SXSW Day 3, Pt. 1: A whiner's premature eulogy

As I type this on Saturday afternoon, SXSW 2010 has not only been pronounced dead, it’s being gutted and embalmed. I sit in the Austin Convention Center watching maintenance men collapse the booths and soundstages, ripping the concert posters off the pillars. Defeated-looking musicians stomp through, rolling their instruments away, passing out a few more CDs or business cards, or god-help-them before they leave town, giving whatever they hoped might happen here one final chance to happen. Keep in mind there are two more nights of official showcases to go before this thing actually ends. Day parties full of unknowns that cap off with established, or even buzzed-about acts come sundown have drawn block-long lines by 1 p.m. Unlike the official showcases, which separate the badge-holding sheep from the cash-paying goats like the Good Shepherd come Judgment Day, the free day parties make no distinction between the washed and unwashed, so you assume a big portion of those hopeful looking hipsters queued up in this unseasonable shitiness are locals, finally free of the work week and looking for some compensation from this event that brings entitled New York and LA record execs and rock critics, and increasingly, trust-fund hipster layabouts with nothing to offer unsigned bands — no record contracts, no media exposure —  just the wherewithal to drop the better part of a grand on a fancy-ass concert ticket, to congest their city’s streets, crowd their clubs, and throw their trash directly on the goddamn ground. These idle rich, goes one incredibly popular SXSW gripe, have spoiled the festival’s original intent — to expose talented, unsigned bands with the industry contacts they need to find success — because they’re paying to see Cheap Trick and Smokey Robinson, not the Random Assholes from Peoria. And the Austin Chronicle’s daily-printed guides feature Ray Davies and Raphael Saadiq on their covers. But it’s the put-upon masses lined up to see whoever’s occupying the stage before the Black Keys show up that make me question the critic’s role as gatekeeper in 2010. Show flyers lie scattered on every Convention Center table; a janitor comes through periodically to throw them into her rolling trash can. “All these people, just wasting paper,” she laments. Not five minutes later, a young girl deposit’s a stack of cardstock in front of me: the exact same fliers. Maybe that’s a metaphor for the unsigned artist’s dilemma at SXSW 2010.

All I know is I’ve seen some really cool shit so far.

First Aid Kit

Swedish sister act Klara and Johanna Söderberg are absolutely fucking incredible in
about the tritest possible way. The pastoral folk bandwagon passed them by about two years ago. They play only acoustic guitar and dulcimer, and sometimes, paradoxically, the electric keyboard and they harmonize, sweet Baal do they harmonize. The French Legation Museum lawn party is maybe the best place to see them — sprawled out on the grass at an antique location commandeered by kiddie pools and young parents who’ve brought their own folding chairs. The Söderbergs are young enough for X’d hands, but they write their own songs (sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not) in a style their great-grandparents might’ve recognized as antiquated if they’d been able to point out the Ozarks on a map. This is the kind of shit the internet creates, and we’re all better off for it. “You’re Not Coming Home Tonight” is a beautifully rendered belabored-housewife’s complaint clearly penned by someone about five years out from the “boys are icky phase,” but “Hard Believer” sticks with what they’ve experienced and is all the more magnificent for it: “I wish I could believe in something bigger,” the lyrics say. “I wish I could believe what they tell me.” Don’t we all? Their uncanny pitch perfect harmonies (it’s like multitasking come to life) and exact timing prove the power in fundamental talent augmented by what can only be a relentless rehearsal schedule. Witness, if you haven’t already, the song they’re best known for, the song that draws the biggest cheer: a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” Seriously, drop whatever bullshit you’re occupied with and watch the video below. It might not change your life, but it’ll make you believe it’s worth something for a few minutes at least.

Court Yard Hounds

This band is soon to be known in some circles as “the two prettier Dixie Chicks without that bigmouth bitch what treasonized our President.” The saner of us, however, might fear that Natalie Maines (who unfortunately probably doesn’t have the vocal range to take the kd lang escape route from “disgraced” country music stardom) provided not only the hick growl but the freethinking personality that made the Chicks so damn popular with the kind of women to whom Faith Hill and Taylor Swift remain sad, sad jokes. The Hounds opener, “Skyline” with its worn out descriptions of “Blue skies, green water, and white birds in the air” confirms most of those fears, but “April’s Love,” which Emily Robinson describes as the “cornerstone” of their upcoming album, and the song that convinced her that made her confident that she and Martie Maguire could “make a sound for [them]selves” is a little better, and the instantly likeable “Then Again,” which describes “flipping off hippies at the river” and biting “my tongue until I could taste the blood” has potential for the same sort of popularity that “Wide Open Spaces” and “Goodbye Earl” enjoyed for the same reason: Unlike most country (and admittedly every other kind of music) it admits that women have complex contradictory inner selves, and they exist independently of men.

Jakob Dylan and Three Legs

I never really liked the Wallflowers, but Dylan the Younger has always had two things going for him as far as I’m concerned, his gruffy shaggy dog and  the hippity-hop sized balls required to pursue a career in music knowing he’d sing a note without being compared unfavorably to his dad (or the nearly as admirable delusional thinking needed to tell himself that wouldn’t happen). His new band, Three Legs, which today features Neko Case and Kelly Hogan (no, you’re thinking of Brooke Hogan) singing back up, is more country flavored than the Wallflowers, and it suits him. His upcoming album, Women & Country might win him a few new fans even, if he can get past not only the rank scent of music industry nepotism but the ’90s few-hit-wonder stigma, but the fact is he’s not a very good lyricist, which is distracting considering the singer-songwriter friendly genres he gravitates toward, all genetic considerations aside. “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” and “Smile When You Call Me That” more than listenable, but its slight tweaking on clichés (Dylan’s favorite technique as far as I can tell) might not get him past open-mic night if he changed his last name.  This is only exacerbated by the fact that he’s got Case, an insanely talented vocalist and one of the most exciting current singer-songwriters working standing not a dozen feet away from him singing back up and she’s been almost entirely relegated to punctuating the hooks with “oohs” and “ahhs.” It’s like an NFL team signing Tom Brady as a dedicated deep-snapper.