It’s been about a week since my return from SXSW, and it’s taken me the same amount of time to gather my thoughts on my experience. This was my second pilgrimage to the music mecca known as South by Southwest, a 9-day festival that celebrates all things music, film, and interactive media. Cincinnati was represented in every facet of the festival, from showcases featuring some of the city’s best bands to a bus full of promising local startups to a full-on flash mob in the middle of 6th Street. Yet with so many bands, comedians and day parties to see, I still drove down (yes, all 22 hours) with no plans. I didn’t look at the lineup and would only glance at day party invites right before I’d head downtown. It only takes one SXSW trip to figure out that itineraries are useless and one should just surrender to the combined forces of serendipity, hangovers, and the whims of friends when making plans.
Best Musical Discovery: Diamond Rugs at Hotel Vegas
I’d be lying if I said I cared about supergroups. I know bands like Middle Brother and Monsters of Folk are destined for greatness based on their lineups alone, but I never gave them much of a chance since they seemed sort of gimmicky to me. Plus, let’s be real, I barely listen to new music anyway. Still, I was knocked on my ass by Diamond Rugs at Hotel Vegas. The group is led by John McCauley (Deer Tick, Middle Brother) with Robbie Crowell (Deer Tick), Ian Saint Pé (The Black Lips), with Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Hardy Morris (Dead Confederate) and Bryan Dufresne (Six Finger Satellite). With such a raucous group playing all at once, the stage was, at any point in time, a hot mess of drums, keys, sax, horns, harmonica and good ol’ boy group vocals. Songs like “Gimme A Beer” are the perfectly greasy, country-rock anthems you’d want to hear while kicking back a few in 85 degree heat, while being playfully tongue-in-cheek. It’s not often a supergroup can sound more like a band than a massive collaboration, but Diamond Rugs pull it off and look like they’re having fun in the process.
Most Interesting Performance: Turquoise Jeep at the Doritos Jacked Stage
I caught hip hop collective Turquoise Jeep when I showed up early to see my friends in Chappo. The show was listed at the Doritos Jacked Stage, which seemed like a pretty absurd name until I actually saw the stage. The ridiculous name appropriately fits the even more ridiculous stage, which was set up to look like a giant vending machine filled with bags of Doritos. When I say “giant”, I mean an entire building was constructed to look like a vending machine and the stage itself was the opening where you received your chips. So…there’s that.
Keep in mind, Turquoise Jeep is a satire hip hop label/collective. Their take on low-budget hip hop is spot-on, using cheap green screen effects, B-list dancers and surprisingly sweet beats to create Internet hits like “Lemme Smang It.” Still, despite the fact that these guys are obviously spoofing over-sexed, over-the-top R&B and hip hop, it doesn’t mean they don’t take their show seriously. It’s not often a group of guys can chant “How do you like your eggs?” and get a crowd to chant back, “Fried and fertilized!”
Biggest Disappointment: Kimbra at Haven
Kimbra has been hyped to the fullest thanks to her collaboration with Gotye on “Someone That I Used to Know”, and let’s be honest, she deserves every bit of it. She has a killer voice, knows how to work a stage, and can scat and belt just as easily as she can rock a bright red dress.
Still, there was something…off about the set I saw at Haven. Her vocals, powerful as they were, felt smothered by overproduction, and the show itself felt dated by the excessive backing band. Maybe I’m just too far removed from traditional concerts or even just mainstream pop music, but there’s something really disappointing about hearing such a talented performer drowned out by overblown production. I have no doubts that she can seriously shine in an acoustic setting or even with a band that takes a more artistic approach, but Kimbra’s show at the Haven definitely left me wanting more…or maybe wanting less.
Most Ridiculous SXSW Moment: The 100 Guitar Drop by Ohio Knife & Landor
Cincinnati’s own Ohio Knife and design firm Landor planned an epic flash-mob style event at SXSW. The plan was simple in idea and insanely difficult to execute: set up a band, pull a flatbed stocked with 100 guitars onto the busiest street in Austin in the thick of SXSW pandemonium, and then give away the guitars as the band plays. With barely any promotion, save for a few tweets and blog posts from random sources, the guerrilla-style campaign was posed for either monumental success or epic fail. The guitar drop was, however, the former. Even amidst the constant drone of music spilling out from the bars and busking musicians, Ohio Knife garnered the attention of a handful of passers-by, and within moments, the truck was swarming with hoards of people, clamoring for a free guitar. I couldn’t help but think of the Walking Dead (whatever, I said it) as I watched men and women climb over one another, arms outstretched, as guys handed out guitars from on top of the flatbed. Two dudes almost got into it as they struggled over the same guitar; OK drummer Joe Suer dropped a guy from his perch on Joe’s amp. It was complete and utter chaos, and I couldn’t be more proud that it all came from a handful of Cincinnatians.
All in all, SXSW was another amazing success. Granted, I came down to network and chill out rather than to play shows in hopes that I’ll be picked up by a label or be seen by an important music blog. There will always be arguments on how SXSW is growing larger every year and with it, the dream of “getting discovered” is becoming ever-farther out of reach, and honestly, I think they’re right. In the end, though, SXSW to me isn’t about shaking hands or catching the latest buzz band every waking hour; it’s about stumbling upon good music without expectations and hanging out with friends. Oh, and taking advantage of every food truck you come across.
- Caitlin Behle, follow her on Twitter @cutelin