Some people are mistaken in thinking that SxSW is yet another cramped, sweaty festival in which people are herded around like derelict cattle. It is much, much more than that.
SxSW is a non-stop music party in the city of Austin. Every venue in town — including bars and churches that are not usually venues — begin churning out bands from noon to early the next morning. People from all over the country and world come to Austin in mid-March to experience all of the musical delights — free and paid — that SxSW has to offer. Because of diverse booking, music lovers can see anyone as laughable as Bo Bice or Hanson to anyone as underground as that shitty nobody who plays at your local coffee shop. SxSW is, in many ways, an independent music lover’s dream, as there were very few major label artists being represented. And did I mention the free food? Oh yes, there was a lot of free food and schwag as well.
This year, we went from late Thursday, March 13th to early Sunday, March 16th. Because of the sheer number of bands at SxSW, the long lines during the nighttime shows, and the cruelty of Father Time, we obviously didn’t see every band. Nonetheless, here are my five favorite acts from SxSW, in no particular order, along with a couple notable mentions.
At 10:30pm, we jumped in line with all of the newest hipsters and buzz band chasers who were desperately waiting to see Vampire Weekend. We were of a handful of individuals who were gladly foregoing Vampire Weekend to see DeVotchKa and the Constantines. The Constantines’ set began at 1:00am, in a venue that was pretty much as far from downtown as possible. As a result, it was relatively uncrowded, making for a more intimate show. It certainly didn’t hurt that the crowd seemed largely composed of fans and not of completely random drunks.
Let’s paint a picture of the band on this fine SxSW evening, shall we? Their members included: a guitarist playing with a cast on since he had a broken hand, a gangley, spastic keyboardist who was practically playing a set of imaginary keyboards with his feet (while playing the real keyboards with his hands, of course), a sweaty, passionate lead singer/guitarist who was completely into the music, a likely drunken bassist hovering indescriminately in the shadowy background, and a drummer who… well, in all honesty, I didn’t pay enough attention to since I couldn’t really see him.
Closing the night out with a crowd favorite followed by an AC/DC cover, the Constantines showed to everyone in the room that they are a Canadian presence well worth knowing.
Anavan was probably the most pleasant surprise of SxSW, because seeing their set was purely by accident. We had been outside in the backyard of a small restaurant venue, and although the outdoor band seemed to be gathering all of the fans, they sounded dated and were mediocre at best. We decided to check out the inside room, and were ecstatic to find out that inside was a younger band that had an engaging amount of frenetic energy and funky bass licks. I wanted to start dancing from the moment I stepped into the room, and despite this brainless takeover of my senses, I could still see that the level of musicianship they hold is impressive. They’re not just some young kids fucking around; they know how to play their instruments and how to write catchy, danceable songs.
Anavan is a melting pot of many genres, and for a lack of a better term, I began describing them to other people as “electro screamo.” Real electro, though — not electro in the sense that they occasionally play a keyboard sample. Anavan’s performance was insanely interesting to me as a first-time viewer. They had football helmets, underpants and drumming with hairy man legs, and pole humping of sorts. Before I knew it, I even got a sweaty vocalist head on my shoulder during the middle of their set. Despite the fact that their name is hardly discernable when spoken, Anavan deserves a good heap of attention for being entertaining and different. And for making damn good music.
While in line waiting for the Constantines, we overheard an old couple mentioning that they had seen HEALTH and thought it was “not music.” I reckon it was because they were older, but I could only mutter, “I want to see them.” And see them I did. Now, I can understand that HEALTH’s music is not for everyone. It’s obvious that some might find it to be “noise” (even if there are bands who are a lot more noisy than HEALTH). But to say that HEALTH’s performances are bad is to basically say that you like nothing but singer-songwriters and don’t like musicians that do anything different. I mean, if you like bands that are boring and just mimic their records exactly, then sure, HEALTH would not be your bag.
Their set was unconventional, to say the least. They began the set with a drums-and-vocals-only dance ritual of sorts and played their instruments on the floor half the time. And since the ghetto, unraised stage of the venue didn’t have enough space for all of the members, they took turns switching places, with one member always playing off the stage, in the crowd. Somehow, they managed this seamlessly, as if this were normal show behavior. But this is all kind of the beauty of HEALTH and probably one of the reasons they’ve gained such a hardcore following in recent days.
As one girl in the crowd, an unseeming HEALTH fan, said, “They’re amazing.”
The Helio Sequence
I was waiting in the wrong room of a multi-roomed venue when I heard the familiar voice of Brandon Summers and made my way into the proper room — a larger, secret room in the back of a venue called Red Eye Fly. Some of the crowd was making a ruckus, — almost heckling the band, for wanting to sound perfect for the crowd. There was some difficulty with the sound technician and lots of echoing in the microphones, yet some drunken idiot next to me was blathering on about how they just needed to start the set and no one gave a shit what the Helio Sequence thought about the microphones.
Luckily, for the sake of my sanity (I was about to go Hulk Smash! on him), the problems were soon worked out and the sound was a hell of a lot better, enabling the Helio Sequence to yet again pull off a great set. They played about eight songs in total, but it was slightly disappointing that all of the songs were from their newest album, Keep Your Eyes Ahead. It seems they have already left their old music behind for the time being.
Nonetheless, they were musically on as usual, with whirring and loops in the background and Brandon Summers’ hypnotic vocals and Benjamin Weikel’s hilariously mechanical drumming in the foreground.
Old Time Relijun
If you’ve ever listened to the music of Old Time Relijun, you’d probably find them a little hard to categorize. Their set, played in a venue far from the downtown area, drew out the most diverse crowd that I had seen at SxSW. We’re talking dirty hippies mixed with uptight hipsters mixed with the rock-loving elderly. In a way, it makes sense and is somehow expected, though. At least, it is once you see the amusing antics of lead singer Arrington De Dionyso. He has the uncanny ability to spew out phrases in multiple languages — not to mention, sing in them. That’s only when he’s making sense. Other times, he practically seems to be possessed, hooting and hollering with no conventional language in mind at all.
Upright bass-heavy and spastic as fuck, Old Time Relijun’s music is actually better in a live setting than it is on disc. One just cannot help but want to stomp on the ground, dance like a wild lunatic gypsy, and rip out all her hair. In a good way!
And honestly, I am saying all this despite the fact that their set was extremely short and the fact that I am extremely short, and therefore could only see the tops of a couple band members’ heads the entire time.