You already know South by Southwest doesnâ€™t lend itself to peaceful contemplation. Itâ€™s an endurance test for all involved, that reverberates long after you leave. Yes, itâ€™s a crowded messâ€”overlapping with St. Patrickâ€™s green-stained idiocy doesnâ€™t help. But it can also be oddly intimate: You see bands in small clubs, carrying their own instruments, playing countless shows as their sanity wavers. In the best moments, youâ€™re reminded of the elemental equation between musician and audience. Itâ€™s an attraction renewed in real time, one that outlasts clueless corporate sponsorships, new media gambits and apocalyptic meditations about the future of the recording industry.
Some bands that made an impression: Trust (misanthropic dance via Toronto pictured above); We Were Promised Jetpacks (Scotlandâ€™s swirling power rockers); Widowspeak (Hope Sandoval-inspired crooning from Brooklyn); Blouse (magnetic dream pop from Portland). Yes, SXSW breeds genre invention, here are some more impressionistic takeaways from five days on the march in the Texas heat:
Number One Contender: Sharon Van Etten
Weâ€™ve celebrated Van Etten before, and why not? She wields her talent with precision and unvarnished emotion. Her new record, Tramp, alternates between the searing and the elegant, and her live act is just as good. By the time you know what hit you itâ€™s too late, youâ€™re already addicted.
Worst Venue: Treasure Island
Visitors here are used to improvised bars and tolerate of shoddy sound and makeshift stages. But thereâ€™s always one venue that proves unusually ill-suited to music and compounds it with an epic lack of planning. Congratulations, Treasure Island. A themed-bar you wouldnâ€™t patronize if it opened in a dry town, they chose to install the bands in the window in front of an ATM machine. The bar took up most of the viewing area, whiskey barrel dÃ©cor took up more. Clevelandâ€™s Mr. Gnome sounded impressively fierce, though, like the rest of the enthusiasts, we couldnâ€™t see a thing.
The Power of Understatement: Exitmusic
This dreamy pop band from Brooklyn stayed under the radar despite the fact that their lovely female vocalist is Aleksa Palladino, the actress who plays the lesbian wife on Boardwalk Empire. She didnâ€™t draw needless attention to herself, content to let the bandâ€™s ethereal tracks make the case. Layered with swirling guitars and assured beats, Exitmusic was a welcome sound.
Upland Retreat: The Urban Woodsman
Last year it was unsettling to see bearded men in heavy flannel pretend they werenâ€™t suffering the Austin humidity. Twelve months later thereâ€™s nary a sighting of the Urban Woodsman. Perhaps heâ€™s in hibernation, or has merely shaved his beard down to mustache, which we saw all over town, in various stages of irony.
Destination Dining: Elizabeth St. CafÃ©
Even a trencherman cannot survive on BBQ and Mexican aloneâ€”we know because weâ€™ve tried. Smart money beat a retreat to Elizabeth St. CafÃ©, a Vietnamese joint that is casual and ambitious at the same time. Do right by the curry of the day, on our visit it was mussels (from Prince Edward Island, naturally), chicken meatballs, cauliflower, baby carrots, an epic amount of cilantro, all underlined by perfectly measured heat. Add sticky rice, a grilled baguette, a nice glass of Alsatian Pinot Blanc, and youâ€™re inspired enough to begin plotting a brisket dinner.
Each year, we love to revisit our favorites: Hotel San Jose, for its laidback hospitality. Gueroâ€™s, which doesnâ€™t pretend to be more than friendly Margarita purveyor and succeeds at that. Stag, they savvy clothing outpost that doesnâ€™t disappoint (and yes, you can find Glenn Oâ€™Brienâ€™s book in Texas). Lamberts, for brisket at the bar and superior Mezcal. East Side Showroom, for its ambitious cocktail ethic. By the end of the weekend you find new ways to reach your limit. Then the recovery begins, but youâ€™ll be back, giving in to the promise of more sensory reward.