I’m walking down 6th Street in Austin, Texas, on Sunday morning at about 11.30 when a rapper called Black Nate Debiase stops me in the street and says “Hey, I got a CD for you mannn.”
He has no idea who I am (and why should he? I’ve got no idea who he is either).
I take the CD and he pauses, looks at me and says: “Most people give me $5”.
I give him $5, impressed by his direct marketing and we wish each other well, as he turns and saunters off in search of glory.
Welcome to SXSW. A blaggers’ paradise. A circus full of chancers; a bear pit of influential executives; an array of more than 2000 artists from all over the world, all earnest or egotistical, but all chasing some sort of dream.
Since my first visit in 2003, SXSW has grown at an extraordinary rate. A decade ago, you could put your finger up in the breeze and it would tell you where the buzz bands were playing and where future musical trends might be going. Not now. It’s so big, with so many micro scenes, its impossible to stay across all that’s happening (or indeed, who’s happening).
Still – despite being a couple of weeks late, due to the 6Music Festival – here’s a few things you might find interesting.
The saviours. Having spent five days, not finding ‘the one’ (that is: a band genuinely worth shouting about, who I hadn’t seen before, who I can look you in the eye and honestly recommend), Bambara were one of the last groups I saw on the final night. Oh the RELIEF! The ENLIGHTENMENT! The fucking enormous half-drunk grin! The Neck Mohican!
Placing them isn’t easy: being from Brooklyn, I toyed with describing them as a more punk rock Walkmen or possibly better, a maniacal, fidgeting, sometimes sped-up version of The Walkmen’s predecessors Jonathan Fire*Eater. But then at times, they boldly conjure up a dive bar Nick Cave; dark, romantic, stoic and brutally poetic. They have a dense, full sound that lives life on an edge.
Four songs into the set a man at the front of the crowd offers the singer his flailing hand to high five. The singer immediately jumps off the stage and takes him in a wake-like bar room headlock, striding into the crowd still singing and serenading them with tales of the Lost, Lonely and The Broken. The high-five man just loves this. It’s all I can do not to go up and embrace both of them.
(NB: it turns out Bambara are friends of Bodega; it turns out they have toured in the States with Idles. I mean, you might not think that matters a toss, but it works for me).
If we didn’t know it already, their run of SXSW gigs pretty much confirmed in my eyes (ears!) that there’s very little stopping these boys at the moment. Apart from an ill-fated gig at Cheer Up Charlies, where they blew two bass amps, and had to abandon their set after four songs, the love in the room for them was tangible; the attraction unfightable.
One for lovers of the type of agitated post-Strokes indie rock & roll that Rough Trade continually signed in the Noughties, Pottery were all enthusiastic guitar bashing and head shaking; an American garage-Libertines, given a fresh set of adrenalin batteries. Inconsistent at times, but better than a lot of the competition.
And here’s something Rough Trade have signed (in fact there is a nice balance here, that Rough Trade’s representatives at SX were the phenomenally trad-punk Australians Amyl & the Sniffers – one the one hand – and phenomenally here and now, post-modern Black Midi).
BM take rock to a new level of confusion (aided by their astonishing ability to play: FACT! Black Midi’s drummer is out of this world. By the end of next week he’ll be inventing his own time signatures).
Attempting to write about them is like trying to carry a pint of water in your hands. They are not Mogwai. They are not XTC at their weirdest. They are not post punk. They thrash and squawk (in a wholly disciplined and pre-ordinated way) and just when you think you might have their measure, they give you the slip down a side street.
BLACK BELT EAGLE LION
One thing that struck me about the ‘indie rock’ acts at SXSW this year was just how full of neurosis, some American of them are. The level of self-analysis is, as they would possibly say, “off the scale.” KP from Black Belt has a different take on life, having been raised on a small Indian reservation, she says in her PR: “Having this identity—radical indigenous queer feminist—keeps me going.”
Though patchy, the album ‘Mother Of My Children’ has some good stuff on it, some of which reminds me of Dutch band Bettie Serverrt’s first album ‘Palomine’. Worth trying ‘Soft Stud’ as a taster.
Less obtuse than Black Midi, less mathematical in a way, I saw Squid a couple of times (the second, at Austin’s Number One Gumbo Restaurant, which was a bloody hike from town and tough on the knees, but worth it).
Again, they delight in delivering in musical googlies (how will that translate in America?) but in their case, they do it in a really playful way. The music dances around the Talking Heads and Gang Of Four, yet they deliver the ‘influences’ in such an exuberant and spontaneous way, that this barely matters.
One of the most infectious live bands of the whole festival.