Saturday night at South By Southwest often offers the biggest surprises and blowouts to end the festival that everyone ends up gushing about. This year was no different. There was Justin Timberlake‘s much-rumored not-so-secret secret show for MySpace and the Smashing Pumpkins playing Red Bull’s Sound Select: 120 Hours stage to celebrate frontman Billy Corgan’s birthday. And there was Prince, performing an exclusive show at La Zona Rosa — which also featured A Tribe Called Quest — that lasted until 3 a.m. and ended, predictably with a singalong of “Purple Rain.”
There was also a rumor about a solo performance from The Flaming Lips‘ frontman and spirit guide Wayne Coyne. Until there wasn’t… when that never materialized.
I get the appeal of seeing these megastars in intimate spaces for special one-off shows, but very few actually get a chance to see these. I love Timberlake or Prince’s music as much as most people, but for me, I was just uninterested in committing to staying in one place all night in hopes of catching an up-close glimpse. As cool as it might be to say “Yeah, I was there,” I’d walk away with the same feeling of “Yep, Prince is still pretty awesome.”
Instead, with so much music to hear, I packed in as many shows as I could on Saturday day and night. I started the morning with the noisy rock of Brass Bed, accidentally saw Toronto punk band METZ for a third time, and ended my late afternoon with Telekinesis (again). And all in between, caught sets that included grungy rocker Mac DeMarco; the heavy obliterating feedback of A Place To Bury Strangers; propulsive rock of The Thermals, sparkly dancepop of Empress Of; hazy indie rock of Widowspeak; droning, Indian-tinged psyche rock of Elephant Stone; and Dallas indie band Air Review, who must have drawn an unlucky straw by having to play it’s set in a banging, over-crowded dance club full of people ready to party, rather than see them. Such is the SXSW experience though. Then late Saturday night, Denton, Texas folk band Seryn decided to treat its quiet, attentive audience at St. David’s Episcopal Church to a much more intimate set than normal, to calm the nerves with something serene and almost spiritual.
Still with so much attention going to bigger stars, I actually came away thinking about how much amazing new music I heard from young bands. Ultimately at the end of the whole week, I actually saw about 72 bands — some full sets, some only a single song. But cannot wait to see some of these artists again the next time they roll through town and catch some of the bands I missed, too.
Here are a few other highlights:
MICAH P. HINSON @ Red Eyed Fly
I have heard about Abilene, Texas-based singer-songwriter Micah P. Hinson for years, and I’m positive I may have a few of his records thanks to a friend and former colleague, who absolutely adores Hinson. But it wasn’t until his set Saturday night was I won over by his peculiar singing voice — sometimes deadpan like Bill Callahan, or warbling like Vic Chesnutt — and his heartbreaking lyrics. Hinson played his folky country songs mostly solo in a too noisy bar patio, but when he brought his wife up on stage for a duet — sung into the same old-timey microphone like Johnny and June Carter Cash might’ve — the entire place went more-or-less silent. It was a lovely moment for a songwriter that most people still do not know, but really should.
HOUSES @ The Mohawk
A few years back I came across and fell in love with the music of Houses — a Chicago-based electronic pop duo Dexter Tortoriello and Megan Messina — when I heard All Night, a superb, subtle and dreamy record constructed while living briefly in a cabin in Hawaii. But I had never seen the band live. In a set that showcased new songs — such as “Beginnings” from the upcoming album A Quiet Darkness, Houses displayed one of the prettiest and outright earnest sets all week.
FEAR OF MEN @ The Mohawk
In the new discovery department, Fear Of Men is a band I knew very little about besides wanting to check them out. The London/Brighton band fronted by singer Jessica Weiss makes gauzy, heart-swelling and bittersweet pop music that a friend described as ’60s girl groups meets shoegaze. The show was intimate but as the sound swirled around the small room, it was clear this band was build for a larger hall. It turned out to be a great surprise I’m anxious to hear more of.
