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Opinion: Robert Dean’s (Short) Opus On SXSW

6th Street During SXSW

It’s over. After an exhausting trek into the musical miasma known as SXSW, I came away with a lot more, complex feelings than I had intended to. Within the four days I spent roaming the landscape of downtown Austin in search of new sounds, I was met with some interesting opinions about where music is going, why we’re here, what’s coming next, and how the ladder could fall out on this pseudo “music first” festival. SXSW is a very complicated thing to try and stick in one constructed idea. It’s too vast, and there is way too much going on to box it and ship it off. This is a plus for one aspect of the event, but for others, it’s very limiting.

SXSW has become something that gets bigger and bigger each year, and the original purpose of celebrating live music is losing its steam. Fistfuls of corporate dollars have been spent plastering their brand names on every possible tie-in to make their product seem like it’s the most relatable to a young, hip audience in hopes that some of these kids will snap up their new flavor of Mountain Dew or Doritos.

Labels are on everything, and everyone is dying to give you a bunch of useless promotional garbage that you don’t need, or want.

Everyone who normally wears a suit and tie to work, and is well versed in dick lingo like “Market Trends” or “hot new artist” get to prove their cool by donning some shorts, and sunglasses, trying their damndest to connect with their “target market.” Pepsi, a gigantic Doritos machine that was as big as a store, to name a few of the more clear offenders. There is nothing rock and roll about Mountain Dew. Maybe that’s why they launched their “project” called DEWeezy with Lil Wayne this weekend…

Frat Boys

But, through this trek of advertising darkness, there were some bright moments in between the sweaty, fat frat boy I passed on the street who looked so out of touch with anything that wasn’t based on some kind of indie level Mtv credibility, where he managed to croak out to his cronies that “The Shin were fucking AMAZING.” To the throngs of Lil Wayne inspired black hipsters with gigantic slogans on their t-shirts, and skateboards in tow (ready to celebrate DEWeezy, I suppose) to the non stop attack of the musical abortion known as Dubstep that bled out into the streets at every turn. People rapped over what sounded like washing machines having sex, to dj’s twisting knobs and pretending like they had just blown up the Death Star with each wobble wobble of the annoying Dubstep “beat.”

Beyond all of this, we did manage to stumble into a few moments of musical bliss. From Punk, to country, to Americana, we left the itinerary at home, and went blindly into the day seeking out whatever chaos we could find without a concrete, step by step plan. We wanted to discover, and to be exposed to new music, to new ideas. And while we saw a lot of forgettable acts, and one that looked like a bad Ke$ha in pink with war paint, we stumbled upon some great acts that deserve the ears of anyone who loves the sound of a guitar strummed violently through a blown out full stack turned all the way up.

JD Mcpherson

One of the first shows we went to was the Oklahoma showcase that featured rockabilly’s best new artist Jd Mcpherson who happened to write one of my favorite records, 2011’s “Signs and Signifiers.” While we suffered through the opening acts and their desperate attempt at trying to be listenable, my co-conspirator and I drained multiple cans of Lone Star to quell the awful. As a personal rule, if someone is white and trying to be Prince in his hey day, but can’t play guitar, nor ooze the sex, I automatically write them off, and low and behold, my same general principle paid off.
As Jd and his band took the stage, the room began to swell with excitement, and throngs of people came into specifically to hear the wonderful songs off that record. It was one of those moments where as you’re walking down the street and everything coming out of the clubs on 6th is terrible, and this musical moment was a reverent solace.

From the aforementioned dubstep to badly scrawled indie rock, it was refreshing to see people from the street pile into to see a band of guys playing their hearts out with some honest rock and roll without any kind of attachment to a preconceived scene they had in mind to cater to. It wasn’t a bunch of dudes with pompadours watching with their victory rolled Betties in tow, it was random, and the packed house that either knew the record, or stumbled in, left with feeling like they had gained something. The music was fun, hot and fast. The exact way a rock and roll experience should be. When it starts to get safe, it’s not the same animal. Thursday night, Jd and the boys let the beast out of the cage. Another highlight was catching the psychedelic, riff monsters Howlin’ Rain.

Howlin Rain

We stumbled into Valhalla on Red River Street as a continual safe haven throughout the weekend as means to get away from the masses, and at least find a musical “home” so to speak with all of the punk or metal inspired clubs that line the street. Having absolutely no idea who Howlin’ Rain was, it was jaw dropping to see a group of men who look like motorcycle mechanics who double as peyote dealers just absolutely crush on their respective instruments. From moments of Clutch to Humble Pie, to ELO, and some doom thrown in for good measure, they were a joy to walk in on and be majorly impressed.

