Austin’s steroided-out music fest keeps it wildly weird
AUSTIN — You only need two things to survive the music conferences at South by Southwest: earplugs and a bicycle. Thank God, I strapped my mountain bike onto the trunk of my car before I headed to the Texas capital. Even while peddling up Austin’s steepest hills, it was better than being trapped in the eternal gridlock that blanketed the tiny city, which was like a four-day Lollapalooza on steroids.
Almost every downtown corner featured a showcase. With a wristband, you could literally walk down a Sixth Street alley and discover a labyrinth of tents that were turned into high-volume venues for speedmetal, British homeboy emcees and artsy Jewish synth-princesses.
Thursday, March 19
Why does everyone look like they’re … homeless? I’ve never seen so many unflattering fashion choices: crazy-affected Joaquin Phoenix beards and red-frame Buddy Holly glasses. While everyone at these showcases looks penniless, those iPhones are a dead giveaway.
Wearing cutoffs and a crummy oversized T-shirt, the girl bassist for noise-punk act Tyvek looks like she just cleaned her garage. What the three-piece Detroit band lacks in stage glam, they compensate for with punishing, ear-bleeding guitars — in a good way, actually. Between songs, lead man Kevin Boyer offhandedly thanks "the Republicans and homosexuals," addressing the small crowd gathered at the foot of the Emo’s Jr. stage.
Looking at my schedule, I realize Juliette Lewis’ new band played the Emo’s mainstage at 11 p.m. — on the previous night. Crud.
Before heading out, I whip by Rusty Spurs on Seventh Street, which is supposed to be a gay venue. There, Philadelphia’s Drink Up Buttercup blends the sound of Tom Waits’ crashing garbage-lids with sophisticated harmonies of The Beach Boys. Drink Up’s sweat-drenched singer James Harvey belts out his lyrics like he’s hanging onto a cliff and yelling for help.
Friday, March 20
At End of an Ear record store on South First Street, geezer punks The Homosexuals perform a quickie set at 5 p.m. Between songs, British fifty-something singer Bruno tells both George W. Bush and the pope, "To fuck off! When you kill one person in the name of religion, you kill a nation!"
The Homosexuals’ bouncy ditty "Simple Slam" explodes into chaos when the bassist crawls on the saltillo-tiled floor and slams Bruno’s mike against his strings.
A 9 p.m. slot at Ester’s Follies on Fifth Street is a comedy showcase featuring 15-minute sets with Hal Sparks and Margaret Cho. The "Queer as Folk" standup is a no-show. Instead, Janeane Garofalo takes the stage and passes out a huge bottle of hand sanitizer, warning the audience about "conservatism germs" and that we’re in "the end of times." Garofalo rants about fibromyalgia and her ignorance of Twitter, and says she stopped blogging and e-mailing the day that Dubya’s daughter Barbara Bush became her next-door neighbor in Manhattan.
Margaret Cho doesn’t waste a second. She can’t move her neck much, "Because I’ve been sucking so much American Apparel cock!" She launches into tales of performing fellatio on a biggie-sized dude: "But he smokes. I don’t like smoked cum — it’s like barbecue."
Then Cho straps on a six-string, saying, "I started playing guitar because I saw that Madonna could do it. How hard could it be?"
Cho could use two more years of lessons, but she puts it all back into her lyrics: "Your dick is so big / like a harpoon / I could see it from the moon."
She closes with "Eat Shit and Die:" "I forgave you faults, forgave your snore / I forgave your interest in tranny whores."
There’s much buzz about The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s 11 p.m. show at Emo’s Jr. where I spot gay MTV journo John Norris in the crowd. But the New York-based four-piece sounds stuck in college alternative radio, circa 1991. And synth player Peggy’s backup vocals are horrendously off pitch. What a bore-fest.
I bike over to Club de Ville on Ninth Street for the Biz 3 showcase, and catch my first about-to-be-superstar performance of the year: white girl Amanda Blank raps like an assault weapon. With gorgeous brunette tresses, the Philadelphia emcee speed-rhymes her way through an electrifying set. I notice that the crowd is fashionably different here — they’re dressed to get laid. And everyone is dancing!
Sitting beside me is headlining grime-rapper Lady Sovereign, who I make laugh and allows me to snap a FaceBook pic with her. Lady S.O.V. ends a four-song set with "Public Warning," and the crowd becomes a mosh-orgy as some big drunk dude starts palming my ass and petting my arm. Time to go.
Saturday, March 21
Erykah Badu performs a free concert at Auditorium Shores, and it’s the biggest crowd of the weekend. Badu’s gig has received more press than any artist. Thousands turn out, and it takes at least 30 minutes just to get through the gates. She is seriously late. Her band, The Cannabinoids, play an unrehearsed hour-long jam, promising that the Big D diva will soon grace the stage. Erykah finally makes it, and after her second song, she’s done. The set was less than 20 minutes. The huge crowd is shocked. (Later, I discover that her delay was due to a female stalker, who was pepper-sprayed and arrested at Badu’s East Dallas home.)
Perez Hilton’s people finally tell me that I’m on the guest list for his invite-only "One Night in Austin" bash, held at the Dell Lounge on East 11th Street. Because I was at the Badu gig, I miss surprise guests Indigo Girls and Ladyhawke. Perez’s showcase has the best lights and sound of any SXSW venue. The booze is free, and the crowd is thick with gay men.
Canadian rapper ThunderHeist and Seattle pop act Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head wow the crowd with tight sets that sound incredible. Then Beyonce’s little sister Solange takes the stage and kills it — such polish. The baby Knowles sista isn’t afraid to drop F bombs and even hops offstage to sing in the crowd.
Perez gets mad after Lady Sovereign sends a text message that she’s too sick to sing. And backstage, I run into Juliette Lewis.
With her rave-electro hits, Brit-pop princess Little Boots helps everyone find their G spot. And Perez introduces Little Boots singer Victoria Hesketh to Kid Cudi to perform an impromptu duet of Cudi’s "Day ‘N’ Night." Satisfied and exhausted, I head out at 1:30 a.m. — missing Kanye West’s surprise late-nite performance. The next morning, Perez e-mails me and thanks me for coming after he reads my blog recap on Instant Tea.
Sunday, March 22
With my bike strapped onto my Dodge Stratus, I head into bum-fuck East Austin for the Gay Bi Gay Gay showcase, which is held in the backyard of funky ghetto neighborhood. Worried that someone will steal my bike, I catch one performance: "Christeee-nah!" A friend tells me it’s really Austin’s twisted drag-queen Rebecca Havemeyer hamming it up. And does she.
With her gold-tooth, cracked-out interpretation of The Fifth Dimension’s "Up, Up and Away" Christina has the proud lesbians in the crowd in the palmss of her nasty hands. Then she and her backup-dancer strip down to granny panties and bust out an umbrella for a hilarious ball-flapping ditty about "when my pussy rains."
With that indelible, sidesplitting image, I head back to Dallas, loving Austin’s wild weirdness evermore.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 27, 2009.