by Josh Gross
The biggest thing on my agenda for the first evening of the 2013 SXSW music conference was a slightly unusual event, given the nature of the gathering: People of Letters.
It was the first American edition of a popular Australian event called Women of Letters, in which a curated series of interesting writers and other notables (including some men, in the case of SXSW) read specially composed letters they have written based on a theme for the event.
"We're hellbent on programming people that we think are geniuses, and putting them next to people you have heard of," said the event's host and co-curator, Michaela McGuire.
The theme for the evening was to write a letter to the thing participants wished they'd written.
Charged with that task was songwriter Emma Swift, rocker Jenny Owens Young, rapper Buck 65, novelist Neil Gaiman, singer Amanda Palmer, singer Kim Boekbinder and filmmaker John Sayles.
The letters ranged from Owens Young writing an epistle to the album, "Nevermind," by Nirvana, to Gaiman penning a missive to the Penthouse Forum letter he wished he'd written at age 15, to Sayles' letter to the national anthem.
"Let's face it: you're too fucking hard to sing," Sayles wrote.
The rawest of the bunch was from Palmer, who wrote a letter confessing how much she idolized her deceased stepbrother. The strangest was from Buck 65, whose letter began: "Dear 'fuck off ya punks' written in correction fluid on the brick wall outside the Green Bean Cafe in Hallifax, Nova Scotia for a week many years ago." And it only got better from there.
Part storytelling event, part bizarre journey into the artist's thought process, all entertainment.
When that ended, I rolled up the street to the Pitchfork Showcase at Mohawk, to catch guitar whiz Marnie Stern, who will be coming to Boise Tuesday, April 23. She was all she was cracked up to be, with truly dazzling fretwork that (unlike most shredders) doesn't come across as corny.
Following Stern was New York group Diiv, which had a straight-ahead rock approach, but with nice clean guitar melodies on top, sort of like early The Cure, if it had a tone and feel more in line with The Pixies.
Next up was Cloud Nothings, whose set in Boise I had missed. It's a good name for the band. It was big on holding a single chord past the point of being irksome and into the feel of rolling waves of overdrive, like a cloud of noise.
From there, I headed down the street to Friends and caught part of a set from singer-songwriter Gepe, who was playing as part of a showcase of artists from Chile. He alternated between uptempo latin dance tunes and melodramatic ballads, but they both worked.
On the way home, I came across a series of light installations as part of the eco conference. There were several sculptures made from trash, like styrofoam or milk cartons, and then lit from within by LEDs. It was a series of round plates on the ground that changed colors when stepped on that had the evening crowd's attention, though, with dozens of people running and hopping between them like the disc game in Tron.