I didn’t go to SXSW last year. And I, literally, spent all of 2013 being sad about it. SXSW is like live music Disneyland. Sadly, complete with the lines and the getting frustrated about all of the people with Fast Passes cutting ahead of you. However, if you play your cards right, you can see an obscene amount of live music. In four days, I got to enjoy 34 bands. And I didn’t even try that hard this year.
The Ferocious Few
The Ferocious Few are Bay Area legends. Literally… For years they seemed to set up shop on various street corners all throughout town, playing shows for tips in front of passberbys. It’s been a while since I’ve last seen them, and, while I was waiting in line for my wristband to get into the Hype Hotel, I heard the familiar bluesy stomp and reverb washed vocals of a band that I used to see, accidentally, several times a week. It was nice to see them still at it, and they sounded better than ever.
Dum Dum Girls
Last we heard from Dum Dum Girls, they were doing dreamy shoegaze pop with girl group harmonies and Phil Spector beats. This set, however, represented a “new” Dum Dum Girls. Their energy level has been amplified and they have almost totally dropped the dreamy shoegaze for a much more pumped up, more driven sound. They seemed to have put away their My Bloody Valentine records and started listening to Pat Benatar and Heart. And it’s the best decision they’ve ever made.
This band kills me every time. Lead singer Lindsey Troy has one of the most passionate voices and dynamic stage presences that I’ve ever encountered. And I see a lot of bands. As a bluesy punk duo, the comparisons to The White Stripes are inevitable. But that’s totally unfair. Jack White only wishes he had 1/10th the passion this band has.
I had no idea how big Clipse were. The crowd was insane for this set… Pusha T, accompanied by a hype man and a DJ, worked the crowd into a full on frenzy. And this is SXSW, where the bulk of the audience is made up of industry folks that, even when they are happy, they still stay in the back with their arms folded. Nobody was having that here. People were in totally sync during this performance. The highlight of the set, however, was when Tyler The Creator skateboarded in, then crawled up to the balcony, locked eyes with Pusha T, and “traded verses”, only Tyler didn’t have a mic, so it was the first all mime rap battle.
We headed to the NPR showcase at Stubb’s shortly after Pusha T finished his set. This is normally an somewhat reserved affair, but Perfect Pussy seriously weren’t having any of that. They went straight into a full fledged 30 minute attack of sheer brute anarchy. Sadly, singer Meredith Graves’ microphone was nearly absent in the mix, but it’s OK. She decided to stop using it and simply screamed into anything she could find. There was a full on circle pit, too! This never happens at SXSW! The band: bass, guitar, drums, and samples was amazingly tight for a punk band. And, to end the set, the guy on samples created a whole new song from pieces of the show, and played it while the rest of the band dissembled their equipment.
Following Perfect Pussy is a terrible place to be. And EAGULLS definitely did not rise to the occasion. They seemed to be reaching for some pretty ambitious heights with influences: the guitarist was wearing a Psychic TV shirt, and certain songs seemed to borrow from Joy Division and Gang Of 4. However, they ended up simply sounding like Cut Off Your Hands. I may have liked them more under different circumstances, but, here, they simply followed the wrong band.
Please purge your brain of all memories you may have of Kelis. She no longer is the electro pop, Neptunes produced should singer of yesteryear. She opened up with an a’cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” And it all went up from there! Backed by a 12 piece band, including back up singers, horns, and the best drummer I’ve seen in years, she did 40 minutes of simple, straight up classic soul. When they went into the classic material, those songs were rearranged somewhat dramatically. “Milkshake” took on a whole new life as a Balkan brass piece, complete with trombone solo. I can’t wait to see her do this on a large scale with a full 90 minutes.
St Vincent, the nom de plume of Annie Clark, is ready for the next leg of her career. This set proved that she’s ready to rise above her status as indie rock’s guitar goddess. This was the most tightly choreographed show I’ve seen since, well, since the David Byrne / St Vincent tour. She no longer is happy simply fronting a band, but the band is now part of the show. She moved like Tinkerbell, gracefully flowing across the stage, trading dance moves with her moog player, Toko Yasuda. New single “Birth In Reverse” had some epic back & forth dance interplay all while still shredding on her ax. Annie Clark’s guitar playing was so fluid and seamless that it never appeared that she was “trying” to play. The guitar was simply an extension of herself. This show is something that is ready for the big rooms, and her new material is good enough that I think it’s going to happen. She is an arena player in the making.
