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SXSW 2013 Guest Blog: Churchwood Catch the Flaming Lips, Experience Fest from Grown-Up POV

Churchwood
Leon Alesi

[Editor's Note: In hopes of providing better, smarter, more insightful SXSW 2013 coverage, Diffuser.fm asked several bands to file guest blog posts throughout the festival. Austin's own Churchwood was among those that accepted our offer, and we're glad they did. The Beefheart-esque blues-rock band knows the town and the South By drill, and in this latest dispatch, bassist Adam Kahan ponders what makes a successful festival experience. Enjoy!]

One thing I’ve learned over 16 years of participating in SXSW is that it is an elaborate game — one where the audience navigates a series of decisions, and the sum of those decisions, combined with a variety of parameters and subjective criteria, results in success or failure. These concepts  are largely subjective within the context of the festival itself; for many locals, the idea of success in the game of SXSW is colored by the enormous logistical inconvenience it causes. Most of my local friends have narrowed down their parameters to seeing local bands at free day parties to ensure a feeling of success by the end of the week — if your expectations are low, then your chance of success is better.  While I always enjoy hanging out with my friends during SXSW, I have always found that opening myself up to any opportunity and allowing the possibility of change has allowed me to have a bounty of life-changing musical experiences over the years.

All that said, SXSW is a young, untethered person’s game, and I am no longer young or untethered. In 2011, my wife and I had our first child, and as the kids say, that’s a gamechanger. Between my gigs (I play bass in Churchwood with your usual host, Joe), my wife’s gigs (she wrangles the bass in local combo Mostly Dead) and our responsibilities as parents, SXSW 2012 became the year I went from seeing 50 bands in a week to seeing five bands. With no credentials for the first time ever, my expectations were lowered accordingly, and I redefined what success was for me. Catching a Dan Deacon set from the urine-soaked alley behind Beauty Bar last year, I pondered whether I’d ever experience SXSW the way I had for the 15 years prior — intensely and immersively.

Churchwood’s new album release was timed well to get us into the festival, and knowing we’d have credentials to get us into the various showcases allowed me to start raising those expectations. A standard for success became apparent to me — Nick Cave, an artist I’ve admired for more than half of my life, would be performing at Stubb’s. This became the frame for the weekend’s success or failure. By now, if you’ve been following news of this years festival, you should know that Mr. Cave provided the first shut-out of most festival-goers weekend, myself included. Was this failure, and on the first full day of the festival? I arrived at a crossroads where I could let that one disappointment cloud my experience of the rest of the week, or retool my concept of success or failure and see where the dice land.

Churchwood played a great day party on Thursday, which Joe has already talked about in a prior blog, and a brief, shining moment of personal success seemed to be the spark that fired a night of show-going success that matches any prior SXSW experience I’ve had. I left the Ginger Man and walked across the bridge to the Continental, where I caught great sets by Cheyenne Mize, and another lifetime inspiration, Robyn Hitchcock. Robyn’s set contained a sampling of songs from across his career, and guest appearances from Amanda Palmer, Jody Stephens (Big Star), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows), Ken Stringfellow (Posies) and producer Joe Boyd, as well as a sweet and strange cover of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man.’ Subsequent stops along the route of SXSW success as my Thursday continued included part of great sets by the Specials, Bernie Worrell, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section with Spooner Oldham and Donna Jean Godchaux, and a brief interlude with Ray Wylie Hubbard. Finally I arrived at another crucial decision-making point — should I try to fight my way into the Flaming Lips at the Belmont, or catch the Polyphonic Spree on the other side of downtown? Feeling like I’d already beaten the odds for the night, I chose to spend the last slot of the evening with the Spree, who have always seemed like a gentle younger sister to the weird druggy brother of the Flaming Lips. After enjoying about an hour of the Spree, I decided to head home to get some sleep for the next day’s insanity. As Joe also mentioned in a previous blog, as I walked to my car I heard the Lips still playing, and waltzed right in without even having to show my wristband to the door-girl. The two songs I caught were great, and could have allowed me to replace my Friday night date with the Lips at Auditorium Shores for something more intimate.

Friday, after taking care of the few remaining responsibilities I had for the week, I made the decision to head down to Auditorium Shores to catch the full Flaming Lips set. This was the best decision I made all week. To call the Lips “cutting-edge” or “experimental” seems like a ridiculous understatement — the entire trajectory of their career has been dictated by constant change. After a decade or so of building on the show they debuted back in 1999 at SXSW, the rumors were out that they had a totally new direction prepared, and the rumors were true. The first hour-long set was their new album, ‘The Terror,’ and true to it’s title, the music was creepy, weird, and downright uncomfortable. As the lowest-common-denominator crowd rapidly exited in a spirit of confusion even anger, I thrilled to the idea that pop music is still art, full of surprises, revelations, and entirely subjective down to the individual audient. After delivering an hour of gut-churning weirdness — electronic throbbing, glitchy light effects and the disturbing spectacle of frontman Wayne Coyne nursing some sort of electronic baby with light-emitting tendrils connected to the stage — the Lips satisfied the scattered remaining audience with a run through the first half of their album ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,’ and a guest spot by SXSW MVP Jim James of My Morning Jacket on the classic tune ‘Do You Realize.’

And that, folks, is how I’ll define this years SXSW success for myself — the sum of those snap decisions resulting in life-changing musical experiences and memories.

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