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Buzz bands from the U.K. are usually sixpence a dozen at SXSW, which became the go-to U.S. launching point for such recent British breakouts as Alt-J and the Vaccines. This year’s crop seems a little different, though. For one, there are a lot of them, with a lot of different sonic styles represented between them. What’s more, quite a few of them really deserve the hype, as I found out by catching many of them on stage Wednesday.
The best and the brightest – quite literally, given the glitzy stage production at the Fader Fort – was London Grammar. A vaguely trip-hoppy, Portishead-influenced trio from Nottingham (with London roots), the band itself showed off a compellingly nervous elegance and subtle edge. But the star of the show was unquestionably singer Hannah Reid, the most genuine new talent I’ve seen so far in the fest. The 23-year-old dressed in jeans and a casual top for the Fader Fort gig, which belied her stylish and sophisticated pop-chaunteuse vocals, with Adele being an obvious (and deserved) comparison.
Earlier at the Fader Fort, the slender wiz kids of Temples churned out a thick, murky but also uptempo and sometimes poppy brand of psychedelic haze-rock. The band sounded and even looked like early Pink Floyd, with singer James Bagshaw singing with Syd Barrett’s nasal tone while he and bassist Thomas Warmsley sported hairdos near identical to ‘60s-era Barrett and Roger Waters. Alas, the music itself was not so impressively shorn, sometimes droning on without enough flair.
At Stubb’s for the annual NPR showcase, Leeds’ scorching quintet Eagulls had all the flair necessary to win over the packed crowd. Visually the band was about as dull as the Stubb’s dirt floor – singer George Mitchell sort of sways leisurely in one place like the Stone Roses’ Ian Brown – but sonically it cut like a table saw with constantly buzzing guitars and thunderous rhythms.
Worst among the Brit pack – easily the worst thing I’ve seen over two days, in fact – 21-year-old electro-pop-punk wannabe Charlie XCX came off like an entirely prefab act, sort of like a cross between a Disney TV starlet and Billy Idol. Mind you, she earned a lot of pre-SXSW praise from critics. Also disappointing, we tried to take in yet one more U.K. darling act at the end of the night on the Maggie Mae’s rooftop, Nick Cave's upcoming tour openers Warpaint. However, they soundchecked for 40 minutes and then played an abbreviated set, which only confirmed the sound still needed tweaking. Thus, I’ll reserve judgment.
For the first time in the 28-year history of the South by Southwest Music Conference, the chaotic atmosphere that defines the festival turned deadly. Two people were killed and 23 more were taken to hospitals after a driver crashed through a barricade and barreled down a crowded Red River Street just after midnight Thursday.
The tragic incident happened outside Mohawk nightclub near Ninth Street, which is one of about four blocks of Red River that is blocked off for pedestrians to walk on during the event. Stay tuned to the Austin American-Statesman for the local updates. Statesman reporters said via Twitter that the driver of the car was fleeing from police after being pulled over for a DWI. Police said the suspect will be charged with murder. The two fatalities were reportedly riders on a motor scooter.
About an hour before the crash, the scene on Red River was relatively calm by SXSW standards. A moderately long line stretched outside Mohawk into the street for admittance to see Los Angeles punk legends X perform at 11:45 p.m. The line was also made up of fans wanting to see the act after X, rapper Tyler the Creator, who was scheduled to go on at 1 a.m., shortly after the crash occured. He did not perform and sent out this tweet: "Show isn't happening. Something sad happened."
Indie-rock heroine St. Vincent, a SXSW vet originally from Dallas, was just wrapping up her performance at Stubb’s when the tragedy a block away on Red River. She tweeted:
Just heard about the accident at 10th and Red River at SXSW. My heart goes out to everyone injured/involved.— St. Vincent (@st_vincent) March 13, 2014
The tragedy likely would have been worse had it been on Friday or Saturday night, when that part of downtown is nearly elbow-to-elbow with people during SXSW. No other tragic incidents of this sort have ever occurred at the music festival, which is quite a remarkable track record for an event that floods the city with hundreds of thousands of fun seekers each March. The party atmosphere will be tempered greatly when the festival resumes mid-day Thursday.
Tuesday night at the South by Southwest Music Conference – always the soft opening of the five-night live music marathon -- is a lot like what the festival used to be like before the internet took hold. A lot of bands without a whole lot of cache are spread out between a manageable swath of clubs. Instead of feeling like a hyperactive beehive, Austin’s main nightlife thoroughfare Sixth Street is actually kind of a pleasant, leisurely stroll. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any overcrowding issues on Night 1 – what’s SXSW without a fire marshal making the news –but it was definitely low-key in a good way. Here were some of the highlights.