The crowd thinned out pretty deeply after St Vincent ended. Nobody seemed to know what to expect from Mr Albarn. And the nearly hour long set change didn’t help matters. It wasn’t until 1:30 am that Albarn and band: keys, drums, guitar, and strings, took the stage. He opened with the minimalist title track of his solo debut Everyday Robots. That took us into a glorious set of world music inspired psychedelia that was unlike anything I’ve heard from Albarn before, yet still tied to everything. That warm, exceptionally British tenor voice was in amazing shape, and the songs had the energy of Blur, the weird of Gorillaz, and the trippyness of Mali Music, all wrapped into one. He made a handful of concessions to his past in the setlist- He played the somber Gorillaz single “Tomorrow Comes Today” and the droll Blur b-side “All Your Life.” Absent were the hits- I’m sure the crowd would’ve loved to hear “Song 2” or “Boys & Girls” as a thank you for sticking it out so lone, but, alas, that did not happen. He reminded us that he was playing two more times this week, and apologized profusely for the shortness of the set, as Stubb’s has a hard curfew of 2 am.
I didn’t intend on seeing Broncho. I was simply hungry and wanted to vegan chili dog at Frank’s. (Delicious) As you know, bands play everywhere at SXSW. Even at a hot dog shop. Broncho were destroying it in the back, playing CBGB-era esque geeky punk rock with Tom Verlaine influenced vocals. It was fun music to watch while enjoying a fine meal.
Jeff Bundschu, owner of the fabulous Gundlach Bunschu winery in Sonoma, CA started talking to my friend and me. We were discussing heading to Waterloo to see The Orwells. He told us that if we didn’t stay for Residual Kid, we’d regret it. And if we didn’t like it, he’d send us both a bottle of wine. His wine is delicious, so we decided to stay. Who doesn’t love free wine? Sadly, we weren’t destined to get a free bottle of wine, as they were AMAZING! A trio of 13 year old kids doing the kind of melodic hardcore that people twice their age struggle with getting right. These kids were amazing. Their singer Deven Ivy was a fireball. He could belt with the rest of them, and played with a skill and ferocity and maturity that defied all expectations. Each member of the band took turns playing in the pit. (Yes, there was moshing in the hot dog stand) They closed their set with a perfect cover Nirvana’s “Breed,” complete with everyone in the band taking a turn at jumping into the drums.
I first saw Charlie XCX in 2012, opening for Marina & The Diamonds, she did a straight up pop show. At Waterloo today, we got something very, very different. She was backed by a three piece rock band, and her performance was a wonderful, searing rock set. XCX’s voice, although well suited to pop music, sounds AMAZING when accompanied by a fuzzy electric guitar. The setlist consisted of a healthy dosing of new, unreleased material, a few re-interpreted versions of tracks from last year’s True Romance, as well as a pitch perfect cover of The Strangloves’ “I Want Candy.” She is a fantastic performer, and I think she’s finally figured out what it takes.
There are some people that are strange to see in the daylight. Dark synth pioneer Gary Numan is definitely one of those guys. He seemed out of place, and a little disturbed by the sunlight. His setlist was focused on newer material, which is closer to Nine Inch Nails-esque industrial music than his classic synth experiments. All in all, this set was somewhat disappointing. But that was due to my expectations, not the performer. I wanted classic Numan, and, despite a performance of “Cars,” it wasn’t classic Numan. He’s allowed to grow and change. It’s my fault that I was let down, not his.
It’s the guy that does “Birthday Sex.” He played a bunch of really boring songs that sent the bulk of the crowd to The Fader Fort’s free rum cocktail line. Then he did “Birthday Sex.” The crowd went crazy! As soon as he was done with the song, everyone went back to ignoring him.
It’s rare to encounter hardcore fans at SXSW. It’s very, very rare to be in at a set where everyone in the crowd was in total sync with the band before they take the stage. For about 10 minutes prior to their set, folks were chanting “CHROMEO! OH-OH!” Then the band took the stage to do their infectious band of electro funk. The setlist was equal parts hits and new material, and the crowd responded to the new material with the same enthusiasm as the songs they knew. It was a super fun show, and I only wanted more Chromeo when it was over.
After my second unsuccessful attempt at seeing Lee Fields this week, I walked over to the closest room without a line. Happily, I stumbled across the Noise Pop party. It was weird to go to a show in Texas and see everyone that I see at shows back home. I caught the end of Mutual Benefit, and they played some beautiful, dreamy pop music that I enjoyed thoroughly. I wish I left the other line earlier.
