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.
On Sunday, Jan. 13, New York City’s Webster Hall was overtaken by 12 diverse musical acts from all over the world as part ofglobalFEST 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.
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.
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’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.”
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.
This photo is part of a gallery I shot for an NPR Music interview with Double Dagger about its last run of shows before calling it quits. The totally berserk and joyful Black Cat show was the penultimate concert, and last in Washington D.C. for the Baltimore-area hardcore band. Read the great interview over at NPR Music’s blog The Record.