South By Southwest: Day 1

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The massive South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, has become in its more than 20 years of existence a mecca for music industry types from aspiring bands to live music junkies. On Wednesday, the official first day of conference (though unofficial parties and performances had begun as early as last Friday), downtown Austin’s venues were packed.

I started the afternoon with the Terrorbird Media/Force Field PR party at Emo’s, catching The Raveonettes’ (pictured) intense reverb-drenched set. Then I headed across Red River Street to Emo’s Annex, essentially a tent in a parking lot, for Jason Collett. The Toronto singer-songwriter’s assembled an impressive band to realize his lush country-infused rock, and he perfectly summed up SXSW’s atmosphere, saying it felt like he was at summer camp. And SXSW is a sort of camp, except that instead of engaging in wholesome activities like archery and singing “Kumbaya” around a campfire, attendees scurry from venue to makeshift venue trying to absorb as much music as possible before passing out from exhaustion (usually brought on by a combination of standing for 12 hours and imbibing an ocean of booze). Later, I went to pick up my SXSW wristband at the convention center and stumbled upon a performance by Ra Ra Riot inside the hall. Despite the miserable acoustics and totally uninviting backdrop of a cafeteria-style room draped in black curtains, the hyperactive sextet managed to enrapture a large crowd with their bubbly chamber pop.

I spent the evening at Central Presbyterian Church, perhaps the longest amount of time I’ve lasted inside a house of worship ever. The incredible acoustics imbue all the bands that play there with an angelic sound, and the pews offer one of the few seated SXSW venues, a welcome respite after a long day of standing. Early on, a couple of Austin bands, Zookeeper and Peter and the Wolf, took the stage with big ensembles in tow. Zookeeper’s indie pop relies on heavy instrumentation, including horns, guitars, organ and copious percussion, and despite its beauty, the volume was a bit overwhelming for the setting. Peter and the Wolf, Red Hunter’s constantly shifting folk group, offered a more low-key set, with Hunter performing several songs solo, with only his guitar to accompany his spare vocals. But he hit his stride when backed by a six-member chorus (who wielded various shakers and other percussion). Last for me was the flawless North Carolina folk-pop trio Bowerbirds, whose quiet combination of sweet harmonies, acoustic guitar, accordion, violin, autoharp and minimal percussion echoed gorgeously in the space, their sublime music offering the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had in a church.

Photo courtesy of [Jalapeńo on Flickr]

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