BRASS BED @ The Parish
This Louisiana psyche pop band’s powerful and almost romantic sound reminded me of both Wilco and Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen, with songs like “Bullet For You” that burst into fantastic noise and gnashing guitar solos.
EMPRESS OF @ The Main
On record, Empress Of’s music is a blissful mess of glittery synths, junky electronic drum machines, and echoing vocals. But as she bounced around on stage, her songs like “Champagne” proved far dance-ier and groovier, perfect for filling a giant club.
MERCHANDISE @ Beerland
Merchandise, the punky Florida band told a crowd at Beerland “This is show number ten for us. We’re all out of pretty songs.” They then rocketed into an all-out assault of hard bashers and, no doubt, burned off some tired frustrations.
ELEPHANT STONE @ Brazos Hall
Fronted by Rishi Dhir (formerly of The High Dials), Canadian indie rock band Elephant Stone somehow finds common ground between Elliott Smith, George Harrison and The Stone Roses — while incorporating elements of traditional Indian music including the sitar, tabla, and dilruba. With stirring melodies, droning guitars, and lyrics with tinge of melancholy, this band is has a unique, yet loveably familiar sound.
AIR REVIEW @ Shakespeare’s Pub
In some ways, this was a hometown show of sorts for Dallas indie pop band Air Review. Too bad the noisy crowd was mostly spillover from the club in the next room, and drown out the subtlety of this band’s emotional and immersive songs. The album, Low Wishes — and the song “America’s Son” — document the rigors of everyday life. Vocalist Douglas Hale’s deeply introspective lyrics are rife with themes of shattered dreams and disillusioned hearts, all amplified by music of piercing beauty.
And more photos from the day and night:
For me, Friday at South By Southwest was another day of missing out on sets that I heard from others were great — CHVRCHES, Surfer Blood, The Flaming Lips (again), Savages, The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines in a church covering a Jeff Buckley song! And hell, The Afghan Whigs freaking played Usher’s hit “Climax” with Usher. This is always an ongoing theme of SXSW: With so much going on, how you curate your day and night completely depends on logistics (“If I hike down to Auditorium Shores for Flaming Lips, that’s the only thing I’ll see tonight”) and sometimes lack of access, like when the line for Merchandise and CHVRCHES was too long to make it worth the wait.
With SXSW, you could spend your entire week seeing nothing but indie bands, or hip hop, or metal, or folk, or whatever. While on paper, I like to try to mix it up and see a variety of things, a day like yesterday turned out to be, more or less, a day of loud for me. And more, this week in general has mostly been giant noise, big tapestries of sound, booming electronic beats, and I’ve noticed my moments of quiet, ruminative, downright pretty music has been relatively fewer than normal.
With one exception: I caught literally the last two songs of Rhye, who on record is the work of a duo of enigmatic pop songwriter-producers Michael Milosh and Robin Hannibal. Rhye is known to to keep its own identity mysterious — they leave themselves out of their provocative videos and any press photos. And when you first hear the music, it’s clear they are playing with sexual identity, leaving the songs’s lyrics gender neutral, and the voice so impersonates that of a female, you’d swear it was.
On stage at Buffalo Billiards, however, Rhye was a band of seven musicians, and the singer Michael Milosh, obviously male. In the two songs I caught, the set was something of a master class in economy and sparse adornment of arrangements — players only played when they needed to as they accompanied the warm croon of Milosh. It was an enticing tease of what Rhye could do live, and I hope to catch them again in a fuller concert setting soon.
A few other highlights:
PHOSPHORESCENT @ Bar 96
The way Phosphorescent‘s Matthew Houck sings in his ragged, road-weary voice seems perfectly suited for songs that could easily have come from lonely late-night laments. An Alabama native now based in Brooklyn, Phosphorescent’s first few records have been more beholden to twangy country and folk, a sturdy sound but more focused on the weighty lyrics. Now with his superb new album Muchacho, Houck is increasingly darker and expansive in scope. And in front of a crowd at Bar 96, Houck and his band built those new songs, and especially “Song For Zula” into slow-boiling rockers with grand power.
