SXSW From a First-Timer's Perspective: R.E.M., Undertow, Dead Confederate, Thurston Moore, J Mascis, more

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(All photos and video by Annie Zaleski; click on photos for larger versions. Text by Shae Moseley)

As a first-timer this year at SXSW, I attempted to check my own preconceptions and the critiques of hardened festival veterans at the airport and just try to take in all that the four days could offer (sans important person all-access badge or the somewhat-less-expensive-but-probably-still-not-worth-it wristband).

Upon taking my first step through the airport sliding doors into the intoxicating spring air, I immediately realized that I could probably be perfectly content to spend the following four days sitting outside the terminal counting blades of cool green grass while listening to smooth jazz versions of Barry Manilow songs. It’s hard to imagine having a bad time when greeted with eighty degree, sunny weather after the schizo-winter we’ve experienced this year in St. Louis.

But, alas there were bands to be seen. So. Many. Bands. I mean, I was seriously pretty conservative and planned to save energy, trying not to over-extend myself too much on any one day -- and I still managed to see nearly 50 bands over the course of the festival. This didn’t mean I caught one or two songs by 50 bands: I’m talking that I ordered a Lone Star tallboy, a Shiner Bock, or whatever was free (usually Southern Comfort, a liquor that I’m pretty sure no one has ever paid money for), found a good sightline and absorbed the entire set of at least 50 bands.

Rolling to SXSW without any credentials for gaining admittance to the official nighttime showcases had me a bit concerned going in. But the free day parties gave me the chance to see nearly every band I was excited about -- and a few lucky breaks, connections and several unsanctioned free night-time events never left me outside in the evening crying to the curb. I mean, I’m sure that I missed out on some really great shows at night; however, most of the lines I saw outside of those clubs led me to believe that most would have turned out be one of those “at least I can say I was there” situations more than being something I would have actually enjoyed.

Here’s a rundown of some highlights from each of my four days mooching free concerts in beautiful Austin, Texas:

Wednesday: My first day in Austin ended up being the biggest surprise of the four days. Thanks to what amounted to a miracle, I was able to gain access to the VIP area at Stubb’s for the big first night kick-off show featuring R.E.M. The Athens, Georgia, college-rock godfathers tore through a set favoring up-tempo numbers from its new album Accelerate but also handled back-catalog selections like “Fall On Me” and “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” with precision. Michael Stipe’s voice was in great shape, and he immediately connected with the shoulder-to-shoulder sea of fans, hipsters and industry types as he would occasionally stand on the vocal monitors near the edge of the stage and launch a confetti of set lists into the crowd. (First two pictures of Stipe.)

Also definitely worth noting is Dead Confederate, a bit more of a novice Athens band that had no trouble warming up the crowd immediately before R.E.M.’s headlining set. I can’t recommend these guys’ live show enough; it was the perfect combination of mystery and familiarity. Bringing more genuine energy than any other band I saw the entire weekend, they sold me on a brand of heavy, bombastic loud/quiet rock that I had resigned myself to thinking I would never be interested in buying again. If you’re a fan of Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Failure and Nirvana, you’ll like Dead Confederate.

Thursday: Rain threatened but never came on day two as the skies cleared in the afternoon and the temperature found its way into the upper ‘80s. We took a cab away from the downtown madness to an authentic Mexican restaurant and music venue called Jovita’s for the KDHX/Billiken Club Day Party. It’s always exciting to see people from your hometown when you’re traveling, as it always feels like you’re a group of bandits who split up after a big score and planned a rendezvous south of the border. So Many Dynamos vocalist Aaron Stovall:

Locals Gentleman Auction House and So Many Dynamos proved that they belonged among the showcasing talent in Austin. Both brought tight, high-energy sets to the sun-drenched outdoor patio that had the crowds chattering and trying to wrap their heads around the idea that these awesome bands could actually come from St. Louis. (Picture of GAH vocalist Eric Enger below.)

Thursday night found me back downtown for the Undertow Music showcase at the lovely Habana Calle Patio, a venue situated a little below street level, across a bridge with a stage embedded in a formation of giant boulders. The solitary and romantic setting was a perfect backdrop for Caleb Engstrom’s set of gently emotive acoustic indie-folk. Joined by the once semi-local and now Chicago group Berry as a backing band, Engstrom held the small crowd at attention with tender vocals chants and solemn acoustic strums.

