Sacramento by SXSW
50 Sacramento musicians go to Texas for a week. Huh?!
Downtown Sacramento is out of control, off the chain, a complete madhouse.
Throngs of music lovers have taken over the convention center. Suburbanites coming in to town have nowhere to park for miles. Bikes are locked to everything, even cars. Promoters, who tape posters as high as hands can reach, spare no lamppost. Street musicians like Jammin’ Ronald hold fort on every corner and rake in dollars by the trucker hat. Most of this is illegal, but K.J.’s looking the other way.
K Street’s shut down from Seventh all the way to 12th—no light rail, just beer-truck fleets and tens of thousands of club hoppers, who transform the once-blighted mall into a modern-day Woodstock. Think Second Saturday times 10. Scratch that: 100.
And thousands of the world’s up-and-coming musicians and bands gig everywhere: in bars, on industrial stages in abandoned lots, even at Bud’s Buffet. The sound of Telecaster guitars and snare drums breaks the noise barrier, drowning the city. And it’s not just the single-digit streets: Midtown churches and even suburban car dealerships throw concerts. Metallica shuts down Arden Fair Mall. Sacramento is live-music capital USA, downtown is rock ’n’ roll Disneyland, and the event brings in more than $100 million to the local economy.
This Sacramento-as-rock-’n’-roll-mecca fantasy won’t be reality any time soon, likely ever. But it’s a vision that offers locals a glimpse of what it’s like at Texas’ annual South by Southwest music festival, which took place in the Lone Star’s capital city, Austin, last week. During SXSW, miles of downtown streets close and bands perform day and night. The rest of the region follows suit, musicians taking over Mexican restaurants, hair salons, backyards, even schools.
The event is so magnetic that about 50 Sacramento-based musicians, artists and promoters—Agent Ribbons, A Skylit Drive, Brian McKenna, Christian Kiefer, Dance Gavin Dance, Daniel White, the Devil Makes Three, Ganglians, Jesse Phillips, Kepi: the Band, Kevin Seconds, Liz Liles, Matt McCord, Matthew Gerken, Mayyors, Paul Imagine, Sholi, TAIS, Tape Op magazine, Tera Melos, Two Sheds, Watchout! Theres Ghosts, Who Cares—made the 1,760-mile pilgrimage to attend SXSW.
Most of these performers don’t have the backing of music-industry coffers. So why roll the dice to play a few 30-minute showcases in Texas, of all places, especially when musicians are among Sacramento’s most notoriously broke residents? What compels them to travel halfway across the country for four days of unbridled sonic partying and rock goodness?
SN&R would have to go to Texas, too, to find out.Want to get away?
Pretty much everyone on the flight to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport looks like they’re in a rock band: stylish, intentionally messy or otherwise affected coifs; vintage, designer or junky T-shirts; trendy, bike-messengeresque carry-on luggage. First class, business class, indie-rock class.
At the baggage claim, there are more amplifiers, cabinets, drum sets and guitar cases than luggage. A band smokes cigarettes and checks voicemail outside while its roadies corral the gear. Another band speaks French. One guitarist opens his case to ensure his baby survived the voyage.
2009 was the 23rd year of the SXSW music festival. In the early days, SXSW was a means to highlight local Austin bands who were isolated from America’s music hubs, New York and Los Angeles. This year, SXSW is 10 days of film festival, interactive-media and live-music extravaganza. More than 1,800 musicians from all over the world played official festival showcases; hundreds, maybe thousands, ride their coattails and play free shows. More than 20,000 registrants threw down big bucks for badges to attend sanctioned events. Tens of thousands more bought wristbands to catch SXSW gigs. And even more freeloaders showed up for all the no-cost concerts, food, booze and events.
So many iPhone users converged on Austin this year that AT&T’s coverage was on the fritz the entire festival.
Last year, Sacramentans Caitlin and Johnny Gutenberger of rock outfit Two Sheds took one of those Indie Airlines flights to Austin. This year, instead of incurring credit-card debt, the two decided to drive and book shows to SXSW and back so as to break even. But in spite of the arduous tour, driving and financial hardship, the decision to go to SXSW was a no-brainer. “Darn, go drink margaritas for free for four days and see bands that you’ve never heard before that are great and play a lot of music. Yup, sounds like a drag,” Caitlin jokes.
Other locals agree. Ganglians, a Midtown psych-rock band, is one of the youngest groups in town to attend the festival, and ostensibly one of the least likely: Brooklyn-based indie label Woodsist puts out Ganglians’ records, but the band’s paying its own way.
