SXSW Music: Day 3

After the previous night's excitement, I was ready for some R & R on my last day in Austin.  R & R meaning, of course, rock and roll.  [Editor's note:  not my best work, humor-wise.  Forgive me.]  The ER doctor, while stitching up my wife's face, told us about "the best coffee shop in Austin" where there was going to be a whole afternoon of free music the next day, "more in a folky, bluegrassy vein."  And this woman knew veins.  [Editor's note:  that was funnier, right?]  So off we went to the Once Over Coffee Bar, stopping along the way for some delicious tacos from - you guessed it - a food truck right in front of the coffee shop.  Once inside, we secured some beers, then made our way to the back deck where a lady with a ukelele was just starting her set.

It turns out that lady - Datri Bean - was going to become one of my wife's new favorite artists.  On her web site, Bean describes her music as "music for a lazy afternoon on the porch" and I couldn't agree more.  We spent a nice long while basking in the Texas sunshine, nursing our beers (and, for some of us, our head wounds), and happily grooving on Datri Bean's folky, jazzy tunes as she switched from ukelele to accordian and back again.  It was heavenly. We stayed for a few more groups afterwards (unfortunately, I can't recall their names) and really enjoyed ourselves, finally heading indoors for some of the excellent coffee and a surprisingly good bagel.  All in all, a good afternoon.

Datri Bean and her accordion

That night was going to be my last night in Austin, so I knew I had to make the most of it.  I had plotted out 5 bands I wanted to see (with about 5 backups for each time slot), all at venues within walking distance of each other.  I knew if I stayed focused and kept on a steady diet of Jack & Coke and Lone Star, I could do it.  So I set off on my rental bike around 8:30 PM, plan in hand, ready for a good time.  Here's how it played out:
  1. My first stop was a church where the over-50 set, a handful of teenagers who looked way too young to sneak into any over-21 clubs, the other 3 Jews in Austin, and I all enjoyed the klezmer-honkytonk stylings of the Yiddish Cowboys.  Truth be told, they were really just a klezmer band in cowboy hats, there wasn't any discerinble honkytonk to my ears.  But I did learn from them that the song "Miserlou" has its roots as an old Greek folk tune who's title means "Egyptian Girl."  So that was interesting.  Also, the entire church smelled strongly of bacon, which was being cooked out in one of the common rooms, along with a whole slew of breakfast items available for sale, as well as beer.  Fascinating.

  2. Damien Jurado, rocking out
  3. Next up was Damien Jurado, who performed a beautiful set despite some obstacles.  He was in an upstairs club above some place that was blaring some sort of horrible nu-metal music or something.  It was impossible not to hear the drums pounding through the floor as he sang his quiet heartfelt songs.  At first everyone in the club was sitting down, and it felt really communal, but eventually the club asked us all to stand up to let more people in, which was weird, because the people who came in just stood at the bar and talked, prompting Damien to yell at them to "shut the fuck up" at one point.  He seemed a little perturbed the whole time, but still did a great set, even doing one of his guitar solos a cappella as he played the rhythm part, inviting the crowd to sing along with him during one song, and then telling us a story about the "rich assholes [he] knew growing up who owned a trampoline."

  4. My next stop was easily the loudest of the night, when I managed to squeeze myself into a very crowded club to see Tapes 'n Tapes.  Apparently they have a new album out, I had no idea.  I haven't really heard anything about them in a while, but it turns out they are very good live, they are incredibly loud, and they are extremely punctual.  All of which are positives in my book.  They did a crisp half-hour set which actually included a lot of songs, which I guess highlights how short their songs are on average.  This show made me want to listen to them more, so maybe I'll check out that new album some time soon.  I also really appreciated the brevity of this set, as it gave me some time to enjoy a nice food truck falafel before rushing off to the next show of the night.  Side note: this was the only show of the evening for which I did not get to sit down for at least a portion of the set.  At my age, that's worth keeping track of.