METZ @ Hype Hotel and Bar 96
I rarely go see a band twice during a week of South By Southwest, let alone twice in one day. But here I was at 10 p.m. last night, tagging along with a friend to see the Toronto-based punk band METZ for a second time that day. The day started with seeing METZ at the Hype Hotel, a gigantic unrefined space in a brand new building near the Convention Center where Hype Machine and various blog partners, in this case Stereogum, curate lineups all week. Here, the stage was huge, the lighting rigs enormous and bright, and with Taco Bell as a corporate sponsor, there were free samples of Doritos Locos tacos for everyone.
Seeing a band like METZ, you want to feel those sludgy and brutal punk songs, and have a crowd react. And while METZ managed to give an enormous, high-octane jolt to the early afternoon, the environment was perhaps a little sterile — it was hardly the devastating live show the band is known for. So later that night, with METZ playing again at Bar 96, a slightly more isolated and cramped spot, it had the feeling of something far more authentic. Sure enough, as soon as the band started banging and thrashing away on stage its taut, turn-on-a-dime songs, the energy in the room just erupted, complete with a mini mosh pit. And even despite shredded, SXSW-ravaged voices, it was a far more intense and exciting showcase of what the band does so well.
A few more photos from the day and night:
As South By Southwest continues to trudge on and ramp up heading into the weekend, the main streets already feel packed and difficult to navigate, and the lines — even those for official SXSW badge and wristband attendees — are becoming discouragingly long. At one point around 10 p.m. I ran over to The Belmont, in hopes of getting in to catch The Flaming Lips perform its masterpiece album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in its entirety. Once there, the line just for badge-wearers was an entire block length and showed no signs of moving. Denied! Oh well, it’s not like Yoshimi is one of my all-time favorite records or anything. (Yes it is.)
Instead, I hoofed it back over to Red 7, to see part of Foxygen‘s set, where I was met with another long wait — albeit shorter than if I had stayed in that line for the Lips — followed by a total onstage meltdown from frontman Sam France, which was so frustrating I left early.
There was a good stretch of about two hours between seeing bands just because of walking, waiting in lines, and then of course, a nightmarishly long soundcheck. This bit of logistical planning and taking gambles in hopes of just getting inside to see some music, can be one of the more frustrating aspects of SXSW. Still there were plenty of highlights for me on Thursday at South By Southwest.
NIGHT BEDS @ Red 7
There’s no shortage of brash punk bands, bass heavy hip hop and electronic music, and metal at South By Southwest. As such It can be hard to find a quiet place, let alone find a quiet band that can hold the attention of a big bar crowd. And yet, the soaring and emotional vocals of Night Beds‘ Winston Yellon has that capacity to enrapture the room into silence. With stunners like “Ramona” and “Even If We Try,” Night Beds’ blend of quiet folk songs that built to a lovely catharsis was a welcome respite of introspection and calm.
FOXYGEN @ Red 7 Patio
South By Southwest is a grueling week, especially for young emerging bands, who sign up for dozens of gigs — often many in one day — and are supposed to play in so many different settings and conditions, for so many types of people who expect something special each and every time. Some concert goers are only passing through for a few songs, are tired and grumpy, dehydrated or drunk, and ultimately difficult to please. It’s not a surprise that as the week goes on, bands are simply exhausted. And it’s no wonder bands begin to fray or feel a little disillusioned by the whole thing.