“But this is totally a big deal,” Ganglians bassist Adrian Comenzind argues, noting that plenty of friends help the band out nonmonetarily. Local musician Jeannie McDonald’s packing the band and its gear into her Chevy Blazer and playing roadie. They’ll crash at lead singer Ryan Grubbs’ grandparent’s, enjoying a Jacuzzi and stocked liquor cabinet.
In Austin, all the bands will confront lengthy artist check-in queues—which looks like one band with 200 members—the temptation to be wasted 24-seven and very little opportunity for sleep.
“It’s a testament to how we love music, essentially driving almost 2,000 miles to play just two shows,” Ganglians guitarist Kyle Hoover explains, and he’s right: It’s a drive, but there’s also a drive. Dreams of getting signed or breaking through likely are just that: fantasies. SXSW is worth it for these bands simply because, in Austin, everyone’s like-minded. Everyone cares.
You and me and the Devil Makes Three
But not everyone’s 100 percent stoked.
Pete Bernhard is loafing in the shade near the entrance to Lovejoy’s, a crusty downtown Austin dive bar with a cantankerous tattooed woman at the door. It’s toasty, 85-degree Wednesday, the first day of music at SXSW.
Bernhard, vocalist of Davis-based ragtime outfit the Devil Makes Three, is chilling with bandmate Lucia Turino, who plays stand-up bass. The Devil Makes Three should have been on stage 12 minutes ago, but things are running behind, which, surprisingly, is the exception here in Austin.
A half-block north, a mainstream hardcore rock band grinds it out on a monstrous industrial stage to an empty crowd of three rollicking skinny dudes kneeing themselves in the forehead and spinning. Turino and Bernhard cringe. It’s difficult to hear what everyone’s saying; it’s difficult to think.
“We actually aren’t that into festivals like this. We’d rather be playing with bands we know, with friends,” Bernhard admits, conceding this is probably not what SN&R readers want to read in an article about how cool and awesome SXSW purportedly is. But his words speak more to the festival’s actual influence than his indifference.
So why is the Devil Makes Three here? “Our label set this up, so we made a tour out of it,” Bernhard says.
Bernhard, Turino and guitarist Cooper McBean started with a gig on March 12 in Fresno, then beelined to Las Vegas for a show before settling in for three nights in Arizona: Flagstaff, Prescott, Tucson. Then the trio caravanned straight-shot across southern Arizona and most of Texas before arriving in Austin. Bernhard smiles and doesn’t look burned out; the graying black locks unfurling out of his baseball cap aren’t greasy, either. He fiddles with his iPhone and appears to be pumped—or scrupulously caffeinated? Turino also fools: She’s got a wide, beaming, howdy-I’m-in-Texas smile beneath her cap.
It’s the same smirk she shoots across the stage at her bandmates during Devil’s set, which begins 33 minutes late but just in time to stave off a riot by the over-capacity crowd. There are a good 150 people crammed into the bar—standing on the pool table in the back, seated atop the bar. A line of 25 or so frustrated SXSWers don’t even get into the gig.
There isn’t a bar in Sacramento like Lovejoy’s: The décor is brute noir and the feng shui haphazard. In the back near the restrooms, a handwritten essay on the wall espouses the virtues of rebellion, beer chugging and the “fuck society” lifestyle. During the Devil Makes Three’s set, someone throws a glass beer pint, it crashes, and the crowd roars with approval.
God bless Texas.
McBean is Devil’s rhythm guitarist and resides stage left next to an analog jukebox. He plays what looks like an old Gretsch hollow-body guitar, which produces a tinny sound that lends to the band’s lowdown authenticity, a bit of the Django Reinhardt school of blues. His bushy red beard seals the deal. And while his hair is double-braided, there’ll be no Pippi Longstocking jokes this evening: McBean kills it.
Turino is stage right, straddling a stand-up four-string bass that rises just above her frame. Her booty shuffles side to side and her fingers seamlessly run up and down the fretless neck. That smile never leaves her face, and she keeps the band’s energy in check, holding down the rhythm section while the crowd hollers, claps and even crowd-surfs during the rowdier numbers.
One of these more rollicking tracks is “Aces and Twos,” off Devil’s new album, which will drop in April. The uptempo number, which could be a breakthrough single for the band, sets off the crowd. “Yeeeeehaaaa!” You’d never hear folks yell that in Sac. A guy in the front row pumps his fists at Bernhard at the song’s conclusion, screaming, “That’s how you fucking do it!”
