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  South By Southwest 2011  



Austin, TX


Matthew and the Atlas, Reptar, Dry the River, Venice Is Sinking, Cheap Girls, Colin Stetson, Wires Under Tension, and Balmorhea

Reviewed by:
  Tracers and PostLibyan  
Photographs by:



If SxSW is a marathon, then it is Saturday that is the home stretch. Not that i really know anything about marathons (that’s Inspector Jason’s hobby) or running in general (i only run if someone is chasing me with a knife). In past SxSW experiences. when Saturday dawns i am more than ready to go home. In 2011, however, i had paced myself well, and was not sick of the crowds. In fact, EvilSponge had planned ahead to make Saturday a “slow day” in order to prevent getting fed up.

We slept in a little late and then went to a real Starbuck’s for coffee, rather than waiting in the long line through the lobby of the Hilton for the burnt Sumatra the cafe served. This morning, the crispness of the new Tribute blend really sparkled, making for a fun morning sitting in the winds watching folks mill about on Fifth Street.

We headed out for Turkish food, grabbing a kebab from the Kebabalicious street truck. It was tasty, but not generally remarkable for Turkish food. I could get similar food at any number of Turkish places in east Decatur, near my home. Then again, i am kind of spoiled for Turkish food in my neighborhood. It did hit the spot though, and we walked to Sixth Street for our sole venture to this mayhem on the last day of the festival. We headed to Klub Krucial, which is apparently Austin’s hip-hop club, to see folk-rock. It was a strange juxtaposition, and indeed the staff seemed a little confused by the music that was occurring, but i guess the show had to be put somewhere.

No one was on the inside stage, so we wandered outside. A five-piece act was setting up with piano and banjo, and i thought, “Ah, country music!” Then the singer opened his voice to talk to the soundguy about the soundcheck, and he had a British accent! Suddenly i wasn’t so sure they would be country -- perhaps this was English folk music or something. As someone who lives in The South, i am skeptical towards the thought that anyone _not_ from The South can really even make country music.


Please note that one of the many origins of what we consider as "country music" come from the traditional instrumentation played by the early Scots/Irish settlers of the Appalachian region. So I can see where some Brits might be able to make country-ish tunes. Just saying.


I say, England is a country after all, old chap.

Yeah, yeah -- old Scotch Irish Appalachians. Whatever. That was a long time ago... Anyway, the band introduced themselves at Matthew and the Atlas, and they were pleasant. The female pianist harmonized well with Matthew’s vocals, and i liked the piano playing that she added to their sound. We listened for a song or two until a band set up inside.

This proved to be Reptar, who are from Athens, GA. I had kind of wanted to see them out of some sense of regional pride, i suppose. Well, they are a 6-piece band, including a guy who played a Moog synthesizer kneeling on the ground at the back of the stage, near the drum kit. He was barely noticeably, and, what’s even weirder, he was dressed in a purple Teletubby costume. Why even wear a costume like that if you are going to crouch at the back of the stage? The costume really confused me.


Reptar made a sort of spastic dance rock, with lots of keyboards and intense drumming. The vocalist varied between loud screaming and a sort of Vampire Weekend-like quirkiness. In general their music was energetic and kind of fun, but not something i would rush out to see again. Unless they all dressed in Teletubby costumes...


Reptar just seemed a bit strange to me; I wasn't surprised to find out they were from Athens, as they had the vague weirdness of certain, more recent Athenian bands (think We Versus The Shark) combined with a rave danciness that seems to be popular these days. It was sort of confrontational at times, but for a type of music I don't normally get into, they were enjoyable enough.


And then we stood around waiting for Dry the River, the band that brought us out to this show. Last time we saw the band, on Wednesday, they had played as a four-piece, crafting melody-rich, light pop. Impressed, we looked them up online to discover that their drummer would make it in time for this show, so we went to hear what their full band lineup was like.

In a word: even better. They were enjoyable as an act with only occasional percussion, but with a drummer present, freeing the violinist to play that instrument full time, their sound soared. Live they reminded me of the early work of The Frames, or perhaps My Latest Novel. It was passionate music that ebbed and flowed, with vocal harmonies and lots of melody.


I think I can officially declare I was totally entranced by Dry The River in their full line up. The harmonies were even better than the first time I heard them and the drummer really controlled the ebbs and flows of the songs with his beats. On top of it, I still think the lead singer had an absolutely gorgeous voice. This especially came across in a song that I believe was titled Family Tree, which began with a vaguely mournful feel that became cathartic as the whole band began to croon. Wow. Just simply Wow.


For a band i had never even heard of before a few days ago, they really impressed. Look for more reviews about this band here on EvilSponge in the future. And if you have the chance to check them out, do so. You won’t regret it.

They were so wonderful that we left after their set, not wanting anything else to sully our memories of that wonderful performance. We stepped out and watched the mayhem on Sixth Street for a bit, and then Tracers got a green apple slushee. We spent the afternoon wandering around.

Nice bathroom on this food trucker/trailer.

The Texas Lottery is oddly polite.

