It was no stunner that Ted Leo, punk-ethos lifer and reluctant interlocutor in South By Southwest’s music-industry minstrel show, provided the most cutting epilogue to this year’s cluster of the fucked: “I’m not impressed with your desire to be the biggest in the bowl,” he sang on “The Sword in the Stone,” at the fifth MWTX (Mess With Texas) party in a dusty, bi-level trailer park in East Austin. “You’ll still just be a little shit in a world that’s just a big shithole.”
Despite the music biz scaling down, or maybe because of it, there was no shortage of smalltime hustlers scamperingg around Austin this year, trying to play the self-appointed mogul game. “The Sword in the Stone” wasn’t the only song in his set that felt relevant to pressing issues. After casually remarking, “We just imposed a no-fly zone over Libya today, FYI,” he launched into an especially fiery version of “The Ballad of the Sin Eater,” biting down hard on the line, “You didn’t think they could hate ya now, did ya? / They hate ya ’cause you’re guilty!”
During the volubly agitated “The High Party,” when he entreated, “What does it take to not hear the cynics at your door? / Saying, it’s time to turn the lights out, and you’ll want to keep it down,” he could’ve been talking about the simps who proclaim that music is now marginal because it doesn’t move tens of millions of physical units (see, the ’90s boomtime). But there are plenty of artists like Leo, on the grind, scraping up a living, still having a consistent impact.
MWTX, a two-day outdoor festival organized by Sean Carlson and his Los Angeles-based FYF (Fuck Yeah Fest) crew, isn’t an official SXSW event, yet it offers an impressive array of bands while working to keep sponsorship out of your face (though Sailor Jerry rum was a rather burly participant). And it’s all for free! If nothing else, MWTX is a reminder of how it actually can be fun to hang out with your peers in a sunny boho setting (if the music remains in the hands of true fans). Saturday’s lineup was tremendous, particularly early on.
Esben and the Witch, the young U.K. goth-punk trio, began their show in the tent on the site’s lower level, huddled around a floor tom and cymbal placed at center stage, as all three members bashed away and singer Rachel Davies moaned intermittently, like a restless ghost stirring. Eventually the two guys picked up guitars, flanking Davies on bass, and as a drum machine thumped and sputtered, they churned up a maelstrom with electronic touches that was more like a series of ritual incantations pushing against the suffocating heat than mere rock songs.
On the main stage above, Austin’s own Strange Boys, perhaps the world’s most pocket-sized garage band, cranked up their increasingly brash stumble and twang. Frontman Ryan Sambol, a tiny slip tucked into a tight white t-shirt and jeans, unleashed his pinched howl, and the unassuming windbreakers kids who once made sheepish passes at the ’50s roots omnibus proved they were all grown up and ready to compete as a fiercely roaring, festival-worthy contender.
Buffalo trio Lemuria, led by singer-guitarist Sheena Ozzella, sounded like a direct product of early-’90s Boston alt-rock, with their winsome riffing a generally pleasant reminder of Belly, Juliana Hatfield, or even Letters to Cleo (at least when Ozzella gotrelationship gooey). The Dodos, a far cry from the arty folk drone of 2008’s mesmerizing debut album Visiter, bounced around like exuberantly pop-rockin’ extroverts, sating the main-stage crowd with songs that went for immediacy over lasting mood.
Back in the tent, fellow San Franciscans the Fresh & Onlys may seem to play effortlessly jangly garage pop, but from the affecting shaggy-mutt droop of singer-guitarist Tim Cohen to Wymond Miles’ trippy, sunbaked solos to the rhythm section’s rumbly pulse, they’ve got a lot of nuance. Another minor-but-crucial skill (that far too many bands never master): They actually know how to move onstage so they don’t look like fucking dorks trying to eagerly sell you on their future earning power.
The same can’t be said for Warner Bros. signees Surfer Blood, who are some of the most unlikely alt-rock hopes in recent memory. Doughy, pink-faced frontman John Paul Pitts is utterly convinced of his own irresistible charisma, despite all evidence to the contrary, and his persistent attempts to integrate the Smiths and Weezer in the same song are almost perverse (though they ultimately may nab some licensing opportunities). For now, “Swim” and “Floating Vibes” remain their only two memorable songs.
Two bands which have been inactive for protracted stretches — !!! and the Dead Milkmen — are apparently remembered fondly by thousands of fans (don’t ask why). In one of the strangest scenes of the day, !!! began their set and a contingent of tall skinny women with long straight hair, brightly colored short shorts and minidresses, wedge heels and ankle bracelets, ascended sidestage to dance as frontman Nic Offer set off the band’s limber dance-punk party patois.
They promptly bailed as the Dead Milkmen hit the boards, with singer Rodney Anonymous boppin’ around like a hyper bald grandpa, while the band jauntily reprised ’80s semi-hits “Bitchin’ Camaro” and “Punk Rock Girl.”
But just as MWTX started to feel like it was flagging, rapper Big Freedia, the queen diva of New Orleans sissy bounce, showed up with confere Katey Red and protege Nicky Da B, to assault a roiling puddle of fans in the tent like a veritable Gay Live Crew. Sporting an insane mane of gold-tinged extensions, Freedia dropped her signature jam, “Azz Everywhere,” asked if we “could fuck like you dance?” and paid tribute to slain New Orleans rapper Magnolia Shorty by chanting “fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck all night” over speaker-obliterating bass.
Headliners Odd Future had a tough act to follow, but no group may be surrounded by more visceral anticipation at the moment. And after cursing out the sound man for awhile, frontman Tyler, the Creator soaked up the crowd’s energy, giving his single “Yonkers” a bellowing, gargling, genuinely terrifying reading. There were homemade “Free Earl” signs, stage-diving fans in ski masks, spontaneous “Wolf Gang” chants, and even usually mild-mannered DJ Syd was shouting lyrics and giving the finger to anybody who wanted a piece.
Tyler and Hodgy Beats climbed up the scaffolding with Tyler successfully executing about a 20-foot free fall (but only after carefully removing his sneakers). Jackass collaborator Lance Bangs was on hand filming the band, and Tyler even got him to dive into the mob.By “Fuck the Police,” the stage was a swarming hive of fans and group and seemingly every third person was filming or taking photos. The obscenity was deafening and the convention couldn’t have seemed farther away.
It’s tempting to say that in 2011, a wildly creative, totally untamed, and self-contained collective like Odd Future doesn’t need the shuck and jive of SXSW, but in a way they sorta do. It’s a valuable, annual reminder of exactly what to hate.