AUSTIN, TEX. — Internationally renowned music festival/conference South By Southwest is a crazy-ass time, filled with wonder, thunder and a little Rock & Roll for good measure. As I found out here at the festival last week, facing the behemoth lineup of over 1,000 different bands and showcases and narrowing the list down to see and hear all that is humanly possible is quite a feat.
Luckily, music hailing from the Rust Belt (that's the Midwest, for those of us who aren't quite familiar) took precedence.
The Queen City shines brightest with the Buffalo Killers and Peter Adams and the Nocturnal Collective. The Buffalo Killers cram onto an incredibly tiny stage while people pack into the even smaller area outside, separated from the public sidewalk by a red velvet rope. Here I find singer/guitarist Andrew Gabbard standing around chatting with his friend and old bandmate Keith Fox. But once inside, Andrew gets down to business. He helps his big brother, bassist Zach Gabbard, load the gear up on stage. Fox also lends a hand, loyally remaining at the foot of the stage for the entire set. The crowd grows thicker by the second.
Seasoned rockers troll the dance floor, anxiously waiting for the Buffalo Killers' strange blend of psychedelic garage tunes to stomp through their heads. After the blistering opener, drummer Joey Sebaali looks ready to peel the skins off his drums using only his teeth. A certain happy sneer remains plastered across his face. All three Killers' hair soars to the sky as they crane their necks in step with the sound. The sonic walls they construct come crashing down with each and every swell. The set seethes constant upheaval all the way up to the end. They finish the crowd off with "SS Nowhere," singing, "I see everyone, you see nothing."
After an all-too-short set and a rushed stage breakdown to make room for the next hungry band, Andy takes a moment to relax outside again.
"It's frantic," he says as fans approach to compliment his voice and guitar work. He admits that playing this year's SXSW is the most fun, even though he can't get into all the shows (the Killers have three scheduled appearances throughout the weekend). Andy and his brother played the festival previously with Thee Shams.
After saying our goodbyes and making tentative party plans for tomorrow afternoon, I trek the five blocks to see Peter Adams and the Nocturnal Collective for a 1 a.m. slot at BD Riley's.
Peter Adams is one of the few utterly sincere musicians I see during my days in Austin. Backed by the Nocturnal Collective, he appears calm and unassuming while strumming his acoustic guitar. He stops to say thank you after nearly every song, a demeanor unlike many other strutting SXSW bands. His Hornets T-shirt and baggy jeans contrast sharply with the hipsterrati uniform littering the streets outside.
This lack of pretension comes off as if he were simply playing in his bedroom, which is where he recorded his stunning, internationally acclaimed debut LP, The Spiral Eyes, a haunting mixture of Neutral Milk Hotel- and Radiohead-type Pop. He doesn't really acknowledge the crowd while playing, only before and after. He introduces the songs to everyone by name. People smile at each other and at themselves, taken aback by this band's infectious tunes. Adams demonstrates his hometown pride by repeatedly saying he and the band are from Cincinnati. After trying to close with "More Than You Know," Adams smiles when the crowd demands an encore. "Should we play one more song?" he asks. "Is there a song you'd like to hear?" They give the people what they want and the houselights burn brighter.
I catch up with Adams after the set and he seems amazingly refreshed. He comments on how Austin seems strange and ethnically homogenized. When I mention his future showcase for Warner Brothers Records in California, Adams smiles again. He modestly corrects me, saying it's not really a showcase and the label rep will probably be the only one there. After a few menacing glances from the bartenders eager to close up shop, we part ways.
So that's just one Saturday evening spent running around Sixth Street in Austin. A few other Cincinnati-based bands get to play, too. The Sundresses hole up at the Lava Lounge patio Thursday night, but fail to draw many fans. Drummer/singer/guitarist Jeremy Springer says they're lucky to play, since they're only one of 200 unsigned bands at SXSW this year. The festival originally started as a way to scout talent for record deals, but now Springer says that labels buy most of the time slots.
Some Cincy-area bands decide to forgo the red tape altogether, opting to play one of the many free showcases offered as alternatives to SXSW. Some just wing it. Local acoustic duo The Great Depression followed tourmate Rocky Volotato to the fest but, having no real gig to play, they simply hit the streets and busk. The Stapletons and the Ralph Jones Band (Northern Kentucky) play the Red Gorilla Fest at Darwin's Pub on Thursday afternoon (local rockers patientZero also played Red Gorilla). The Stapletons turn their amps way up but there aren't enough bodies to absorb the vibrations. The Ralph Jones Band fares a little better as the Texas sun steers people into Darwin's shady haven. The music keeps them there with a taste of their own medicine -- a bit of down-home twang.
Other notable Midwest bands in town include local Spencer Yeh's Burning Star Core (incorrectly listed in the SXSW program as being from Columbus, Ohio), a rising force on the national experimental music scene (Yeh headed to New York immediately after Austin to play a show with Thurston Moore) and Detroit's The Sights, featuring the afformentioned Keith Fox, formerly of Thee Shams.
But the Midwest doesn't truly shine with rusty glory until The Stooges play Stubb's Saturday night. By far the biggest show of the festival, Iggy Pop enraptures with all his blond and tawny fury. The day before, during a live interview with Rolling Stone's David Fricke, Pop recalls misadventures like a fellow musician shooting himself in the taint while playing drums.
After unzipping his jeans and letting them dangle around his hips, he asks the house to turn down the lights. "I'm feeling a little estranged, because I'm fucking fried," he admits as he stares out into the crowd. For the closer, The Stooges roar into "No Fun" and Iggy invites everyone up on stage. He sweats on me a little.
I want to tell you about all the other bands and crazy things that happened, like finding the Enchanted Forest and seeing L.A.'s the Willowz or watching the Meat Puppets chase after goblins and Sage Francis giving props to Trent Reznor, but I'm already over my word count. So until next time ... ©
Andrew Gabbard and Buffalo Killers, as well as several other local musicians, represented Cincinnati music well last week in Austin, Tex.