Sunday, March 23, 2014

South by Southwest 2014, Final Thoughts

I finally finished writing up all my reviews from South by Southwest 2014 yesterday, but I still have a few more things to say, which I have grouped into two vague subjects. And for the sake of reference, or just to list all the bands I saw in one place, here's a collection of the links to the reviews:

Day 1 and Introduction (Mozes and the Firstborn / Mister and Mississippi / Arc Iris)
Day 2 (Sihasin / The Great Wilderness / Mutual Benefit / Sisu / David J)
Day 3 (Kurt Vile / Charli XCX / Gary Numan / Electric Eye / Vertical Scratchers / Saint Rich / Touché Amoré / Robert Ellis / Tijuana Panthers / Boogarins)
Day 4 (The Defibulators / Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds / David J / Pure Bathing Culture / Hundred Waters / Dråpe / Imarhan Timbuktu with Sihasin)
Day 5 (The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger / Be/Non / Drop a Grand / Suzanne Vega / Gary Numan)

Scores and Highlights:

The keen observer may have noticed that I did not provide overall scores for each day as I have in the past for other festivals and shared bills. I don't want to say I'll never do it again, but I don't think there is much meaning in such a score – it almost always ends up being a B+ or A-, which says nothing! Especially for something like SXSW, where I only saw a tiny fraction of all the performances, I just don't see the point in sharing how good my day was, since it's even more arbitrary and subjective than my individual artist reviews.

It is worth calling out a few standout performances, though, and making a few observations. I'm sure no one is surprised that I gave high marks to the bands that are long-time personal favorites (i.e. Gary Numan and David J), but it is quite a bit more exciting to examine some of my recent favorites as well as bands that I only learned about when looking for recommendations for what to see at SXSW. In fact, I've noticed two trends in my interests regarding genre or style that have surprised me a little bit.

The first is folk music. I probably shouldn't be surprised, since my last band was basically a folk band, but I've begun to realize that this is a style that interests me greatly. I really like some of the contemporary and sometimes experimental or crossover artists in this realm, including Mutual Benefit, Hundred Waters, and Saint Rich. However, I still dig the older school of folkies like Suzanne Vega, with their acoustic guitars and clever lyrics. I might even stretch the genre enough to include a band like Sihasin, who fused traditional Navajo elements with outspoken socio-political lyrics.

The second is psychedelic music and its not-too-distant cousins, like shoegaze and dream pop. It would be hard for me to hide that I sought out a lot of bands at SXSW in these veins, and while not all of them were amazing, many were. While I've been interested in Kosmische Musik (sometimes known as Krautrock) and bands like My Bloody Valentine for years, I only recently realized the potential of modern psychedelic music when I missed my chance to see Tame Impala at the ACL Festival and subsequently bought a couple of their albums. At SXSW, I was truly blown away by Electric Eye and Boogarins, but I also enjoyed The Great Wilderness, Dråpe, and The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. There were plenty more that I just couldn't fit into my schedule.

I also want to say a word about the diversity of bands at SXSW. Not only were there innumerable genres of music to be heard, but there were bands from every continent except Antarctica. I made an effort to try to see several international artists that I figured I may not get another chance to see. I've already mentioned several (most of the psych/shoegaze/dream pop bands mentioned above), but I also want to give special attention to Imarhan Timbuktu, a Malian band who probably doesn't get a lot of attention in the USA.

The SXSW Experience:

One of the most notable aspects of SXSW is the sheer number of bands that perform. One of the most notable challenges is that it is rather hard to figure out what to see and how to schedule one's time. My bicycle and wristband certainly helped with getting around and getting in to venues, but the question of how to pick and prioritize artists is still unresolved in my mind. Outside of the bands I already knew, I just looked for recommendations in trusted publications and followed up with visits to bandcamp, YouTube, artist websites, etc. However, I ended up finding more interesting bands than I could actually see! Perhaps there is some other method out there of sifting through the incredible number of bands that were performing.

Or maybe it's best to just pick a venue that you like that has an interesting-looking lineup and call it good. Otherwise, with the difficulty of predicting lines and getting around town from venue to venue, you have to decide on some limits and leave a lot of room for last-minute adjustments. I suspect most people that want to see a lot of music, especially those without a badge or wristband, probably just pick one or maybe two venues during the day and another one or two during the evening. In fact, if I go again next year, I may give that a try myself.

Another thing that surprised me was that what would have been Day 6 (Sunday) was basically event-free. There was a single closing party and a couple other events, and of course a few unofficial events, but that was about it. I didn't do anything myself, because I was so worn out from the preceding five days and none of the miscellanea on Sunday interested me. But originally I had been led to believe that it was to be another full day of music.

