Boston in Austin

Black Helicopter’s trip to South by Southwest
By JEFF BREEZE  |  March 20, 2007

HELLO CLEVELAND!: Black Helicopter constructed a two-week tour around their trip to Texas.

There were 26 bands from Massachusetts in Austin last week to play the South by Southwest music conference. Some flew down; others made a tour out of it by driving. Black Helicopter opted for the latter, having borrowed a van from the Beatings and constructed a two-week trip around a SxSW showcase for their label, Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace imprint. And I was along for the ride, not just as chronicler but also as navigator, tour manager, and band member, playing keyboards, percussion, and singing. In case you were wondering: squeezing five guys and a mountain of gear into a 15-passenger van bears little resemblance to the romance of Almost Famous.

No one in the band has been to SxSW or Austin in at least 10 years, and the city we see as we drive in is much different from what anyone remembers — more venues for bands, more things going on. Ecstatic Peace has gathered a slew of performers to fill both stages at a venue called the Mohawk. And it has a stack of Pizza Hut pies delivered to the top patio, where the bands have gathered before the Friday show.

The Mohawk is massive, with indoor and outdoor stages, so all night there’s a band ready to start just as soon as the previous one finishes. The noisier experimental stuff is booked for the inside stage; the more song-oriented rockers are outside. The good news is that there’s a line stretching down the block for our showcase, perhaps because someone was sharp-witted enough to put “and special guests” on the poster. Sure enough, the rumor mill has been churning with speculation about Sonic Youth and the Stooges.

Thurston is there to kick off the noise with an instrumental set. Three other musicians join him to make raucous waves of sound grounded only by the drums. It’s fun; it’s also pretty obvious that the crowd is there only for Thurston.

One of the scheduled outdoor-stage bands, Monotract, have gotten snowbound at La Guardia. Filling in are Nashville’s Turbofruit, a new outfit featuring members of the Ecstatic Peace band Be Your Own Pet. They’re young, and they’ve got energy and ideas, but they could use more in the way of memorable hooks. And their Tennessee vibe is a bit out of place on a bill heavy with Northeastern noise. Back inside, the Easthampton-based Gown play moody guitar pieces, but we’re rushing to set up our gear outside.

For the first time this tour, Black Helicopter create and adhere to a set list. “The Good Times” is the set opener: it raises our confidence as people stop and pay attention. A quick shift in gears brings out “Buick Elektra,” “Casio,” and “Mousemeat,” and it all feels great. There are a few familiar faces from back home in the crowd, along with a couple of expats now living in Austin. Yet nobody seems to want to get within 20 feet of the stage. People are interested in watching, but it seems no one wants to catch whatever we’ve got.

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