The story of SXSW never ends, my friends. And as we continue our exploration of SXSW 2011, I have two videos to share with you from our fellow live music fans over at BreakThru Radio who took the time to ask several great questions about the impact, relevance and evolution of SXSW.
In our SXSW preview, we told you about an intriguing fan-made movie called 100 Bands in 100 Days. I saw the film while we were in Austin during its world debut and it made me laugh, nearly moved me to tears and inspired me to look at live music in a new way.
We had a whole lotta fun at the SXSW 2011 Music Conference! And it was a blast being in Austin for the first time to experience the city’s very special and eclectic live music scene. And here’s a wrap-up of conference highlights, surprising moments, epic letdowns and other exciting trends that had the music industry and fans buzzing all week long.
Celebrating its 25th year, the South by Southwest Music Conference kicks off tomorrow, March 16, and blazes its way through Sunday, March 20. It’s five crazy days of live music, panel discussions and industry trade shows. Over 2000 musical acts from 61 countries will perform on 90 stages across multiple venues in and around downtown Austin, Texas. Here’s a guide to conquering the live music mayhem!
During the Slurpee and 7-Eleven Battle of the Bands earlier this year, we explored how BOTB contests impact the live music experience for bands and fans. And now we’re going to take a look at two more BOTB contests presented by Shure SM58 Microphones and Jansport.
As I mentioned last year–when I first saw Mike’s sketches of SXSW 2008–I was reminded of how I do a similar thing when I’m covering concerts. Sometimes I draw a quick sketch of the stage, crowd or the tour banner. This usually helps me grab the vibe of the concert and tap into the emotion undercurrent so I can write from a different perspective other than just how the music sounded.
This also helps me to really capture the emotional impact of the show from many angles, letting me actually see what I’m feeling about the concert experience. Then once I get home I can combine the sketches with the hard facts to flesh out the review.
In some ways these sketches I do are more like visual emotional cues. Because they also help me to remember important thoughts I had at certain key points during the show. The reason I do this is because sometimes it’s easier to draw a picture than it is to put a word to how I’m feeling in the moment.
And on my notepad isn’t the only place where I’ve seen live concert artwork being created. I’ve seen another versions of capturing emotions via artwork onstage, too.
When covering hip hop shows I’ve seen graffiti artists doing canvas tagging or mural paintings off to the side of the stage. During that show, I remember my eyes bouncing back and forth as the artist drew, spray painted, and hand painted while the beats and rhymes flowed from the DJ and emcee.
When I saw that, it really made me think of the power of combining live music and art into a multidimensional concert experience. And when you have that type of concert experience, it lives on in the form of the drawing for that artist, much like it does when I jot down a sketch of my impression of how I’m feeling during the show. And I’m sure it’s memorable for fans too, because it’s not to common of an experience, so when you do see it, it really leaves a mark on your mind and heart.
More than just ink on paper
By using sketches to capture ideas and feelings, I’m able to rely on my emotions and combine that with the other hard facts of the concert experience. Together this usually makes reviewing concerts more fun, more memorable and a whole lot easier to recall. And the power of capturing emotions in artwork is a key ingredient to the success of art therapy
Do you sketch during shows? If you cover live concerts, what sort of tools do you use to capture the facts and emotions of the show?
“The hundreds of bands are rushed on stage rapidly at the annual Austin music conference and festival, and they rarely get enough time to properly set up or tune.
The start of the first show by the acclaimed Peter Bjorn and John on Wednesday night was delayed and, when they finally started playing, equipment problems caused long interruptions and ruined the set. The unsympathetic crowd heckled and booed.
“It was an awful show,” said Peter Moren, the band’s lead singer, able to smile painfully about it in an interview Friday. “But it’s also good that stuff like that happens occasionally. Otherwise you become bigheaded.”
When I read this story about PB&J’s SXSW problems, I was reminded of similar challenges they faced at Lollapalooza 2007 when we waited for almost an hour to whistle to “Young Folks” because of “technical difficulties.”
But it seems that PB&J is keeping it all—and their egos—in proper perspective. I guess if the show doesn’t go the way you plan, you have to find a way to learn what lessons you can and keep moving on.