Bernhard doesn’t have that deep, guttural twang of your typical country rambler, but instead a straightforward baritone with just the right hint of drawl. His lyrics are down-home and modern, like on a song about his friend Pete, where Bernhard jokes that “He’s got a PowerPoint presentation about some girl he wants to do.”
The crowd sings along to most of the band’s 45-minute set and, when it’s over, 7-inch records are sold. Turino hauls the bass out the bar’s back door. Another band from who knows where takes the stage.
Bernhard may not dig festival scenes, but the SXSW crowd is as neighborly as it gets. Friends of the devil, friends of mine.[page]
Sacramento encounters of the random kind
It’s still winter in Austin, so the intense heat, which bears down like someone above holding a giant magnifying glass, is unforeseen. Free shows with short lines abound on the first day, thankfully. Local art-punk band Mayyors guitarist Chris Woodhouse says that SXSW really doesn’t start till Thursday, but the best time for unfettered enjoyment of undiscovered bands—not headliners like Devo or Daniel Johnston—is on that first SXSW Hump Day afternoon.
Sacramento promoter Brian McKenna is chilling on the back patio at Emo’s, venerable Austin all-ages venue, positioning himself strategically so as to take in Wavves, experimental indie punk, on the outside stage and Psychedelic Horseshit—names says it all—indoors. McKenna runs Abstract Entertainment, so it’s no surprise to run into him at SXSW.
But most of the bumping into Sacramentans at SXSW is random. The west side of town bustles near a Whole Foods that turns out to be the company’s flagship store. Australian bands play upstairs; one would hope for a set in the produce aisle? A freegan girl with a shaved head scavenges eats, fries and ketchup, from the garbage; later, she’s butchering the guitar on South Congress Avenue with a sign, “out uv werk eeenglish teeecher, pleze doughnayte.”
Jesse Phillips, bassist for Sacramento’s Silver Darling, appears out of nowhere on a quiet street, Whole Foods brown bag in tow. He’s heading to Sac natives What’s Up?’s show clear across town. He didn’t buy a badge or wristband but has seen countless free, awesome shows.
Christian Kiefer, who produced Silver Darling’s record, was on his way to see the famous bats that live underneath a bridge over the Colorado River. TAIS, of Sac hip-hop troupe Righteous Movement, got in a cipher, or rhyming battle, with rappers Zion I and Mistah F.A.B. Daniel White of Freebasers was spotted hawking screen-printed Ganglians T-shirts with Liz Liles of Fatty Acid out of the back of a minivan. Paul Imagine shilled his legendary rock-art posters at the Austin Convention Center and Facebooked about chowing too much Salt Lick barbecue.
Ask any of these Sacramento artists whether they’re having a good time and the reply typically is a variation on, “Oh, man, so drunk, barely slept, so exhausted, great bands, having the best time.”
And, except for Kiefer, they’re not performing, either.
On Friday night, when the sun sets, the masses overtake downtown like no other evening during the festival. Crowds emerge from nowhere—hardly anyone drives into the heart of the city—like hip, drunken zombies stumbling in from the hills for a blood-lusty night, a Hot Topic adaptation of the Pleasure Island sequence in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Pulsing, echoey electric-guitar crunches vibrate off downtown’s skyscrapers, which is haunting from afar, like an urban rock opera amid the din. Tens of thousands of revelers march like some kind of occult stampede, sated only by the hardest of tunes and the purest of lager.
It’s about 20 minutes to 9 p.m. The vocalist of Sacramento’s Mayyors—who prefers to be anonymous, so we’ll call him Ben Richards—is standing alone in the main room of Spiro’s, a gloomy club with a tiny stage near the entrance, lackluster bar in the back, no tables or chairs and only a handful of people in attendance so far. He recently drove for two-and-a-half days with the group’s guitarist. He did all the driving, because Woodhouse, in his 30s, doesn’t know how to drive.
“Who knows what the hell this place is when SXSW isn’t going on,” Richards remarks of the venue, and he’s spot on: So many of these downtown Austin digs are hit-and-miss. Spiro’s is especially suspect. Arched mirrors that give the room a ghostly effect, a Budweiser pool-table lamp above the stage, soundboard set up on a bingo table—it’s a crappy bar and funky venue; maybe at one point it was a Moroccan restaurant?
“Welcome to the heart of darkness, man,” Richards laughs, but he’s kind of serious. “This whole SXSW is really corporate.” He describes walking down Sixth Street, the main downtown drag that’s closed off to cars, and being kind of astonished by the mob setting.