On Thursday night at the Secretly Canadian\Jagjaguwar\Dead Oceans showcase at Red 7, I witnessed the psychedelic indie band Foxygen have something of a meltdown following an endless, nearly hour-long soundcheck where both fans and the band got testy. It boiled over when, after a song or two, singer Sam France bantered about his road-ravaged voice and a someone in the audience yelled for him to just play a song, which in turn prompted France to lash out at him and threaten to fight. Later, France bizarrely walked off stage, ended the show, only to return to finish out the set. The band later cancelled the rest of its performances at SXSW, disappointing many fans eager to see this band.
It was an unfortunate moment for a talented young band, especially one with a very well-liked record and getting a lot of attention right now. But it does call into question just how much pressure is put on these bands by the fans, the record labels and media to deliver and impress all in the hopes that people will fall in love with their music.
TELEKINESIS @ The Parish
After awhile, it’s easy to feel a little numb from the assault of noisy punk bands on busted PA’s. So it can be comforting to drop by a set from an already-favorite artist that you know is sure to be great. For me, that band was Telekinesis. So I made it a point to make the Merge Records showcase at the Parish — one of my favorite, and best-sounding venues in Austin — one of my last stops on Thursday night, so I could catch this set, and see Michael Benjamin Lerner sing and play drums at the same time. Simply put: This is a band I always love hearing live.
On his third album, Dormarion (produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno), Lerner plays practically every instrument. But for this tour, Telekinesis has a fantastic new lineup that includes keyboardist Rebecca Cole, who’s best known for The Minders and Wild Flag. Her addition is a perfect tonal fit for these new songs, especially the synth-heavy “Ever True,” or the album’s first single “Ghosts And Creatures.” Mixing fuzzed-out power pop with fizzy synth pop, Telekinesis plays these fun, sometimes sentimental songs full of big beefy distortion, memorable guitar hooks, and impossibly catchy, fist-pumping choruses.
And again, it was another perfectly chosen cover song — this time INXS’ “Don’t Change” — that lifted the room to new heights, all before closing with the garage rock banger “Tokyo.” Telekinesis is one of those bands I’ve seen plenty of times, but always delights. Last night was no different.
Here’s a few other photos from the day and night:
Wednesday at South By Southwest was my first day for day parties — the events thrown by labels and PR firms, blogs and magazines, and mega-companies trying to sell you a new flavor of chips or energy drink. While not officially part of the SXSW lineup, day parties are a great way to bounce around to multiple venues and see a bunch of young bands perform, and/or make do with shoddy PA systems in spaces not meant to be music venues.
With a well-mapped out schedule, it’s possible to squeeze in 2-3 bands into an hour, especially when some parties have multiple stages of simultaneous music. If you are someone who comes prepared with a wish list of artists, daytime shows are one of best ways to try something new — such as brash punkers Paws, the theatrical Parenthetical Girls, or the dreamlike electronic pop of Braids — before heading to a major showcase with bigger headliner-type acts.
It’s always interesting to look at the small, more workmanlike venues of day parties — bars and clubs, bike shops and pizza joints — and the large-scale showcases as an excellent window into the trajectory of some bands.
Here’s a couple highlights from the shows I saw on Wednesday at SXSW:
YEAH YEAH YEAHS @ NPR Music Showcase at Stubb’s B-B-Q
In a night full of excellent music — from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ sinister and stunning set to Le1f‘s stripped down hip hop to Waxahatchee‘s stark punk-infused folk songs to the Mexican rock of Cafe Tacvba to the majesty of Alt-J‘s pop — it was Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ powerful performance at NPR Music’s showcase at Stubb’s that appeared to be the biggest shows of the night.
Platinum blonde and decked out in a colorful and sparkly yellow outfit, and wearing an oversized headlamp, it’s impossible to deny the stage presence of Karen O. She’s a true rockstar whom you simply cannot take your eyes off of as she writhes on the floor, gazes out to the front of the stage and twirls the microphone way above her head in the air. And in a set that pulled heavily from its back catalog, and the new song “Sacrilege,” this was one of the best and most commanding performances I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not hyperbole to say this was truly an all-time top ten show for me.
