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And the bands played on. And on. And on. Friday is always when everything really starts running together at South by Southwest. The whole experience of jumping from show to show begins to feel incredibly redundant and numb, although your feet are anything but numb. The only thing that really keeps the senses aroused and the body going is that fresh sense of discovery. It definitely provided a spark as the fourth night got going this year.
BEST OF THE DAY: I can’t remember the last time I heard a bona-fide buzz band play a Cajun tune at Austin’s mega-fest. New Orleans-based Americana quintet Hurray for the Riff Raff did a full-on Lafayette dancehall burner, plus it spiked a lot of other tunes with Cajun-y fiddle playing and rhythms. That’s not to say they’re a band you will only hear on NPR during the great “American Routes” show. Heck, I could imagine hearing them on Cities 97 back home. Performing on the Pandora stage behind the Gatsby, singer/songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra – who was actually raised in the Bronx – showed off a piercing, husky voice that sort of sounding like Fiona Apple as a street busker. She lays it on thick and offers a dark undertone, but she also seems to add a light tough to all her songs, with frequent traces of country gospel. Her shining moment was the anti-murder ballad, “Body Electric.” Not just Friday’s highlight, Segarra’s troop was my favorite of the fest so far.
BEST OF THE DAY BY SOMEONE NOT TRYING: When you play six or seven gigs in three or four days during the South by Southwest Music Conference, you probably appreciate the short and less meaningful ones. But you probably shouldn't announce to the crowd which ones those are, as one of this year's buzziest rappers, Schoolboy Q, did Friday afternoon.
"This is the easiest show I have to do. I don't even need to try," the gravelly voiced L.A. MC said midway through his half-hour set at Spin magazine's party outside Stubb's BBQ.
Thankfully, Schoolboy was either joking, or he’s so good he really doesn’t need to try. The songs from his new album, “Oxymoron,” were a riot live, especially the raunchy grinder “Los Awesome.” He was actually a lot more entertaining than the Spin party’s other big rap act, Future, who played a few sets later and never really got into a groove. But then, it’s hard to find your pace when you have to stop and remind the audience every two or three minutes what day your album is coming out, what the title of it is, and whether or not you should go buy it.
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS: Despite a lineup change and the much-publicized transformation of frontwoman Laura Jane Grace (formerly Tom Gabel), Against Me! proved they’re still one of the mightiest, most viscerally enjoyable punk bands around at the Spin party. Grace bellowed out the personal epics from their new album, “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” with the force and drama of someone starting a revolution. No question whether or not she was trying.
Later on Tuesday night, the Autumn Defense – led by Wilco’s John Stirratt and Pat Sansone -- breezed through a set of sunny, Big Girly guitar-pop and not-far-from-the-tree twang-rock a la “A.M.” at the Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room. Their set felt as pleasantly familiar as the one that followed by fellow Chicago vets Urge Overkill, who played some newer songs that carried all the smacking grunge-pop sharpness of the older tunes played, including “Crackbabies.”
Back on the newcomer front, Australian singer/songwriter Vance Joy performed at the St. David’s Sanctuary, another downtown church that lets the rock roll in its pews during SXSW. The Aussie folk-rocker – real name: James Keogh -- sounded like a sweeter, more lovelorn version of his Glassnote labelmate Marcus Mumford, with some traces of Van Morrison to boot. His was a nice chill-out show to catch before ending the night at the Volstead Lounge in east Austin for Minneapolis’ dueling-guitar noise-blasting punk trio the Blind Shake, who had the crowd chanting for more once they left the stage. Or at least I think they were asking for another one. My ears were pretty well blown to know for sure.
BIGGEST LETDOWN: Perhaps it was too abrupt a transition going from the sweet and joyful performance by Hurray for the Riff Raff straight into a bitter and ferocious set by Syracuse punk band Perfect Pussy, but the latter group didn’t do it for me. It was all roar, little nuance and quite half-ass. After a flurry of other gigs in the fest, perhaps the young quintet was where Schoolboy Q was at and not really caring about its official showcase on the Red 7 Patio. It only played a 15-minute set, in which time Meredith Graves’ vocals never rose above the loud, muddy dueling guitars. It was like she was screaming and snarling in a vacuum. Hopefully, it was just a fluke of a show, but even by SXSW’s messy wham-bam standards it was abysmal.
