DiS went to South By Southwest t’other week. Perhaps you saw our amazing preview content? Touch wood. While there we did some stuff – you know, stuff – but between sessions of stuff doing we saw some bands. Some good. Some great. Some neither. Some best left unmentioned. You won’t read about them here.
Here, in a mighty piece we’re calling DiS @ SXSW: the review – look, that’s the headline up there! – we’ll be guiding you through several truckloads of new bands. And some old bands. And some bands that have been around for a bit but only now are anything like good. And stuff. Did we already mention we enjoy doing stuff? Great.
There are two, equally honest, depictions of SXSW. The one whereby you stumble upon the greatest new band in the galaxy playing to seven people, and (more likely) the scenario where you go see a band filled with hope only to realise that, frankly, they’re pretty rubbish. Unfortunately for DiS, the first band we see is local trio Che Arthur of Austin, at Habanna Calle 6 Patio, and they’re just not very good. A plodding, grunting, angsty power trio, they offer little hope that they’ll ever be anything but. It’s a stark reminder that of the 1,500-or-so bands playing the event, the majority just won’t be that good.
Another oddity is why people travel four thousand miles to check out a band they probably wouldn’t go see on a Tuesday night out in Camden. Hence the incongruity of seeing Brighton quartet Smallwhitelight at Habana Calle 6 Annex. There are a large number of UK-spawned A&R types out watching the band, somehow re-enthused by the exoticness of seeing an unsigned UK band playing in Austin. Despite (or because of?) the miles travelled from Sussex to Texas, they’re still not great at all. They leave us with a feeling of going to Barbados and deciding to watch Watford play football on a bar room telly rather than hitting the beach.
So it’s a relief that the first good band of the week comes soon after. Call Me Lightning (seen at the Red Eyed Fly) of Milwaukee are everything you want in a heavy punk-rock band: they’re urgent, the songs are driving, they’ve got great riffs, and their frontman exudes brilliant personality. He spits into one willing punter’s mouth. Good, clean, hepatitis-rocking fun. Go find and go see.
DiS is slightly confused by To Live And Die In LA (are they good, bad, or great?), but we’re absolutely sure that At All Cost (@ Red 7) are tremendous. Pounding, heavy heavy metal in a neo-traditional sense, these Austin-ites are fucking awesome. The kids are going nuts to five hairy tattooed men hammering the shit out of their instruments. Add in those clever little electronic-y bits and it’s modern, too, without wandering into Linkin Park territories. Success awaits?
Another act expected to achieve great things is Modular Recordings’ Softlightes (@ Central Presbyterian Church). Unfortunately, at 1am, mass is particularly quiet today. It’s a shame, because the band put on a great show and their fuzzy, gorgeous indie-pop is perfectly suited to such hallowed surroundings. It’s a case of maybe not tonight for Softlightes, but soon.
The British BBQ at Bush Square – a tiny patch of grass outside Austin’s Convention Centre – is swarming with UK industry types. Amy Winehouse is here, too – on stage, with a guitar and nowhere to hide. She’s alright, likes, but nothing to get DiS’s knickers in a twist over. Acoustic renditions of well-known hits aren’t what we’re here for, after all. Time to move on…
DiS’s first of two SXSW shows explodes all over the faces of those in attendance at Latitude 30 as soon as Watford punks Gallows hit the small stage, and promptly push all their gear – drum kit aside – off it. Vocalist/child-terroriser Frank is up on the bar, a flower ‘tween his teeth; all anyone below him can do is smile broadly and hope to heaven he doesn’t turn properly nasty. Kicking at the monitors like Vinny Jones hacking down a spindly centre forward, he and his bandmates are an early revelation – it’s three or four or something in the afternoon, and already DiS’s ears are fucked. Robert Gomez, who plays before Gallows, does a sterling job, but there’s only one true highlight of this Tea For Texas bash, and they’re rightfully signed up to a major label as of now.
Boston-based Protokoll kick up an almighty storm at the Beauty Bar Patio. Like a cross between Fugazi and Pearl Jam, singer Jose De Lara spits out invective whilst his bandmates whip up furious guitars, bass and drums. Anthemic, urgent and vital, Protokoll are probably the best band this writer (Gareth Dobson) saw all week.
There’s a sight to behold at Parish II: five misshapen, mismatched men of varying ages and beard length mark themselves around the stage before hurling themselves into a set of unabashed, raging country-punk. They are O’Death. Standout track is 'Only Daughter', while a crazed, gothic version of The Pixies' 'Nimrod's Son' gets the crowd equally raging. They’ve just signed to City Slang in Europe, so hopefully they’ll come the UK’s way soon.