Not every band needs to rewrite the sonic playbook in order to be good. Painted Palms, on paper, aren’t doing anything overly different from the other bands doing New Order inspired synth pop these days. Their music was familiar and warm and easy to digest. They got the daytime crowd dancing and having a ball.
I’m just going to start this out by saying Hospitality were simply fantastic. On the surface, they are simply a guitar pop band. They played some wonderfully catchy songs, songs so warm and infectious that you don’t realize how complex each song is. Time signatures would change multiple times throughout a song. They’ve pull in elements of Bossa Nova and Jazz into their songs. It made for some of the most interesting dance moves that I’ve ever seen in a audience. The people watching was almost as good as the music, which is saying a lot, because the music was amazing.
Taylor Gang isn’t really a group, per se. It’s actually a record label. And, upon looking at the stage, it seemed that everyone employed by Taylor Gang Records was on that stage. I take that back… Everyone that has every met anyone named Taylor was on stage. There were so many people and so many microphones going that it was impossible to place who was doing what verse. That was, until label head Wiz Khalifa came out to perform his single “We Dem Boyz,” which made the capacity crowd at The Fader Fort go absolutely insane!
Damon Albarn & Special Guests
This was booked as Damon Albarn & Special Guests, however the staging was a lot like his set at Stubb’s two nights earlier. He even started out with virtually the same setlist, which left many people in the audience a little restless. Then, after a series of mellower tracks from Everyday Robots, things kicked up a notch. He brought out De La Soul for a performance of “Feel Good Inc.”, probably Albarn’s best known track in the US. The crowd went nuts. Then Albarn went back into solo material. A few people in the crowd seemed really upset. One woman behind me said “THAT WAS HIS SPECIAL GUEST?!? F*CK THIS. I’M LEAVING.” Some people need to learn how to be patient.
The set ended with an epic performance of the first Gorillaz single, “Clint Eastwood.” And, for the first time ever, according to Albarn, the song was performed with Del The Funkee Homosapien and Dan The Automator. Or, in his words, “the first time the song has ever been performed live in it’s natural state.” And, to kick things up even higher, Snoop Dogg came out to freestyle an additional verse. I’m sure that woman that bailed is really furious now.
I believe that there is an artistry to being a DJ. However, I don’t believe simply playing songs that everyone knows and loves to be much of a challenge. Cash Cash did just that. Meh.
This is my first time witnessing the spectacle that is Big Freedia. She was supported by six dancers: three men and three women. I really enjoyed the music, and thought the dancing was spectacular. Her mic skills are also a force to be reckoned with. However, after the set, my friend and I had a bit of a debriefing, and noticed some bits that were a little disturbing. Primarily, the male dancers were doing some impressive moves, and Freedia allowed them to show off. The women were pretty much only allowed to shake their booty. In face, when one girl began to move outside of that style, Freedia scolded her. It seemed that there was a touch of misogyny going on that stage. I could be totally of track there, but there was some serious objectification going on there.
When I walked in on Heiroglyphics’ set at Holy Mountain that night, I was a little disappointed by the fact that Del, who we knew was in town because he was on stage with Damon Albarn earlier that night, wasn’t there. Nonetheless, Heiro still thrilled the room with a set of old and new material, leaning largely on Souls Of Mischief work. As an Oakland resident, I feel like I should be more invested in this group, however, no matter what, it was a great set.
SXSW is notorious for stoic crowds. Moon Hooch didn’t have that problem. Their set up is simple: two saxes and a drummer. And EVERYONE in that outdoor patin was dancing frantically. No vocals. No guitar or bass. Just two guys switched off between 6 different horns, doing something that can only be described as EDM on acoustic instruments. There were breaks and drops, and not a moment’s break between songs. It was a total thrill.
There were a handful of people that thought this was going to be Andrew Bird in the crowd. Not his fault. His set was still pleasant… A short and sweet set of melancholy soft rock with gruff vocals. RIYL: Snow Patrol, Keane, Coldplay
Andrew Belle was good at what he does. Wakey! Wakey! are great at what they do. As much as I enjoyed Mr Belle, after seeing Wakey! Wakey!’s brand of melodramatic, piano based pop songs, I pretty much forgot about the act prior. These songs are great- full of energy and emotion, and the crowd followed suit. I’ve never been so impressed by something that would be described as “soft rock.” Every song sounded like a single. Every track was ready for a first dance. Once the right person finds these guys, you will not be able to escape them.