SXSW entered its third day on a somber note, as news of the wee-hour fatal car rampage came more to light. A few day parties near the sight of the incident were canceled. Organizers of the music conference quickly set up a fundraiser effort for the victims. They and police kept festival goers and Austinites informed. By mid-afternoon, though, things were mostly back to usual, with the occasional moment of silence being asked for at gigs – Houston’s Wild Moccasins even made their moment a full minute of silence. Here’s more of what we took in Thursday:
BEST OF THE DAY: As was forecast in my SXSW bands-to-watch preview, psychedelic Japanese punk band Bo Ningen provided a riotous kick to the fest with an intensity not seen elsewhere at SXSW besides the few metal showcases. The wild-eyed quartet (now based in London) kicked off its first showcase of the week on the east side of I-35 at the Vegas Hotel’s patio -- a booking just begging for noise complaints.
By the second song, “Haken,” the band was furiously bouncing around the stage in unison to its roller-coastery waves of reverberating guitar noise and pulsating rhythms. Singer/bassist Taigen Kawabe led the charge with a manic, sometimes cackle-like vocal style and dramatic, wild-eyed gestures that included a tear through the middle of the crowd near the end of the set, .
BIGGEST LETDOWN: In terms of the venue, Thursday’s second of two big SXSW gigs by Blur frontman Damon Albarn was through the roof. No really: The gig was the first in three nights of “Guitar Center Sessions” TV tapings atop a five-story parking garage in downtown Austin. The city’s skyline – rife with new condo towers and construction cranes nowadays – provided an impressive backdrop for the session, although Albarn seemed to take umbrage with one major entity looming across the street.
“We’re gonna perform for you tonight under the benign presence of Chase Manhattan,” he wryly joked of a neighboring office tower with the baking giant logo on top.
Unfortunately, Albarn himself never rose to the occasion. Playing songs from his new solo album, “Everyday Robots,” he and his otherwise terrific band stayed in a mid-tempo rut for most of the shows. Too many of the songs limply plodded along, including the title track, while “Heavy Sea of Love” boasted an awkwardly tuned sound. Even the older tune “Tomorrow Comes Today” lacked the funky zest of the original, by Albarn’s other group, Gorillaz.
The other, more minor letdown Thursday was the late-night set by New Jeresey quartet Real Estate, which seems poised to become a top-tier indie-rock act this year with the release of its third album, “Atlas.” As lovely as the new songs are on record, though, with their Luna/VU-style hazy-sun guitar interludes, the band still lacks luster on stage.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: It probably shouldn’t have come as a shock having seen her conquer Twin Cities audiences over the past year, but Lizzo’s official SXSW showcase at the North Door was an eye-opening moment. Playing to a nearly full crowd inside one of the bigger venues east of the Interstate, the Minneapolis rapper sparked a rowdy dance party with “Batches & Cookies” and other songs from last year’s “Lizzobangers” album. The high-profile gig proved her buzz is catching on elsewhere. Granted, about 80 percent of all the Twin Cities musicians in Austin for SXSW were at the gig, which was part of the Totally Gross National Product showcase (also featuring Marijuana Deathsquads, Har Mar Superstar, the Cloak Ox and Pony Bwoy). But the Minnesotans were just a small part of the overall crowd -- and in true Minnesota fasion they weren’t the ones dancing the wildest.
BEST ‘HOW DID I GET HERE?’ MOMENT: Playing the role of Young New Guy with all the humility he can muster (which is a lot), Jeremy Messersmith sat in on a noontime SXSW panel at the Austin convention center alongside indie-rock big-wigs Bob Mould, Britt Daniel (Spoon), Matthew Caws (Nada Surf) and Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate). The title of the discussion was “Warehouse: Songs & Stories,” named after the last record by Mould’s band Hüsker Dü, and true to the ad the guys all offered songs and stories. Mould played a touching new one called “The War.” Messersmith delivered “Steve” after explaining it was inspired by a homophobic blog post that read, “God didn’t make Adam and Steve” (Mould visibly enjoyed both the song and the story).
Given the chance to ask his more experienced co-panelists a question at the end, Messersmith asked if they approach songwriting as a “disciplined, everyday thing.” Mould answered in the affirmative: “You should be very grateful that this is what you get to do with your life, and you don’t want to let it rust.”
See a full photo gallery from Tuesday at startribune.com/sxsw.
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.
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