We discovered that the actual SxSW Trade Show only lasted two days, and that now the Convention Center was filled with clothing retailers. They called this “Style X”, but really it was just a mall. Unimpressed, we grabbed our last free shot of Macallan, prepped our suitcases for the early flight out tomorrow, and watched the crowds.

We took our time walking down to the west side of town, across Congress from the main focus of the festival. We were beginning our showcases way off the main strip, so we went in search of food in that location. I had found a good beer bar online called The Ginger Man, and it looked intriguing. Sadly, they do not really serve food there, so we ended up going to a high-end Mexican restaurant called Cantina Laredo. This place had tablecloths and was delightfully free of hipsters. We had a leisurely meal, and i thought the food was rather tasty.

Then we went back to The Ginger Man for a round of drinks. They have a huge wall of taps, and i was able to get a Boddington’s on tap. I don’t think i have ever had that on draught before, and it is one of my favorite beers. On draught, the beer is even smoother than you can imagine, like butter in a cup.

Satisfied with a good meal and a good beer, we walked the last few blocks to The Ghost Room to catch Athenian act Venice Is Sinking. The Ghost Room is a nice bar with good, solid hardwood flooring and wooden stadium seating along one wall. They have a spacious back patio, and the door was open, causing a wonderful airflow through the building. I liked the place.

EvilSponge likes Venice Is Sinking a lot, and i was looking forward to seeing them. They had a different bassist tonight, but the bassist position is the most fluid in the band. They played Okay and Tugboat Captain, perfect pop gems. They wanted to end with Bardstown Road, and had already started it and introduced it as such, when the sound guy told them they had one more after that. They played it through, then ended on a new song. They played four new tunes tonight, and they were all good. Typical of Venice Is Sinking, but worthwhile nonetheless. I was pleased to hear new material from the band.

They don't wanna go to your party...


In the last couple of years, Venice Is Sinking has really congealed as a band. As such, and as they've put together a solid set of tunes, it's gotten to the point where you can pretty much count on them putting on an excellent set. This was no different, as they played older favorites (including their sublime cover of Tugboat Captain) interspersed with new songs. These new songs aren't necessarily anything earth shaking in the context of the band, but they are really good tunes that demonstrate Venice Is Sinking continue to know how to write well.

Karolyn is nonplussed by the small crowd.


As Venice Is Sinking played, their complex pop reverbing around the big wooden Ghost Room, filling it with rich tones and near perfect harmonies, i looked around at the sparse attendance. There were, maybe, 20 people watching the show. Two very trendy, tattooed women moved past me in an obvious hurry, rushing past the band to the outside patio to see and be seen. As they passed, I had a moment of irritation at humanity.

Venice Is Sinking are a great band. They might be the best band that Georgia has to offer, and i am really impressed with everything they do. Tonight’s set was as beautiful as music can be, and i can honestly think of nothing the band could have done to make it better. And yet, some people acted as if they were nothing special. I remember standing there, watching the two trendy ladies hurry out to the patio and thinking, “Why the hell isn’t this band more popular?” Venice Is Sinking should be playing to much larger crowds. Why aren’t they? What is wrong with the world that this band plays to a handful, while other, far less talented acts play to packed clubs? When i think of things like this, i weep for humanity, and its general inability to put actual beauty ahead of conformity.

But what are you going to do?

To sum up: Venice Is Sinking is an awesome band -- buy their records. They are great live -- go see them if you have a chance. And the sound at The Ghost Room is really good -- i would go see music there again, if i had the chance.

After the set was over, we steeled ourselves for our long trek down to the main drag, where we were going to see a punk band recommended by one of Tracers’ grad school friends. It was an eleven block hike, but we made good time, making it to Barbarella before Cheap Girls had even begun to play. This club was a little more crowded than The Ghost Room. Alas, it was also a lot more stuffy.

We stood back and watched Cheap Girls, a power pop-punk trio. Think the catchiness of Green Day and the guitar growl of Sugar, and you are close. The drumming sometimes reminded me of Jon Wurster’s deep thudding in Superchunk, and the voice was often lost behind the guitar.

I stood there bouncing along and thoroughly enjoyed their set. Good stuff.


I gotta say I thoroughly enjoyed Cheap Girls. But then again, in my world, what's not to like about a Sugar/Superchunk influence indie rock trio? They weren't anything ground-breaking, but they were catchy and bouncy and thoroughly enjoyable. Additionally, they played to a pretty good little crowd, even if it was very male-oriented (at one point, I counted only 8 women in the crowd, including myself). Still, great fun and a nice palate cleanser before the next stop…


After that, i dragged Tracers to something a little more offbeat: avant jazz. We walked up Red River to Club DeVille, to see Montreal-based saxophonist Colin Stetson perform against the white stone cliff of the side lot.

I had listened to Colin Stetson’s latest record, and it is really interesting. Almost ambient at times, and at other times jazzy. I thought that the music was made with delay pedals and perhaps some sort of synthesizer or sampler. But no. It was just him, one short, very muscular guy with a giant saxophone, blowing like crazy and somehow creating a layered sound. Honestly, i have no idea how he made it sound like there were many instruments up there, when i could plainly see it was just one guy.

Did i mention he had a GIANT sax?

