The SXSW Dispatch: Sensory Reward and Punishment

You already know South by Southwest doesn’t lend itself to peaceful contemplation. It’s an endurance test for all involved, that reverberates long after you leave. Yes, it’s a crowded mess–overlapping with St. Patrick’s green-stained idiocy doesn’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, you’re reminded of the elemental equation between musician and audience. It’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 (Scotland’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:

Sharon Van Etten

Number One Contender: Sharon Van Etten
We’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 it’s too late, you’re already addicted.

Worst Venue: Treasure Island
Visitors here are used to improvised bars and tolerate of shoddy sound and makeshift stages. But there’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 wouldn’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 décor took up more. Cleveland’s Mr. Gnome sounded impressively fierce, though, like the rest of the enthusiasts, we couldn’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 didn’t draw needless attention to herself, content to let the band’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 weren’t suffering the Austin humidity. Twelve months later there’s nary a sighting of the Urban Woodsman. Perhaps he’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. Café

Even a trencherman cannot survive on BBQ and Mexican alone–we know because we’ve tried. Smart money beat a retreat to Elizabeth St. Café, 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 you’re inspired enough to begin plotting a brisket dinner.

Elemental Austin:
Each year, we love to revisit our favorites: Hotel San Jose, for its laidback hospitality. Guero’s, which doesn’t pretend to be more than friendly Margarita purveyor and succeeds at that. Stag, they savvy clothing outpost that doesn’t disappoint (and yes, you can find Glenn O’Brien’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 you’ll be back, giving in to the promise of more sensory reward.


The War on Drugs
Amy Cook
We Were Promised Jetpacks

Comments on “The SXSW Dispatch: Sensory Reward and Punishment

    Guero's?! on March 19, 2012 8:11 PM:

    Great article, does us Austinites proud. Although I still can’t understand how anyone can enjoy Guero’s.

    Amatourist on March 19, 2012 11:19 PM:

    I remember these dispatches from last year and how much I enjoyed them. Looks like you got some great shows in… from the Mohawk and back to the stage at the San Jose it seems. can’t believe you suffered through a set at Treasure Island. My God we’d go there in college for nickel Tuesdays or something… bad idea then, worse idea now.

    Eagle Ford on March 20, 2012 10:40 PM:

    Good summary… But I agree with the others, guero’s? Just because it’s close to the San Jose does not mean your obligated to endorse, even halfways. also, cannot understand how Laberts BBQ got the nod before Franklin

    David Coggins on March 20, 2012 11:41 PM:

    Eagle Ford–Have wanted to try Franklin, but always epic waits or completely sold out. And Guero’s is just for a margarita on an annual visit–not really an endorsement for locals.

    Corn Tortilla on March 22, 2012 12:30 PM:

    Guero’s is awesome – I hit them up for a senorita plate everytime I’m in town…

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