SXSW Day 1: Hotels, B-Cycle, John Moreland, Deerpeople, Boyfrndz, Sour Notes, Those Howlings…

These things can be rather lengthy and filled with colorful blather about the festival, its surroundings and the odd people who attend them. If you don’t care about the subtle nuances and difficulties of South by Southwest, like its lack of sanitation facilities, skip to the BOLD TEXT band names and performance descriptions below. Also, if you want see what these bands look like, go to my blog, lazy-i.com, where I post photos taken at performances and other embarrassing moments.

Also, you may want to first read my pre-SXSW column, which is located here. Now, proceed.

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The South By Southwest Festival is hugely popular. So much so that most hotels within walking distance of the festival’s primary playground — 6th Street — are booked more than a year in advance. The few hotels rooms still available a few months prior to the fest are priced at around $300 per day if you can find them, and can go for as much as $600 for convenient, clean, modern rooms.

Most kids and true indie bands who make the pilgrimage don’t have that kind of money to throw away and end up staying in hotels miles north where they’re forced to take expensive, elephantine shuttles band and forth to 6th St. Or they simply find an Austin friend and sleep on his floor, hoping they don’t accidentally witness (or get caught up in) a drug deal gone wrong or some other felony in progress. It’s all part of the fun, when you’re young and stupid.

I’m not young anymore, and the jury’s still out on the stupid part. Through a series of circumstances that I won’t go into here, I found a hotel on the other side of the Colorado River that cuts Austin in two, about a mile from where the action is. It’s close to the grand hotel where I’ve stayed in years past, but this one is anything but grand.

Oh the room isn’t horrible, it even has a nice kitchenette with a refrigerator and microwave. Unfortunately, I can tell it used to be a “smoking room.” To mask the odor of its former occupants, the maids have sprayed the room with some sort of bitter solvent. I spent the first day with the unscreened window open trying to air it out, hoping that none of the local spiders found their way inside. I could gripe, but the room only runs about $80 a night and is walking distance to 6th St., so I won't have to deal with SXSW’s horrible hotel shuttle service or insane taxi prices.

The perennial problem is that after a full day of standing in various clubs (because there’s nowhere to sit at SXSW), walking a mile or so back to the hotel at 2 a.m. is torture. I made that walk back and forth during the Interactive portion of SXSW earlier this week, which wasn’t bad because I got to sit down all day. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when the Music part started, and then I discovered the answer: B-Cycle.

We have B-Cycle in Omaha, too. The concept: Rent bikes for commuting. For $8 a day, you can ride bikes to and from B-Cycle bike racks located throughout the city. You never get charged more than the one-time $8-a-day fee if you can get your rental from one rack to the next in less than 30 minutes. If you go over 30 minutes, you’re charged an addition $4 per half hour, but you’d have to be really drunk not to get back to your hotel in that amount of time.

If there’s a drawback to B-Cycles it’s that they look ridiculous, like half-thought out modern-day versions of vintage bikes that resemble whatever the Wicked Witch was riding in Dorothy’s tornado dream, just awkward enough to embarrass people from using them. But if you can get past the geek factor, the bikes aren’t half bad, and the silly looking baskets mounted to the front and sides are convenient for transporting beer back to your hotel.

Needless to say, they don’t come with helmets, and few people think of packing such as thing. “Hmm…. maybe I should bring a helmet, just in case?” Add to that danger the neck-breaking traffic that clogs Austin streets and you could be taking your life in your hands. Thankfully, a lot of downtown streets are blocked during SXSW, and people don’t seem to mind sharing the wide sidewalks with feckless tourists on rental bikes.

No doubt B-Cycle will save my feet this year, but nothing is going to save my back. After one night, I’m already starting to feel it. I didn’t get over the river until 8 p.m. last night, which limited my band-watching escapades, but I did manage to see and hear five bands before giving up at midnight.

The Buffalo Lounge is a typical split-level club located off 6th Street, with bands playing both downstairs and in the rooftop lounge. People bitch about lines at SXSW — and I’m sure I’ll do my share — but for small indie bands, there rarely are lines, and there wasn’t for this gig.

