After spending five days in Austin for SXSW, doing tasks one at a time seems odd. Why eat dinner at a table when you can be scarfing beans and tortillas by the taco truck while cross-checking club schedules until your eyes blur? Why listen to one metal band when you can hear ten different metal bands playing on the same corner while fighting your way upstream on Austin's main drags of Sixth Street and Red River? And why get a decent night's sleep when there are afterparties (with Playboy Bunnies! And Carson Daly! Or Britt Daniel! And Diplo hitting beach balls!) and you can power nap before waking up to free cans of liquid "energy" Pit Bull drinks being handed out of a van? After eight years of hitting the country's biggest, consistently best music festival, I still can't shake the feeling that no matter how much multitasking I've done there, I've spent my whole time in Austin missing out on something totally awesome. That is, except when I was actually seeing something totally awesome. And so here are my top five performances of SXSW 2008:
David Banner's performance at the Fader party was hands-down the most intense show I saw in Austin this year. As I blogged last week, the Mississippi rapper was pissed (at George Bush, at Universal Records, at divisions among the races — "All our parents were fucked up!"), he was pumped (about white people in the crowd who get into the music and "don't just stand there"), and he was aggro (about everything). All that pent-up energy gave him frantic momentum. Backed by a full band and two DJs, Banner rapped while he ran up into the bleachers. He rapped while he threw a female fan onto his shoulders and she bounced around above him. He rapped while doing backflips and stage dives and jumping on the shoulders of San Francisco photographer Misha Vladimirskiy. He rapped about throwing elbows and "9mm." And he topped it all off with a poke at the pasty-faced crowd moshing around him, closing out his set with a quick hit of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" over which he and his crew simply rapped, "White people! White people! White people!"
Poor Justin Vernon. The music he records under the name Bon Iver isn't made for 1 a.m. showcases on club rooftops where you can hear six other bands playing louder music simultaneously. His whispery guitar ballads resonate with fans because of the quiet he inserts into his songs, the pauses for breath between lines or the removal of other instruments so the percussion can pop like firecrackers. His music gives you that happysad feeling, where something going really wrong has a bittersweet chorus that makes it all okay again. And I guess the same could be said about Bon Iver's Wednesday night showcase. Rounded out by another guitarist and a drummer, Vernon made it midway through his set before he stopped to address the clamor imposing on his delicate songs. He asked the crowd to sing along to the line "What might've been lost" from "The Wolves (Act I and II)." "Sing it loud as shit," he commanded, "because I can hear ten other bands in this tent." The crowd eagerly followed his instructions until the song opened up and exploded, finally drowning out the din while giving everyone there the giddy thrill that even with all the excess clatter around it, nothing was lost on that perfect track.
Vice's newest signing to its label is an 18-piece psychedelic Southern rock group from Athens, Georgia. Live, the act breaks down into a horn section; a couple percussionists; a guitarist in a muumuu lost on a permanent LSD trip; the girlfriend of a saxophonist who tagged the crowd's faces in streaks of orange paint; and one dude who just threw party schwag from the stage, including handfuls of confetti, balls of the beach and bouncy variety, paper streamers, and glowsticks. I saw this band twice, the second time at an afterparty where everyone was ready to shake off the exhaustion and elation of the week. Both times Dark Meat sucked the audience into its rapturous rock spectacle — partly because with so many people onstage, there's already a good faction of the club that digs them. And partly because with so much happening during their shows, they were chaos within a chaotic festival — albeit chaos with a sense of humor. "This song's about a time I fucked up," announced one bearded singer on Saturday night. "It's called 'Well, Fuck You Then."
One of the great things about SXSW is it allows you to test whether the bands getting all the buzz deserve the hype. Sometimes it convinces you to join the backlash after only two songs. (Yeasayer? Pretentious new take on Genesis with a singer like Geddy Lee. A Place to Bury Strangers? Same old heavy shoegazer aesthetic with no new tricks of their own. Raveonettes? Even with a full band, they're still totally boring.) But when I stumbled into the MGMT show at a private Playboy party (SXSW is all about RSVPing to publicist pals these days), I saw the light — or, I should say, a really cool light show, put on with a band revamping Ziggy Stardust for the indie set. Pretentious but infectious, MGMT's glammy show made me a believer.
Clockcleaner played one of the last slots on the final night of SXSW at a bar called the Scoot Inn — a cool little dive enough off the beaten path to keep the crowd slim. The singer knocked off the set early, explaining he "wanted to go get drunk now." And yet there was something about this Philly band that I loved. The trio's sound is dark and truly menacing — full of spite and sarcasm and a tempered aggression that boils under the surface like hot tar. They didn't pull any of the antics that supposedly got them barred back home. They just gave us a healthy dose of sneering, noisy punk — unfashionable, unyielding, and unlike everything else I'd seen all week.