  5. Her Space Holiday, pre-retirement
    The penultimate band of the night (for me, at least) was San Francisco's Her Space Holiday [Editor's note: according to AMG, Marc Bianchi relocated to Austin back in 2001, so I guess he was a local act that night.]  I've been a fan of this emo-electronic bedroom-pop act for a while, so I was really looking forward to this show, and he didn't disappoint.  He combined a couple songs for some reason, and played a few I'd never heard, which was cool.  It was illuminating to see a live guitarist and bassist playing along with all the pre-recorded electronic backing music; I'd been curious as to how that would work out live.  It's nothing new, but it's still kind of weird to see a band playing live with a laptop.  There was a surprisingly large crowd for this show, or at least I guess Bianchi was surprised, because he opened the show by asking the crowd "where have you guys been for the past 5 years?"  I had no idea how long this band had been around until he announced at the end of the show "I've been doing this for 15 years, and I'm going to be stopping soon."  So I guess that counts as a surprise retirement announcement.  Woo hoo, I got a scoop!

  6. Damien Jurado, hanging out
    My night ended at the same club where I'd seen Damien Jurado, and on my way over there, I passed some bearded guy in a plaid shirt (there were literally hundreds of them on the streets) who turned out to be...Damien Jurado.  I told him I'd really liked his set and he shook my hand and thanked me.  That was cool.  Then I went upstairs to see another act I've loved for a long time but never seen live before, Viva Voce.  This married couple from Portland makes excellent guitar-based psychedlic rock music, and it was very cool to see them re-create some of that music in a very intimate setting.  By which I mean, there were only about 10 other people there to see them, which is a crime.  One of those people happened to be the aforementioned Damien Jurado, who walked over and sat down at my table (where there was a free bar stool) and proceeded to spend most of the show seemingly checking the weather on his iPhone.  Meanwhile, Viva Voce did an awesome for a small but enthusiastic crowd, and afterwards I got to talk briefly with Kevin Robinson (who mostly plays drums and sings), who was really nice, and told me all about how he'd shredded his rotator cuffs drumming and had to take several years off, and how happy he was to be playing again, and how his wife Anita is really the super-talented one and how great she is.  It was really cute, and I really enjoyed talking to him.  Then someone from the venue told the "crowd" that we all had to leave for the night, so that was that.
The next day we re-visited the rock poster exhibit, did some shopping on Austin's wonderful South Congress St., and waited in vain for the cab we had ordered to pick us up and take us to the airport.  We eventually hailed one on the street.  That part of the day was pretty stressful and made me hate Austin's taxi drivers even more than I already did.  But in the end, it was a great week, the weather was nice, I got to see a lot of old friends, a ton of live music, and some interesting panels to boot.  And my own panel went really well and got a very enthusiastic response from the crowd.  So until next year, thanks for a great time, Austin!

    Wall art/musical instrument from our Austin rental condo


    SXSW Music: Day 2

    Now that I'm safely back at home in the near-freezing fog of Brooklyn, I can tell you guys all about my second day of SXSW Music, which was pretty darned eventful.  The day began at a reasonably late hour, due to staying up past my bedtime the night before.  When I did finally make my way over to the Austin Convention Center (or "ACC" to those of us in the know), I got there in time for a panel all about how to get your music featured in commercials.  Apparently the short answer is, "it's hard."  The longer answer is, "it's really hard, but keep at it and good luck!"  After that dose of realism, I wandered down to the Flatstock Poster Exhibition where I immediately wanted to spend every last dollar I have (which wouldn't have taken long) on amazing rock posters, t-shirts, and art for me and a lot of people I know.  If you're reading this, chances are I saw I a poster I wanted to buy you.  But I showed remarkable restraint and only bought myself one robot t-shirt from this guy.

