River City ~ Dispatches from Austin

Sunday, March 20, 2005

South by Southwednesday

This is the second in a series of articles written for PROGRESSIONSESSION (http://prosession.blogspot.com ) chronicling the writer's experiences at the 2005 South by Southwest music festival.

I think they should open South By Southwest in a fashion similar to the Olympics. Have the bands parade down 6th Street with a flag or a banner, with crowds gathered to cheer and wave. But to make it exciting, at the end of the street there will be someone with a bullhorn, screaming: “Now go find a venue! Go find a venue!!” The musicians will scramble, equipment in tow, around downtown Austin in a frantic effort to find an open stage. Brawling would ensue.

It could be a FOX special: “A thousand bands. One hundred clubs. Twenty four hours.”

It was unseasonably cold last night, in fact the temperature dropped close to freezing. But judging from how far away I had to park, the chilly weather didn’t deter anyone. I camped out at a place called the Velvet Spade, which I remember as Caucus Club (but it has gone through many other identity changes in between). Tonight, I indulged a serious indie-mood-rock jones. Dour, hip-looking bands playing serious music. But for the most part, I heard some great sounds. I consider my first night of SXSW a rousing success.

The club had two stages, which I’ve decided is the only way to go – pay one cover, choose between two bands at any given time. The sound was great inside, and I arrived just in time to hear Aero Wave, whose SXSW write up promises “beats that are sure to satisfy every manic depressive's musical needs.” But the mellow, pulsing sound proved contagious from the start, building into a hum of energy that they never quite opened the lid on. And it was all the better, Aero Wave’s music is based more in anticipation than any kind of pressure-relieving explosion. I was entranced by the music and quite taken with singer, with her denim jacket, jet black hair and bizarre habit of chewing gum throughout the entire set. The gum didn’t seem to affect her singing at all. She had soft voice that floated in and out of the music perfectly.

And after the show, she gave me a cd. Score… Aero Wave was listed as being from New York, but their drummer explained that really only Leslie was from NYC, and most of them were from Austin. I decided not to pry for details. Another show was getting started.

Dead Whale Tide cranked the intensity up a notch, with a full sound and searing guitars that reminded me of Built to Spill and similar bands. The trouble lay in the howling vocals that didn’t always seem to match where the music was headed. I still enjoyed their show – the band was tight, and the crowd loved it. They had good stage presence and threw in a lot of breaks and tempo changes to keep the songs interesting. In the end, though, I took a break and went to check out the patio.

Palaxy Tracks, from Chicago, actually won my heart through the single provided on the web site. You can listen to “Speech with Animals” here: http://2005.sxsw.com/music/showcases/band/18238.html
The man and wife tale of the song is typical of their poignant storytelling - even if it might be a bit odd at times. In one tune, the singer croons “I want you to find me a daughter.. I’m sure that I’ll learn to love her,” adding – and I can’t remember the exact line - that “30 to one, I’m not at all normal.” But often the songs are delivered in a subtle, somewhat detached third-person sense, and delivered by a lovely voice without any hint of pretension or self-indulgence. I’m not sure if Palaxy Tracks would be engaging for a full-length show, the low-key melodies start to numb the listener after awhile.. but for a SXSW showcase, they filled their space well.

I was planning to head out, but everyone I ran into insisted I stay for the Octopus Project. I’m really wanting to write something about tentacles here.. but I’ll skip it. There’s no time to put ink to those thoughts! The Austin-based experimental-instrumental trio had a hypnotic sound driven by keyboards and guitar. The songs were fully-formed with engaging, atmospheric melodies. Up on the patio, they sounded excellent. Unfortunately, when I went downstairs for a minute, I broke free of their magnetic field, realized how tired I was, and that was that. It was off to the car at that point.

I’ll skip my review of the band that I walked into that was wailing away, with crazy shirtless guy (but dog tags.. you bet he had dog tags..) trying to spur on the crowd. It wasn’t really catching. And the crowd itself, inside and outside the bar, that was so nice and polite it was scary. I was only bumped into once, which was followed by a prompt, “pardon me.” What is rock in roll coming to?

All in all, a fulfilling night, and at a reasonable cover charge.. no wristband required. Take that, South by Southwest fat cats! Booya!

No promises that I’ll come back with anything coherent from tonight – it’s St. Patty’s Day, after all. Have fun wherever you are.

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