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sxsw 2003

The day begins less than promisingly. A certain editorial type person, who shall remain nameless, drags his ass out of bed and runs over to the Austin Convention Center, desperate to actually attend some portion of the daytime SXSW activities. He promptly falls asleep during Daniel Lanois's keynote address.

Things take a turn for the worse when that same editorial person temporarily loses his SXSW badge -- as in "this badge will cost you $500+ to replace -- during a side-trip to Waterloo Records. It's a long story involving inconsiderate people who can't park their cars properly, but thanks to a nameless good samaritan, the badge is recovered after only an hour or so of stress. If you happen to be that good samaritan, thank you very much.

Numerous crises thus averted, we rejoin our party at Emo's for the rather impressive Devil in the Woods party. Tegan and Sara are playing in the main room. On the Emo's Jr. side, we're lucky enough to catch Brighton's (that's in England, kids) much talked-about British Sea Power, who dress in quasi-military uniforms and festoon the stage in bits of greenery. Their performance is loud and energetic -- lots of jumping, lots of climbing, and a smidgen of getting-on-each-other's shoulders, all of which is at odds with their generally downbeat music. Oh, and the Joy Division comparisons aren't completely off-base, though Joy Division may never have been this animated. Their vocalist has a John Lydonesque quality, too, as a few of our pictures can confirm.

The final song, a meltdown of Chernobylesque proportions, entailed the lead guitarist climbing a ten-foot amp to nonchalantly eat an apple, the extra drummer taking up a post in the audience, the lead singer and bassist (who must be brothers) doing an jerky aerobic routine, then crashing and flipping into the mikes, all without breaking a certain deadpan character, that seemed to take the proceedings with absolute seriousness.

For the rest of the afternoon we wandered between Emo's two rooms. We saw KaitO turn in an impressive set at Emo's Jr. -- if you haven't seen them (and you must have seen them), imagine an angrier, punkier version of early Bis with better singing and no techno trappings. Guitarist/vocalist Nikki Colk is suitably strident, but doesn't substitute attitude for talent; she and her bandmates (Dave Lake on guitar, Gemma Cullingford on bass, Dieta Quantrill on drums) quickly found themselves playing to a packed (and increasingly humid) house.

Out in the main room, Calexico delivered an extended set of hazy, Southwestern-flavored rock -- including horns and pedal steel -- that left no doubt as to why everyone seems to want to work with Messrs. Burns and Convertino these days. We're guessing that their set included a healthy number of tunes from the newly-released Feast of Wire, but to be honest, our perceptions were dulled by alcohol, and we were by an episode involving a publicist and an agent, which we can't really discuss, as one of them implored us, "Don't say anything about the humping!" Anyway, Calexico definitely deserves props for closing the show with the absolute best cover of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" we've heard in years -- an eight-odd minute full-on orchestral blowout that was the best version we'd heard of this virtually cover-proof tune since the Swans took a stab at it back in the eighties.

The beginning of the evening's performances found us at the loathsome Buffalo Billiards, site of The Swords Project's set. The Portland-based sextet, newly signed to Arena Rock Records (their new album drops in May), had an absolute shitload of gear on stage -- two drumkits, several racks of keyboards, an accordion, a violin and all the usual rock trappings -- and they used it well, spinning sprawling soundscapes like a more efficient Godspeed You Black Emperor. Vocalist/bassist Corey Ficken offered the only rough spot -- singing-wise, he sounds a bit strained and emo-ish. Frankly, the band's music doesn't need lyrics; they may sound good on record, but live they're at odds with the rest of the material.

Next up in the Arena Rock showcase: The Scheme, who feature former Drowningman vocalist Simon Brody, and therefore ought to be good, but turn out to just be emo. After a few songs, disappointed by mic-stand-clutching and general blandness, we split up to seek entertainment elsewhere.

Several of us make a quick stop at BD Riley's to see Torrez, whose mellow rock is ill-suited to the venue's awkward stage -- it's actually more of a raised window area surrounded by a high railing. The audience is small but appreciative, apart from the dickhead who's sitting right in front of the band and reading the SXSW guide as if they don't exist. (Note to readers: don't fucking do this. It's rude.) We shoot a couple of pictures. This seems to startle the band, and they end their set.

Next, George and Andrew pay their annual visit to Supagroup. As always, they're playing at Red-Eyed Fly, and as always, the venue is packed with an appreciative audience. Supagroup's cheesy hair-band moves may be clichéd, but the band has figured out something that a lot of SXSW "buzz bands" haven't: if you want to build an audience, give them something to watch. Make your shows entertaining. We don't want every goddamn indie rock band to work up a batch of choreographed poses and routines, but it never hurts to work up a bit of shtick. That's why Supagroup never disappoints. Of course, it's also why only, say, one in twenty members of the Supagroup audience are present in an "ironic" capacity, but such is life.

After some deliberation, we head to Club Deville for Fields of Gaffney, who feature Eric "I Was a Founding Member of Sebadoh" Gaffney on guitar (and a small army of pedals), Jessica from the Run for Cover Lovers (she uses a different name there, of course) on bass, and that guy Richard from Alice Donut on drums. They're jangly and melodic, but in a pleasingly noisy way, with a dissonant edge that comes through better on record. They're remarkably patient, given that they're competing against a lot of irritatingly loud noise from other nearby venues, and it pays off -- the performance, though light on detail, inspires much CD purchasing among the Splendid staff. It doesn't hurt that Jessica is really hot, or that the trio whips out a Devo cover -- which will prove to be a trend.

Back to Emo's, finally, for The Dirtbombs and The Go. The Dirtbombs' performance is a frenzied thing, although we're camped out on Emo's bleachers and can't see much; Pretty Girls Make Graves and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists play to capacity crowds over at Emo's Jr.

The Dirtbombs were pretty high on our list -- Jim Diamond, Mick Collins, really cool soul and R&B covers, ass-kicking live show, what's not to live -- but for some reason, we all ended up sitting up on the bleachers, well away from the action, for the whole show. So, when we say that the show was very good, when we mention that the principals did all kinds of cool things like climb up the poles and swing from the ceiling and play guitars behind their backs and start fights with one another on stage, it is with some shame that we admit that we could not motivate to get our asses off the bleachers and go down toward the stage. The Go's performance is significantly quieter and more classically oriented, vocalist Bobby Harlow's oddly omnisexual dance moves notwithstanding. They close their set with another Devo cover -- a lively trip through "Be Stiff". With this, Thursday's performances come to a close.

We'll update this report later on Friday with additional details and reports on a few other shows our staffers attended...or tried to attend.

· · · · · · ·

Splendid's SXSW coverage by George Zahora, Andrew Magilow, Jason Jackowiak and Jennifer Kelly.

[ graphics credits :: photos - george zahora :: credits graphics ]

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