WILDCAT! WILDCAT! @ Side Bar
Despite having some gear stolen — which let’s be honest, is a horrible way to begin any gig — and starting its impossibly early noon set late as a result, Wildcat! Wildcat! still managed to impress. On its original songs, the Los Angeles-based band’s soaring vocal harmonies were set atop layers of synths creating a solid indie-pop sound. And yet it was a superbly chosen cover of Tears For Fears’ hit “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” that won over fans.
PAWS @ Red 7
This year has had no shortage of brash punk bands and grimey hardcore bangers — from returning bands like Cloud Nothings and Wavves to up-and-comers like Parquet Courts and Metz. But the raucous pop punk of Scottish trio Paws has a way with infectious hooks and some cathartically thrashy guitars. These songs are short bursts of energy, wasting little time winning me over.
LUCIUS @ Side Bar
Coincidentally, another new favorite band, Lucius, performed at the same venue right after Wildcat! Wildcat!. Lucius is instantly joy-making, even before you hear them play, thanks to the band’s matching black shirts and yellow pants or leggings. But as soon as you hear the band’s catchy songs — such as “Don’t Just Sit There”, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the band’s charming pop songwriting. With the vibrant, almost ’60s girl group vocal harmonies from Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig and the guitars and thundering floor toms and backing vocals of Danny Molad, Peter Lalish and Andrew Burri, Lucius delivered a short but endearing set that will have me seeking the band out again soon.
PARENTHETICAL GIRLS @ Red 7
Much in the same way Nick Cave or Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O showmanship dominated their stellar sets at Stubb’s, singer Zac Pennington, of the dramatic art rock band Parenthetical Girls, has a charisma you cannot take your eyes off. Pennington is incredibly theatric on stage, flailing arms around, climbing on speakers, staring directly into audience’s eyes. Even on a far smaller stage than Cave played on, Pennington connected with the crowd just like a star.
WAXAHATCHEE @ Stubb’s BBQ
Katie Crutchfield’s music is so deeply personal and confessional that you sometimes feel as if you’re intruding. But her songs are also incredibly universal and heartfelt. Playing newer material like “Hollow Bedroom” and the distorted “Coast To Coast” show that Waxahatchee — now a boisterous three-piece — has begun to plug in and rock. And it never sounded better.
LE1F @ Stubb’s BBQ
Watching Le1f perform live at Stubb’s, it’s clear you’re witnessing something unique. The magnetic New York rapper commands the stage with choreographed dance moves and wild body gesticulations, often culminating with Le1f taking down his long hair and whipping it around in a cyclone of braids — all while spitting his idiosyncratic deep-voiced wordplay without skipping a beat. It’s all the more impressive because Le1f (born Khalif Diouf) takes his performance as seriously as his rhymes: he studied ballet and modern dance, earning a degree in dance from Wesleyan University; he’s a fashion icon with a so-called “hoodrat Tumblr aesthetic;” and he’s known in the LGBTQ community for being both out and proudly outspoken.
Now, following the unreal success of his “Wut” music video, and a stellar mixtape — 2013’s Fly Zone (another EP, Tree House is due in Sept.) — the MC and producer seems poised for a major breakout in 2013 and 2014. Le1f’s dance-ready music is edgy and experimental, mixing dark electronic tracks with big beats and rapidfire phrasing. And while the production is always ambitious and borders on the avant garde, these songs will still get you moving on the dance floor in a hurry.
Here’s a few more photos from the day and night:
In previous years at South By Southwest, Tuesday was a somewhat low key affair: The Interactive portion of the festival was winding down, and the Music portion just gearing up, with less music to enjoy. This year, Tuesday felt like SXSW was already in full swing. When I finally made it into downtown Austin, the streets were bustling with music fans, bands and weirdos all shambling from one venue to the next. Sure, compared to what 6th Street will be like on Saturday night, it’s far less stuffed with bodies.