    Please buy me this
    After drooling all over the poster show's floor (and a few of the posters), I made my way down to the "Gear Alley Expo," a much smaller version of the SXSW Trade Show featuring only vendors that have something to do with music.  Within seconds, I had already fallen in love with several products and was trying to figure out how to sell my body on the spot to pay for them.  The first thing was a very cool amp from Fender that plugs into your computer and gives you on-screen controls to use it as a modelling amp (meaning it can emulate a bunch of different amp sounds, and it has a ton of included effects, etc.)  You can load your own backing tracks on it or use one of the many included ones and play along live with yourself, without having to bring a laptop to your show.  If anyone would like to buy me this, I would be forever (or at least for a long time) in your debt.  I also had a nice long chat with the guys at Raw Talent, who were there promoting a new computer-based guitar training program that actually looks very cool and useful.  After talking to them for a while, they asked me if I happen to write about music or technology.  Why yes, yes I do!  Even though I warned them that I only have a handful of readers (but it's the best handful on the Internet) they gave me a free copy of their software to evaluate and review.  So watch this space for a review coming soon, and watch me have 1 fewer excuse for having incredibly limited guitar skills.

    Next up was a panel titled "Songwriters Explain Everything," which sounded pretty useful.  But much like imaginary numbers, it turned out to be pretty cool, but of limited practical value.  While there wasn't really too much talk about the craft, there were some great live performances from Hayes Carll, Ron Sexsmith, and Hazel Dickens, who is not only adorable, but can still belt it out pretty well for an old lady.  Hazel did say something about songwriting that I loved - the moderator was asking the three musicians how they got started with songwriting, and she talked about how she loved singing along with music as a child, but that she would always "run out of verses," so she had to writer her own.  I could really relate to that, both as a musician and in particular as a musical improviser.

    Letting Up Despite Great Faults - dig that giant beard!
    I ended up skipping the panel with maybe my favorite title of the week, "I'm Not Old, Your Music Does Suck" in favor of going home and preparing for a night out of seeing shows.  Turns out I didn't need too much preparation, as I only ended up seeing one band.  Halfway through a really, really great set from LA's electro-shoegazers Letting Up Despite Great Faults, I got a phone call from the wife.  I texted her back, explaining that the club was loud and I couldn't really talk at the moment.  She texted back, explaning that she had taken a little spill, and was currently dripping blood from her face.  So I missed the rest of the set (and I missed seeing Portugal. The Man and TV On The Radio later that evening) to spend time in one of Austin's most exclusive (seriously, the wait to get into that place is ridiculous) venues, the emergency room.  Fortunately (very!), she was fine, and is now sporting some styling face stitches and very strong views on cities that leave downed street signs lying in the middle of the sidewalk for unsuspecting (and completely sober, sadly) pedestrians to trip over.  On the plus side, she did get some kick-ass painkillers from the doctor, who also told us about a great (and free!) bluegrass/folk showcase going on the next day at a coffee shop right near the condo we were renting.  And it was at that showcase that Amanda discovered a new favorite artist.  So that's kind of cool.

    More on that in my next post, as well as reviews of the five(!) shows I saw on my final night in Austin, including a honky-tonk klezmer band, the surprise announcement of Her Space Holiday's retirement, and the loudest band in Austin!  Stay tuned...


    SXSW Music: My First Night

    This year marks my 4th time at SXSW, and my first time at SXSW Music (thanks to a gift from my lovely and talented wife).  I didn't really know what to expect, and with something like 2000 bands playing over a handful of days, planning out my evenings has been not unlike planning a small military operation.  Every band I want to see is playing at the same time at different venues and nothing starts on time and everything's crazy and everyone's everywhere etc. etc. etc.  So far, this has been a good experience in learning to let go of expectations, because all the planning can really go out the window once you try actually navigating the drunken hordes on Austin's 6th Street at 1:00 AM to get over to that one club with the really cool band playing.

    But despite all the craziness, I've seen some great stuff so far, and I'm here to tell you all about it!