BEST OF THE NIGHT: Anybody hoping to start out SXSW on a rowdy, happy note might’ve felt let down by Torres. Performing at the far-off Rainey Street hangout Javelina, the Brooklyn-based, Georgia-reared indie songstress – real name: Mackenzie Scott, age 23 --- played an intense, darkly tinged, sometimes frenzied brand of distorted purr-to-roar rock. Her bellowing voice showing traces of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith. In one song, “Jealousy and I,” her brow was furrowed heavier than the actual, taxidermied javelinas hanging on the wall behind the stage.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: With the showcase name “K-Pop,” I expected the South Korean music showcase at the goth-flavored dance club Elysium to be more along the lines of “Gangnam Style.” Instead, we walked in on Hollow Jan, a scorching screamo band with Nirvana-like bombast and a frontman who prowled around and exploded on stage like a half-pint Henry Rollins. I couldn’t tell you what the songs were about, but the anger in them translated well.
BIGGEST LETDOWN: Chicago’s “acid rap” wiz-kid Chance the Rapper was the one big name for the night I had hoped to catch, but the line outside was snaked around the corner. In fact, it was there two hours before his showcase, when fellow Chicagoans Autumn Defense were playing (with John and Pat of Wilco). It seems Chance fans who lined up early bought tickets and stayed the whole night. According to Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot, the rapper’s set was shut down after 18 minutes by the fire marshal for being too packed.
I was also bummed not to catch a single Minnesotan act on opening night. Wiry rappers Sean Anonymous and Ecid were playing early in the night back-to-back at the Nook Amphitheater on Sixth Street -- aka the burned-down Black Cat Lounge -- but we didn’t get to town in time. Maybe tomorrow (or the next day, or…). We also got in too late to pick up the media tickets to the Coldplay/Imagine Dragons double-header that kicked off the iTunes Fest at SXSW, but we honestly didn't try very hard to make it.
REST OF THE NIGHT: Anybody from the northern climate who endured the winter we Minnesotans just escaped would not fault us for picking a few showcases simply based on the fact that the shows were on outdoor stages. The first was by one of Austin’s own new buzz bands, the Sour Notes, who came off like a more shoegazery and poppy Silversun Pickups at Cheer Up Charlie’s (the former Club DeVille).
Then came one of Austin’s best-loved vets, thunder-voiced blues-rocker Carolyn Wonderland at the Main (the former Emo’s; you may notice a trend here). Headed to Minneapolis on March 27 to play the Dakota, Wonderland was joined Tuesday by a seemingly unlikely collaborator, James Williamson, the “Raw Power”-era guitarist in the Stooges. They played the songs from a 7-inch single they made for Record Store Day, April 19, including the gritty epic “Open Up & Bleed.” The songs are part of a broader all-star project reviving some old Stooges songs that were never recorded.
On a reverse trajectory from Wonderland, former Verbow bandleader Jason Narducy was just in Minneapolis a week ago Tuesday playing guitar and bass with Bob Mould, which he will do again later this week in Austin. First up, though, the Chicago utility man -- who has also played with Robert Pollard -- hit the Javelina stage with his new band Split Single, which packed more of a pop/rock, GBV-style punch than Verbow. On record, the trio features Spoon’s Brit Daniel on bass and Superchunk (and Mould) drummer Jon Wurster, but Tuesday’s lineup featured a couple equally capable guys . “This is my first South by Southwest,” Narducy casually commented as the clock neared 2 a.m., but nobody took the bait. “Actually, I’ve been coming for 20 years.”
The vets know to come early and make a full week of it.
Stay tuned for five days of SXSW reports and photo galleries at startribune.com/sxsw.
Yep, I know all about Lady Gaga’s ridiculous Doritos showcase, and would love to cover it just for the punchlines. I know about Kanye West and Jay-Z having to team up to fill Prince's heels at this year’s Samsung party, which ate up half a night of music for me last year when the little guy played it. I know that iTunes is paying for Imagine Dragons, Pitbull, Coldplay and Soundgarden to all play their fest-within-a-fest, which only seems to encourage people to go see bands they've already downloaded. Heck, I know there are a lot of great bands from past years and tours I’d be happy to see again.
But South by Southwest is still about new artists for me, an old-timer at the fest (this will be my 24th year, going back to high school). Here are the newbies I’m most eager to see at the Austin music conference, which kicks off tonight and lasts through Sunday.
Bo Ningen: SXSW has a great tradition of promoting Asian punk bands -- one of my favorites from past years, Beijing’s Car Sick Cars, is finally coming to Minneapolis at Cause on March 27 – but this Japanese noise-rock quartet might be the one to really break big in America. Or at least it’ll break some ear drums, as seems to be the consensus from its live in shows in London, where the group is now based. This video shows off the members’ kooky ‘70s-psychedelica style as well as their thundering approach.
