Back before the Day Party became the norm, SXSW attendees were forced to either sleep till a civilized hour, go enjoy a relaxing, delicious lunch somewhere in Austin other than near the convention center or, heaven forbid, attend a Panel Discussion. I know what you're thinking. Panel Discussion, what's that? It's where a handful of people in the industry get free food and are then put in front of an audience of their peers to talk about a particular topic like "Merch Table of Contents," "Fans are Suckers," or "I'm OK, You're OK: The Industry's Still Rockin'!"
Despite what the Fader Fort and the Filter Courtyard might have you believe, these panel discussions are still going on at SXSW and people still attend them. Probably as many people as before the day parties. And they're just as dull as they used to be.* I know, I went to one: "The Blog Factor." On the panel were Amrit of Stereogum, Idolator editor Maura Johnston, Matador major domo Gerard Cosloy, Sean Adams of Drowned in Sound, NPR blogger and onetime Sleater Kinney vocalist Carrie Brownstein.
What could have been a potentially interesting discussion about music blogs — Gerard Cosloy talked briefly about using the extremely unfriendly Web Sheriff to do their dirty work for them –got hijacked by a lot of marketing types in the audience who asked a bunch of questions that all amounted to "So, if I sent you an MP3 what kind of subject line would work best for you to open it?" I did however use the opportunity afterwards to ask Cosloy when the Matablog was going to fully convert to all food content. (It's almost there as it is.)
After that, I headed over to the Village Voice day party, arriving just in time for the last Black Keys song. If someone had told me it was the Black Crowes I woulda believed it. I was there to see Sweden's neo-classic rockers The Soundtrack of Our Lives who played a set almost entirely comprised of new material from their yet-to-be-released fifth album. Skilled musicians and masters of all the great rock moves (windmills, kicks, stick twirls, etc), TSOOL are always good live but the band's material has suffered with the departure of main songwriter Bjorn Olsson shortly after their 2001 breakthrough, Behind the Music. The new stuff wasn't bad, but paled in comparison when the band launched into the stellar "Sister Surround."
MP3: The Soundtrack of Our Lives – Sister Surround
From there I headed over to the Fader Fort to catch the debut of UK-Swede combo Fanfarlo (who I've yammered on about before) who have surprisingly little US buzz despite the David Bowie stamp of approval. A lot of these day parties blur the lines as to whether you're attending a show or a commercial, but there's no subtle marketing at the Fader Fort: to get into space you literally have to walk through a Levi's Store specially built just for this. This is what we do for free Stella and SoCo-n-Lime and an excellent lineup of music daily in an admittedly cool space. Fanfarlo are fan-tastic, performing shoeless in the 90-plus degree Friday heat. Again, I've no idea why more people aren't talking about them. Catchy songs that remind me of Belle & Sebastian, though I've read more comparisons to Arcade Fire (they're nowhere near as anthemic). Maybe it's because they're slow to release their debut, trickling out singles instead, like the wonderful "Fire Escape" of which I shot some video:
Did I mention how hot it was Friday? I compared it to friends back in New York as if the McCarren Pool parties in July took over an entire town. Pretty sure it hit 95. Energy-sucking heat. I headed back to the hotel for a while to cool off, sneak in a nap and shower.
The order of things is a bit confused in my head but at some point in the evening I went to some cheesy subterranean club called Prague (that probably only has music during SXSW) to see Fuck Buttons. Two guys, one with a hoodie pulled over his head, were hunched over either end of a long work table filled with makeshift gear, toy microphones, patch bays, etc. The first ten minutes or so were somewhat torturous, about as exciting as watching two dudes work on home electronics kits as a voluminous nonmelodic sludge was sprayed at the crowd from the soundsystem. But then the bearded one picked up drumsticks and began whacking at a floor tom while screaming words into the toy microphone shoved into his mouth, while the hoodied guy jumped into the crowd and began spastically dancing and screaming into a real mike. Fuck Buttons' album, Street Horrrsing, isn't really my cup of tea, but I'd go see them live again. They're currently on tour with Caribou — a double bill that's highly recommended. As are earplugs.
Most of Friday night was spent at the Sub Pop showcase at Bourbon Rocks: two stages, ten or so bands and most of them were good though it started off a bit shaky with New Zealand's Ruby Suns. I actually really like their new album, Sea Lion, but the many-membered band were only three or four strong here and were forced to trade off onto instruments they don't normally play (from what I could tell). The witch doctor hippie stagewear didn't help either. A disappointment. Much better were Seattle's Grand Archives who traffic in late-'60s / early-'70s rock and do it very well. Highlight of the set for me, though, was a medley of covers comprised of the Beegees' "I Started a Joke," the Zombies' "Care of Cell 44" and Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown."
In a similar vein was Kelley Stoltz, though maybe slightly different reference points. I'm a big fan of his, so take this with a grain of salt, but his set was tied with Fanfarlo for best of the fest. Stoltz is a real charmer, very funny and knows how to tell a good story in between songs. His backing band is pretty ace — including one of the coolest cats you've ever seen on bass, and a keyboardist who also rocked the theremin. Most of the set came from his great new album, Circular Sounds, but also "Birdies Singing" from 2005's Between the Branches which you might know from a Volvo commercial. I shot video of my favorite song from Circular Sounds, "To Speak to the Girl":
Sixties Night continued with Fleet Foxes whose impeccable four-part harmonies wowed just about everybody in the room. They were probably one of the most buzzed-about bands of SXSW. Outside, were some of Sub Pop's more raucous acts: Pissed Jeans and No Age, the later of whom provided my favorite quote of the trip.
To cap the night I headed down the street to see indie legends My Dad is Dead. Main (sole) member Mark Edwards has been doing MDID since the mid-80s and their excellent 1989 album The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get (among others) does what Interpol made commercially viable, except he did it 14 years too early. (They're all available to download for free from the MDID website.) I had no idea, before SXSW, that Edwards was still performing under the name so it was kind of a thrill, as much as I liked his records back in the day. The current lineup is a trio, with Edwards on guitar and a tight rhythm section backing him. His setlist was mostly foreign to me, but they didn't really seem too sonically worse for wear. One of the monitors did start smoking three songs in…they've still got heat.