At The Drive-In’s surprise appearance at Mohawk was just one of the moments that made SXSW 2017 memorable.
Every year in mid-March, music nerds from around the globe gather in downtown Austin to test their ability to handle long lines, blisters, alcohol poisoning, and dead cell phone batteries. Why? To get that first scoop on the “it” band of the year? To luck into a once-in-a-lifetime music experience with their all time favorite band? Masochism? Shit, I don’t know. Every year I say it’ll be my last, but I keep coming back. Maybe it’s the barbecue for me. Maybe it’s Austin: the worst kept secret in Texas. Without the quirks and charm of Austin, this music festival would just be ordinary — and like every other year, SXSW 2017 was definitely not ordinary.
The Shelters’ brand-new Gretsch guitars coordinated well with their suede jackets and pompadours. An LA band that looks and sounds like an OC band, they played a brand of solo-friendly, surf rock that wasn’t adventurous enough to be offensive. Their guitars were the most memorable part of the set.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Bleached; it feels like a lot. What is there to hate about them, though? They’re a pop-punk band that live off of power chords and singable choruses. I saw them twice this year, and each set was pretty much identical, but that’s what is so great about Bleached: they’re masters of what they do, and they don’t try to be something different.
I didn’t catch Temples on purpose; in fact, it was my goal to avoid seeing them at all costs. Each year, there are a couple of buzz bands that play every noteworthy showcase, and Temples was one of those bands this year. Unfortunately for me, the surprise appearance of the week, At The Drive-In, popped up on the same showcase as Temples, and the only way I was getting in was to sit out front of Mohawk for 4 hours. That also meant that I was going to see whatever bands came on before ATDI. Fortunately, Temples were one of the surprising bands of the week for me. I felt like I was going to be bored of this middling child of MGMT and Tame Impala, but instead I was impressed by their psychedelic Brit-pop. I had only a passing familiarity with their catalogue, but found myself singing along to the songs that I recognized. This year was light on new bands that I’ll be listening to all year, but Temples definitely make the cut.
My feet hurt so bad at this point in the night. All I wanted was to get to the main event: At The Drive-In. I only have a basic working knowledge of rap, and that taints most of my reviews of rappers. I can tell you that Denzel Curry is fast… really fast. I don’t know where he rates in the pantheon of great rappers, but he was one of the fastest rappers I’ve ever seen. He also had some of the best stage charisma of the entire week. His style is angry, and aggressive, but instead of encouraging the fledgling mosh pit, he redirected the crowd’s energy into a mini tornado pit, with everyone dancing and jumping in a structured circle. He also engaged the crowd by getting into the pit and having everyone get low to the ground, before slowly raising up, until the final crescendo of an entire crowd jumping up and down to every beat. Denzel Curry was impressive, especially in light of the act that he had to open for.
At The Drive-In
It has to be understood that I’m a huge ATDI fan, and all of the works of their members. I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve seen The Mars Volta and stared in awe while Omar defied all of my expectations of a guitarist, or as Cedric played the role of front man with the kind of bravado only seen in the greatest of performers. This was my first time experiencing At The Drive-In live, and having the ability to catch them at such an amazing venue as Mohawk ranks as one of my top SXSW moments of all time (the Death From Above 1979 reunion show is still hard to beat). I spent the set front and center, and I’m not as spry as I once was — but the second the opening chords to “Arcarsenal” started, I lost my mind and became part of the hive mind of the mosh pit. I screamed until my vocal chords gave out, and then screamed some more. Cedric was on top of his game, climbing on the railings next to the stage, donning 3D glasses, stage diving, and holding the mic to fans faces so they could scream these songs that they all knew so well. They played mostly songs from Relationship of Command, but threw in their two newest singles as well, and it was impossible to tell where the old ATDI ended and the new one began. They aren’t the same band as they were in the 90’s — they are, hands down, better than ever.
Jimmy Eat World
Of course, the night couldn’t end with one perfect set, and we were able to get into the Pandora showcase to catch the final band of the night. I’m a Phoenician, and I’ve managed to never see Jimmy Eat World. It’s not that I have any problem with them; in fact, I feel a sense of civic pride from our hometown boys. They’re one of our great cultural exports. That doesn’t mean that I’m their biggest fan, however; in fact, I didn’t even realize how many hits they had — and don’t expect me to name any of them. Surprisingly, they managed to play almost an entire set of songs that I knew and could sing along to. I was the scrooge of the group and refused to be impressed, but by the end of the night, I was glad I had fought through the aching feet and maddening lines to catch a glimpse of the pride of Arizona.