    Wednesday night I caught a very short set from Canadian hip-hopper 4th Pyramid (I think he was told about 8 minutes into his set that the entire set would only be 10 minutes long).  After that, I hopped on my bike and headed over to catch college-age rappers Chiddy Bang at the "Vibe SXSW House Party," whatever that was.  They were listed as going on at 9:15, but the signs posted near the men's room indicated that they would be taking the stage closer to 12:15 (that's AM, people), so after sticking around for an hour of middling-quality West Coast hip hop acts, I ditched the House Party to host my very own gourmet sliders party at a local food truck.

    Once sated, I parked myself at my final destination for the evening and saw three bands in a row, 2/3 of whom hail from Brooklyn these days, just like me.  First up was The Vandelles, who seemed to have left most of their effects rack at home, so (despite turning the reverb way up on their amps) they did not manage to fully re-create their spacey psychedelic surf-rock vibe on a live stage, but they did feature 2 female band members sporting dangerously hip levels of bangs, so there's that.  Next up was The Antlers, who easily won the coveted "Jordan's Favorite Band Of The Night" award with a killer set drenched in beautiful effects, high-pitched emotional vocals, and an overall sense of quality.  Here's a totally legal video that someone who is totally not me shot of their closing number, (a personal favorite of whomever took this video), "Two" [Editor's note:  the sound quality on this video is, to put it technically, not very good.  But it's still cool.]:

    "Two" - The Antlers at SXSW 2011 from Jordan Hirsch on Vimeo.

    The Antlers performing their song "Two" at the Parish during SXSW 2011 (3/16/2011).

    Following that awesomness, The Dodos came on and practically bored me to tears.  I really wish I had jumped ship at that point and tried to catch Parts & Labor (also from Brooklyn) at another club down the street, but by that time in the evening if you were already deeply ensconced in a crowd (as I was), changing venues was a bit of an uphill proposition.  So I stuck it out for about 40 minutes, then finally walked out into the cool night air, just in time to catch a few songs from Kansas City's own hip hop legend Tech N9ne.  He was performing inside the aforementioned "Vibe SXSW House Party" venue, and for a brief wonderful period the people in charge had left the doors and full-length windows open, so a small crowd on the street could enjoy the show as well as those inside.  Then some jerk came along and closed the doors & windows, and I got on my bike and went home to sleep it all off.

    But of course that's not the end of the story...stay tuned for more updates including the old-timey country singer lady, the next evening's winner of the Jordan's Favorite Band Of The Night award, and a surprise trip to the Austin ER!


    What I've Learned at SXSW So Far

    The first thing I learned was that when people remind you all day to set your clocks ahead an hour on Sunday night, you should probably do that.  Instead, I woke up the next morning thinking I had plenty of time to make it to Paul Lamere's panel "Finding Music With Pictures: Data Visualization for Discovery" only to discover that it was, in fact, happening at that very moment, thanks to the ridiculous scam that is Daylight Savings Time.  Fortunately, Paul has posted his slides over at Music Machinery (linked from his name, above) and so when I have some more time I am going to try to piece together what he talked about based on a smattering of pictures and text.

    I also learned that the SXSW Animated Shorts are not as good as the ones at Sundance that I was lucky enough to see a few years back, and in retrospect I should have skipped them entirely to attend the "Bloggers Fight Back: Legal Workshop for Music Bloggers" panel.  But since I didn't, don't be surprised when I start writing this blog from jail.

    When I finally got into some panels, I learned even more.  Mainly, I learned that metadata is the magic word of the day.  First up was the "Love, Music & APIs" panel featuring speakers from Echo Nest and SoundCloud.  Their main point was that APIs are the new currency in music apps, and if you don't have one, you're not really playing in the same game as everyone else.  They had a slide listing all sorts of cool music companies with APIs - interestingly enough, Pandora wasn't listed.  I wondered why not, as they seemed to be in the heart of the music recommendation space, and my friend Lori quickly realized "they must not have an API."  I felt so sad for them.  The panelists talked a lot about Music Hack Days, finally answering the question of what actually happens at those things.  The answer:  a lot of smart people make a lot of really interesting and cool music apps in a very short amount of time, nearly all of them based around APIs.  And what do those APIs revolve around?  Metadata.  That was also the topic of the second music-related panel I attended that day, "Music & Metadata: Do Songs Remain The Same?"  The panelists here used a pretty broad definition of "metadata," using it to cover everything from the spelling of a song's title (apparently when users submit their own titles to most metadata repositories like MusicBrainz or the old CDDB, you can end up with 176 spellings of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door") to things like a song's cultural impact or a singer's unique and recognizable turns of phrase.  The main takeaway is that metadata may start out in the hands of the artist, but quickly becomes "owned" by listeners, users, remixers, etc.  Metadata is cultural currency in much the same way that APIs are technical currency.  Combined, they are helping make this a fascinating and wonderful time to be a music nerd.

