Last week, Suze Olbrich ventured to Austin Texas for SXSW. Here is her report....
The welcome heat, pervasive smell of BBQ, and quirky Americana-infused decor in every dive bar and restaurant, all drenched with a carnival atmosphere, inspire a fervent, intoxicating delirium as soon as you set foot in the city of Austin during SXSW. Every March, this epic, new music festival floods the only liberal enclave in Texas with musicians, industry folk and fans. The festival began as a showcase for new talent and has grown into a behemoth where huge international stars now also descend to snatch some of the attention away from the thousands of hungry newcomers.
There is so much on at this festival that even focusing on just the smaller acts of one sub-genre (if you so chose) would still leave you reeling with the sheer amount of shows on offer. With every decision you make to see one band, you will be missing out on hundreds of other shows. Once you give in to this fact and realise that logistics and plain exhaustion (after hours standing in the humidity) will also get in the way of even the strongest will to explore, you settle into a brilliant, four days of being wholly immersed in music.
This year, there were many more three-day-long free parties hosted by the larger publications and blogs than in previous festivals. The Mess with Texas, Hype Machine, Fader and Brooklyn Vegan stages, amongst others, would have qualified in their own right as very decent individual festivals all by themselves. The latter had the best line up of new bands, and was the one I chose to spend a very pleasant few hours at on the Friday afternoon, catching three of the very strongest new acts of SXSW 2012.
Band of the Festival
Poliça were a highlight for everyone who saw them this year at SXSW and for very good reason. Channy Cassell (Roma Di Luna, Gayngs) drives this project - aided on the writing front by another Gayngs’ member Ryan Olson - and her command of the stage was masterful. Her loose yet controlled haunting vocals hover beautifully around the deep, intricate rhythms created by the two drummers and a bassist that form the rest of the live band. The sultry, almost swampy atmosphere exuded by the backing track was a welcome hangover from Gayngs, conspiring to add a broodier layer to the sound. This electronic element was fully embedded within each song, rather than the distraction it proved to be with some of the other younger acts I saw that relied on technology they hadn’t yet quite mastered.
The dreamy, hazy vibe was continued by the next relative newcomer to take to the stage, Youth Lagoon. Forced (through kit failure) to begin his set with just the keyboard for company, Trevor Powers still proved a real talent. Confessional, deeply personal lyrics sung in a fragile voice that brought to mind Jonathan Donaghue of Mercury Rev, were performed with great confidence. The technical issue resolved itself by the second track and his guitarist was able to join him on stage. Simple eerie, mournful melodies were built up into more rousing, hopeful and complete songs. One to seek out in the coming year.
Doldrums were another act creating a big stir around Austin. An unpredictable, thrilling and bacchanalian show was led by Alrick Woodhead manning various synthesisers, lead vocals and maracas whilst jumping all over the stage and into the audience. They are a real party band with a lot of ideas, some of which escaped them in translation but after seeing many polite alternative pop artists over the past two days this slightly shambolic, moody but rapturous set was a very welcome intrusion.
Lucius, Kishi Bashi, Mozart’s Sister and Bleached also proved very worthy of the hype surrounding them this year. Lucius, like many of the other strong new contenders, are a female led act. This band of accomplished players hail from Brooklyn but have a southern, bluegrass feel to their jaunty, country pop songs. The crowd was all theirs after just two songs and they ended a rousing set by intertwining Whitney Houston’s 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' into their last track.
Solo artist Kishi Bashi took to the stage at the witching hour in the garden of Uncorked - a wine bar that had opened its doors to host the showcase by the Paper Garden label. Utilising his extraordinary voice, both singing and beat boxing whilst plucking and playing a violin and looping these sounds (as well as a range of electronics), he seemed the perfect musical offspring of Tune Yards and Peter Broderick.
Mozart’s Sister - another solo artist - put on an electrifying performance later that evening. With Win and Regine of Arcade Fire looking on in the tiny crowd, she performed a handful of songs most easily described as "electropop", over mismatched beats and glitches that complimented an exceptional vocal performance subsumed with more energy than any other artist I saw that week.
Playing about 15 shows over the 4 days, Bleached were seemingly recommended by every blog that previewed SXSW this year. The rousing, retro, jagged Americana, blues-tinged pop was played expertly, with impressive harmonies from the three girls at the front of the stage. One to keep a keen eye out for at festivals this summer.
Dirty Beaches, who I hadn’t caught the previous year, returned to SXSW to play a brand sponsored party in the garden of Cheer Up Charlies. A typical out of downtown venue with vintage store installed out front and a free bar, just a street away from a carpark full of the food trucks that pervade Austin, providing delicious sustenance for the meandering thousands. As the sun descended over the city behind, Alex Zhang Hungtai took to the stage James Dean cool and Nick Cave deep in voice over the menacing, industrial, lofi drone that flooded his songs. The audience fully under his spell, Alex leapt off stage during one of the most intense tracks he played. This trick was utilised repeatedly by many acts at SXSW to varying levels of delight, menace and plain irritation.
