeped through through the huge power chords and drum fills. This is how you do rock music in 2011, boys and girls.
The Joy Formidable
Next up at the Fort was Twin Shadow, the project of Trinidad-born Brooklynite George Lewis Jr. His music is straight-up 80s nostalgia, but it transcends the trappings that usually accompany such throwbacks by combining elements of the era in hauntingly beautiful new ways.
Lewis could be Prince's cousin with a thicker mustache, and there's a definite tribute to The Artist going on in Lewis' music. But Twin Shadow leans just as heavily on New Order and the rest of the era's progressive synth-pop acts. It's as if Lewis sauteed everything that was on the radio back then, Springsteen notwithstanding. On stage at Fader Fort, he and his players brought it to life with swag to spare. Who says 90s nostalgia has eclipsed the 80s?
Headed back to Mohawk patio a little before 8 p.m. for the start of the evening's official showcases. That meant a run-in with Blueprint. The Columbus rapper is on tour with his usual DJ, Rare Groove, plus live bass from Bobby Silver (Brainbow, Psandwich). The lineup works — things were thumping up there.
'Print was performing songs from "Adventures in Counter-Culture", his new LP coming April 5 on Rhymesayers. When he wasn't stalking the stage delivering clever boasts with commanding presence, he occasionally manned various keyboards to add emotional weight and sonic texture to songs including "Radio-Inactive" and "So Alive". He even crooned a little bit on "So Alive", his breezy R&B throwdown. Dude totally owned a crowd that steadily built throughout his 20-minute set.
I was not so fond of Grieves with Budo, who followed Blueprint at Mohawk, so I headed across the street to huge outdoor amphitheater Stubb's, where Yuck was finishing their performance. I'm gonna have to see these guys play a full set this week because their 90s indie rock throwback hits my musical sweet spot. Spun their self-titled LP while preparing this report and loved every second.
The real purpose of going to Stubb's was to witness hypebeast of the hour, wunderkind dubstep pop songwriter James Blake. The young Brit's music is all about solitude, texture and sonic space, none of which were in abundant supply at Stubb's. So Blake's show, featuring him on keyboards backed by a drummer and a keyboardist-guitarist, fell flat. It was at times as excruciating as listening to Radiohead's "The King of Limbs"; I wondered if maybe I just wasn't paying close enough attention, only to realize, nope, this just isn't working. Noisy single "The Wilhelm Scream" was a success, but all in all I'd rather keep Blake inside my headphones, or at least the Wexner Center performance space.
Smith Westerns emerged next. The band's Girls-esque garage pop captured my fancy, not least of which due to the incredible tones emanating from each guitar-slinger's amp. Each of the three guitarists was cranking out captivating riffage, and each in a different texture and voice.
This would all be moot, of course, if they didn't have excellent songs. And these dudes had hooks to spare, as if all their youthful zest (dudes are famously underage) went into paying the best possible homage to Evan Dando. Guess I better give "Dye It Blonde" another chance.
The rest of the night was all about hip-hop, with a worthwhile electronica detour. I re-entered Mohawk patio to the strains of Freddie Gibbs' epic banger "National Anthem (F--- the World)" and watched happily as Gibbs did gangster rap right. He had a little 2Pac in him last night.
I headed inside to encounter Gold Panda, a British producer making the most lush, gorgeous club music I've heard in my life. He didn't let the technical difficulties slow him down, nor did he let the fact that he's just a dude and some electronics stop him from putting on a thrilling performance. I only wish the room would have moved past the tentative pockets of dancing and plunged full-scale into the crazy contortions Gold Panda deserves.
I stepped back outside just in time to hear Immortal Technique passionately philosophizing on treating women right. He's a powerful speaker and deathly serious, so I was amused when I remembered Mac Miller was up next.
Miller is a Philadelphia white boy who looks something like the Crew's Robbie Rogers, only less hip. His backpacker-influenced, "Hey guys I'm just trying to have a good time" brand of hip-hop is tolerable when you can't see his smiling mug. Dude can rap, as he proved with numerous impressive freestyles Wednesday night. But his gold-hearted fratboy persona seemed laughably corny amidst so many superior rappers.
That's not to say I like my rappers serious. Curren$y was one of the goofiest emcees I've had the pleasure of observing, and he kept me zoned in the whole time. Believe the hype: His obsession with weed cannot be overstated. But also believe that he's evolved past his No Limit roots into a different kind of animal, something like a cross between Lupe and former associate Lil Wayne.
Curren$y's mere presence made Mohawk a party. Non-sequiturs abounded, including my favorite: "I know what you clean your house to! I know what this Jets s--- is, clean your house music! So just chill!" He couldn't go wrong, except when he only did the first verse of ace "Pilot Talk" track "King Kong", one of the major oversights of my 2010 "best-of" rundown.
I finished my evening with Big K.R.I.T., a much-hyped Mississippi rapper who exuded as much charisma as Curren$y and stomped the stage with some good old-fashioned Southern party rap. I was getting pretty tired by then, so I didn't have my critical faculties on full blast, but his articulate Deep South flow reminded me of Big Boi.
And that, my friends, is how to get the most out of your first day at SXSW.