My first full day of music at South by Southwest began in a bar and ended in a church. From noon until three in the morning, three friends and I saw nearly 20 bands: indie rock and punk, blues and folk, glam and R&B, and a bit of hip-hop courtesy of A$AP Rocky. As I learned during my first time at the festival, SXSW is organized chaos, with thousands of people thronged in the streets all day and all night, lined up outside and packed inside bars and clubs to see some 2,000 bands play countless “official” and “unofficial” shows, categories that are somewhat fluid since most bands play both kinds of shows. It’s hard to imagine a place with more music per square inch or square mile, all within walking distance or a short bike ride. For any music maniac –especially one who loves tacos — SXSW is paradise.
The day began at an outdoor Irish pub. We didn’t intend to see any music, but the waitress said that since we were among the first 100 people, actually the first 10, the drinks were free, courtesy of the band setting up on stage. After a grueling and cacophonous sound check, Chasing Kings. were surprisingly pleasant, with sweet three-part vocal harmonies, warm guitar tones, and a lead singer whose voice had just a dash of Maroon 5 (sans Auto-Tune). From there, we migrated to Mellow Johnny’s, a.k.a. Lance Armstrong’s massive warehouse of a bike shop, where we caught the last four songs of a set by Howler, part of a live broadcast by stellar Seattle station KEXP. Beneath a tricked out Bianchi Pista that hung over the stage, the skinny boys from Minneapolis plays good rowdy retro power-pop in the vein of The Strokes, Tokyo Police Club, and Surfer Blood.
Next we migrated to Waterloo Records, Austin’s iconic indie record shop slash tourist destination, where we caught a couple of bands and had free energy drinks which according to the can were a mixture of iced tea, lemonade, and bad ass. We were underwhelmed by the generic rock of London four-piece Tribes, then energized by the satirical glam rock and raucous energy of Foxy Shazam, who sound and act like a hybrid of Queen, The Darkness, and Spinal Tap, insofar as those three are different. Stage antics included keyboard surfing, smoking five cigarettes at once, and giving the microphone oral pleasure.
Energized by the neo-Freddy Mercury, we crossed town to the Red River District, one of the main drags of SXSW, where thousands of people were roaming the streets and enjoying free shows. The spacy R&B of Polica (pronounced POH-LISA) was the first and perhaps best show of the afternoon, led by the hypnotic voice and stage presence of Channy Moon Cassell, formely of Roma di Luna and now the lead female singer in Gayngs. backed by bass, and two drummers who inexplicably often played the same beat simultaneously. Afterward, as walked around Red River we heard what we thought was a band covering Titus Androniucs. It turned out to be Titus Andronicus, though we caught only their last song (“No Future Part 3”).
At a Paste Magazine showcase, we caught a pair of female-fronted bands who performed beneath a gigantic mural of the country music pantheon: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Reba McInytre, Kenny Rogers, etc. Led by vocalist Amber Papin, Brooklyn indie pop trio Hospitality brought some pleasant jangly songs from their debut album Friends of Friends, which came out in January. We were more impressed with husband and wife duo Tennis, whose first album Cape Dory was inspired by their seven month adventure on a sailboat, and last month released their second record, Young and Old, inspired by a W.B. Yeats poem. The live show–especially Alaina Moore’s vocals–makes their records seem tame by comparison.
Puffy Areolas were messy and loud as fuck. Their hyper distorted psychedelic punk was definitely the weakest musicianship of the day. But we give them credit for pure spastic energy and breaking the fourth wall (Inaudible shirtless alto saxophonist played the entire set in the crowd, and lead singer guitarist came into the crowd and gave his guitar to a bewildered female fan.) Next we caught the end of a set by Zulu Winter, five school buddies from London whose debut album comes out in May, and decided that all music venues should be like the indoor-outdoor Mohawk. .
After a brief break to bathe and refuel, we returned and made our first mistake of the night. We thought we were going to see Javelin. Instead, we went into the club next door by mistake, where we caught Fidlar who sounded like Warped Tour refugees, as confirmed later by their song “Wake Bake Skate.” We then entertained the delusion that we could get into the Fiona Apple, Sharon Van Etten and Andrew Bird showcase at Stubbs, Austin’s legendary BBQ joint. Then we saw the line. (Fortunately we have already seen Sharon Van Etten in Chicago and twice in New York.)
For the rest of the night, we split into two groups. Assistant Editor Pete Lillis caught Zola Jesus, a.k.a Nika Rosa Danilova, the slow burn of Psychic Ills, and The Men, about whom he will have much more to say later this week on Frontier Psychiatrist. The rest of us took a more mellow turn and headed to St. David’s Episcopal Church for three more mellow acts, each with a somewhat spiritual, if not exactly religious dimension. The star was Anais Mitchell, whose haunting baby voice of a drawl bounced through the pews as she sang songs from her new album Young Man in America and her 2010 breakout record Hadestown, a folk rock opera about the myth of Orpheus and Euridice. While Hadestown guest vocalist Justin Vernon did not make the show, but Mitchell has more than enough talent on her own and her backing band –electric piano, bass, and a drummer who doubled on banjo—was perhaps the best musicianship of the day. Finally, we caught the bluesy set of alt-country singer songwriter Todd Snider. Perhaps only in Austin does a guy whose last album was called Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables play a gig in a church.
Amen. Bring on Day 2.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He has visited Austin several times, but this year is his first time at South by Southwest. Photos courtesy of Peter Lillis. Check out our Tumblr throughout the week for more photos.