I’m always curious to see how rising English acts fare when taken out of the relative comfort of known venues and a home crowd. Kindness were deservedly creating a huge stir around town all week. Adam Bainbridge’s command of the stage has increased greatly even over the handful of gigs he has played since his Dalston show last month. Always an intriguing presence, he suited his late night slot at The Hype Machine hotel, the disco rhythms and deep funk duly working their magic whilst the backing singers kept the vibes high.
Clock Opera (Pictured, above) were afflicted with sound issues the first time I caught them. A common hazard that hurt several artists including Young Magic, whose excellent record I had treasured earlier this year, only to be vastly disappointed with the awful sound system that destroyed their showcase in a downtown bar.
I managed to catch Clock Opera again at the end of the week as they played a rapturous set at Huw Stephen’s showcase. Praise flowed for this band from all sides this week with people enthralled by their intelligent, stirring and accomplished pop. They even had a few Americans dancing and whooping by the bar, an admirable feat on the last night of the festival as most people were more than a little drained.
SXSW also provides an opportunity to catch some of the more established acts with new albums out or on the way. Best Coast played Spin magazine’s party at Stubbs, one of the biggest venues in Austin. The band have clearly evolved, although the newer tracks they dropped in to the set were also more in keeping with the feel of the debut LP than they seemed to me to be at first listen last week.
A little later on that day, enthusiasm for the new momentarily fading having traipsed around in the humidity trying to find a great, new band by accident and only finding badly played rock and metal, I stepped back in to the Spin event at Stubbs to catch Santigold. Her return to live shows, complete with awesome new pop songs and a brilliant stage show (encompassing two super fly dancers, horses and various other props) proved a real highlight of the week. Santigold will rule the festival circuit this summer. She reversed the crowd-diving trend by bringing an ecstatic few of the Spin crowd up to join her on stage.
Earlier in the week, Stubbs had played host to Alabama Shakes. Their London show having been my favourite of 2012, I had to watch them again playing to a home crowd. The band are a true cut above the rest of the new acts in terms of experience and playing what my blues-loving father describes as “real music”. They did not disappoint. I was able to worm my way right to the barrier at the front where you could clearly see how Brittany’s entire person was living every emotional nuance of every lyric. Incredible.
I finally caught DiS-championed Blondes on the last night of SXSW at the XLR8R party at Barcelona on East 6th Street, the central strip of the festival area that had turned into a giant stag party in Faliraki-inspired circle of hell - and that was two days before an extra 20,000 people descended on Austin to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Blondes are not a brand new act to many but their show at Barcelona was the first I have seen so I feel it’s fair to include them here. If something is "old" in SXSW eyes, it’s still usually at least a year or two away from public recognition. In fact three of the most talked about acts at SXSW 2012 had been on the tip lists from the year before and were still only just convincing the rest of the industry yet alone the world (Trash Talk, Fidlar and Reptar),the real pace of careers evidently never as fast as one is so frequently led to believe.
For an electronic act, their live show is more entertaining than most as they have mastered their physical performance to match the wicked house beats and Balearic glitches. Head and upper bodies bobbing in as cool a way as possible with slick hand movements across the synthesisers and keyboards, they provided a welcome blast of pure electronica.
Another electronic act of note played later that night at SBTURKS - heaving, wicked fun party put on by Young Turks and SBTRKT a few streets away. It was in this relative calm that I caught Nick Hook play a shit hot set with vocals from the French-Mexican artist Andrea Balency. SBTRKT himself put on a brilliant show headlining Pitchforks’ day party at a packed out Mohawkes earlier in the week - a mere year after playing to a tiny crowd in the smaller room of the venue to a handful of people.
The End (Almost)
My SXSW ended all too soon at the Vice Party on Saturday night - the warehouse and gardens of 1100 East 5th having earlier played host to Mess With Texas’ 3 day mini-festival and now taken over by the lifestyle conglomerate. The party lasted 3 hours before being shut down by the cops. Not too out of the ordinary for Vice... A$AP Rocky’s crew were pushed a little too far by the crowd who’d been riled up by a storming set from Trash Talk and had spent the week marinating in free booze. An all out brawl ensued.
Trying to rid themselves of the downer brought on by the oddly brutal stupid scene just witnessed, the crowd swiftly dispersed to the hundreds of after-parties still going around this amazing city to see off an extraordinary week of music, tequila and a glutinous amount of Tex-Mex with friends on a high.
Lead photo of Polica by David Greenwald from Rawkblog.