Chaos in Rhythm
Sing-alongs and smelly shirts at SXSW
By Chase Hoffberger,
12:55PM, Thu. Mar. 26, 2009
On Saturday, my roommate told everybody about his second interaction with the Love Language’s Stuart McLamb. As the story goes, Keith saw the lanky singer/guitarist wearing the same once-white V-neck t-shirt for the second day in a row, walked up to him, and asked, “Did you only bring one shirt on tour?” In the same spirit as the lazy strum the North Carolina youngster brings to his acoustic, McLamb turned and replied, “Hey, man. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” An hour after their afternoon set at Peckerheads, I watched McLamb and his band shaking tambourines and banging snare drums in the crowd while King Khan & the Shrines set fire to the stage.
Unlike Austin City Limits, which turns the city into one unified front celebrating a specific culture of recreation and entertainment, South by Southwest is a week largely undefined. Ask any hip-hopper who they saw in Zilker Park last September and they’ll list a similar lineup: Del the Funky Homosapien, NERD, Erykah Badu, Bavu Blakes, Gnarls Barkley. Probably tried to get into the Cool Kids show at Mohawk late Friday night.
That’s a cakewalk after this weekend. Thursday alone, Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek slung Rawkus magic at the Scoot Inn with his Blacksmith Entertainment squad; Big Boi and K’Naan lit up Austin Music Hall; some of the best new alternative Left Coast material was on display at Back Alley Social and Karma Lounge in Pacific Division and U-N-I; and the always on-point Rhymesayers crew was chilling at Habana Bar Backyard. Getting a good look at all the deserving acts wasn’t just wishful thinking; it was downright impossible.
So you plan ahead and do your research. You figure out who’s playing alternate parties and showcases. Okay, Brother Ali’s doing the NahRight.com party; U-N-I’s at Back Alley on Wednesday. You hope that your pick pays off and you don’t miss Kweli and Tek running through Reflection Eternal front to back.
If they do, you just look forward. Missing shows at South by Southwest is like spilling milk. The next group’s about to plug in and try their hand at changing the world, at turning every A&R executive and converted fan away from their dollar Lone Star so they can look to the guy or gal to their right and say, “Hey, what’s their story?”
As someone whose schedule was relatively set in advance because of coverage obligations and personal appointments to see choice cuts (Eol Trio, King Khan & the Shrines, Abstract Rude), my weekend wasn’t filled with the completely unknown discoveries the festival’s more free-roaming got to enjoy. I found salvation in the execution. Bands only get 40 minutes and change, sometimes just 30, and there are plenty other places for crowds to gather. One flubbed song and ten potential fans are out the door. One bad step and you’re stuck waiting for next year.
It’s with that sentiment that I found Dawes’ Friday set at Habana Bar Backyard to be so encouraging. The Los Angeles quartet found themselves in the Delta Spirit camp last year, playing a brand of rock music that’s all whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts. As is apparent on February’s North Hills, harmonies are more important than guitar solos, and the talent lies in the songwriting.
Bands like Dawes have a tendency to be great in the studio but boring on stage. It takes a certain kind of energy to be believable, an understated charisma to turn the crowd into followers. Their set soared behind the songs of North Hills, notably “That Western Skyline,” “My Girl to Me,” and “When My Time Comes.” It was excellent.
Still, when singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith called for a repeating one-line sing-along on their closing number, I was a little nervous. Choreographed sing-alongs only happen with Springsteen and “Shout!” They’re meant for time-tested anthems, not one-line originals from bands pushing just a single album. It worked. I can’t remember exactly what we sang, but I know I wasn’t the only person belting out a line that, in repetition, was teetering close to corny.
Dawes made it work because they had to, because SXSW – whether it’s actually the place where bands truly and immediately break out or not – is where you come to play your ass off. It’s where you come because, for four days, there are no day jobs. Bands during SXSW are rock stars no matter how they live in Sydney, in Shreveport, in Saskatoon. Odds are they really like the feeling, and they know that nailing a set in Austin in March is a necessary notch in almost every successful band’s belt.
So kudos to Dawes, but the same goes for Mickey Factz and a handful of others: U-N-I; the Love Language; King Khan & the Shrines; Blue Scholars; Eol Trio; Eyedea and Abilities; Girl in a Coma; Blu; B.o.B. and the Eastsiders; Janelle Monae; Curtis Santiago; and Cut Off Your Hands. Y’all were a thrill to get a first look at this weekend. Keep doing what you’re doing.