Over at Maggie Mae’s, Montreal’s Land Of Talk are whipping the crowd into a frenzy at the M For Montreal showcase (makes sense they’d play there, then). Anyone who’s a sucker for the breathy vocal ways of Cat Power and Emily Haines is drawn to singer Elizabeth Powell, but nobody stands too close as the threesome craft epic and insanely catchy guitar-pop of the finest Throwing Muses, post-Sonic Youth variety. Their live show fills the so-hot-right-now-corroborating rammed room, with a crowd who seem totally rabbit-in-the-headlight consumed by the pulsating waves unfurling around blog-approved anthems like ‘Summer Special’ and ‘Seafoam’.
Bourbon Rocks is a very odd venue – the bands play upon a podium in the middle of the main room, while next door punters shoot pool and completely ignore what’s pumping from the PA. Here, Lords play to a small but thoroughly entertained crowd – DiS, recognising friends, shouts a request. The silence that follows reminds us where we are – this isn’t London (or Nottingham, really) anymore, Toto. The trio’s unique take on the blues – they’re not a blues band, but there are traces of the genre throughout their gear-crunching rock arrangements – keeps everyone gripped, and the band seem to be having fun. But the venue… weird.
Oxbow are scaring attendees at Emo’s Annex – their lead singer, the burly and beautiful Eugene Robinson, is stripped to his underwear, while bandmates go at their instruments as if trying to strangle the life out of wild beasts. Off stage Robinson is almost certainly a gentle soul, but as some mutant hardcore crawls from the epic speakers either side of him he becomes a devil with a microphone, luring us in to a lair from which we’ll never escape, all fiery and dark. It’s terrifying, utterly engrossingly so. The San Franciscan outfit are followed, at the same venue, by Daughters!, whose seizure-core is utterly disposable but shocking in the flesh all the same. DiS sticks around for a spot of Big Business, too – the Melvins collaborators are on fine form, their brute-rock suitably bruising in the live environment. Something more subtle is required, though.
Deerhunter tick all DiS’s chill-us-the-fuck-out boxes: the Atlanta-based and Kranky-signed collective – all spindly limbs and wide, druggy eyes on the Soho Lounge stage – deliver a succession of dreamscapes to turn anyone’s aggravation levels down to a safe, green-light level. Outside 6th street is buzzing to the clink of empty booze bottles and the beer’ed-up boisterousness of Brits abroad, but upstairs at one of Austin’s best-attended R&B bars – if the clientele and soundtrack is owt to go by – a hush is descending. Vocalist Bradford Cox not only has the best name of any singer performing at SXSW, he also has one of the most unique stage presences – his eyes fix themselves on the ceiling, while his colleagues focus on some of the most inspiring post-shoegaze material we’ve ever heard live. Fantastic.
They’re followed by Do Make Say Think, but the many-limbed Canadians fail to match their support act’s impact – the levels are all over the place, and the band’s horns and strings are drowned out by bombastic drums. ‘Bound To Be That Way’ should be a brilliant opener, but tonight it sounds too rippled, too disjointed, to be wholly enjoyed. Shame, but it’s not like DMST are an unknown at SXSW – there will be many discoveries made tomorrow.
Stubb’s afternoon bill is dominated by Kings Of Leon. A savvier DJ would have spun Blur’s ‘Starshaped’ with its “music’s fashion” line before these gruff rock ‘n’ roll tearaways take the stage. Sadly the tabloids will have to dig a little deeper as this campaign trail contains little in the way of coke and supermodels: the band’s gone Christian enough to take around to your granny’s for Sunday afternoon tea to talk about how their name makes people think about Lions and Narnia. Having never given their totally overplayed Nirvana-aping country-grunge the time of day before, it’s refreshing to know that not only did they encourage Top Shop to start stocking cowboy shirts but that they’re also a tight-as-hell live band struggling to get beyond their semi-boyband persona. The result is swamp rock anthems for face-pack-filled slumber parties but, y’know, their album tracks ain’t too far removed from the great moments of Dandy Warhols Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia. Maybe it’s the sun shining or the free margaritas but this could be, unexpectedly, a mind-charging performance which is easily one of the highlights of this year’s SXSW.