One of the struggles with being Suzanne Vega: She’s a brilliant artist with an amazing catalog of excellent songs. She’s consistently putting out new material, and it’s all been pretty excellent. And everyone only wants to hear two songs. Throughout her set, which consisted primarily of songs from her excellent new record, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, people kept shouting out “LUKA!” or singing “doot do doo doot doot do doo doot.” She handled it all gracefully, and asked people to be patient. She pulled out the Pretty In Pink soundtrack single “Left Of Center,” which blew my mind, as an early concession to her older material. Of course, she closed with a twofer of her most loved songs, doing a faithful rendition of “Luka,” followed by an epic closer of “Tom’s Diner.” Instead of doing it a capella, she performed the DNA Remix. Only without any beats. She instead had her electric guitar player use a loop pedal to recreate the beats and horns on his guitar. It was a genius move that only a true artist could pull off. I really want to experience a full length Suzanne Vega show.
The “Days Go By” folks were a surprise comeback to see play SXSW this year. Their set was a lot folkier than I anticipated, performing as a duo where the singer played acoustic guitar, and the other member used his laptop to trigger downtempo beats and subtle synth flourishes. Seems like they are aiming to be part of the chillwave movement, which is a solid direction for them to go into.
Lion Babe gave a really short, sweet set of contemporary R&B. Backed by nothing but a laptop, vocalist Jillian Hervey has a huge head of hair, but her voice is the real reason she her project is called “Lion Babe.” Great hooks, great singing, and a down right natural stage presence. It’s also a recipe for a great pop show, and I bet we will be seeing a lot more from these folks. 15 minutes wasn’t nearly enough.
The Cool Kids
The Cool Kids made the crowd EXPLODE! And the crowd at Butler Park wasn’t exactly small. I tried to find capacity estimates on the place, but couldn’t. Considering the size of the space, I’m guessing there were between 7-10,000 people. All enjoying The Cool Kids open for Childish Gambino. They had some serious energy, and knew how to work a crowd into a frenzy. Admittedly, I didn’t find the music to be all that memorable. At least, not as memorable as the jello shots being served:
Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, has had a rough year. He seems to have been through a lot, and his most recent record, because the internet, expresses that darkness in pretty vivid color. It’s an absolutely beautiful record, and presents the story of a man at a crossroads in his life. The difficulty with a record as dark and personal as this one is translating it to the live stage. Childish Gambino managed to do that in a most impressive manor.
The show began with a scroll of tweets rolling across the stage. He brought out his band cracker jack band, and played a set that covered the majority of because the internet. His performance was emotional and intense. The light show was one of the most dynamic things that I’ve ever seen, as well. The pacing of the show put you directly into the confusion that Gambino seems to be going through, including a brief period where the performer and band were actually trapped in a computer, TRON style. This was one of the most captivating stage shows I’ve seen since Nine Inch Nails’ performance at Outside Lands last year.
After about an hour of nothing but new material, the band came back to perform some higher energy tracks from his early mix tapes, sort of has a reward for making it through the darkness of the earlier set. They even pulled off the mythical “second encore,” something that is rare in most circles, but unheard of at a festival. Since nothing was planned, the band improvised a riff, and then Gambino freestyled a final song. It was a brilliant and cathartic set.
It pains me that more people aren’t hip to Cody ChesnuTT. His decade plus long career as a recording artist has only given us two full length records, thus far, but those two albums are brilliant pieces of soul music. His band is one of the tightest bands in the business, and he played an excellent set of tracks off 2012’s Landing On A Hundred, as will as the killer b-side “Gunpowder on the Letter.” That track, a bluesy stomp, featured some guitar riffing that was so impressive that the onlooking Angelo Moore of Fishbone had to stop packing up his gear to simply stand there with his jaw dropped open. That’s how good Cody ChesnuTT is.
There are two good things that come from Florida. Oranges and The Dollyrots. The Dollyrots play the kind of comforting and warm pop punk that simply makes you happy. This set was chock full of bouncy, bubbly hooks, and the entire room was smiling and pogoing.
When John Dwyer decided to flee to LA and put his main band, Thee Oh Sees on hiatus, I was pretty bummed. That was, until I started getting SXSW lists and noticed Coachwhips on the bill. I’m blown away by the fact that he put this band back together. Not only are Coachwhips significantly grittier than Thee Oh Sees, but they also put on one of the most chaotic live shows in the world. They refuse to play on a stage, opting to perform in a corner of the room instead, with the crowd swarming around them. I couldn’t think of any more blissful way to close out my SXSW 2014 experience than experiencing such primal rock n roll goodness.