Hurray for the Riff-Raff: Not to be confused with the cornrow-headed rapper Riff Raff (not even close), this twang-rustic New Orleans ensemble is led by Puerto Rican-rooted, Bronx-reared, New Orleans-based Alynda Lee Segarra, who sounds like a non-kitschy cross between Patsy Cline and Cat Power. She just released her first album for ATO Records, “Small Town Heroes,” an eclectic, soulful treat.
Temples: Probably the most 89.3 Current-ready band on my list, Temples have a psychedelic, flower-pedals-on-our-guitar-pedals retro sound that at times sounds kitschy, but there’s no mistaking the clear, Beatles-y songwriting charm underneath the haze. Their debut album was just issued stateside by Fat Possum Records and they’ve already gotten fat on press.
Eagulls: The other big British buzz band crashing America’s biggest music industry fest, this rather gangly looking quintet from Leeds offers the sonic bombast of early PiL with a little of the Pixies’ stop/go groove, too. They made a good impression on Letterman last month.
Future: Heretofore best-known for a collaboration with Miley Cyrus and as Ciara’s baby daddy, this Atlanta rapper toured with Drake over the winter and is now poised to break out with his second album “Honest,” due next month. The single “Move That Dope” dropped just a few days ago with a guest appearance by the rarely seen Pharrell Williams.
Perfect Pussy: Not sure if I’ll get to write about this one for the print edition – maybe if they put on a Putin protest sometime in Austin this week -- but this Syracuse noise-punk quartet has a riotous, roaring frontwoman and a visceral, frantic sound that should get them more attention in the end than the band name.
Hugh Bob & the Hustle: Butternut, Wis., native Hugh Robert Masterson channels his small-town, North Woods roots with big-time inspiration alongside his pedal-steel-soaked, Milwaukee-based twang-rock band. I don’t expect to see a lot of indie hipsters out for their sets, which makes them all that more attractive.
Jamestown Revival: You gotta give it up for the new Austin bands at the fest, and not just because they’re the hometown musicians who make SXSW possible despite the city’s rocketing rent. This folky, lightly bluegrassy acoustic band is led by two soulful, Americana-harmonizing dudes and has been touring with Wild Feathers.
Dupree: Another cool Austin band to watch, this instrumental, B3-organ-led trio just recorded their debut with Spoon drummer Jim Eno (who also helmed Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears' early work) and started a weekly residency at Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer’s new South Congress venue, C-Boy’s Heart & Soul -- which also might be the new local hangout with the biggest SXSW buzz this year.
Kentucky indie-rock gods My Morning Jacket have a rather spectacular new tune floating around the internet, and the stream behind it started here in Minnesota. The cover song, “Farewell Transmission,” is the title track of a new tribute album to late Ohio indie tunesmith Jason Molina -- the latest endeavor of St. Paul’s charitable nonprofit label/promoter Rock the Cause.
“We’re very excited and proud of this one,” said RTC founder Scott Herold, who is taking his cause to the South by Southwest Music Conference to promote “Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina” with a day party next week.
The 27-track Molina tribute will raise money for both MusiCares and the singer/songwriter's estate. Known as the driving force behind Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia, Molina died in 2011 after a long battle with alcoholism.
Within weeks of the sad news, Herold was contacted by a couple of music bloggers on opposite ends of the country about trying to put the record together. The idea was spawned off another fine tribute collection, 2011’s “Minnesota Remembers Vic Chesnutt,” honoring the Georgia song legend who hadkilled himself a year earlier.
“Everything we’re able to do with this record points back to the Vic Chesnutt collection,” Herold said, explaining that the earlier disc gave them “a foot in the door on a national scale” and led to a distribution and overall financial structuring that helps RTC get a better return for its causes. This also helped with the success last year of Zach Sobiech's “Clouds” single, which hit the Billboard and iTunes charts just as the teenage Stillwater songwriter died of a rare form of cancer.
“Farewell Transmission” will arrive April 22, and Herold hopes to build the buzz in the meantime. Besides the My Morning Jacket cut (posted below), the album also features two dozen other recordings from the likes of Murder by Death, Cory Branan, Sarah Jaffe, Centromatic’s Will Johnson, Squares and a Minnesota cast that includes Communist Daughter, Farewell Milwaukee, Gabriel Douglas, Luke Redfield, Enemy Planes and Fathom Lane. Pitchfork.com originally posted the whole list and a report on the album here.
RTC’s SXSW party takes place next Friday, March 14, at the Liberty Bar in Austin, Texas, with a handful of the album’s participants and more RTC supporters, including Nicholas David. Some of Sobiech’s family and bandmates will also be on hand to pay tribute to him there. A local “Farewell Transmission” release party is set for April 19 at First Ave with Farewell Milwaukee and Fathom Lane. More details on the record and pre-order info are at IRocktheCause.org.
Rock the Cause also has its fifth annual Glitter Ball fundraiser coming up on March 29 at the Grain Belt Bottling House with one of the best party-starting rockers in the country, Austin's Black Joe Lewis.
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