Part of my misconception came from the fact that there were several bands announced that never played, so I figured maybe they'd be playing Sunday and the schedule just hadn't been finalized. At some point during the festival I realized my error, but I still don't understand what happened to the bands that never played. For example, James Iha was announced (see here and here) and even scheduled on Sunday according to here! While I think Iha's new album is terrible, I still wanted to see him; that was one of the reasons I bought a wristband! Similarly, several international bands, including Angus and Julia Stone, Oumar Konate, and Capsula, were announced but never heard from again. What happened? Perhaps there were visa problems as with some members of Imarhan Timbuktu? Similarly, the band Temples even still at time of writing have a showcase listed on the official SXSW schedule with "Date TBA" (see here).

Whatever the case, I think one of the takeaways is not to focus too much on any one particular artist. I think the point of a festival like this is to enjoy the variety and the diversity instead of focusing on just a select few. Of course, I'm sure there are those that do see the same band four times during the festival (and even I saw two bands twice), but I'm glad I did some research and sought out some new acts. That was almost certainly the most rewarding part for me.

That's all I've got for now. I'm excited to see what else this wonderful city can offer me musically, and I'm sure it won't be long before another festival comes around!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 15 March 2014

Introduction: Saturday morning I had to sleep in. I also had band practice in the afternoon, so I didn't get out to see anything until a little later. I needed the brief breather, especially since I knew I'd be up really late again.

The first band of the night for me was The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, best known as the latest band of Sean Lennon, and also featuring model/musician Charlotte Kemp Muhl. I had some reservations on seeing the band due to the thick cloud of celebrity favoritism/nepotism surrounding the band, but I was curious nonetheless. I listened to a few tunes before I went, and they were okay, but their official statement mentioned that they'd grown from their original softer, poppier duo configuration into a five-piece psychedelic band. My interest was piqued. It helped that they were playing at the Parish, one of my favorite Austin venues so far.

When the band came out, there were actually six members – perhaps the guy who just played tambourine doesn't count? Sean played lead guitar and did most of the singing; Charlotte mostly played bass and sang backing parts, but played keyboards on the last song and sang lead on two others; and three other musicians played drums, second guitar, and keyboards. Immediately it became clear that this was a band with some musical talent. There was indeed a psychedelic element, but it was perhaps more in the vein of classic/hard rock. There were a lot of bluesy riffs and oldschool, big guitar solos à la Cream or Led Zeppelin. Whatever traces of mellow pop remained from their previous incarnation were indistinguishable.

[The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger at Parish.]

Sean was oddly chatty and a little rambly, which made him harder to figure out. Charlotte, too, was a bit confusing, as she seemed rather shy. The two are romantic partners, which probably only matters to the extent that there seemed to be a subdued layer of tension between them at times. At any rate, while I am still a little bit uncomfortable with the premise and personality of the band, I can't deny that they made some quite solid music.

After that, I went over to Shangri-La, where a friend of mine from I Heart Local Music (a Lawrence, Kansas music website) was hanging out and enjoying part of a Midwest showcase. I caught the full set by Be/Non, a reunited Kansas City band. They played a somewhat dancey but heavy variety of indie rock. They had a nerdy vibe but backed it up with some actual smarts.

They were followed by Drop a Grand, a chaotic band also out of Kansas City. Each of the five members wore masks and costumes, and they also passed a few extra masks out to the crowd. They didn't waste much time soundchecking or setting up; they just started right in the show. They played loud and noisily, keeping a strong rock beat but rather simple music. While I enjoyed the spectacle, much of the vocals were distorted and/or difficult to understand, so I feel like I missed out on their intended message.

[Drop a Grand at Shangri-La.]

Around that time, there were a bunch of bands playing that I was interested in, so I had to prioritize – and I had a feeling lines would be long at my final destination of the night, so I wanted to be plenty early for that. I was interested in seeing Willie Nelson's set at the Moody Theater (where Austin City Limits is filmed), but I didn't want to battle the inevitable lines. There were a couple more psych bands playing (Temples, Cosmonauts, etc.), but I wanted some more variety. There was even a funk/new wave band out of Moscow (Pompeya), but for some reason I passed even on that.

I decided to go to the Central Presbyterian Church to see Suzanne Vega, a folk artist who'd been on my radar for a long time but who I'd never gotten the chance to study closely. (I'll admit, the fact that I could sit in the balcony and rest my back and my ears was quite appealing, too.) She played acoustic guitar and was accompanied by Gerry Leonard (a regular collaborator for David Bowie as well as Vega) on electric guitar. Leonard's style was a perfect match: he added depth, played exquisite leads, and generally managed to fill any excess space without crowding out the vocals.