As the article points out, the hectic nature of SXSW can be a determent to the goal of live music, which is to actually hear and experience the music as closely as possible to what the artist intended. So it’s a little disappointing that some of the most high profile music events are not designed to benefit the artist, their music, or the fans.
There’s definitely a give and take with live music festivals. But sometimes it’s hard to tell who really benefits from the giving and taking.
Questions & Videos
To put it all in perspective I compiled a short video collection of Peter Bjorn and John’s progress as they seek to overcome live show adversity during their three SXSW shows.
But first I have a couple questions for you:
Do you have any stories about how you learned from bad shows or performance adversity? What did you do to adapt? What live show problems taught you valuable lessons, or helped you build your performance character?
What are your thoughts about seeing an artist get short-sticked due to technical issues and less than desired set up conditions?
Here’s the videos:
PB&J’s First Show on 3/18:
YouTube fan perspective:
@ Emo’s 3/19:
@Fader Fort 3/20:
Even though I wasn’t there in person, I have to thank Popmatters music scribe Jennifer Kelly for putting me right in the thick of things at the SXSW music festival this week in Austin, Texas. I especially enjoyed her detailed reporting and pictures during Julie Doiron’s set as she tells how the elements factored into Doiron’s performance.
“By the time Julie Doiron sets up, a pipe in the Mohawk’s ceiling has started to drip steadily, creating that difficult combination of water and electrical equipment. “It’s just water,” the venue’s guy assures her, after someone raised the question of sewage, but water is bad enough. Doiron’s a little rattled. She’s just changed a guitar string on a stool near the bar (with two Japanese teenagers videotaping the whole event), and now she thinks her guitar is “brutally out of tune.” She’s just like her music, though, fresh, natural, unpretentious, and so clearly a really nice person who doesn’t like to make trouble. She apologizes during nearly every song break, which isn’t necessary at all, she sounds fine, better than fine actually, in the full-rock mode of I Can Wonder What You’ve Done with Your Day.
This account might only be a few lines long, but it’s pretty meaty with easy, silly puns and powerful metaphors.
Crappy Shows & Greek Philosophy
Even though the situation was beyond the artist’s control, Kelly’s account gives new meaning to “putting on a crappy show.” Puns aside, it’s also interesting how, according to this wiki that “water is one of the four classical elements in ancient Greek philosophy and science. It was commonly associated with the qualities of emotion and intuition.”
So then the “dripping” was just more than an unexpected plumbing problem. It appears to have underscored how an artist, and their audience, get tested to adapt to the challenge of performance adversity.
You just never know what’s lurking under the surface of the live concert experience.
Check out the other Popmatters scribes as they cover the rest of SXSW.
I always wonder how other reviewers take notes so I can learn and improve my own note taking. And when I saw designer Mike Rohde’s Moleskine notes from the recent SXSW music and media festival I was reminded of what I do during a show when the sketching bug bites me and I get filled with the inspiration to draw what I see going on onstage instead of scrawling my usual rock crit half words and mumble jumble. I haven’t done live sketching during a show in awhile since I usually turn to sketching when I’m at a festival outdoors or I’m at a venue where I can see what I’m sketching. These past several months I’ve been indoors at the clubs where its dark and better suited for the scribbling of nouns and verbs instead of the doodling of rock n roll sketches.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of using a Moleskine journal I highly recommend them for review notetaking or any kind of journaling. The one Rohdes used is the standard left-to-right journal style and I use the reporter version that opens top to bottom and is perfect for concert reviewing and note-taking when standing up since you can prop the notepad against your body and use the entire page top to bottom with one hand (a nice feature if you have smaller than average hands like I do and a standard left to right notepad is to big and clunky if you’re standing up.)
The best part about Rohde’s sketches is that they act as powerful visual cues much like the live sketches I do, enabling me to have instant recall to what I loved or didn’t about the show and allowing me to more effectively trigger mental notes and jogging my memory better than words I usually scribble down. That being said, I can’t wait for the festival season to start. I want to start live sketching again.