Mayyors begins, and the band’s bold, underground, thrashy art punk annihilates this SXSW nightmare.
Richards stands in the crowd for the entire set, wearing industrial headphones, a telltale sign that this show’s gonna be, if anything, deafening. Bassist Mark Kaiser is stage left in jeans; Julian Elorduy behind the kit in running shorts. You can’t see Woodhouse’s mug, what with his long black hair covering it, but he’s armed with a Gibson SG and a spread of effects, pedals and doohickeys. A suddenly bigger crowd of 75 people encircles the stage.
In Sacramento, Mayyors almost exclusively play house shows, so it’s odd to see them playing a sanctioned, official SXSW showcase. But this has no bearing on their set, except that they don’t pass out the usual free beers beforehand.
Richards hoists the mic into the air and Woodhouse unleashes a burst of feedback, a cue for the guys in the front to slam into Richards. One dude in the front knows the songs and appears to be singing along, but to the virgin-ear Mayyors lyrics are indiscernible. Woodhouse leaps from the stage, fiercely, and backs into the crowd, moving it a couple yards. He then crouches over, slamming his head into the monitors. Someone smacks the Budweiser lamp above Richards, which miraculously doesn’t come crashing down.
Woodhouse runs on the guitar with hummingbird speed and proficiency, then slays a riff like he’s sharpening kitchen knives. Kaiser bumps the bass, standing wide, then leaps and shoves his ax into a cabinet. Richards runs his vocals through a Memory Man analog delay, drenched in chorus, but this for some reason makes his vocalizations sound decidedly more human than not.
The set ends and, like a thunderstorm aftermath, Richards is drenched. The crowd applauds, but looks a bit shocked: such ferocious noise, such furious musicianship.
The Mayyors don’t use MySpace or have a Web site. Bandmates don’t do press and won’t necessarily appreciate press covering them. They release their music exclusively on vinyl.
But Mayyors represents enthusiasm and dedication to underground music that is the cornerstone of festivals like SXSW. This whole week may be corporate and evil and whatever, but by the look of Richards engaging friends and fans after the Spiro’s set, somewhere deep down, he no doubt loves the hell out of it.
Secret Agent show
Instead of accepting a New York Post photographer’s invite to the Spin magazine party, with its red carpet, industry hobnobbing and free everything, yours truly takes the road less traveled—literally, hoofing it 3 miles across town to a shindig for Tape Op, a Sacramento-based recording-arts publication.
And the party is everything you’d expect from gathering of sound designers. No Perez Hilton or Steve Aoki or Quincy Jones. Just geeks.
The goal all week has been to see locals Two Sheds, whose mellow, brooding Americana should appeal to the Austin concertgoers. But having a plan at SXSW is futile; the only worthwhile itinerary is a combination of being in the know, blind determinedness and luck. So the Two Sheds gig is an unfortunate miss, but a different local band out of the blue makes its way into the day planner: Agent Ribbons.
Austin’s flat, gridlike streets give way to San Francisco-like hills just west of the city’s Capitol building. It’s a quiet neighborhood, too, its late 19th-century Victorian homes and general calmness a welcome reprieve from the Sixth Street madhouse. Khabele School, a college-preparatory private institution, is tucked away in this neighborhood, and this is where there’s free beer and Agent Ribbons.
Ribbons’ drummer Lauren Hess and guitarist/vocalist Natalie Gordon recently invited a third member, Naomi Cherie, into the band. She’s wearing a red summer dress and a hat embellished with fake flowers, and her presence in the group is a pleasant addition.
On the more feverish rock numbers, Cherie stands and plays vibrant violin melodies that lend a frenetic panic to the otherwise straightforward rock. On Ribbons’ newer songs—the band recently recorded a vinyl 7-inch, Your Love Is the Smallest Doll—Cherie sits and plays cello harmonies. These new tracks are dark, mellow ballads in minor keys, a curious departure from Ribbons’ theatrical, Patsy Cline-inspired rock. But they’re promising.
The crowd at Khabele is well behaved if a bit passive, but they respond to Ribbons’ half-hour set and gravitate closer and closer to the stage with each song.
Hess says that the band has been in Austin for more than a week, since March 12, because they played a show at the SXSW film festival, too. She personally admits to being a bit worn out. She and Gordon and Cherie toured on the way to Texas, will tour on the way back to Sac and then will tour the northwestern United States through May.
In June, they’ll tour Spain.
