South by Southwest: The Unplugged Version

WRITTEN BY
SPIN Staff

By: Chuck KlostermanEvery March, something happens in Texas. Actually, lots of thingshappen in Texas every March, and these include--but are not limitedto--cattle stampedes, open-pit barbeques, and cocktail partiesfeaturing middle-aged women with Astrodome-sized hair talking aboutthe upcoming high school football season. However, one Lone Starevent stands out in my mind: The South by Southwest MusicalFestival in beautiful Austin (my favorite American city that isn'tNew York, Las Vegas, or Fargo). This is the four-day weekend whereroughly 45 million bands play 113 million songs for 4 billion rockcritics who are all gorged on brisket. Also, drinking is involved,and some people probably end up having sex with indie rockpublicists named "Gwen." It's pretty ideal, all things considered,and this year I went along for the ride with my two professionalcolleagues A-Pap (a.k.a. "The Governor") and Cowboy Hat Girl(a.k.a. "That Girl Wearing The Cowboy Hat"). These are mini-reviewsof all 28 shows I happened to experience, including the ones Idon't remember at all.

Every March, something happens in Texas. Actually, lots of things happen in Texas every March, and these include--but are not limited to--cattle stampedes, open-pit barbeques, and cocktail parties featuring middle-aged women with Astrodome-sized hair talking about the upcoming high school football season. However, one Lone Star event stands out in my mind: The South by Southwest Musical Festival in beautiful Austin (my favorite American city that isn't New York, Las Vegas, or Fargo). This is the four-day weekend where roughly 45 million bands play 113 million songs for 4 billion rock critics who are all gorged on brisket. Also, drinking is involved, and some people probably end up having sex with indie rock publicists named "Gwen." It's pretty ideal, all things considered, and this year I went along for the ride with my two professional colleagues A-Pap (a.k.a. "The Governor") and Cowboy Hat Girl (a.k.a. "That Girl Wearing The Cowboy Hat"). These are mini-reviews of all 28 shows I happened to experience, including the ones I don't remember at all.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 12

Soviet (NY, NY): A-Pap tells me he knows the keyboard player in this band; apparently she used to see him at parties in Syracuse and incorrectly remembers his name as "Andrew." Their music is not bad, but it somehow seems inappropriate in this venue; they look like Williamsburg hipsters on vacation in a 1964 Clint Eastwood flick. There's also a guy in this band who looks like a chubby Ric Ocasek; this is distracting. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them a 4.

Kinski (Seattle, Wash.): I have a friend who hates Kinski because his band's name happens to be Kinski Spiral, so they are automatically archrivals despite the fact that they've never met. That's actually too bad, because my friend would dig these folks: It's a mostly instrumental combination of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, and the woman who fronts the group plays her bass with a violin bow (although she does not play "Dazed and Confused," which bums me out). Still, there is something enrapturing and erotic about all this. They are alchemists. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them an 8.5.

...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (Austin, TX): I used to hate this band because I thought they had a joke name and were therefore "joke rock," but I must concede that they're pretty decent live. Tonight they had four women on stage from (I think) the nearby University of Texas campus wearing black prom dresses and playing a cello, a violin, and two violas. Gotta love those violas. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them a 7. I give the viola players a 9.

Paper Lions (Athens, Ga.): This is serious post-rock. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them an incomplete, because I only watched for 45 seconds, which is 15 less than I originally intended.

Particle (L.A., Calif): Up the street and 25 years in the past, the jam band Particle is doing instrumental versions of tunes off Pink Floyd's The Wall. I'm not sure I could ever get high enough to actively want this experience. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them a 5. And I suddenly can't find A-Pap anywhere, although Cowboy Hat Girl calls me on her cell phone to tell me she's tired.

THURSDAY, MARCH 13

The Dirt Bombs (Detroit, Mich.): I watch the Dirtbombs in the afternoon, under a circus tent at party thrown by the Village Voice. The D-Bombs are always awesome; their singer seems like the kind of guy who is inevitably the coolest guy at every party he attends. I have no qualms with garage rock. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them a 9.5. Also at this show, some publicist with a good haircut tells me that whenever he goes out for a night of drinking, he has one cup of coffee for every two beers. That's just about the stupidest thing I've ever heard, but he claims his family doctor instructed him to do so. And who I am to argue with science?

Murcof (Tijuana, Mexico): I have no idea if "Bubble Core" is a record label, a genre of music, or a slang term among hot-air balloon enthusiasts, but Cowboy Hat Girl wants to go to "The Bubble Core Showcase," so that's how I start my evening. This DJ cat "Murcof" is twisting and turning vinyl in order to replicate the sound of blissful, dying whales, and he's wearing an ironic hat unironically. I will never understand cool people. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give him a C-plus.