So how do artists plant their music in your mind and grab you by the heart and resonate you all the way to the point of purchasing their album and raving about their music? One way is to win you over with their live show. Discovering new and emerging music and having that moment of finding an artist that completely draws you in is what music fans live for. And these days the biggest stage for emerging artists (and rebounding veterans) is the SXSW media and music festival in Austin, TX. During four days thousands of artists play several gigs in hopes of connecting with you, the audience, in such a way that creates a buzz in your brain that sends you back home with a new favorite band running through your mind. I would have loved to be there but this year I had to settle for watching UK rapper Dizzee Rascal as he attempted to create a stateside stir for his forthcoming album Maths + English during his televised set at the Bat Bar.
As the set began, I leaned closer to the TV, inching to the edge of the couch in excitement and anticipation. But as the set progressed, my head sank deeper with disappointment and I started to ask myself why the performance was turning quickly into a letdown.
I found some of my answers in the book This Is Your Brain On Music by pop music producer turned neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin who writes that “In understanding the neurobehavioral basis of musical expertise and why some people become better performers than others, we need to consider that musical expertise takes many forms, sometimes technical (involving dexterity) and sometime emotional. The ability to draw us into a performance so that we forget about everything else is also a special kind of ability.”
We’ve all gone through a disappointing show before and I wondered what was it specifically about Rascal’s performance that didn’t draw me in and failed to ingite the SXSW audience I was watching?
Well, for starters, before Rascal went on he had a two label mates perform and both failed to captivate with their blend of UK dub, reggae and American southern-gangsta rap and when the camera panned the crowd, I could see that I wasn’t the only one not feeling the groove or vibe. Once Rascal began performing, I was confused because the Rascal I was watching was not the same Rascal I heard on mixtapes or on his previous two albums.
One reason is that playing live is like playing naked. Without a studio or a gifted producer to hide behind, the artist is forced to showcase their ability to convey the emotion of the song with their body in a live setting, and as Levitin writes, citing recent studies of his colleagues, that “…By watching a musical performance with the sound turned off, and attending to things like the musician’s arm, shoulder and torso movements, ordinary listeners can detect a great deal of expressive intentions of the music.” I didn’t fiddle with the volume level. I didn’t need to because just by watching Rascal’s performance, I saw that he was struggling to emotionally and physically to connect with the audience. He was pacing the stage but didn’t do any of the crucial charismatic nuances that seasoned emcee or a charismatic hip hop artist might do like use his arms or weave his hands to match the lyrical flow or show off a deft tongue by changing speeds or mixing in a freestyle.
Offering another explaination for Rascal’s sub-par set, Levitin writes that “It doesn’t have to do so much with the notes they’re singing or playing…but rather it’s what makes me forget about everything else around me.” Creating the type of environment Levitin describes and conveying emotion in a live performance is no easy task, especially with hip hop, which relies heavily on a clear understanding between the artist and the listener regarding lyrics. And if the lyric is not audibly hooky or pleasing to the ear, then the beats had better be banging something fresh and exciting or be somewhat familiar to the sonic pallet of the audience. And if that doesn’t happen then the artist is in serious trouble. And if an emcee leans to heavy on his DJ and reverts to just pacing the stage and trading lines with his two sidekicks (which Rascal did) then the show drags and there’s no emotional connection at all, which is why most people don’t like live hip hop. But when an emcee has honed the ability to captivate an audience, he is usually in control, as Levitin explains, of his vocal, lyrical and physical dexterity and has successfully fused his expertise with groove the DJ and/or backing band, giving the audience no choice but to be instantly drawn in.
Yes, because of his previous albums I had high expectations and part of me did expect him to have at least the same live impact as another UK rapper I saw. Rascal isn’t the first UK hip hop artist to try and cross over to a US audience as many have tried and failed.
Watching his set I thought back to a sold out show I saw by one of his contemporary UK grimers Lady Sovereign at the Metro in 2006, who, like Rascal in 2008, was trying to promote her debut album Public Warning on the eve of its US release. Sovereign darted around the stage speeding up and slowing down her flow like a finely tuned and possessed racecar, delivering far beyond the expected and driving further into her blend of punk rock and hip hop. Lady Sovereign hasn’t had the impact everyone expected her to have in the US but her show had me completely captivated forcing me to “forget about everything around me.”
