Big names and rising stars sighted at 2008 SXSW Music Festival

report and photos by Thom White

Since the City Council made it an official ordinance almost two decades ago, Austin, Texas, has been known as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” And for a few days each March, during the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, the city rightly earns the title. This review concentrates on some of the music witnessed this year – the best and the brightest, the “livest” and the loudest.

During South by Southwest, industry types from all over the country (but mainly California) visit Austin to partake in “official” South By Southwest sponsored events – panel discussions, film screenings, and above all, exclusive live music showcases. In fact, “South By” has gotten so big that it now lasts a whole week. The music industry showcases on Friday and Saturday are only one component of the whole affair, as the SXSW Interactive Media and Film festivals both begin early in the week. To attend any of these events, you must either have a wristband for that day’s show, or an all-access photo ID “badge” (Current cost for a badge: $650.00).

However, along with all the “officially-sanctioned” SXSW events that require high-priced wristbands and badges, come a slew of other free shows at bars and venues, many featuring groups that are also appearing in an official showcase later in the week.

Vice Magazine and Scion (cool youth America’s automobile of choice, according to the Scion mobile marketing campaign) put on a free outdoor show at Stubb’s B.B.Q. on March 13, featuring Norwegian rockers Enslaved, the thrash band Napalm Death, and as the headliner (the band EVERYONE was there to see), metal-punk legends Motörhead. Lemmy and his crew started at 3 pm sharp, and as they began to play, there was still a long winding line around the venue filled with people waiting to get into this free event. Supposedly, you had to RSVP online (sign up for e-mail spam) to witness the spectacle, but Stubbs security was just checking IDs and letting everyone in, ten or fifteen at a time.

Motörhead is still on top of their game—live, it’s just like on record. They obviously don’t need any fancy studio effects, just six sets of double-stacked Marshall cabinets is all it takes to handle the brutal simplicity of Motörhead’s blues-rock riffage. Plus, the guys in Motörhead are true gentlemen, playing everyone’s favorites and closing with “Overkill,” the song that never ends, yet still leaves you wanting more. They thanked the crowd for the delightful reception and hinted they might return to Austin in just a few months.

After Motörhead finished playing, I went strolling about Stubbs B.B.Q., and while I was trying to find my way into the restaurant part of the venue, I somehow stumbled into the indoor VIP section, and was able to grab a little brisket along with some tasty glasses of top-shelf cranberry and orange juice. After this unexpected refreshment, I exited the club and waited a few minutes near the band limo with some true blue “Motör-heads” who sought handshakes and signatures from the band. I hoped to take a moment of Lemmy’s time to show him Austin’s newest music and news magazine and to set up an exclusive CITIZINE interview, but it wasn’t meant to be. There was no way to know how long it would take for Lemmy & Crew to emerge, and Helmet was playing a free show down the street in just 30 minutes, and I did not want to be stuck in line getting into the venue.

Helmet was famous in the mid-‘90s as one of the first bands signed by a major label (Interscope) for big money on account of the Nirvana popularity explosion of 1991-92. Helmet’s sound is defined by extremely distorted drop-D tuned metal power chords intertwined with guitar silence and a steady high hat / snare / bass drum plodding. At Red 7, Helmet performed a set (all too brief) that started off with songs from their newest record (I assume, since I didn’t recognize them) and finished with fist shaking classics like “Unsung” and “Milquetoast.” This was a six-song set for free, and I would gladly pay a few dollars more to witness the full catalog of Helmet tuneage.

While many bands that come to Austin to play in officially-sanctioned SXSW events are promoted by a record label or management company, hordes of unsigned bands from all over descend on the city as well, even if they don’t have a gig lined up at an official SXSW showcase. They pick up spots at “non-South By” shows down the street from official events in hopes that a record exec from NYC or SoCal, some powerful industry “badge holder,” might happen by, see them, and take them under their wing. I was able to see several notable up-and-coming acts at free “pre-,” “non-,” “anti-” and “peacefully coexisting with” SXSW events.

One band that blew me way with their infusion of new energy into the well-worn cocky “cock rock” tradition was Iceage Cobra. When the Cobra starts playing, you gotta move – you gotta set the floor on fire! When you have the Cobra up there, everyone approaches the stage, gets close and gets ready for the three frontmen to let (all hell) loose. Guitarist Jordan “Young Angus” West distinguished himself with his climbing and hanging skills during one extended jam out. While the guitar and bass craziness ensues, the drummer packs a punch with bags full of heavy beats that keep the full-tilt Cobra action continuous. These guys are based in Seattle, Wash., but recently, they’ve been living la vida loca on extended vacation in their spacious white cargo van, dazzling crowds and charming the womenfolk from Olympia to Oklahoma.

The Ghost Lullaby offers another take on heavy rock with an understated elegance. The songs often start with simple Sonic Youthy octave melodies while the bassman plays one note for a long time, and then they build it up with chromatic barrages of heavy metal. Drowned out by the flood of sound from their guitars and drums, The Ghost Lullaby appears to consider vocals to be of secondary importance. When the band is really rocking out, both the guitarists go to the highest reaches of the fret board to exercise their fancy anti-solos. This band is not encumbered by stifling rules of musical theory in designing their riffs and guitar melodies, although their drummer is clearly a seasoned technician behind the kit, containing the unfiltered energy to guide the Ghost Lullaby’s dreamy buildups and rock heavy payoffs.

Austin’s own Velvet Brick played several shows during South By, and with their sound, you always get a weighty sonic blow to the head. I was able to catch them at Spill on 6th Street, and as always, the band showed off their hard rock chops and “smokin’ hot” lead singer Deanna exhibited very long legs along with a powerful wail that definitely kept up with the big boys. I feel like she must be the “velvet” and the band is the rock solid “brick.” I also detect a certain late-‘80s L.A. metal vibe when I hear Velvet Brick unleash their rock fury.

Elsewhere, at the Emo’s Lounge, (The) Von Bondies got the crowd pumped up with their pounding beats and multi-guitar barrage. This lead guitarist sings loud even though he’s got hair totally covering his mouth. I’m not talking about any classy Tom Selleck style above-mouth furriness — it’s just during their performance, his whole face was “invisible” beneath a sort of natural mask of long straight hair. Stage right the Von Bondies feature a beautiful Swedish keyboardist who’s always playing some sort of inaudible piano or inaudible third electric guitar. And what’s she’s playing may actually be blowing our ears off, but with the shear volume and aggressive energy of the rest of the band, her contributions get lost in the shuffle. To conclude their show, (The) Von Bondies’s drummer sang lead on a cover song written by another successful drummer-turned-singer, Phil Collins. I didn’t recognize it, but I suppose it’s from one of Phil’s first solo records during his punk ’77 days.

So when it comes to taking in excellent live music during “South By,” remember this old adage a Mexican bandito once told me: “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ $650 badges!”

[Thom White is editor of CITIZINE, a music and news magazine formerly published in Los Angeles, and now based in Austin, Texas. To contact Thom:]

Photos below –
1: Helmet, Paige
2: Velvet Brick
3: The Ghost Lullaby
4: The VonBondies
5: Motorhead