I covered the sounds, sights, and smells of SXSW this year (my 7th and likely final year attending!) for Rhapsody. Here were my half-dazed thoughts:
Here to prove you don’t need no stinkin’ badge, I came upon my first show at this year’s SXSW purely by chance as I strolled by Waterloo Records. Catching a whiff of some sweet-sounding, atonal sludge, I thought, “Wow, these guys sound like Nirvana!” I darted inside to find Chelsea Light Moving, Thurston Moore‘s newest musical pursuit. Ah, yes. That would make a whole lotta sense, wouldn’t it? Practically the whole ’90s has Sonic Youth to thank. Moore, 54, remains in fighting shape, offering up a tribute to hometown heroes Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators, and protest songs like “Groovy & Linda” and “Lip,” with his hair draping over slightly wearied eyes, his stance stoic save a pair of frantic guitar-wielding limbs. A young girl next to me exclaimed, “This band is making me sleepy,” and as if in retort Moore repeatedly began to scream “Too f*ckin’ bad!” I’m glad he said it before I had to.
Next, I passed some bar on 6th Street (sorry, that doesn’t narrow it down much) and came upon Philly band DRGN King, whose flannel-clad, longhaired lead singer reminded me of that guy from the Spin Doctors (the ’90s are officially back, y’all). His soulful, sometimes falsetto-rising drawl bled in well with the propulsive rhythm section and the group’s varying elements of blues, pop and psych-rock. I see some pop crossover potential in these boys.
On to the Consequence of Sound party at The Parish, where I caught a set by yet more hippie-looking dudes (Lennon-styled shades and all). It took me a little bit to warm to Portland’s Wampire, but they slowly caught my attention as their sound seamlessly morphed from the synth-tinged chug of a song like “The Hearse” to slow-burning, Tame Impala-esque psych-pop to blistering noise rock that concluded with an extended jam of guitar-between-legs agility.
Next came TEEN, the 4 Non Blondes of this generation if only because they are four non-blondes of the no-nonsense rocker chick persuasion. Led by powerhouse Teeny Lieberson, their style was half twee-pop chic, half black-boot cool, but their sound rocked and rumbled with an aggression that’d make most men cower. A Moog synthesizer lent drones that dripped and drooped around a tense and tight rhythm section. “Electric,” in particular, was stuffed with big riffs as Teeny’s howl reached almost operatic levels at times. The juxtaposition of her rock-angel vocals and the band’s grunge-y, sometimes psychedelic, sometimes stoner-rock swirl was mesmerizing.
Last on my agenda was Portland trio The Thermals. Together for over a decade, they seemed out to prove that with mo’ age comes mo’ noise. Soon after they took the stage and burst into their catalog of terse, snappy punk, the room’s smell transmuted from mildew and Budweiser to pure sweat. The floors finally started to shake. They were literally in the crowd’s collective face, the drummer jumping in at one point, and lead singer/guitarist Hutch Harris making the amps his podium. “Here’s your future!” he shouted on the explosive closing track of the same name, an irreverent translation of Noah and the flood and Jesus on the cross. Maybe an apt theme song for SXSW: this generation’s new religion.
I kept confusing IO Echo and [Icona Pop], if only because of the similar vowels in their names. So when the former took the stage at the Mohawk for the Vans/IAMSOUND party, I was expecting the latter’s syrupy Swedish electro-pop. Instead I was facing a four-piece band led by the willowy Ioanna Gika — the only sugary thing about them was the cotton-candy pink kimono and sweatshirt patterned with smiley faces that she donned.
Instead, I was immediately blasted with overblown guitars, the two axemen gazing at their shoes and flanking the lithe Gika, whose flowy presence felt a bit like Florence + The Machine. But IO Echo are much darker and industrial-tinged at times: They were handpicked by Trent Reznor to open for Nine Inch Nails‘ last tour, after all. A highlight was ‘”Doorway”: “This is a nightmare / I want to date you/ You get right under my skin,” she seethed, over a slightly funky beat, eventually leaning on her guitarist to take on all that emotional weight. She then collapsed to her knees for next song “I’m on Fire,” moaning like an unhinged PJ Harvey, “Quiet / Steady / Trigger / Finger.” She closed with a headbang-to-backbend maneuver as if to say, “Take that, boys: I rock and I’m sexy as hell.”
DIIV had some living up to do after that, and I can’t say the sweatpants getup on one of the guitarists helped their cause. The Brooklyn quartet’s surfy shoegazing is pleasant enough on record and maybe good for zoning out to whatever weird cocktail they were serving at the venue, but, frankly, I was bored. They didn’t even play “Air Conditioning,” the lead vocalist’s self-proclaimed favorite song and probably most of the fans’ too: “You can just listen to it at home,” he said. Thanks for the tip, man.
