Written by Todd Spoth
Apr 15, 2009 at 12:00 PM
ImageEvery year for the past several years I have made a conscious effort to make the relatively short drive up to Austin for a night or two to take in a show during the week-long South by Southwest Music Festival, and while every year I kick myself in the ass for not preparing a proper trip, this year there was to be no kicking. I was prepared.

With over a month prior to the start of the festival, credentials approved, I began researching the plethora of different musical acts that were slated to perform. SXSW is a very unique festival in that it is held throughout the city of Austin in hundreds of different venues, from rusty saloons, to custom-built stages along the river. Many of today’s music festivals follow the Woodstock-ish approach and have a handful of huge temporary stages that lock you in for a weekend, but SXSW allows the participant to walk right into their favorite Austin bar and see an incredible variety of live music…and the best part is that its 99.999% free!

Sure there are plenty of badges and wristbands floating about, and while this year I was among the badge-holders, I can tell you from past experiences that the majority of SXSW events can be enjoyed without any of the above-mentioned paraphernalia. Even if the particular show you want to see is somehow restricted to a certain level of paying participants, the chances are great that the performer or band is playing several other times during the week.

In past years there have been bands that I 100% had to see, which usually was the catalyst for my South by day trips. This year there were a handful of bands I really wanted to catch, but none that stood out as 100% must-sees. This is a good thing, as the purpose of SXSW is to be exposed to new music. Yeah, Yeah, the purpose is for all of the industry suits to gather for a week of A&R nerdiness, but for the commoners the best part is coming home with a whole bunch of new favorites. I too was lucky enough to experience the best part of SXSW, so without any further banter, here is what I saw…or remember.

(Disclaimer: This poorly written account of my SXSW trip may or may not be missing things that I saw or experienced, so if I saw you or your band and left you out, you probably sucked)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009 – Day 1:

Captains log, Star-date…ugh. As many times as I’ve driven to Austin from Houston and Houston from Austin, it never ceases to amaze me when Google Maps tells me it should take almost 4 hours and I get there in less than 3. The bluebonnets along 71 are amazing this time of year. There are so many families pulling over and throwing their kids in wildflowers for a quick snap. Oh Texas. I rolled in around 2pm or so and picked up my credentials, goodie bag and other things and quickly met up with my good friend and fellow photojournalist Ariel Zambelich who was sent to SXSW from OhDang! Magazine based out of San Francisco. We met up with a few other acquaintances and found ourselves at The Mohawk.

YOUNG WIDOWS: We only got to see the last few songs from these dudes from Louisville, KY, but I loved what I heard. Messy and fuzzy rock n roll. The music is exciting; the vocals aren’t really my taste, but still a grand way to start out. I’m 1/1. Awesome.

WAVES: We moved onto Emo’s pretty quickly to catch Waves from California. Kind of dorky and flat for my liking, but interesting. I was actually more in a daze, remembering some of the past shows I had witnessed at Emo’s…before it was an outdoor-ish venue. The Get up Kids, Koufax, The Anniversary. It’s been almost 10 years. Wow.

LYDIA: Lydia was on my short list of acts to try and see and I was glad to have made it. There was just a few kids loaded into the Troubadour Saloon on 6th, but those that came were into it. These guys blew me away the last time I saw them back in Baltimore and I have been loving their LP Illuminate since its release. Not sure why these guys make it a ritual to perform barefoot, but their keyboard player is probably one of the most attractive people keyboard players ever, so I’ll allow it. They played a very short set, but what they did play I enjoyed thoroughly.

DOOMTREE: In recent years SXSW has seen an increase in the amount of rap and hip-hop acts showcased. This year I took in a hefty amount of hip-hop and I am glad I did. Stef (P.O.S.) and the rest of the Doomtree kids were definitely on my to see list and what better time than Day 1. The Back Alley Social was the place to be for good underground hip-hop on Day 1 so there we were. I stayed long enough to catch Doomtree’s short set and headed out. They are amazing as always, but the lighting, the sound and the atmosphere sucked. I am glad that I had a chance to see Stef perform solo, but am disappointed that I didn’t get to catch Cecil and the others by themselves since in my opinion the parts are greater than the whole when it comes to Doomtree. P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Dessa, Mike, et al…all of their solo albums are immensely better than their group release(s).

ImageGLASNOST: Chris and I headed to Pure to try and catch Miami Horror. While attempting to sift through the hundreds of SXSW promo emails I had received in prior weeks I came across this little gem; an Aussie group that’s 80’s sound is amazing, even if it sounds like a mash-up of Prince’s greatest hits. When a band started playing, we quickly realized that it was not Miami Horror, but we liked what we heard so we stayed. It was a band called Glasnost, from right here in Houston. I felt compelled to stay, not to support my hometown brethren, but because these guys rocked! Fun, dancy, electronic, out of my element, but a great time. Seriously, this type of music is 100% better when there are real instruments being played live rather than just a laptop and an MPC.