In contrast, I watched as the SXSW audience barely moved a hip or wiggled a booty with only a few scattered hands were raised to beat-slice the air. The audience looked how I felt; bored, disengaged and thoroughly disappointed. Rascal struggled to overcome the difficult language barrier as he mixed several confusing between-song comments in a thick English-accented drawl. But it wasn’t the language that held Rascal back. It was the absence of the emotion he communicates lyrically on record, spitting scorching rhymes, changing speeds on dime and mixing in unique verbal nuances on record. And what sealed the disappointment was Rascal’s backing DJ (and I used that term loosely here because he barely did anything besides occasionally twist a few knobs and rub his fingers across the top of a pair of Panasonic CD turntables). He didn’t provide the organic live beats and rhythms needed to move hips and shake booties. It was as if the DJ was relying solely on studio tracks burned to a CD, expecting studio tracks to send the crowd into a frenzy and lift Rascal’s US career off the ground. Instead the set remained on the SXSW stage tarmac and well below the emotional horizon of expectation I hoped to soar to.
I was expecting a different Rascal. I knew he had collaborated with UGK for the forthcoming album but I wish I would’ve heard less of the dirty-south crunk and more of the gritty, rock-based Rascal during the set, the furious style and sound that’s been buzzing in the UK over these few years.
It’s early in the touring game and Rascal has time to hone the live skills as he crisscrosses the US, and hopefully, by the time he gets to Chicago, all those live emcee essentials will be more developed and will have coalesced into an explosive “forget everything else around you” show he’s capable off doing.
It’s coming. And I’m really not that worried. Really. I’m not. And if there ever was a true countdown to the end of my twenties I guess this is one way to do it. Today Coachella music festival announced the line up to this year’s festival and has a helpful countdown clock to mark every minute leading up to the festival kickoff on April 25th. I stared at the screen for quite awhile and then shook my eyes back to normal because, as usual, for the past 10 years, the line-up for the three day festival in Indio, CA is jammed-packed with the best in emerging rock, hip hop and electronica while also merging the current talent with seminal acts of the past with this year showcasing Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters who will be laying down the Dark Side of the Moon.
And just last night my wife asked me what I wanted to do for my 30th birthday party. I paused, sighed and ended up not really giving a good answer because I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted to spend such a pivotal day. When I failed to give a suitable answer to her I felt just like when someone asks me what my favorite albums are and I my mind goes embarrassingly blank. In hindsight, the answer was easy! What better place than at a live three day concert in California! I also hope that my wife reads my blog and catches the subtly of this post because that would be one heck of a birthday party. (nudge, nudge)
I know, the chances of that happening are slim, but aside from being a possible birthday pipedream, Coachella 2008 also will be spreading its set list to the East Coast with All Points West confirmed and set to take place in August 8-10 in New Jersey, just one week after Lollapalooza 2008 which is still yet to announce its line up. Yes, it’s not even February yet and we’re already talking outdoor music festivals. Live music must be important, eh? I love shows at a club but the outdoor festival is such a unique moment of escape and festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza are so mammoth that you can get lost in the music and the crowd and somehow still find someway to connect with vibe surging through the thousands of pumping fists and bobbing heads.
But before Coachella rolls in, and if you’re in the Austin, Texas area around March 12-16th you’ll want to check out SXSW musical festival. The festival started as a showcase for emerging independent media, music talent and a progressive platform to discuss music industry trends and has grown into a bigger showcase for already established acts looking to find new life among the younger talent. The five day festival includes panel discussions on the media industry, topics range from ‘Is Myspace your friend? to ‘whether or not the book is dead or alive as a source of information.’ It all goes down in one of the country’s best cities for live music and every year rock critics and fans descend upon Austin to scope out the latest buzz band while discussing the state of the music industry. Last year Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Pete Townshend and Donovan played and were interviewed. This year country legend Dolly Parton is billed along with the Black Crowes.
I know it’s only January but come on…this is live music were talking about here! The festival season is taking shape….the clock’s ticking…where will you be soaking up your favorite live music this summer?