I thought his performance was awfully interesting, and rather faithful to what i heard on his record. I was impressed, and Tracers did not insist we leave halfway through, which tells me that she did not, at least, hate it.


Ah….Avant jazz saxophone. Yup. I went to an Avant Jazz show and I didn't want to shoot myself. Now a lot of that is because, although I couldn't tell you a durn thing about Colin Stetson, even to my untrained ears, it was clear the man was doing amazing stuff with just a saxophone. Considering the layers of music I could hear, that was a very impressive feat. And sometimes, even though it's not music you appreciate, you have to get a musician credit for being very talented and very very interesting. Colin Stetson was all of that and more, so I can't really complain.


We then had to trek all the way back across town, to Lambert’s, a few blocks south of The Ghost Room, another place that we had never been to before. Turns out that Lamberts is a high-end froofy-looking barbecue restaurant. Think organic grass-fed ribs and martinis and brushed steel counters in a dimly lit room. The food smelled good, but bands were upstairs.

We got there to see a band having trouble with their setup. They were called Wires Under Tension and were a two-piece band with, you guessed it, a laptop and lots of electronic gear. Ugh -- laptop wiring issues were the bane of this festival.

Well, Wires Under Tension eventually worked it out, and when they started to play it was apparent that the electronics were a little more integral to their sound than that of some other bands. (I’ll just say what most of us are thinking: in 95% of all live performances, the laptop isn’t really heard over the drums and the guitars anyway, so just let it go, man!) You see, Wires Under Tension are a looping band.

One member sat at a drum kit with a small keyboard and a xylophone. He would play one bit into a sampler and loop it, then play another. Meanwhile the other member had a violin, guitar, and several keyboards. He would do something similar, say, looping a violin part before playing guitar. He also ran the laptop, which provided the skeletal underbeat of the songs. In this case, the laptop was actually kind of essential. As i watched the band perform, i thought that what they doing, layering their songs live, seemed awfully difficult. It seems to me that they way they do their songs requires a lot of skill.

Very complicated.

And they managed to pull it off. Often their music reminded me of the brief Acid Jazz trend of the late 1990s, specifically referencing The James Taylor Quartet. It was funky and complex, with crazy rhythms and an overall mellow vibe. I was impressed.


I rather liked Wires Under Tension. PostLibyan said they were vaguely acid jazz, but I’m not sure I agree (then again, I'm not a jazzy person in general). Rather I heard loops in layers upon layers of music. It was a true soundscape that evoked emotions and memories as it drew you into the band's insular world. Pretty neat, I gotta admit.


But the reason we had made the long walk to this venue was next. We had decided to end the entire festival on a high note with Austinian post-rock/pseudo-classical act Balmorhea. I have reviewed them here before, gushing over their live set at The EARL back in September of last year. I could do that again, pointing out how Balmorhea make a unique blend of music. However, i don’t want to do that. We ended SxSW 2011 with Balmorhea in order to end on a high note. We were in an uncrowded club, able to hear the band and their complicated music. I didn’t want to strangle anyone in the crowd, and was able to sit there and just float on the sounds. I do want to indicate that they played some new stuff tonight, including a few more songs with vocals than the previous time i had seen them.


Ah, Balmorhea were another just lovely act. They built, in some ways, on the tone and feel Wires Under Tension had first created and just took it to a whole new level. Throughout their set, I stood on the club floor with my eyes half closed, as I didn't want anything to distract me from letting the waves of music just wash over me. It was a soothing, settling feel that left me in a dreamily happy fugue state at the end of SxSW. Just perfect.


It was a perfectly relaxing end to what turned out to be a pretty fun festival. After that, even though there was still one more round of official showcases, EvilSponge headed back to the hotel, for a night cap, a long nap, then a flight home, to our houses and felines.

SxSW is a hell of an experience, and i am glad that i go to it. It is exhausting, and at times dims my already poor view of humanity. But there is no other place to so fully immerse yourself in music, and that's what EvilSponge is really all about, after all.

Related Links:

Read our entire SxSW11 review:
     The Introduction.
     Tuesday, 15 March.
     Wednesday, 16 March, featuring Judgement Day, Rah Rah, King David, Gold Motel, Ólöf Arnalds, Summer Camp, Dry the River, Eisley, Sun Airway, Small Black, and Parts & Labor.
     Thursday, 17 March, featuring Rah Rah, Little Tybee, Sealions, Simon Says No, Resplandor, Magic Bullets, Royal Thunder, The Wooden Birds, Say Hi, and Maps and Atlases.
Friday, 18 March, featuring The Fling, The Dears, Eulogies, Gold Motel, Pontiak, Shimmering Stars, Los Impostors, Class Actress, Santah, Oh No, Oh My, and Elizabeth and the Catapult.
Saturday, 19 March, featuring Matthew and the Atlas, Reptar, Dry the River, Venice Is Sinking, Cheap Girls, Colin Stetson, Wires Under Tension, and Balmorhea.
Band links for today:
   Matthew and the Atlas:
   Dry the River:
   Venice Is Sinking:
   Cheap Girls:
   Colin Stetson:
   Wires Under Tension:


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