While Thursday was a lost day — and night — Friday brought with it a hangover and sense of dread. I got a late start to the day, and only barely made it to the French Legation Museum to catch Jidenna. I didn’t know who Jidenna was, but had been assured that he was one of the best artists at the festival this year. I was also informed that he was the best-dressed artist that I would see all week — and, turns out, both of these things were true. I recognized “Classic Man” from the get-go, but that was the only song that I knew from his entire set. I wasn’t blown away by his songs so much as his stories; Jidenna is a fascinating man with wonderful tales to tell. His songs were broken up with accounts of his life and lessons from his father who was a computer engineer from Africa. He definitely knew how to keep the audience engaged — by jumping into the crowd and taking selfies with his adoring fans. Jidenna definitely had some of the most avid fans of any artist I saw all week.
My time at Hotel Vegas got off to a rocky start, as a bouncer immediately tried to kick me out of the venue. He some how mistook me for the drunk nearly passed out at the merch table. I stared at him and uttered, “Really?”, long enough for someone to come by and clear up the mistake. By that point, I had barely enough time to catch the last bits of American Sharks. They are a three-piece punk band that brought a tremendous amount of energy to the crowd of aging hipsters that filled the patio. Not many people were watching them. Most were wandering in between merch booths and hamburger stands, but a handful were gathered to stage right and singing along to every song. I didn’t catch much of American Sharks, but they had the energy that you want from a punk band.
Swimming with Bears
I needed somewhere to sit, and the Annex at Hotel Vegas was the quietest place in the venue. Coincidentally, a band called Swimming with Bears were playing at the same time I was there. They are a pretty straightforward indie band, but they have a special talent in their vocalist. This is a band that I’ll look forward to hearing more from.
I was excited to finally see WAND. As a huge Ty Segall fan, I’ve seen them contribute to his recent records and loved their psychedelic rock. Unfortunately, they were one of the great disappointments for me this year. Cory Hanson is one of those guitarists that can be transcendent; he wields his guitar with such artistry that you can find yourself mesmerized by his talent, but when you step back to the the music, you find it to be too self congratulatory — which actually diminishes the brilliance of his guitar playing. While I love WAND, and Cory Hanson, I was underwhelmed by their set at Hotel Vegas.
I was introduced to Chad and the Meatbodies at a show in Tucson with Ty Segall and JC Satan. I immediately fell in love with their guitar-shredding psychedelic brand of rock, and bought every single I could find. Their most recent album, Alice, takes the psychedelia to the next level with the ambition of a concept album. Their live show isn’t as guitar-shred-centric as before, but they were still as good as I remembered. Chad Ubovich is the best musician to come out of the Ty Segall family who is not Mikal Cronin. That night at Hotel Vegas, they blew through a set of mostly new material to a raucous crowd of young scenesters and over-the-hill hipsters. I’m not sure where I fit into these two groups, but my feet were killing me from two days of wandering around Austin in a pair of blue TOMS.
Yep, I saw Hansen. A lot of people still like Hanson; I never liked them, and they didn’t win me over this week. But if you like Hanson, then it would have been fun… I guess.
Saturday is the day I got roped into a lot of shit that I wouldn’t usually sign up for, but something about lawns and sitting for hours on end won me over by this stage of SXSW. So yeah, I went and saw Garth Brooks. I don’t like country, and I grew up despising Garth. I don’t know why; perhaps it had something to do with developing a sense of self that entailed hating things that were different. All I know is that I was unenthused by the thought of walking into a Garth Brooks concert, and some of this dread was warranted. People were freaking out for him, and I’m sure several hundred Republican babies were conceived that night. But when I was able to break away from the preconceived image I had of Garth Brooks, and the “type” of people that I assumed listened to him, I was able to see what an incredible entertainer that he is. Garth Brooks really knows how to work a crowd, and even though I didn’t know many of his songs, I found myself caught up in the moment — and, for a few minutes, I respected him and his music. I’m not going to catch any Garth Brooks shows again, but I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to let my guard down.
We left the lake to walk down to Hotel Vegas because I really wanted to see Dead Meadow. I’m a psychedelic/proto-metal freak, and these guys have been doing what they’ve been doing for a long time. Unfortunately, that’s the feeling I had until about 15 minutes into their set. It felt like they were playing the same song for 45 minutes straight. Normally I’d be fine with that, but there was no movement in the song(s), and this made the pain in my feet increase to some all-time highs. This is the point at SXSW where I cracked, and realized that I was ready for it to be over. Nobody knows the toll your body takes from 4 days of wandering across Austin from line to line — until you’ve done it, and are on the final day. Dead Meadows managed to make me realize how much I was done with this week.
At the end of the week, I had one more band to see — Guantanamo Baywatch — who had come highly recommended to me. Unfortunately, they seemed to be even more tired that I was, as they proceeded to play the most off-kilter set of the week. It’s hard to review these guys because it was obvious how tired they were, and their music suffered for it. The rhythm section was off, and they seemed to be aware of how bad they were by ending each song by telling us it was “perfectly executed.” I felt their pain. It was time for the night, and the week, to end, and this was a fitting way for it to go.