[Suzanne Vega with Gerry Leonard at Central Presbyterian Church. I promise it's them even if you can't discern them.]

Vega has a new album out and played several new songs from it, but she also played many of her hits from the past. Some of her new material dealing with Tarot is of minimal interest to me, but others were quite strong. A clear highlight was "I Never Wear White", which is probably fairly self-explanatory yet still impressed me. I recognized her acclaimed hit "Luka" as well as her originally a capella "Tom's Diner", performed here with textural, layered, and looped parts by Leonard. It was probably the best version of the song I'd heard. It was a great performance from start to finish, aided by the reverberant venue and the fact that Vega's set length was slightly longer than most others were (almost an hour).

My last stop of the night was Elysium, where I hoped to get in to see Gary Numan. The show started at 12:30, and I got there just after 11:30, but the lines had already begun. The problem was, badgeholders had first priority, and they kept walking up and getting let in. As soon as their line would go down, more would show up before the wristband line (which I was in) could move. I finally got lucky at some point around 12:15, just in time to catch about two minutes of a set by EMA. All I know was that they sounded synthy in an appealingly new wave/sci fi/darkwave way. I wish I had heard more, but that's about all I can report. And something tells me that most of the people in the third line, waiting to pay cash, probably didn't get in.

Just like last time I saw him, Gary Numan was at least fifteen minutes late getting on stage. In the meantime, I was practically doing battle to keep my hard-won spot with a good view. It was crowded and quite uncomfortable, and some sort of altercation broke out behind me at one point. But finally, Gary came out and started rocking, so it was all worth it.

[Gary Numan at Elysium.]

Setlist (with some help from here, but I started the listing!):
01. I Am Dust
02. Metal (with M.E. outro tease)
03. Everything Comes Down to This
04. Films
05. [Unknown]
06. [Unknown]
07. Down in the Park
08. Cars
09. Love Hurt Bleed
10. A Prayer for the Unborn
11. [Unknown]
12. Are 'Friends' Electric
 

Encore:
13. I Die: You Die

That's right, he even got to do an encore! This actually felt like a real set, even if it still was only barely longer than an hour. I don't think I need to repeat much that I said from his other SXSW performance that I saw, but I definitely appreciated that he got to play more songs. I think it also helped that a lot of the audience knew more of his catalog than just "Cars" – the atmosphere was much more conducive to Numan's material. (The fog machines probably helped, too.) He still relied on samples a little too much, and he again only touched his keyboard at the end of "Cars", and he again barely used his guitar, but otherwise it was quite an experience to behold.

[Gary Numan can indeed still play guitar.]

"Films" was a bit of a surprise, but it was quite welcome. "Down in the Park" is another classic, but, as with several of the songs, Numan has rearranged the song a bit, and it began with a long instrumental passage. "Are 'Friends' Electric" was probably the high point of the show, with the band in top form and an appreciative audience eating it up. And of course, the wonderfully punctuated "I Die: You Die" was another pleasant surprise, especially since I hadn't expected any sort of encore. This performance retained the signature keyboard parts (of course), but the guitar and live drums added a powerful edge to the song that I hadn't heard in it before.

Although I obviously enjoyed seeing Numan's brief appearance at Waterloo Records, this was clearly the real deal. He had also played at a few other places during SXSW, including two (!) other performances on the same day as this one. Somehow, the band didn't seem at all exhausted, and to the contrary, I think the more suitable environment brought out their best. Numan was particularly energetic and was quite thankful at the end.

[Who enjoys this more, Numan or the audience?]

Scores:
The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger: A-
Be/Non: B
Drop a Grand: C
Suzanne Vega: A
Gary Numan: B+

Thursday, March 20, 2014

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 4

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 4
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 14 March 2014

Introduction: After an exhausting long Day #3, I decided to plan my next day even more carefully – and also take it down a notch. Thankfully, I had an easier time getting around and getting in my desired venues.

Initially, I was hoping to see Mutual Benefit a second time at a better venue (Red 7), but I was slow getting ready and realized it probably wasn't going to happen. It was a 1:30 show, so on the off-chance that there wouldn't be a line, I still checked it out, but of course, as was beginning to seem the norm for the free, unofficial shows in the SXSW core area, there was a line even at that time. So I instead moved along to my next destination.

I got to Ginger Man, just barely out of the way of the center of the action, and of course, there was no line. I walked right in and saw a few songs by The Defibulators (sic). They played a country/bluegrass blend, complete with washboard. They had some clever lyrics, but for the most part, I wasn't in to it. After them came Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds, a hornsy, bluesy rock band with a powerful lead vocalist. I liked the idea, and the dedicated harmonica player, but I didn't actually think they were very good. The singer, despite the strong voice, wasn't doing it for me (in lyric or in style), and the music just wasn't very adventurous.

