I had hoped to blog more often while SXSW was happening but Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was in full play and sleep and food won out when the music was put on hold to take care of the basics. It was my 14th year attending SXSW and the festival has grown and changed so much since I first attended back in 1996. It doesn’t seem possible that it could continue to grow, yet every year it seems there is more going on and things get more scattered and fragmented. Used to be you could go to one of the handful of day parties that were happening and see most of the people you wanted to connect with. Now everyone is scattered across the city and it’s harder to connect. Traffic has snarled to a crawl so where it was once possible to jet from one end of town to the other to catch a band at a party, now precious minutes are spent sitting in traffic or competing for a cab. The number of bands playing has also proliferated to the point that I’m continually faced with that “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” feeling. No matter where I go or what I do I end up wondering if the thing happening at the other place might be better, or wonder what I’m missing elsewhere. That said, attending SXSW is always my favorite week of the entire year.
The No Depression showcase was one of the musical highlights of the week. Every act on the bill (Vandaveer, The Maldives, The Belleville Outfit, Deadstring Brothers, Elliott Brood and Chatham County Line) delivered excellent sets and the packed house enthusiastically received each one. The showcase left me speechless, literally. About two thirds of the way through the night my voice was completely gone and also on Saturday. Hard to process all the stimulus and network when you can’t speak. I possess the gift of gab and not being able to talk felt like my own private purgatory. It didn’t prevent me from hearing and enjoying music and there was still plenty of that to be done.
Early in the week the weather had been beautiful sunny 70+ degree days but that all changed on Saturday and the temperatures dipped into the mid 30’s. Most SXSW revelers were caught off guard by this and hadn’t packed the appropriate winter wear, including me. I bundled up in every sweater I had brought and felt like the abominable snowman walking down the street. I wore socks on my hands in the place of gloves which gave me a new appreciation for having opposable thumbs. I tend to like things that push limits and force people out of their comfort zones and the cold biting weather had that impact on the SXSW crowds. The wheat was separated from the chaff and only the hearty (or excessively drunk) endured. I wanted to see the Alex Chilton Big Star tribute at 12:30 that night but had other shows I wanted to catch earlier in the evening and I credit the weather with allowing me to skate into the show at the last minute without more than a few minutes wait. There was lots of buzz and speculation about the show and if the weather had been nice the line would have been around the block.
In the end the show was a bit of a disappointment and it felt like something was missing. The set began with a few words from Jody Stephens and a moving letter that Chilton’s wife Laura had written was read. All the songs played during the course of the set were Big Star songs, none of Chilton’s earlier work was included in the tribute which made the night seem incomplete. The tribute was pulled together with astonishing speed and since it was a Big Star show that was slated for the evening in the first place that does explain somewhat. Guests included R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, M. Ward, the Meat Puppets’ Kurt Kirkwood, the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, John Doe, Chuck Prophet, Chris Stamey, Sondre Lerche, Amy Speace, Susan Cowsill and the Watson Twins. While each gave a fine performance I didn’t find any of them particularly moving with the exception of Sondre Lerche singing “The Ballad of el Goodo”, which was an unexpected surprise.
Earlier in the evening I ended up seeing showcases at two different churches that were being used as venues. I’ve often said that I worship at the church of rock n’ roll and Saturday night that couldn’t have been more true. Hey Marseilles played a gorgeous set of orchestral pop at St. David’s which ended up being one of my favorite sets I saw at SXSW. I’ve been a fan of the band since they started up a couple years ago and they’ve really evolved since then. Next up was Amanda Shires and The Thrift Store Cowboys at the Ale House. I’ve been a fan of Amanda’s since I first heard her in Iaan Hughes’ first podcast for No Depression. This was my first time seeing her live and I predict a very bright future. Next up was Ian McLagan at the Central Presbyterian Church; a massively impressive building of stones, big wood beams and stained glass. The acoustics were phenomenal in both churches and while the unforgiving pews were stiff and uncomfortable it was an interesting place to see music and one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had in a church.
Here is a list of the best sets I saw. I recommend you check these out if you’re not already familiar:
Amanda Shires and The Thrift Store Cowboys
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Jakob Dylan with Neko Case and Kelly Hogan
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
The Belleville Outfit
Chatham County Line