Over at Club de Ville, Shout Out Out Out Out get timid indie boyz dancing like JT in Night Fever (oh, just imagine if the new JT was in said flick). Beers are free and the sun is out – a load of free stuff is laid out in and around plastic bags at the gate, and there’s a proper scrum on for man-size Insound tees. DiS ain’t bothered ‘cause DiS is dancing. For a bit, anyway: next up are Pelican, who alter our rhythmic course in dramatic fashion. These instrumental arrangements are huge, and material from the forthcoming City Of Echoes album sounds amazing – it’s direct to helmet, and just as loud as, if you dig. DiS digs awfully – it’s out weak arms – but we know when we hear something worth screaming about, and Pelican leave us totally hoarse.
Tiny Masters Of Today draw a bemused and disquieted crowd later on at Club de Ville. Pre-teen bassist and guitarist Ada and Ivan stomp and shout, while an even younger dancer meanders between them. A hairy old man hits drums wildly. It's just odd. Thanks to a crummy PA, it's hard to make out the musical worth of the tiny titans of garage rock, but we do know our heads are unbalanced. And we wish we were in a rock band playing SXSW aged twelve. You could probably get drunk really quickly.
Wandering over to Elysium for Japan Nite (that’s rite, ‘nite’), we watch The50Kaitenz, who claim to be the 'Ultimate Garage Punk Rock'n'roll Band from Osaka, JAPAN'. They may have a point. Yes, they look like the Ramones, and yes, they sound like the Ramones covering the MC5s. But here and now that's quite, quite brilliant, frankly. It's sweaty, the kids are going nuts and we're very happy to be here, thank you very much. We’re even drinking Japanese beer. It’s not free, mind you. Outside the venue, DiS's Mr Dobson befriends an alien (main picture).
DiS hasn’t witnessed The Apes since one Lucius Twilight took over on lead vocals, but the DC quartet grind out the most twisted, mutant-blues psychedelic gonzo-rock we’ve ever ‘eard. It’s like Liars on a lethal cocktail of ether and Benylin – all fucked and drowsy and woozy but so alive and almost certainly about to wave a cock in your face. A big cock. An Iggy Pop cock, all showered in Jim Morrison sweat. Ergh, yet we lap it all up. The fairly small crowd at the Flamingo Cantina doesn’t know where to look as keyboard wizard Majestic Ape shimmers in a glittering outfit while rocking space-age licks from another dimension – we’d look to the stars if only the roof burnt down. They’d only star back in disbelief, hand-clapping their merry way through the cosmos. Neat.
Boris are something else entirely – just as absorbing, but not quite so brilliantly far out. A huge crowd at Spiro’s can’t take their many eyes off the fucking massive gong behind the prog-rock sludge-wading Japanese trio; those that do manage the feat are instantly drawn to Wata’s twin-neck-and-no-heads guitar; to say that he abso-fuckin’-lutely slays is a gross understatement. When drummer Atsuo lifts a beater the size of a teenager to the almighty metal disc behind him, the world simply stops turning. The aftershocks are huge. The Earth’s axis groans. The kit is kicked down. Cymbals crash down onto the stage and still the gong rings. It completely overpowers the applause that follows the band’s fantastic finale. Summarisation: brilliant.
But it’s not as brilliant as what DiS rushes across town to see next. Russian Circles follow Maritime at the Soho Lounge – not that many people stick around to see them go on at one in the morning. Those that do stay are treated to an astonishing set: the Chicago trio are, like Boris, an instrumental act, but their muscular songs are peppered with avant-garde alt-rock dynamics the likes of which DiS has never witnessed live. Imagine if Tim Kinsella joined Mastodon. Go on, imagine: guitars that go widdly-widdle-woo, all spectral and washy, but drums that fuckin’ kill. And the riffs, when they land, leave craters like extinction level event meteorites. That’s Russian Circles, to be as succinct and yet as vague as possible. Drummer Dave Turncrantz is insanely good – he might just be the finest percussionist at this year’s SXSW, given his presumably innate ability to switch from the most crushing of breakdowns to subtle cymbal rides and hi-hat dancing fully capable of rivalling anything from the indie-dance fraternity – Foals and !!!, we’re looking at you, here. Russian Circles are the kind of band that make you want to form a label, just to put out the most ridiculously over-the-top, lovingly packaged, etched-on-one-side piece of vinyl with their name on it. DiS and friends very nearly do. We’re in love, hard. It’s a feeling that ain’t regressing any time soon.