So, like the willowy, high-pitched alto squeals that occasionally sneak from Gordon’s throat, SXSW is just a blip on Agent Ribbons radar. But, as Hess says, one they’ll no doubt do over again next year.[page]
Unlike East Sacramento, the eastern neighborhoods of Austin are befitting of a Ganglians show. Latin pop blares from open bar doors where Hispanic-speaking tipplers enjoy Negra Modelos. Hippies on bikes tow cattle-dog mutts in secondhand carriages meant for toddlers. A packed house show of drunk teenagers hosts bands with names like Chihuahua and Gay Duo.
And on the 1100 block of east Sixth Street, the four Ganglians—notorious for taking their sweet time to set up before a show—are onstage and ready to perform. Drummer Alex Sowles wears shades and just kind of looks like he’s been enjoying SXSW the most, perhaps too much. Bassist Comenzind and guitarist Hoover make eye contact, readying to begin. And vocalist Ryan Grubbs is perched over what he calls his “skuzzy gear,” like the generic, beat-up Casio keyboard his fingers rest on. His long, thin hair whips in the breeze.
Ganglians are a Midtown band. They work retail jobs and scraped up just enough gas money to get to Texas. The band’s sound hearkens to Austin’s east-side vibe: Grubbs’ vocals are heavily manipulated by reverb and vibrato, rendering his beautiful and soaring harmonies rough, grungy and streetwise. The Ganglians’ stylings are less produced, and they use hand-me-down gear. You might liken them to a more ethereal and rough early Pavement.
The band’s 30-minute, 5:30 p.m. Saturday set is part of a larger Woodsist records showcase featuring avante garde pop-rock bands like Eat Skull and the popular No Age. For a band that just formed in late 2007, Ganglians being part of this lineup is a big leap insofar as being recognized as a viable act, which likely will lead to better shows and tours.
They’ve come a long way already, and fast: from recording inside Tower Theatre to stolen Telecasters to never getting paid at Sac gigs to having to wear the same clothes every day in Texas to being the center of attention on this chill back patio at Ms. Bea’s, a ramshackle bar/venue with a large and motley hipster crowd.
“This is the opportunity to play with bands I listen to and enjoy, bands that matter,” Grubbs sums up. No doubt the rest of the Woodsist lineup would concur.
‘What have you seen that you liked?’
Small, puffy stratus clouds with hints of orange and red decorate the Austin sky. The line at The Best Wurst, the famous brat and hot-dog stand on Sixth Street, is a couple dozen deep just before midnight. A fight near a bar called Peckerheads just about gets out of control before the police break it up. Earlier in the week, teenagers start a mini riot outside Emo’s at local promoter Eric Rushing’s Artery Foundation showcase when an unanticipated 1,500 kids show up to see the Devil Wears Prada. One kid cuts in line. Another throws a rubber trash can at the gang. Then someone chucks a glass bottle.
SXSW is sometimes too much. The festival’s in that odd gray area, where its transition from underground-music gathering to niche-industry expo to full-fledged mainstream extravaganza might possibly alienate the base audience that made it what it is today. People, especially local music enthusiasts, like to point this fact out, especially if you have a press badge around your neck.
But the question you get asked the most at SXSW is “What have you seen that you liked?” And while sometimes asked in earnest, this often is a loaded question: The person inquiring wants to prove: 1. your inferior taste, and 2. their superior wisdom and savvy. It’s like that old music joke:
“How many indie rockers does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“Oh, some obscure number you’ve probably never even heard of.”
People like to brag that they got into the Perez Hilton and Rachael Ray SXSW parties, or that they saw Metallica’s not-so-secret show at Stubb’s, or that they were the first to hear that Kanye West was going to play the Levi’s Fader Fort, a small village of consumerism and live music constructed just for SXSW.
But this is not why Sacramentans go to Texas. They come for bands like New York’s Here We Go Magic. Or all the amazing foreign acts from Scotland, Spain and Africa. And for the friends they’ve met on the road over the years.
But, most importantly, they come because Austin, in spite of the festival’s shortcomings, gives them love—something that just doesn’t happen so much here in Sacramento.
On Saturday night, at the end of the festival, close to 5,000 people cross the First Street bridge downtown to attend a free concert at Auditorium Shores along the Colorado River.
“This is like a dream. I never expected so many people,” guitarist Munaf Rayani shares from the stage just before the last set of the festival. “We’re Explosions in the Sky and we’re from this city. Come dream with us.”
Sacramentans come to Austin because they’re drawn to a city that, two decades ago, decided to spend money, time and love on music. It’s paid off in spades, of course, but in the beginning, it took a risk.
For Sacramento, it’s a risk still worth dreaming.