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:
Watch the Brooklyn band perform “Spring Break (Birthday Song)” in a funky bookstore in Austin, Texas during South By Southwest 2013. This video was originally created for WNYC’s Soundcheck for its SXSW coverage.
Ex Cops: Jangling Pop In A Bookstore
by Michael Katzif for WNYC Soundcheck
South By Southwest can be an unrelenting week of loud music and hordes of people. So it was a rare, if temporary respite from the madness on Friday morning when I met up with Ex Cops at a funky bookstore called Farewell Books. This relatively new and minimal shop and gallery space — just east of the highway to be out of the way from the mayhem of Downtown Austin — is decked out in arty prints, a handsomely curated book selection, and an old boxy television set looping retro psychedelic imagery.
It turned out to be the perfect place for the music of Ex Cops.
Fronted by Bryan Harding and Amalie Bruun, the Brooklyn band’s brisk and snappy songcraft blends shimmery dream pop with memorable, singable hooks. On stage with a full band, Ex Cops is capable of wielding edgier guitar distortion and savvy drumming to cut through with some teeth.
But here, even stripped-down to Harding and Bruun’s vocal harmonies, Ex Cops’ rendition of “Spring Break (Birthday Song)”– a sweet jangly song — made for an engaging and wonderfully fresh take on the indie pop sound.
Credits: Producer/Editor/Videographer: Michael Katzif; Audio: Rachel Neel; Special Thanks to: Farewell Books, Austin, Texas.
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:
Watch an intimate, early morning performance of “Swan Dive” at a bar in Austin, Texas during South By Southwest. This video was originally created for WNYC’s Soundcheck for its SXSW coverage.
Waxahatchee: Heart-Wrenching Intimacy On A Spring Morning
by Michael Katzif for WNYC Soundcheck
Finding time for quiet reflection is practically impossible in Austin, Texas during South By Southwest. That is, unless you get yourself outta bed early before anyone else is even thinking about waking up, and hoof it across to the east side of highway to meet up with a musician. It was a crisp, spring morning — about 8:30 or 9 a.m. — when Katie Crutchfield rolled up to the shady, abandoned patio of the Yellow Jacket Social Club, a bar near the train tracks and a colorful, always-morphing graffiti wall. With a halo of sunshine just peaking in the sky, this out-of-the-way location made for quite a tonal shift from the busy streets of downtown the night before. And it seemed just right for Crutchfield’s lovely and intimate songs.
The Philadelphia-based (by way of Birmingham by way of Brooklyn) Crutchfield, now 24, has been writing music for roughly 10 years — playing in the D.I.Y. punk band P.S. Eliot, which included her twin sister Allison. Now recording and performing as Waxahatchee, Crutchfield’s emotionally exposed songs reflect themes of isolation and self-doubt, of anger and frustration, and of the messiness of love and regret. Equally innocent and disillusioned, Waxahatchee’s songs like “Be Good” and “Grass Stain” from 2012’s superb American Weekend — are rough and thread-bare: Bedroom-style recordings with only an acoustic guitar and a trembling voice that felt urgent, as if captured minutes after writing so they would not dissipate and be forgotten.
This year’s excellent follow-up, Cerulean Salt, retains that spirit while asserting some power and confidence behind the fragility. Now a three-piece band, Waxahatchee’s songs shift from acoustic to distorted electric guitars and the drumming of Crutchfield’s boyfriend Keith Spencer (of the band Swearin’). The record proves to be another heart-wrenching, yet beautiful batch of songs that deal in uneasy feelings, dysfunctional relationships, and devastating honesty.
Sitting on a picnic table, with birds chirping and a subtle din of distant machinery, Crutchfield retrofit one of her new songs — the stunning “Swan Dive” — paring it back to simply an electric guitar and her un-mic’d vocals. The result is a winning and earnest performance that splits the difference between both Waxhatchee sounds. It was the perfect start to the day.
Credits: Producer/Editor/Videographer: Michael Katzif; Audio: Rachel Neel; Special Thanks to: Yellow Jacket Social Club, Austin, Texas.
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:
On Sunday, Jan. 13, New York City’s Webster Hall was overtaken by 12 diverse musical acts from all over the world as part of globalFEST 2013. While I only recognized a small handful of names on the bill, the setup at globalFEST is perfect for wandering from stage-to-stage and sampling little tastes of bands without worrying about missing too much. And that’s exciting — it was a night of pure discovery.