Later in the evening the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, sextet Glossary laid down a very solid set of soulful Americana. With a rotating cast of lead vocalists it almost felt like a Nashville songwriting circle that decided to become a band but with more honky-tonk barroom grit.

The last band I caught at Undertow was Austin’s Monahans. The only tag I can use to describe this mysterious trio is goth-twang. Singer Greg Vanderpool’s deep, throaty vocal style painted cinematic, noir-like pictures that called to mind lonely desert landscapes; simple, trancelike arrangements and the occasional pop hook kept me enthralled.

Friday: The temperature rocketed into the ‘90s on Friday and the sun’s rays felt intense on my pasty Midwest skin. The afternoon was spent at La Zona Rosa for the Village Voice Media day party. (The food was great at this place and the drinks were free so I can’t complain in that department either.) I missed the first two bands (Health and the Cribs), which was disappointing because the other bands on the bill I had either already seen (…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Soundtrack of Our Lives) or I didn’t have much interest in (The Black Keys). Overall though, it was a fun party and the air-conditioning provided a nice sanctuary from the heat for a few hours (and probably saved me from a sunburn).

The Soundtrack of Our Lives were about how I remembered them, a high-energy blend of ‘60s psychedelic blues and power-pop hookiness. But I was unsure why the band made the trip to Austin, considering it doesn’t seem to be doing anything new and has no new record to promote. …Trail of Dead were loud, bombastic and muscular (as usual), but would have done better to stick with its more raucous material, like the set’s opener from 2002’s Source Tags and Codes. The band tends to get stuck in the epic, overdramatic piano ballad realm all-too-often these days and loses its audience’s attention as a result.

After a pedi-cab ride back down to the Sixth Street action I stopped off at Emo’s and stood in line for a bit to have my face melted off by A Place to Bury Strangers. (Video here.) I missed the band’s set here in St. Louis at the Bluebird last Monday because I was sick, but I’m glad I made it a point to work them into my SXSW itinerary. The combination of thick smoke machine fogginess, strobe lights and mysterious back-wall video projections perfectly set the mood for the band’s goth-industrial shoegaze onslaught of enveloping noise bursts.

Later in the evening I was lucky enough to get on the guest list for the official Smallstone Records showcase at 710 Red River which featured local riff-rock preservationists and face-melters in their own right, Shame Club. The band seemed to be even louder than I’ve ever seen them in St. Louis; you could tell they were there to turn some heads and make an impression. But the set didn’t seem forced or contrived, as the band ripped through several numbers from its new full-length Come On making a pretty damn convincing case that the guitar solo is in fact not dead. (See our other coverage, with video, here.)

Saturday: It’s always bittersweet to face the final day of an excursion from the toil of everyday life, but I started my Saturday with plenty of energy to spare, determined to make the most of my last day of shows. The weather was the best of the week with sunny skies and a high in the mid-‘80s, and I ended up in a perfect place to spend the afternoon: a garden party at the French Legation Museum thrown by Press Here Publicity. This historic setting was east of I-35, a bit removed from the intensity of the downtown clubs.

Sons and Daughters @ French Legation:

After securing a couple of one dollar PBRs, I was just in time to catch the beginning of Sons and Daughters’ ambitious set of rockabilly-infused, crunchy Britpop highlighted by Adele Bethel’s skill as a front-woman, as she succeeded in bringing the crowd’s energy level up despite the laid-back surroundings.

After Sons and Daughters I was lucky enough to have a great spot near the stage for an acoustic set by grunge innovator J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. (See pic above.) The silver-haired guitar legend, known for sheer decibel level and ear-piercing, fuzzed-out guitar solos, showed that he could hold his own with just an acoustic guitar a loop pedal and his instantly recognizable warbly croon.

Following Mascis, another seminal figure in alternative rock -- Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (pictured above) -- took the stage performing an enthralling set of solo material with his band the New Wave Bandits. With drummer Steve Shelley behind the kit it felt like a pseudo-Sonic Youth set, but with a more stripped-down feel. Two acoustic guitars, a violin and bass filled out the instrumentation and showed that Moore’s musical style doesn’t rely on volume or ethereal guitar effects but stands on its own by continually redefining “melody” and challenging the accepted standards of pop song arrangements.

Although the event could have used more drink vendors and more bathrooms -- and some people were very rude about crowding into the tent and blocking people’s views later in the afternoon -- overall it was a great place to spend the majority of my final full day in Austin.

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