Electric Six (Detroit, Mich): Okay, now this I can dig: This is like arena rock/garage rock/disco metal, and everyone in the band is wearing either a sport coat or highway patrolmen sunglasses. The singer reminds me of John Petkovic, and he quotes the breakdown from Van Halen's "Panama" ("I reach down, between my legs, and ease the seat back," etc etc.). I used to think "Panama" was about a car, but my older brother once told me (while we were harvesting wheat) that it was probably about panama red marijuana. It actually works both ways, because "Panama" sounds especially awe-inspiring if you're stoned and driving really fast with a girl named Rhonda in the passenger seat who's wearing a wet tube top. This has never actually happened to me, but it did happen to a guy I know named "Kyle," and he said it was great. So ANYWAY, on a scale of 1 to 10, I give the Electric Six a 6 and Van Halen a 10.

Blur (England): This guys aren't really Blur, to be honest (it's just the singer and a bunch of dudes who could be in Uriah Heep, for all I know), but they rip it up pretty damn well (or maybe not--I'm kind of taking A-Pap's word on this, because I don't know how I feel about this band). I thought their new songs sounded German, but nobody else seems to agree with me. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them either a 9 or a 6.

Ted Leo (Bloomfield, N.J.): This show was so full that I could not get in, although I peeped through the door and noticed that Ted was wearing another one of those stupid soccer shirts. I give his shirt a 3.

FRIDAY, MARCH 14

The Black Keys (Akron, Ohio): These cats are nails. Blues-based power duos may not be the future, but they're definitely the present. I give them a 9.

Sahara Hotnights (Stockholm, Sweden): This is the first time I'd ever seen S.H.N., but I can tell they've already improved a great deal (musically) since the release of their record. The drummer is a full-on badass and the bass player wore an X-Men t-shirt, which had to cause at least four geeks to immediately go home and masturbate while dreaming about love on the Fjords. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them a 10.

D-4 (Auckland, New Zealand): Postmodern Stone Temple Pilots, except kinda bad. I give them a 5.

Hot Hot Heat (Victoria, B.C.): I don't get these people. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them whatever they want. Who cares, really?

The Stills (Montreal, Quebec): Somebody told me these guys were great, but I'm not so sure about that. The drummer wore a Yankees cap (which I can't relate to), and the singer made facial expressions like Kurt Cobain (which seemed unnecessary). On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them a 5.

[Okay, now this is bit weird: During the Stills, A-Pap collapsed from heat exhaustion. This isn't funny, although the fact that he kept talking about documentary filmmaking on the ride to the hospital probably was. Cowboy Hat Girl and I spent two hours in the emergency room, and Cowboy Hat Girl kept getting cell phone calls from some bozo from Barcelona she had spoken to earlier that day who was now phoning her every 20 minutes in order to tell her his rental car was a convertible. But the upshot is that I missed Cat Power in the interim. Sorry.]

Yo La Tengo (Hoboken, N.J.): We arrive during "Autumn Sweater." On a scale of 1 to 10, I give this song a 9. But man--is this band ugly.

The Frames (Dublin, Ireland): According to my notes, this band played "Rhinestone Cowboy," and there is just no way that can possibly be accurate. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them an "oomp," which is not actually a number.

Stewart Walker (Boston, Mass.): This is hard, minimalist techno (or so Cowboy Hat Girl tells me). Stewart seems like a nice enough guy; on a scale of 1 to 10, I give his eyeglasses a 7.

[In case you're curious, we checked on A-Pap later that night and he was totally fine. He was drinking blue Gatorade and watching a documentary film.]

SATURDAY, MARCH 15

The Weather Underground (not a rock band): This was actually a movie we saw Saturday morning, but it was very engaging, so I would recommend it. The Weathermen were a very sexy and charismatic bunch o' radicals, which prompted Cowboy Hat Girl to briefly consider blowing up a Nike factory.

Neko Case (origin unknown, or at least unknown to me): If I had to choose between living the rest of my life in affluence or having sex with Neko Case for 20 minutes and then being tortured by a tribe of sadistic rapist trolls in the jungles of Nambia for the next 10 years, I'm not sure which I would select. She has a good voice, too. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give her a 13.

Polyphonic Spree (Dallas, TX): There are something like 24 band members in the Polyphonic Spree. How do these people make money if you have to split everything 24 ways? Regardless, this was a moving show, and they gave big ups to the Dixie Chicks. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them each 1.5, which means they get an overall score of 36.

Howling Guitar (Tokyo, Japan): Shirtless super-delicious rock mayhem! Can you not tell I am serious? Otaku!

Hang on the Box (Beiing, China): Disappointing. 3.

Elefant (NY, NY): Too pretty. 3.5.

Moving Units (L.A., Calif): This is a good name for a band, but I only saw five minutes of music. 5.

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness (Austin, TX): This is a GREAT name for a band. 8.

Apples in Stereo (Denver, Colo.): The drummer had dynamic hair and an infectious smile. 8.

Drive-By Truckers (Athens, Ga.): I couldn't get into this show, but I always give them a 10.

Supergrass (Oxford, England): Super boring, to be honest (and this is coming from someone who loves their records), but I can't get those muttonchops out of my mind. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give them a 7. And if you read all the way through this piece, you get a 9.

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