The evening had a lot of memorable moments (NPR Music was there filming a whole slew of sets from the night, well worth checking out), but few as instantly winning as Mucca Pazza, a 30-piece Bizarro World circus of musicians and weirdo hipster cheerleaders, all decked out in colorfully clashing retro marching band uniforms. The Chicago-based group — which gets its name from the Italian phrase for “crazy cow” (also a name for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease) — has been banging around for years, but this was my first exposure to its visual and musical mayhem. It was a total blast.
Seeing this irresistible band of horns and violins, guitars and accordion all parade in and eventually take the stage is infectious, chaotic fun. But it’s also an incredibly coordinated and choreographed performance full of cheers and bursting with energy that is easy to get caught up in.
Typically my musical tastes default to introspective, darker music full of layers of noise and distortion and all of that. Yet watching Mucca Pazza reminded me of many similarly giant, celebratory acts I’ve seen over the years: The Flaming Lips and its confetti canons and furry animal costumes; Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ sprawling community singalongs; the gypsy punk anarchy of Gogol Bordello; and the roving What Cheer? Brigade who’s enlivened the grounds at the Newport Folk Festival with funked-up renditions of TV theme songs.
Mucca Pazza also brought to mind two big dance-friendly, smile-inducing bands that have won over crowds at globalFEST in previous years: The Ethiopian funk rock of Debo Band and the “Brooklyn Bhangra” group Red Baraat. And of course, all of these acts share some DNA with both traditional and modern genre-blending New Orleans brass bands that have been playing “forget about your worries and dance” music since, like, forever.
You can see and hear all of that in Mucca Pazza’s music. Yet what stood out the most was not only the feel-good aesthetic of Mucca Pazza’s live show, but how outright wackadoodle and entertaining it could be. If only my high school marching band was this crazy and fun.
Check out some other photos from the night:
For the hundreds of bands, music industry insiders, college radio programmers, DJs, and music fans who descend upon New York City every Fall, October means one thing: It’s time for the CMJ Music Marathon. Every year, a staggering number of showcases and parties, not to mention all the shows that normally are happening in the city, all with great music well worth checking out.
The appeal in a festival like CMJ is discovering relatively unknown baby bands and up-and-coming artists with a ton of upside. Some could become that “next big thing” that we’ll hopefully be talking about for the next year. And some may simply fade away.
Like Austin, Texas’ annual South By Southwest Music Conference, CMJ can feel logistically overwhelming when deciding where to go, and when (and how) to get there. But unlike SXSW and it’s relatively closely plotted venues, CMJ is far more spread out across Manhattan and Brooklyn — and so you may find yourself hoofing it all across town and over the river. So, (like SXSW,) you’ve got make choices and tightly map out your schedule if you hope to catch multiple things in a night.
My first CMJ was a total nightmare in some ways, mostly because I was expecting the ease of SXSW in terms of getting to venues, getting inside the venues, and seeing a ton of music back to back to back. Instead, I had to be more targeted, deciding on the one venue I wanted to camp out at and trust the showcase would present a lot of great options. Overall, I still saw a great deal of my favorite bands, and a lot of new discoveries.
Some highlights: Flying Lotus, Death Grips and Buke & Gase at NPR Music’s showcase; Telekinesis featuring Superchunk guitarist and Merge Records founder Mac McCaughan and Fred Armisen (of SNL and Portlandia fame) on bass! And a Brooklyn Vegan day party let me see a bunch of young bands — Hunters, Sinkane, Eternal Summers — and catch a packed but tiny show from R&B superstar on the rise Miguel.
BUKE & GASE @ (le) Poisson Rouge
Some bands claim to be DIY, but Buke & Gase truly embody it. The experimental prog-punk duo is named for the Frankenstein instruments they use: Arone Dyer plays a tricked-out bass ukulele through an impressive array of foot pedals. Aron Sanchez plays a hybrid guitar-bass through two homemade amp speakers — one for the bass strings, one for the guitar strings. As if that wasn’t enough, both members also simultaneously bang and stomp on a kick drum or wrap their feet with shakers and a “toe-bourine.” On paper, this could risk sounding like a gimmick, but the intricate riffs and bottom-heavy clanking rhythms Buke & Gase creates capture the imagination like few indie bands right now.
On the band’s debut Riposte, and its brand new EP, Function Falls, Buke & Gase expertly envelops Dyer’s chanting vocals with a big, souped-up mess of distortion, and fuzzy melodies that turn sharp corners into unexpected places. But this is also what makes the duo so exceptional to see live. In this NPR Music and Soundcheck co-sponsored concert — recorded live Wednesday at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York City during the week of the CMJ Music Marathon — Buke & Gase kicked things off with the hypnotic, aggressive “Hiccup,” delivering the perfect fiery jumpstart to the night’s lineup.