BILLY BOB THORNTON AND THE BOXMASTERS: Ariel convinced us to meet her at Smokin’ Music to watch Billy Bob and his band. Yes, that Billy Bob. Don’t get me wrong I liked Bad Santa as much as the next person, but if I denied my initial skepticism, Id be lying. After sneaking Chris in (see its possible to attend for free!) we rustled our way to the front of the stage right before the guys took the stage. The VIP section was filled with high heels and other familiar faces, including Austin resident Matthew McConaughey. Although the music isn’t really up my alley I did enjoy it. Another interesting factoid, bassist for the Boxmasters, Stuart Daniel Baker is the voice of Early Cuyler of Squidbillies fame. After a long hour of slide guitar and accosting members of the audience, the guys were done and so were we. It was 2:30am and the end of Day 1.

Thursday, March 19, 2009 – Day 2:

Thursday’s first stop for me was the Flatstock poster art show held at the SXSW headquarters at the Austin Convention Center. A great collection of artists from all over the globe, each with a unique style. After picking up a few limited edition screened posters for myself, I met up with Ariel and Co. as well as former co-worker, Drew Smith. After rocking out to some Cursive through the windows at the Radio Room, Ariel and I headed to Maggie Mae’s to meet up some friends.

DEATH BY STEREO: While at Maggie Mae’s I noticed some familiar faces coming up the stairs with gear. It was the guys from Death by Stereo. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch an amazing performance by these dudes. Its been nearly a decade since playing with and seeing these guys live and it seems like they haven’t missed a beat. Efrem definitely entertained the crowd as usual not only with his intense vocal styling’s, but with his antics. At one point he burst into the crowd and onto the bar, intentionally throwing stacks of bar napkins and plastic cups along the way. I was stoked to hear my personal favorite, “Looking Out For #1” first, but their new material scattered throughout the set sounded good as well.

RHYMESAYERS SHOWCASE: One of the final stops of the day for us was the Rhymesayers Entertainment Showcase at the Habana Backyard. Eyedea and Abilities ripped it up right after we got in, then P.O.S. took the stage and did his thing. If you don’t have Stef’s new album Never Better, it’s a must buy. The CD packaging is amazing, not to mention what’s on the actual CD. He showed his diversity and background by bringing a guitar on stage and playing it during a few of his tracks before finally blowing up the amp. Brother Ali was holding it down as we exited the venue and called it a night.

ImageFriday, March 20, 2009 – Day 3:

Day 3 consisted of a lot of bands at just a few venues. Red 7 had an amazing non-SXSW affiliated show lined up for months and that’s where we were for the better half of the day.

RUINER: I don’t really keep up with hardcore anymore, but these guys were pretty good. Nice breakdowns and good riffs. They reminded me a lot of old Count Me Out, but with an angry Irish singer.

ACE ENDERS: Red 7 had a stage inside and a stage outside so after Ruiner was done I walked inside to catch Ace of Early November fame. His new outfit Ace Enders and a Million Different People is no Early November, but its still awesome. Here Ace was solo with an acoustic. He did play the usual few Early November songs, but I was pretty disappointed as the full band is about a million times better than the solo stuff. There are times when an acoustic show will suffice, but a lot of the time I would rather just here that via itunes and see a full band live.

DILLENGER FOUR: I saw these guys last Fall in Baltimore with NOFX, and they are always a treat. They drink more and get naked more on stage than just about any band and have a great time all the while. Their music always makes you feel good and their jokes are even better. I don’t know if I have anything bad to say about these guys.

RECOVER: As much as I dig Dillinger Four, the Red 7 outside stage was packed to capacity and extremely hot, but that is not the reason I came back inside. Recover, an old Austin band from back in my “being in bands” days was set to play and I was not going to miss it. I know they have done a lot of “reunion” shows in past years, but I hadn’t seen them since about 2001 so I was excited. The few people that stayed inside for their set were having a great time and so was I. I know the guys have moved on with Dan busy with Young Love, etc, but Recover was just so good. I hope/wish there was another release in the works.

THE BOUNCING SOULS: The Bouncing Souls was the finale to our Red 7 day. They headlined the outside stage and played at about 4pm, in bright sunlight, which was really odd, but they tore the place down. All of the old timers came out for this one and everyone was having a great time. Stef of P.O.S. fame watched the show from the wings and even came out to help sing a song…Awesome. They played a long set of all the hits, new stuff that sounded just as great and just were The Bouncing Souls. Enough said.

SEBASTIAN GRAINGER:After Red 7 I’m sure something else awesome happened, but the only other show I have video/photographic and/or mental record of was at the Radio Room. The Radio Room was the location for the Paste Magazine parties and was packed every time we walked by with a ridiculously long line for everyone, badge-holders included. We knew Cursive would be playing later so we gave ourselves enough time and took advantage of a short line and went in. Canadian artist Sebastian Grainger played on the inside stage and we were there for that. A little too Killers/Franz Ferdinand for me, but live it was great. He put on a great show; danced around, took off his shirt and had on only suspenders, got mad at the audio techs, you know, the works.

