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The South by Southwest music conference kept the love train moving forward Thursday with monstrous headliners that included a free-to-the-people outdoor concert by The Strokes, off-the-grid rebellions on the East Side, an uncomfortable amount of time spent schmoozing with My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James at the brand new Austin City Limits studio, a backdrop of hammered locals in green, and a horrendous Wu-Tang Clan performance.
The Strokes gig was significant in that it was wholly unprecedented. In 2007, South by Southwest began using Austin’s backup festival space, Auditorium Shores, to slow roll free daily concerts for the townspeople. There were some cool, offbeat names poached from showcasing talent: Mastodon, Spoon, Against Me!. But mostly, it was an entry-level festival for folks with dogs and blankets.
Four years later, one of the biggest bands around has released its comeback album, just turned out Saturday Night Live, and hijacked South by with an exclusive evening appearance. Think dogs, blankets, and a representative from every media outlet in town. Twenty-thousand humans crammed Auditorium Shores for a 90-minute set; thousands more converged around barricades and eventually mobbed over fences. Crackling fireworks lined Austin’s skyline. No injuries were reported.
Earlier, Arts Desk was downtown and unable to see Carrie Brownstein, D.C.’s Mary Timony, and the other members of Wild Flag at The Parish. When the noon-to-6 p.m. parties are free and trendy, your best bet is to commit early and hope people leave once the giveaways end.
Bitter and in acceptance mode, Arts Desk decided to geek out for Atlas Sound’s only South by engagement and camp at the Flamingo Cantina. Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche was acoustic and alone and really damn good. He cooed the ladies one two-way monologue at a time, but the intimate mid-afternoon setting recalled that great Seinfeld line about why Jerry hates live music: I can’t watch a man sing a song. The next band was atrocious, with a stand-alone floor tom nestled by the singer so he could add dramatic percussion, a dreadlocked and white bassist, and drummer with a drum machine. Montreal’s The Dears were next, and Arts Desk was curious to see what a post-buzz act with 14 former members sounds like nowadays. Pretty alright, as the set focused on new highlights from February’s Degeneration Street.
Turns out, Atlas Sound’s Bradford Cox is funny.
“Do you have a circa ’58 Elvis Presley slap,” Cox deadpanned at the sound guy, “and can you make everything 20 times louder?”
Cox is best known for his work with critical darlings Deerhunter. Atlas Sound is Cox, an acoustic guitar, and a myriad of pedals and loops and effects. The room was cold but gained momentum that peaked with “Shelia,” the best high from 2009’s Logos.
Arts Desk met Chris Nunez, the Bushwick neighbor of Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez, better known as joke-rap dudes Das Racist. Nunez said that he feels incredibly awkward bumping their mixtapes as the three share a thin residential wall. Nunez pointed out a Das Racist gig happening at Club 1808 in 20 minutes.
Speaking to Suri in January before a sold-out D.C. gig, he seemed exhausted and tired of qualifying Das Racist’s hip-hop career. They broke on a novelty song and impressed New York media early because of their clever instant-message interviews on gchat.
“We still prefer email interviews,” Suri said. “…But there’s no conscious attempt to maintain any kind of identity. That’s not for me to think about.”
Interesting, because Das Racist broke on the backs of its online presence. The self-proclaimed “internet thugs” made just as many splashes for dueling with a New Yorker cartoonist. But a year into the cycle, Suri seemed buzzed-out and defensive.
On entering the hip-hop discussion when Das Racist’s mixtapes made the Nahright circuit: “They just put it out there, they don’t have opinions. I don’t have an opinion about [having music posted on influential sites]. I don’t care.”
Last year, Das Racist was a hot and rare South by commodity. This week they’ve lined up 13 performances. Club 1808 is on 12th and Chicon, over a mile from Flamingo Cantina, and one of the last frontiers for live music in Austin. It’s a historically black dive with stellar bartenders and $2 sausage wraps. Half of that place is probably a strip club. Inside, No Joy earned loudest band honors though that’s likely because the modest hall was never meant for Canadian noise pop.
This afternoon, Das Racist’s turntables came borrowed courtesy of Dan Gentile, known around these parts as DJ Flying Turns. Gentile spent the morning spinning at Spin’s Cedar St. lounge, and is likewise doing 10-plus shows this week.
“[Das Racist] needed turn tables,” Gentile said. “I was like ‘Whatever.’ Then a girl asked me if I had cocaine.”
Gentile does not do cocaine, but this happens often because he plays disco and house music. He is also working sound at 1808, and nervously interrupts conversation to twink the killer but filler music between bands.
“This is my mix,” Gentile said. “I’m having a great week, going to see James Blake tonight. Got a badge.”
Gentile showed Arts Desk a necklace of shamrock beads.
“Oh shit, where’s my badge? I’ll be right back.”
That’s the last Arts Desk saw of Gentile, and it is unknown if Das Racist ever actually showed up to perform with his gear because a defined schedule leads to the Austin City Limits studio. The PBS staple left the University of Texas campus after 35 years, and the new stomping grounds looked sublime. The room is crisp, and even from the farthest Mezzanine seat you’re only 75 feet from the stage. Arts Desk knew this because a colleague’s publicist rep was showing off like a new home owner, albeit on a generous and private tour.
Widespread Panic headlined only the second taping at this lavish, downtown studio, but the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was much more interesting. Many guest performers—-including The Del McCoury Band, White Denim singer James Petralli, and My Morning Jacket ace Jim James—-spiced up the tremendous and elderly New Orleans band. It was a classy and special occasion, but the floor audience piled in from non-sanctioned St. Patrick’s Day parties.
“The difference is that people are a lot more drunk,” said ACL studio control room veteran Robert Moorehead. “There’s not that respect for the show’s history yet.” That’ll come when tapings require hard tickets and aren’t held on drinking holidays.
After this, the Wu-Tang Clan headlined Village Voice‘s showcase. They were rusty and Arts Desk could only clearly identify The GZA, Inspectah Deck, and Ghostface Killah. It was that old joke: Everyone is in Wu-Tang. I got cousins in Wu-Tang. Wu-Tang was an hour and a half late and no one blinked. Here, we were all on Wu-Tang Time.
Famous People Gossip: Aziz Ansari stood next to Arts Desk during Atlas Sound and took lots of photos, and Jack White spun blues vinyl at Waterloo Records while his buddies in The Greenhornes did an in-store. He reportedly encouraged passersby: “Don’t be afraid to dance, ladies.”