DEATH GRIPS @ (le) Poisson Rouge
Sometimes you walk out of a show unclear what you just saw. This appeared to be the case for many in attendance for Death Grips’ stunningly pummeling set at New York’s (le) Poisson Rouge during the NPR Music/Soundcheck showcase during the CMJ Music Marathon. From the California group’s The Money Store — which has been among the year’s best hip hop records — or the recently self-leaked follow up, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, Death Grips is all about challenging the listener with its boundary-pushing music.
On stage, Death Grips’ delivers a visceral assault on the senses thanks to deep, gut-rattling bass, serrated beats and samples and the brutal, stick-breaking drumming of Zach Hill. But even amid the caustic deconstructed grooves, the blinding strobe lights and visuals on dual monitors behind the group, it’s MC Ride who commands all the attention. Performing shirtless, the muscular and heavily tattooed MC is such a powerful frontman on stage, you cannot take your eyes off him as he flails and shouts with an imposing, unrelenting flow.
After the set, many in the crowd looked equally traumatized and totally blown away with huge grins, knowing they just saw something completely unlike anything they’d ever witnessed. Whether or not it’s “your thing,” that’s always the sign of a great show from a singular artist.
TELEKINESIS @ Mercury Lounge
“I’d like to thank Merge for getting me off my couch.” — Michael Benjamin Lerner, Telekinesis
At one point or another, we’ve all read about an extraordinary concert in some book, or in Rolling Stone, on Pitchfork, or just on social media and thought “Damn, I wish I was there.” It doesn’t make much sense fretting about missing out if Band X played its entire album front-to-back or Band Y played a surprise show at two in the morning. That’s life, right? Can’t be there for everything. But it is music geek human nature to feel the slightest twinge of regret.
Still, every once in awhile, if you go to enough shows, you luck into seeing something special that will make others seethe in nerd jealousy. For me, last night’s Telekinesis set — at Merge Record’s CMJ showcase at New York’s Mercury Lounge — was one of those times.
And it all started because I couldn’t get into the crammed-to-capacity Sub Pop showcase at Knitting Factory. Instead of waiting around in a line going nowhere, I sucked it up and hoofed it by L train and F train to see if I could catch one of my favorite bands play a few of my favorite songs.
When I walked in, I saw Fred Armisen milling about in the back during the end of Eleanor Friedberger’s set. Known to most from Saturday Night Live and Portlandia, I chalked it up to being a New York celebrity sighting — and him being a music fan. But soon, as Michael Benjamin Lerner — Telekinesis’ singer-songwriter and drummer, took the stage, I noticed Armisen pulling a Hofner “Beatle” bass out of its case. Whoa. Then, I noticed Mac McCaughan setting up stompboxes on the other side of the stage. McCaughan, guitarist and singer of Superchunk, and Merge Records co-founder, had played a solo set earlier that night, and obviously stuck around to lend a hand.
It was clear the room was in for a treat. I personally kinda lost my shit.
As Lerner explained near the end of set, he had not played a live show in a really long time, and was prodded by Merge to get off the couch, and fly here to New York for CMJ. But Lerner didn’t have a new working band yet — hell, most of his new songs weren’t really even finished yet. But instead of doing what he described as a “lame acoustic set,” he dropped a few emails to McCaughan and Armisen to see if they were interested in joining him for a few songs. Not only did they agree, they worked up an entire set of Telekinesis’ songs just for this night. No rehearsals either, just a bunch of scattered sheets of paper with the chord progressions mapped out.
They then proceeded to unleash a loose, exuberant set of some Lerner’s best songs (“Tokyo”, “Car Crash”) and even a new song from an album due out next April. Telekinesis’ real skill is in crafting perfect, bouncy power pop songs brimming with lilting guitar melodies and pounding drums and vocal melodies that you cannot help but sing along to. Lerner is one of the best out there creating indie pop melodies — and honestly it’s a bit baffling why he’s not huge yet. Hopefully with a new record coming next spring, he’ll reach more people.
Yet, as one might expect, there were a few awkward moments for a band that had never really played together. McCaughan and Lerner at one point realized they were playing two different (though admittedly similar sounding) songs — “Foreign Room” and “Coast Of Carolina.” Lerner joked that he just had a realization that two songs he wrote have nearly identical chord progressions. Other times, they missed a few cues or played a missed note, or were just not always locked in like a more fully practiced working band.
But really, no one seemed to care in the slightest: many in the crowd were just having a blast witnessing something special and rare — flubs and all. That raw energy and loose, jokey feeling carried through with many fans singing along to Telekinesis’ impossibly catchy choruses. It was just damn impressive and a boatload of fun. I still cannot believe I was there to see it.
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.