The Lazydog is a weird venue. It has a marquee outside it, in an alleyway; inside, it’s a shop selling the most foul-looking folk art, all sixth-form slaps of oil paint and roughly carved things. 65daysofstatic blow the PA, leaving DiS to sip our free beer in silence, crowd chatter aside. A few dogs wander past, the sun is bright – yup, life, sometimes, is pretty sweet. A couple of apologies later and 65 throw in the towel, defeated by failing technology. While they last they’re grand, but you rightly assumed that, right?
Over at the Mean Eyed Cat BBQ house, at the British Underground Bootleg Bar-B-Q, there are many wonderful things to see. DiS finally sees Foals after a few excited reports of their past shows. It's their last set of the week, and in the blazing, hot-as-hell sunshine, they're magnificent. All jerks, polyrhythms and insatiable dance thrusts. Gruff Rhys, too, is a wonder to behold, playing in the back room of the indoor bar to a packed and devotedly hushed audience. Armed with only a guitar, a co-singer (Lisa Jen Brown of 9 Bach) and, seemingly, a box of children's musical instruments, Gruff manages to create the sound of a four piece band and beyond. Truly, this man is one of the greatest songwritiers and musicians of his time.
Instores are frequent events at SXSW, and DiS takes a cab over to Urban Outfitters to witness Cut Off Your Hands play to a tiny crowd – many more will later say they were here. In one corner of the store, a thrashing and writhing concoction explodes. Fresh of face, these young teeth-cutters from New Zealand hit with the pop energy of Hot Hot Heat, the angular bouncing madness of Les Savy Fav, and slow down occasionally to the pace of The Hives. They close this short set with the hook-heavy ‘Expectations’, and the unsuspecting girls behind the counter start bopping.
When a band resembles Phoenix fronted by Thom Yorke, via Hot Chip, there’re parts of DiS’s collective body that feel prettyspecial. When Walter Meego’s live show, at Exodus, throws tumbling great shapes like this, we begin to wonder why nearly all of these ‘showcasing’ ‘hopefuls’ along 6th are still plundering the well-thumbed Neil Young/Stooges/Metallica guitar songbook. Some bona-fide Daft Punk-flavored hits are lurking amongst this lot’s canon – stick ‘em in your DJ mixes with Metronomy but just don’t call ‘em New Rave.
At The Blind Pig, DiS ponders a question: do all bands from Brooklyn post-Jonathon Fire*Eater, including The Walkmen and The Strokes, sound so darn Brooklyn? The aloof cool, however, isn’t as becoming with White Rabbits as they rifle through upbeat house party songs, before delivering three singles that sound like indie-club anthem ‘The Rat’ or what The Strokes’ second album coulda/shoulda sounded like. Add to this a stage-full of band members, including a drummer and a separate percussionist, and just maybe there’s “a new favo(u)rite band” coming to a lazy-journo buzz column near you. Really soon.
Parisian(ish) duo The Berg Sans Nipple keep DiS’s mood way up there over at Elysium. The captured-live loops don’t always hook the onlooker, but peculiar beats ensure that these oddballs playing at the most bizarre of pop keep DiS in their company for an entire set. They’re followed by a collaboration between Austin’s The Octopus Project and Black Moth Super Rainbow. With reports of TOP’s earlier show being primarily of the raving variety, DiS has to see this up close and personally. We’re not disappointed: the twin-band one-vision set is enrapturing – we’d dance harder, but we can only stick around so long as we’ve our own show to run a few blocks away.
At a fish restaurant on 4th – yes, a fish restaurant – DiS brings its SXSW to a close with Jeremy Warmsley, Beans On Toast and My Latest Novel performing, incredibly intimately, before a squeezed-in crowd. We’re wondering if they know something we don’t as attendees continue to flood in, and it seems they do: a few songs in, Warmsley is joined ‘on stage’ (there is no stage, just a few square inches of floor without a barstool or table on it) by Zach Condon of Beirut (pictured, ish). They do, loosely, ‘Postcards From Italy’; DiS swoons, then plays dance-pop ‘til chucking out time. We wander our way back to the hotel full of pride and pooped of energy. A couple o’ Sparks and some cheap speed and we’d be up for some late-night penthouse partying, but, really, we’re done.
So that’s that, some of our highlights ‘n’ lowlights of South By Southwest 2007. There’s plenty we missed, and plenty we saw but omitted to mention here. Perhaps you saw something as incredible as Russian Circles, or Foals, or The Apes, or that Jeremy-Zach duet? If so, do comment below…