Highlight of the day, though, was a band that I can’t say were great, but in a sea of pretty good to great bands, sometimes you just want to find something a little freaky. Leave it to the Canadians to provide such fodder. At the Pop Montreal show at Swan Dive, a band of misfits seemed to be taking way too long to set up their gear, starting their set a good 30 minutes past schedule. Finally Karneef — a sinewy beanstalk flashing with nervous energy, and the leader of Karneef + The Life — seemed anxiously hesitant but just-enough satisfied to start. From there, I couldn’t figure out what was happening: One song was all funk, another soul, another Black Crowes-leaning rock. One even had the band’s drum-pad lord victoriously rapping, his bright red, backwards-tilted baseball cap giving him a slight Vanilla Ice touch. Karneef ended the set demanding a drink and proclaiming, “F-ck that.” A semi-delusional, self-assured attitude: Now that’s rock ‘n’ roll.
The highlights from Rhapsody’s splendid party at Club De Ville came from two new bands, both out of L.A. The first, In the Valley Below, play as a full quartet, but they’re really the musical baby of vocalist Angela Gail and vocalist/guitarist Jeffrey Jacob. If these two aren’t a couple in real life, they sure play it off well, Gail as the sultry, brooding, lovesick girl gazing raptly, with puppy-dog passion, at Jacob, who plays guitar and harmonizes with cool stoicism. Intertwined in their dreamy pop songs are sexy beats to make the crowd satisfyingly sway, especially when Gail brought out a heavy silver chain to provide a tambourine-like shake. Closing track “Peaches” is destined for the next indie rom-com smash.
The other SoCal brood, Foxygen, couldn’t have been more opposite. Lead singer Sam France has the confidence of Jagger, and he yelps and snarls like him too, enough to practically lose his voice by show’s end. Their January-released debut We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic is chock full of retro exoticism, hints of The Velvet Underground, Bowie and The Stones sparkling throughout its polished psych-pop palette. Their live show, however, is much noisier, much more visceral, and an absolute thrill. And if you don’t like it, France doesn’t care: “If you hate this show. Just leave and Tweet about it,” he nonchalantly proclaimed. No one left. Especially not when a man painted like a red-and-blue stained-glass window came storming on stage to boogie with the band. “Was that Gotye? From that video?” they asked. It wouldn’t have mattered. Foxygen were the stars at this party.
Possibly nowhere else could you see a group of ’60s British icons, some feverish Canadian noise-punks, and an IDM knob-twiddling wizard from L.A., and meet Austin’s own rock hero Britt Daniel (he of Spoon and Divine Fits) on the street, all in a span of about 10 hours.
It all started at Waterloo Records, who hosted The Zombies at noon. Walking up to the stage, I hear the smooth, echoing refrains of a song I’ve adored since listening to the oldies station in my diapers: “Time of the Season” still sounds weird and fresh and utterly fantastic 45 years after its release, and so does pop classic “She’s Not There” (now nearly 50 years old!), which closed their set, the band swaying in unison and Rod Argent’s fingers dancing gleefully across the organ as they transformed this historical nugget into an extended psych-pop freak-out. Radical.
Just two hours later, Metz at the Mohawk was a radically different scene. Speedy, propulsive and loud, this Toronto trio keeps the words minimal (“You’re wasted / You’re already gone,” goes one song dedicated here to “everyone at the festival,” according to lead screamer Alex Edkins), but the noise dense and discordant, muscular and brawny in every inch of its anatomy. Finale “Wet Blanket” had Edkins shaking his guitar at the amps, the sky and the earth like a shaman inciting a spirit. “That’s pretty damaging for being only 2:30,” said my concert-going companion.
To balance that ear/brain damage, Baths, the one-man project of Will Wiesenfeld, offered tantalizing electronic music, part Aphex Twin glitchy, part Postal Service pop, part Animal Collective freaky, all dreamy and groovy at once. Wiesenfeld is like a mad chemist onstage, playing with disparate elements, mixing them into seductive concoctions. He’d loop in gentle acoustic guitar, manipulate his falsetto into a robotic wail, and make beats that crinkle and crumple and then unfurl into grand thumps of ecstatic house. “This one is actually very gay, so get looser,” he advises the crowd upon starting up a new song from upcoming album Obsidian. Masterful advice for those planning to survive the rest of SXSW.