HITS Daily Double
SXSW is interesting because, for what looks like a big party, for the bands more than anyone, it's deadly serious.


HITS’ Man in Austin Jeff Leven Reports on the Goings-On at Shiner Bock Central, From Irish Music to Heavy Metal
As involved and hectic as SXSW is, sometimes small things make a big impression. Tonight as planned I saw Austin music stalwart James McMurtry at Antone's. After a modest but direct set drawn largely from new material, I meandered up to the side of the stage to say hello, maybe sheepishly remind him of our professional paths crossing 12 odd years ago and thank him again for "Rachel's Song," which remains in my rotation to this day.

As I was waiting I couldn't help but notice the utterly military precision with which James was taking down his gear and packing. Like lightning, he had struck two amplifiers, a brace of guitars, his mike, a pedalboard and DI box, and some other assorted gear. As you watch, you realize that this is a guy who has done this night in, night out for decades and has honed this process with the utmost professionalism.

Zooming back, it's an interesting message about what it takes to hammer out a career in this business. While not all paths are as Spartan as the generally roadie-less confines of the Americana charts, the principle is probably the same—the more polished your machine is, the longer it will last.

SXSW is interesting because, for what looks like a big party, for the bands more than anyone, it's deadly serious. While you see the occasional tipsy lead singer, for the most part the bands are the ones running on timetables, looking after their gear, seeking out hands to shake, and playing the game with drive and relative precision. And, even if it's changing, the game is still, as Conan Doyle would put it, afoot. Even a short lap around the Shoreline at my firm's party today reveals there is still some networking and commerce left to be had at SXSW and while, for many bands, it is hard to stand out from the boisterous pack here, the one or two people you might randomly meet in Austin this week very well could be a pivot point to the next phase of a career.

For me, today's dose of (in this case musical) serendipity was walking by the Irish Music showcase at Friends and hearing the welling keyboard strains of Channel One, who floored me with their rich, textured anthemic rock, which ended up pulling me off the street for the rest of their set. Self-released as of now, this is one to catch up to quickly. They play Soho tomorrow night.

Aside from catching a tight Run Run Run set at Red 7 and the Crash King's fluid and eruptive set at Habana Calle 6, a lot of my musical day was devoted to the dark side. Yup, metal day at SXSW! The inimitable Motorhead packed Stubbs in the afternoon and played a driving set to a crowd that featured more black T-shirts per bearded guy than any other show you'll probably see this year. With Helmet playing up the street and the strains of other heavy bands plowing through the humid air of Red River, it felt like Donnington had taken over Austin for a second, which was, frankly, pretty damn cool.

For all its cliches, metal remains the genre where fan devotion runs the deepest, the sense of community is the most entrenched, and careers generally run the longest. It's hard to count the number of hoodies Lemmy has hawked over the years and the mini-empire that is Motorhead is no small thing to aspire to, regardless of your genre. In Lemmy's own case, his alleged lifestyle also makes him metal's Keith Richards—someone whose longevity is nothing short of a pharmacological miracle, particularly since basic "gevity" itself is an amazing break in context.

Also punishingly brilliant were High on Fire, who, aside from playing Stubb's earlier in the day, closed the Relapse showcase at Emo's Annex with explosive energy and searing walls of distortion. Post-Mastodon, Relapse has been on an amazing roll, releasing not only the mindblowingly good Baroness album, but also Genghis Tron and one of my favorite albums of 2008, the Jasta/Windstein joint Kingdom of Sorrow.

Beyond the metal, I also caught hyper-witty British think-hoppers Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip (whose "Thou Shalt Always Kill" makes a great backhanded anthem for SXSW—look for "just a band" stickers on most other band's posters tomorrow), DJ/producer extraordinaire Diplo, swaggering guitar heroes Parlor Mob and the trippy, enthralling Howlin' Rain. Late night, former-A&R-guru-now-fashion-maven Ken Blaustein steered me to the Playboy party (with Tim Carhart doing a truly skilled wristband hand-back trick for me at the door), where Moby was spinning in front of wild disco lights to a crowd of twirling people, some with bunny ears.

So clearly it's not ALL work around here... Day two: art, commerce, bunnies and Lemmy. Not bad at all.

SXSW is interesting because, for what looks like a big party, for the bands more than anyone, it's deadly serious.