More than 1,800 acts played this year's South by Southwest, and that's not even counting all the unofficial events—including several small anti- or parallel festivals—happening all over Austin. I saw about 20 and overheard dozens more spilling from outdoor concerts as I walked from party to showcase to in-store. Often I caught a song here or there simply because I was waiting on the curb for the traffic signal to change.
My rounds started last Wednesday afternoon. I hit a fourth-floor conference room at the Austin Convention Center to check out MNDR, aka Brooklyn producer and singer Amanda Warner, whose recent Empty Bottle show I'd missed. The convention-center sets are probably the weirdest you'll see at SXSW—or at least the ones that give you the clearest sense you're at an industry gathering. The cavernous, carpeted room had a snack kiosk and a lounge with twin bed-size pillows, where patrons could recline among potted plants and use the free wi-fi. (I would go to way more shows if I could lie down, eat a soft pretzel, and check my e-mail.) But MNDR belongs in a stadium, opening for Rihanna—she's Jumbotron ready. The air-conditioned room was no match for her hi-NRG techno-pop heat. Her glasses fell off while she was whipping her head around, but she caught them and passed it off as a dance move. A few rows behind me a kid with a mohawk yelled "Bring it, bitch!" but it had already been brought.
Later that afternoon I ventured off SXSW's main drag—only just beginning to acquire its odoriferous crust of piss and puke—to Book People, Austin's big indie bookstore. Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of Superchunk, co-owners of Merge Records, were reading from their new book, Our Noise, which chronicles their 20 years of DIY success. (In the interest of full disclosure, we share a book publisher.) In between they played acoustic versions of Superchunk songs and covers from the Merge catalog (Magnetic Fields, Spoon, Butterglory). When I got there they were doing "Driveway to Driveway" for 16 people—I hadn't seen them play such an intimate show since 1991, when they were touring behind their first album.
Wednesday night I took a cab into residential Austin, hoping to see teen Tampa booty-bass MC Dominique Young Unique in the parking lot of the Flannel Annex, an arts center a couple miles northeast of downtown. Instead I caught 20 minutes—three songs—of Brooklyn trio Prince Rama of Ayodhya, whose regrettable Photoshopped promo photo has them doing yoga on flying God's eyes in front of the Sphinx. They were awesome, though—brain-frying electro-prog with a stand-up drummer pushing the synths. After their set ended and everyone started leaving, the girls manning the keg kindly informed me that I was a day early for Dominique's show.
At that point I realized that I'd failed to give much thought to how I'd be getting back into the city. I'm five months pregnant, so the prospect of hoofing it for 2.6 miles (thanks, otherwise useless Google Maps!) at 10 PM on a school night was daunting. But the buses were running every half hour and I'd just missed one, so I started walking. I kept passing little concerts in yards and garages—it was like John Cheever's "The Swimmer," except the parties were louder and I was sober. I stopped at a backyard rap show for a few minutes. I don't know who was playing, but they were angry about not being rich and they loved Austin. Me too, I thought.
After an hour of this sort of thing, I finally caught a bus, though I still wasn't sure where to get off. A few minutes later I saw a bunch of cool-looking kids massing in a parking lot and decided this might as well be my stop—the crowd turned out to be for a showcase by Chicago's HoZac label. I was just in time to see the Fresh & Onlys from San Francisco, who sound chiming and poppy on their records but turned out to be nihilistic and scuzzed-out live. Word had just gotten around about Alex Chilton's death, and people were tipping out 40-ouncers on the blacktop for him.
On Thursday I parked at the Kill Rock Stars party for the afternoon and saw a bit of new signees Grass Widow, an all-female Bay Area trio whose angular pop reminded me of the Au Pairs. Up next was Viv Albertine, who's returned to the fray almost 30 years after her band the Slits broke up. I like her new recordings—they're naive and fuzzy—but her SXSW pickup band was clearly unrehearsed and her between-song banter was like reading your mom's boozy postdivorce Facebook updates. "Dating when you are my age is hard," she said. "You know, I just can't do the whole 'hookup' thing. I know it would be easier if I just started waxing my legs." Please. Just. Stop.
Another recent KRS signing, Explode Into Colors, brought the dance party and a crowd. Onstage they're a funky machine—main drummer Lisa Schonberg is locomotive. I would've gone to their other eight shows in Austin if I'd been able.
Nonetheless I skipped out on the end of their set to catch Thee Satisfaction, a female hip-hop duo from Seattle, three blocks away—their show was already four hours late getting started, and I'd been checking back every half hour all day to make sure I didn't miss it. If I'd known how amazing they were going to be—ultraskilled, Afrocentric, feminist, queer, and both funny and fun—I would've been willing to wait in a Porta-Potty the whole time. I know my description strings together the good parts with stuff that isn't exactly enticing—normally I wouldn't get out of bed for Seattle hip-hop, not even if the show was in my living room—but they do it so right it gave me chills. Those of you who've been hoping for hip-hop to go from no-homo to pro-homo, this could be the group that makes it happen. Thee Satisfaction are sort of like Erykah Badu split into two ladies (one for the rapping side, one for the singing side) and sort of like teen reggae team Althea & Donna. They rapped about seducing your girl right off your arm ("Bisexual"), kicked out a summery party starter built on a sample of Anita Baker's "Real Love," and cooed about what "bad bitches" they are. I'm hard-pressed to think of any badder.