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SXSW 2013: Some bests and worsts of a chaotic week

March 18, 2013|By Randall Roberts | Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Devendra Banhart performs at Hotel St. Cecilia in Austin on Friday, March 15.
Devendra Banhart performs at Hotel St. Cecilia in Austin on Friday, March… (Randall Roberts / Los Angeles…)

AUSTIN, Texas -- Below is a highly subjective list of bests and worsts of the South by Southwest music festival, which concluded Sunday after many thousands of performances over six packed days.

Best fan/singer interaction: During the Austin punk band A Giant Dog’s thrilling set of bare bones punk, the charismatic singer Sabrina Ellis complained about the heat. “Could you all blow on me?” she politely asked. The response from one subservient fan: “Yes, Lord!”

Best Beatles cover: During a night celebrating 50 years of the Beatles, the Pyramids, which features Tim Nordwind of OK Go and charismatic singer Drea Smith, chose two gems from the white album. “I’m So Tired” and “Dear Prudence.” Both were excellent renditions, but the first, “I’m So Tired,” seemed to capture the woozy state of many attendees by Friday night.

Best interaction with nature: During a wonderfully low-key set of new songs at the Nonesuch Day party at Hotel St. Cecilia, folk singer Devendra Banhart was strumming his guitar and singing beneath a majestic live oak tree. During an instrumental break, a very vocal bird started singing above. Rather than compete, Banhart extended his instrumental run a few bars and the bird did a mesmerizing solo. Then Banhart continued on as if the whole thing had been planned. It might have been. 

Best curse: During his set at St. David’s Episcopal Church, singer-songwriter C.T. Taylor, who records as Hiss Golden Messenger, issued a dedication, as a curse, to North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Using unprintably salty language, the singer, from Durham, then offered an addendum: “But I could also dedicate this to the new pope,” he said. Taylor  then moved into a song -- I think it was “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” -- with gentle strums of his acoustic guitar. A moment in, though, Taylor stopped to correct his tuning, saying: “If I’m going to send out a curse, I want it to be in the right key.” He then continued.

Best out-of-nowhere surprise: The Norwegian blue-eyed soul singer Bernhoft stunned a lot of people over the week. I saw him at the little bar Stephen A.’s, where he engaged a rapt crowd with his layered, soulful music. Conjuring the raw sound of Richie Havens and Sly Stone with the spirit of Mayer Hawthorne and Sharon Jones, Bernhoft is so obviously a star that it feels only a matter of time before he breaks stateside.

Best lyric explication: Iggy Pop described "Burn," a new song by him and his Stooges, as being about “when you’re ashamed that somebody got the better of you -- and you want to beat that guy.” 

Best between-song observation: During Earl Sweatshirt’s festival debut performance at the Scoot Inn on Wednesday, the L.A. rapper and member of Odd Future issued a single three-word declaration that perfectly captured the spirit of South by Southwest. With beat-maker Flying Lotus to his side offering rhythms, Sweatshirt’s early nerves vanished, and a look of relief washed across his face as his fans rapped along: “This is fun!” he said as his fans cheered. 

Best dedication: Nashville guitarist William Tyler explained the genesis of one of his beautifully rendered songs that was written about the notorious big-budget 1980 film "Heaven's Gate," which was released the day that Tyler was born -- and consequently became one of the biggest flops in movie history. That fact, he said, had cast a pall over the narrative of his life. "I grew up in the shadow of this failed movie," he said, suggesting that the connection between art and life runs deep. He finds solace, he added, that the movie is currently receiving a new acclaim after decades of ridicule.

Worst stage: How humiliating it must have been to perform beneath a big Doritos vending machine. I could only stomach watching the rising L.A. fraternal duo the Bots for the duration of a half-bag of free chips before feeling both disgusted with myself and the band for participating in such an endeavor. 

It wasn’t even the sponsorship per se that rankled. It was the sense that the chip company was engaging the artists in a sadistic endeavor, as if to say, “You can take our money, but you will have to perform within the vending machine. And on the video screen while you perform we will intermingle shots of you playing your creations while not-so-subliminal images of triangles flashing on the screen.” Whether Doritos made artists also lick its boots is unknown. 

Best comment from a hipster waiting for the chance to see Justin Timberlake: “I just want to go home, sit in the bathtub and listen to Adele.”

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Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit


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