CURSIVE: I was really excited to see Cursive again. It seems like it had been forever since I had saw the live and since then they have exchanged a cello for a horn and I was interested to hear the difference. During the set I really never even thought about the lack of cello, as the brass was a really nice addition or replacement rather. Their set was solid mixing a lot of older hits in with some new stuff from their recent release, but the lack of audience participation was a little drab, but since when does a horde of indie kids standing around like zombies prevent me from rocking out? Cursive was a great ending to an awesome day of music. Day 3 was in the books.

Saturday, March 21, 2009 – Day 4:

ImageI made sure I was up and early and ready to conquer the final full day of SXSW. I had found myself with a rare Rachel Ray VIP laminate and got to Maggie Mae’s early to secure my spot. The line for the non-VIPs was wrapped around several blocks and it was chocked full of mom’s and other people that looked like they showed up just to get the free Rachel Ray food. Inside, the small venue was getting packed, quick. A few bands were playing, but I wanted to see the New York Dolls and that wasn’t for a few hours. Was I going to have to sit through 2 hours of being by myself amongst this crowd of Food Network fans? I didn’t last long, I really didn’t care to eat Rachel Ray’s food, so I headed out and met up with Drew to find some food. We ended up having some burgers at Jackalope and catching up. After lunch and a few other random shows I decided to try and get back into Maggie Maes. I succeeded.

NEW YORK DOLLS:Impressed with my skill of getting into places, I headed up to the stage and began shooting some images of the legendary New York Dolls. Its been almost 40 years since this band formed and they are still impressive. It was like watching the Stones but without the stadium seating. Great set, even with Rachel Ray annoyingly dancing from the side of the stage. These guys are about to release a new album too. Wow, impressive.

PAST LIVES:Since I was flying solo during the Rachel Ray showcase I met back up with Ariel and her crew at the South by Seattle showcase. Ariel and her friends were on the balcony talking and I decided to stay inside for the next band. Turns out it was Past Lives, the band that spawned from former members of the Blood Brothers. The Blood Brothers were a band I had heard a lot about, but never really listened to. After hearing Past Lives play, I think I may have to. These guys were great. A lot of great energy and a unique sound that has stuck with me since. I’m pretty sure there were 2 guitarists with one playing with 2 bass strings.

MILEMARKER:After Past Lives I headed back to the Radio Room to catch Milemarker, a post-hardcore band from North Carolina. Like several of the best shows at this years SXSW, Milemarker is a band that has been around for a while (1998). I was really excited when I heard they were going to be at SXSW. I even started listening to my old Milemarker LPs, which hadn’t been played in a decade. They have had sporadic releases since their inception in the late 90’s. but this was like a reunion show for me. Milemarker always have had that unique sound that you can only understand by hearing them live. Electronic, heavy, screamy, a bit of everything. Their live set was definitely entertaining. It started off with some slow Yoga and ended with the guys completely destroying their equipment on stage with a keyboard flying into the audience and drums scattered everywhere. The stage manager wasn’t amused, but we were. A+.

ERYKAH BADU: Anyone that knows me, knows I love Erykah Badu and while I had seen her name on the Saturday show listing, I really didn’t think we’d actually go. Saturday night is always the most hectic as there are so many choices of what to see and with most of the good shows being so spread apart, you have to choose wisely. I rode with a few friends over to Auditorium Shores, which was offered a refreshing close to SXSW for me. In contrast to the packed streets of downtown, Auditorium Shores had a really large stage set up and was set up more like a Lollapalooza with lawn seating and lots of vendors. As the sun was setting, we made our way to the moat in preparation to photograph Miss Badu. When she was slated to perform, a group of producers and DJ’s called the Canabanoids took the stage for an intro that turned into a 15 minute “stall”. After what seemed like an eternity, they left the stage and as the day tuned into night, the crowd started growing anxious. No one knew whether or not she was going to show up. After some time, she finally does show up and bursts on-stage. She only performs 2-3 quick songs and exits the stage. Apparently something happened to cause her to arrive later than expected and since she was slated to perform with Kayne West at the Fader Fort later that night, she was only able to do a couple of jams. They were awesome jams, but none of the hits were played. I was disappointed that I didn’t hear Tyrone, but what I heard sounded great and she looked better than ever. I wasn’t too upset.

EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY:What a great close to the fest for me. This was a band I had heard a ton about, but never really took the time to enjoy. I was missing out. These guys are an incredible instrumental band and Austin natives to boot. They played a nice long set that could still be heard over the Lamar street bridge on the way back into downtown. I have been enjoying them via itunes ever since I got back from SXSW.

I told myself that I was going to go out on my own and really produce a nice photo essay or video piece from SXSW, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. I took a minimal amount of images and the video I did take isn’t really meshing into an Oscar-winning documentary, but I got to see a ton of awesome music with a good mix between bands I already loved and bands I was introduced to, hung out with a lot of old friends, and met a handful of new ones and had a great time. SXSW is definitely going to go on my must-attend list for next year, and it should be on yours too.

-Todd Spoth