Once inside I made my way up to the roof for an acoustic set by JOHN MORELAND, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, modern folk artist who I’d never heard of. He counts among his claims to fame the fact that one of his songs, “Heaven,” was used in the TV series Sons of Anarchy — a show I’ve never seen, and neither, Moreland said from stage, had he. But apparently a number of fans in the crowd have, as they erupted when he started playing it.

Moreland’s style is typical Americana folk with dollops of grim, lonesome lyrics sung in a gruff, sad voice, a voice that sounds like a cross between tired Springsteen and a broken blues guy. It is impossible not to notice that he is a mountain of a man, simply huge sitting in his chair on stage, his guitar resting on his enormous belly. You have to think that it’s this enormity that fuels not only has bittersweet voice but the bittersweet tales he sings.

He was followed by the band that drew me to the Buffalo Lounge that evening, DEERPEOPLE, a 6-piece band from Stillwater (all the bands at the showcase were from Oklahoma) who I discovered via Lincoln’s Jeremy Buckley, who hosted them at a number of Lincoln Calling Festivals (In fact, Jeremy was at the show last night and even got a shout out from stage).

With a flute player, two keyboards and a sometimes violin, I guess you could classify them as “chamber pop” except that their music is too upbeat, too progressive for that moniker. It sounds like less quirky, more straight-forward Vampire Weekend, but with better melodies and rhythms. Frontman Brennan Barnes has a rich, flawless voice a la Ben Folds behind the keyboard, though he spent time singing from within the crowd and standing near the rooftop railing serenading folks on the street below. 

Flute player vocalist Kendall Looney, in her cute wool cardigan sweater, looked like she was all of 13 years old belting out harmonies and jazz flute fills that would make Ron Burgundy proud. Their music is gorgeous and rich and I’m surprised that they haven’t been discovered by a record label…yet.

Afterward, I leaned through the crowded streets to Haven, where I hoped to see BANKS, but the line to get in ran down the street and I could tell I’d never make it (let the bitching commence). Instead, I walked over to the madness of 6th Street, which was in full bloom. I’ll describe it later this week, but needless to say, the scene was a stew of sights, sounds and smells the quality of which you’ll never see in Nebraska.

I walked into a club called 512, which I recognized immediately as the same club where I’d seen Little Brazil play at a few years back when the bar had a “surf theme” with a name like Hang 10 or Surf’s Up. Some Austin bars change hands and change names year after year, and this was one of them. The palm trees were gone, but the stage was the same. On it was BOYFRNDZ, an Austin-based noise rock 4-piece on Brutal Panda Records whose last album was produced by Mars Volta organist Ikey Owens. His influence could be heard in the droning, heavy prog. The thick, layered, lumbering rock was cut into by the mustachioed frontman Scott Martin’s shrill high-end voice, like a teenaged Robert Plant singing on a Sparta track. Very heavy, very loud, but not very dynamic. The crowd ebbed and flowed.

The last two bands of my evening played at another renamed club called Cheer Up Charlie’s. Located right next to Austin landmark Mohawk. The fenced-in compound featured both an outdoor and indoor stage.

Outside playing next to a wall carved out of shale was Austin-based pop band THE SOUR NOTES. The four-piece has three female members and frontman Jared Paul Boulanger playing music that sort of reminded me of ‘90s pop bands Oasis or  Paul Weller. Upbeat, well-played, not terribly memorable.

Unlike the band that played inside Cheer Up Charlie’s: THOSE HOWLINGS. The Austin garage trio on Swear Jar Records would be right at home at O’Leaver’s playing their version of electrified vintage rock that combines surf with pre-psyche ‘60s pop. They had a gaggle of hipsters pushed up against the tiny, rustic stage doing The Frug.

That was it for night one: Deerpeople and Those Howlings were at the top of the list, John Moreland was good if not the most original thing I heard, while Boyfrndz and Sour Notes were simply okay.

With that, I left the din of 6th Street behind and hopped on my B-cycle and rode back home on Ladybird Lake trail in the dark.

See all the photos from Day 1 here.

Now onto SXSW 2014, Day 2

posted at 04:48 pm
on Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

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