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.