Friday, following a delicious bbq lunch at Rudy’s just outside Austin, we wandered over to the far side of South Austin to catch my cohort in devilish behavior Shooter Jennings absolutely pack Saxon Pub, and leave it in shambles. All personal bias aside, his new record “Family Man” is brilliant. It’s old school, Jack Daniels, speed, and good weed Outlaw Country just like his daddy used to make. Now, before you guffaw and roll your eyes at the remark about his father, and Shooter being his own man, this record is the second stamp in proving that he can do whatever he wants and it works. In albums past, the songs were there, and the heart was there. But, now in a post “Black Ribbons” universe, Shooter’s identity is what he can dream his music up to be, not what is. “Family Man” has some touching moments, some drinking moments and everything in between, proving that just because you write country tunes doesn’t mean the darkness that is the outside world that’s not Nashville won’t creep into you, and for the crowd lucky enough to catch him before this album blows up, they’ll be thankful the show was only $10 and the beer wasn’t $8 for a 12 oz. cup, cause soon enough, that will be a thing of the past.

Fellow underground beasts Hellbound Glory also laid waste to Saxon pub as well, showing a sincere, honesty that while based in the roots of traditional country, even had moments of deeper artists like Ben Folds, or Leonard Cohen. It was a pleasure to actually feel the vibrancy of their passion shine through the music, and turn a sold out room into believers in the artists who lurk in the shadows away from the garbage CMT tries their hardest to sell.

Scale The Summit

In our second random Valhalla moment, we walked in on uber metallers Scale the Summit, and while I’m familiar with them, I had no idea they were as musically tight as they were. The band featured a lot of patterns and timings that every geek who loves Between the Buried and Me, to Death can get behind.

Saturday we stumbled into Rusty’s for The Outlaw Roadshow and caught a lot of great bands as well. Some highlights were Son of The Sun, an insanely tight Americanized version of Radiohead meets Elvis Costello and the Flaming Lips.

With three guitar players, the sound can get muddy very quickly, but remained bright and layered. Thankfully, as I started to roll my eyes about a band of dudes in skinny ties and dress shirts, I was quickly shut up by the pure power they produced. Everything they played was anthemic, and vibrant. A very cool set from a band of really nice people.

Brown Bird, a band I had prior experience with seeing also played this showcase. Like the last time I had seen them home in New Orleans, they took their backwoods approach, and made it sing. Brown Bird is a two person combo featuring banjo, guitar, cello, violin and whatever else makes a noise. It’s a slick, folksy harken back to a simpler less complicated music, and the perfect follow up to Son of the Sun’s complexities. A perfect pairing of the esoteric and the artistic, and Brown Bird has shined each time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing them.

Another great band was Mellow Bravo from Boston who were all kinds of the middle finger, no panties kind of rock and roll that needs to be in people’s faces again. Their throaty screams with powerful riffs were alluring to anyone who loves the MC5 or Ramones. It was gutsy punk influenced hard rock, but without the cheesy Hinder or Motley Crue vomit laced all over it. It was more Judas Priest or Social Distortion than the top 40 trash.

Fellow New Orleanian rap weirdos Sex Party managed to make me scratch my head for about 20 minutes with their random, and hilariously odd songs, complete with absolutely trashed back up dancers. While it may be a little too much for Austin right now, once this baby band gets their weird down to a science, I’m sure the freaks who litter the streets of NOLA will be out in droves to catch whatever strange circus Sex Party has planned for 2012.

Pennywise

After the antics of Sex Party we made it in time to catch the band calling themselves Pennywise. I say this only because I think the only remaining original member is Fletcher Henderson. While we missed Keith Morris’s new, awesome band OFF! Pennywise still did exactly what they’ve been doing since I was in middle school. They were rock solid, and ended with bro-hymn and everyone either blew their voices out from screaming, or cried a little for a missed friend. Beers were spilled, and it was a great day to wrap up that night.

A major highlight was walking down E. 6th and catching this 3 piece called Vio Mire who were just flat out stunning. Playing on the side of the street with no venue, they were a quiet, passing second of pure enjoyment. Trombone, mellowtron, and violin, some parts were Sigur Ros, while others Bright Eyes. It was personal, and unique, almost like a love letter to the night, which we happened to walk past as tired revelers of sound. Catching them was a special moment that I’m glad happened.

Seeing Vio Mire was one of the reasons why SXSW can be magical if you venture off the beaten path and not worry about seeing those ultra hyped artists of the moment. There are many rocks to overturn, some of us found gems while some got whatever a corporation wanted to sell them. For every scribe who found himself or herself at the 50 Cent/Eminem show I feel bad for you for letting the job get the best of you. We’re not in this for the money, it’s for the music, and in a lot of these cases, this weekend will be a defining moment for a lot of these bands and if they still believe they have a shot.

The most important thing about music is that it’s a moment in time. A lot of these bands will break up and the exact moment you’re smiling at the glorious noise, which in a lot of cases, will never exist again, because nothing is forever. Success is not a devils handshake away for a lot of these bands, and for those few moments, without the hype and without the media fanfare, everything can make sense if you wander and let the music drift you along.

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