But with some big names already performing, I hit the ground running.
Last night featured many of my new favorites from the past year — Cloud Nothings and DIIV, both playing bone-rattlingly loud sets that made me glad I packed those earplugs. Also: a couple new bands I’m eager to hear more from — Blue Hawaii, Guards and Indians.
But my biggest highlights from last night were actually two vastly different female artists: Marnie Stern and Torres.
TORRES @ Mohawk Indoor
Torres, the Nashville-based 22-year-old Mackenzie Scott writes songs that rip your heart out, but make you feel good about it. In a powerful set at Pitchfork’s opening night showcase, Torres enraptured a crowd with a voice full of raw trembling pain and deep guttural emotion. But this is no wispy folk music, thanks to her band, who helped build songs like “Honey” into these blissful climaxes of guitar noise and pounding drums. It was easily the most beautiful and affecting set I saw all night.
MARNIE STERN @ Mohawk Outdoor
The first thing you’d say to describe the music of Marnie Stern is “she can totally shred on the guitar.” And that’s completely true. Armed with thrashy riffs and dexterous finger-tapping skills that mimic the melodies she’s singing, Stern is an impressive guitarist. But she’s also guitarist who understands how to integrate those fiery chops into songwriting that doesn’t just feel like an excuse to jam out. The standout of the set was Stern’s “Year Of The Glad” — the opening track on her superb, and hilariously titled new album, The Chronicles Of Marnia — an energetic blast full of looping voices and noisy textures. In an outdoor venue, it sounded amazing.
Here’s a few other photos from the night:
NOW, NOW @ Firehouse Hostel & Lounge
Even before I managed to catch Now, Now at SXSW, the band’s fantastic record Threads was already on constant rotation. The Minneapolis trio — comprised of Cacie Dalager, Jess Abbott, and Bradley Hale — found the right recipe for songs that straddle fizzy power pop hooks and lush, yet disarming layers of sound — all while singing about some big universal themes sparked from quiet but deeply personal moments. In “Thread” and “But I Do” Dalager’s lyrics capture a sense of unreturned love and the fragility of relationships unraveling not all at once but one stitch at a time. Elsewhere, in songs like “School Friends” and “Separate Rooms” she sings of insomnia, and the confusing, often phantom limb feelings that still linger when seeing a former love and not knowing where things stand. Ultimately, it’s Now, Now’s live show — even in a half-full converted bar — that made this band’s taut, infectious melodies come to life. This band is one of the most confident and exciting new acts of the year.
PATRICK WATSON @ St. David’s Episcopal Church
Patrick Watson’s deeply emotional and joyful midnight performance at St. David’s Episcopal Church has stuck with me more than any at this year’s South By Southwest. This beautiful sanctuary, lit from above by strings of Edison light bulbs, was the perfect setting for Watson’s imaginative and timeless chamber pop from this year’s masterful Adventures In Your Own Backyard. But near the end of the set, the singer and his band gathered in the aisle between church pews to do single mic renditions of “Into Giants” and “Words In The Fire,” — a stirring song about finding happiness living in the present. Sitting next to so many close friends, it was hard not to get caught up in that moment and realize how lucky we were to witness this special show. I still get choked up every time I put on “Words In The Fire.”
HOSPITALITY @ The Stage On Sixth
Many songwriters have mulled over the rootlessness of their youth, but few describe it with as much whip-smart and wistful sentiment as Hospitality’s Amber Papini does. Hospitality’s very fine debut is full of well-crafted songs such as “Eighth Avenue” and “Liberal Arts” that serve as intimate snapshots of living in New York City and the complicated feelings that come with transition. But “Argonauts” is the standout, for its lovely depiction of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol for the promise of reinvention and searching a new direction. This year saw so many songs that charted new ground, were perhaps more innovative, or took on weightier topics. But for me, “Argonauts” hit a certain joyful and sweet tone that I kept returning to again and again in 2012.