    The last thing I learned is that the line to see Surfer Blood was too long last night, so I will be trying again tonight.  Of course, there are about 50 bands (and a movie) that I want to see all playing at the same time tonight, so I have no idea what I'll end up seeing, but I'll tell you all about it here!


    SXSW Is Here!

    Well, almost.  It officially starts tomorrow, and that's when I'm heading to Austin.  Amanda and I are going to be leading a session called "Improv For Everyone" on Tuesday 3/15 at 3:30 PM.  It's about how the lessons of improvised comedy can actually help you (yes, even you!) get more out life.  But that's not what this blog is about.  This blog is about music, so let's talk about that.

    My awesome wife gave me an upgrade to SXSW Music, and I have spent the past week trying to decide which of the 400 or so bands that are playing I want to try and see.  Every time I've gone to SXSW in the past, we've been leaving Austin just as all the bands arrive, and I've always wanted to stay for the music portion of the festival.  Now that I have that option, I'm overwhelmed.  There's tons of bands, and all the bands I like are playing at the same time, and there's so many bands I've never heard of that I can't possibly get myself up to speed on all of them in time to make an informed decision.  So what's a music fan to do?

    One thing I can do (and so can you) is check out All Songs Considered's SXSW Preview, featuring a playlist of some of the bands that they think are great and that most people probably aren't already familiar with.  During the festival, you can also stay tuned to NPR's SXSW page, where they will be live-streaming many of the shows.  If you want to dive deeper, check out the "Unofficial" SXSW Torrents Page, which features collections of songs from nearly every band that's playing SXSW this year, as well as archives going back to 2005.

    And of course, keep your dial right here, because I will be posting about any shows I see, and all the music panels I'm able to get to.  It should be a great week.


    The Echo Nest Is Listening

    I've written before in this space about Paul Lamere, a deep thinker about music and technology and the director of the application developer community for The Echo Nest, a "music intelligence company" that is pushing the boundaries of what technology can tell us about the music we listen to.  They recently got some love from Fast Company in a piece that highlights some things they've been up to recently, including the following snippet:

    The Echo Nest crawls the web in search of music and writing about music; it also partners with major labels like Universal and aggregators like 7Digital. It then devours data about the music, on both the "acoustic side"--tempo, key, etc. (Echo Nest's system crunches that sort of data in about 10 seconds for a song)--and the "cultural side"--what reviewers are saying about the music for instance. It crawls the web, Google-style, ravenous for new musical information. If you tweet about the band you saw last night, "we have that in our databases within the hour," says Whitman.
    Not only are they listening to everything we're saying about music, and listening to the music itself, but currently the Echo Nest has information about 30 million songs in its database.  30 million!  I'm not entirely sure what the difference is between the 30 million songs that you can query about using their API vs. the 1 million in the "Million Song Dataset" they just announced, but either way, this is really, really cool.  [Editor's note:  I think the API gives you access to song information only, while the Million Song Dataset actually gives you access to 30-second samples for each song, so developers and researchers can actually perform automated musical analysis on those samples.]

    I'm looking forward to seeing Paul's SXSW panel this year (plug time:  I'll be there leading my own panel, about how the lessons of improv can help you live a better life).  If you're interested in music and technology, Echo Nest is definitely a company to watch.