Finally, my patience paid off and David J hit the stage. I couldn't resist seeing him twice. (He actually played a third set on Sunday at Joe's Crab Shack, but I don't think I could enter the premises on principle.) As was to be expected, he played a very similar show to the one two days before at Valhalla. He did make one small change to the setlist, though, as you may observe:

1. I'll Be Your Chauffeur
2. Dust in the Wind
3. Hot Sheet Hotel
4. You Suit a Rainy Day
5. Where the Bloodline Ends (Vasectomy Song)
6. The You of Yesteryear
7. The Dog-End of a Day Gone By (originally performed by Love & Rockets)
8. No New Tale to Tell (originally performed by Love & Rockets)
9. Waiting for the Flood (originally performed by Love & Rockets)

In case you don't feel like cross-comparing yourself, I'll just tell you the change: he dropped "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" from the end and instead opened with "I'll Be Your Chauffeur", his lone solo #1 hit (on the then-recently created US Modern Rock chart). Beyond that change, the two shows were quite similar, and thus I will mostly expound the differences instead of repeating the commonalities.

[David J at Ginger Man.]

I suspect that David's setlist change was an attempt to aim for a higher chance of recognition from a crowd that probably barely, if it all, knew who he was. While the crowd at Valhalla was thin, those that remained were almost certainly longtime fans; who else would stick around until after 1am to hear some arbitrary eccentric singer-songwriter and his pseudo-country band? At Ginger Man, at 3:15 in the afternoon, I suspect most of the patrons were there for the more conventional country/rock bands (or the delicious and wide array of beers on tap). I could be wrong, but other than myself and the handful of goths in the crowd that I recognized from Valhalla, I think most members of the crowd were not there specifically to see David J.

As such, I think David was just a little more uncomfortable, a little less at ease. He seemed more at home in a place like Valhalla, and I think his stage banter and performance were slightly more relaxed and better there. His performance at Ginger Man was also good, but just not quite as solid. However, because it was daytime, I got better pictures! Also, someone was filming both shows with a handycam, and in answer to my request from my review of the other show, the complete footage of this show has been posted online! (Sadly, you won't get to hear "Heaven" and the line change about "the girl who works at Whole Foods", but so it goes.)

Instead of heading to the alley to try to bug on him again, I decided to move on after that. (Besides, I'd happened to catch him when he got in the bar and I'd already said hello then.) I hit off to the East Side for another unofficial showcase. It ended up being at the Owl, a small, low-key DIY space a little off the beaten path. I walked right in and caught maybe ten minutes of Pure Bathing Culture. They were playing a dancey synth/guitar rock thing, and while it was a little sample-heavy, it seemed interesting and bore some promise.

However, I was really at the Owl to see Hundred Waters. Thankfully, unlike my last attempt, this time I was not deterred. But of course things weren't so simple. Despite the 5:30pm showtime, they were running late due to a very complicated setup and problems with their sound. The house engineer did his best but reported that the venue was improperly grounded and thus there was a rather loud electrical hum inherent in the system. The band were frustrated, and when the singer finally took the mic, she asked the audience if we could hear it. We said "yes", to which she said, "You were supposed to say no!" Someone suggested that it was just bees. At any rate, about 20 minutes late, they finally began. Here's the setlist, as best as I could fill it in:

1. Caverns
2. [new song]
3. Thistle (Remix)
4. [new song]
5. Boreal
6. Are/Or

[Hundred Waters at the Owl.]

Yes, one of the songs performed was announced as a remix (I didn't catch by whom). I wondered a moment what that meant. But even if the band relies mostly on MIDI controllers and synths, I suppose there is no reason they can't choose to restructure and reorganize one of their songs. In fact, that sounds like something I would generally encourage live performers to do. And indeed, I enjoyed the result. Actually, I enjoyed the whole show quite well, even with the annoying hum and the delayed start. Live, the band shows a little less of their folk influence, and instead the electronic sound dominates. However, not everything was synthesized (such as most of the drums, as well as some bass and guitar during "Are/Or"), and you shouldn't get the idea that this is some sort of electro-dance or trip-hop band. Many songs employ unusual time signatures or syncopated beats, and the vocals are decidedly unusual. I like the nonstandard approach they have chosen; I think there is beauty to explore there that few other bands are interested in.

After a break for dinner, I biked back to the Rainey Street area just fast enough to see most of a set by Dråpe, a sort of dream pop band from Oslo, Norway. I hadn't specifically planned on seeing two Norwegian bands at separate nights of SXSW, but they both happened to draw my interest and fit my schedule, so that's how it worked out. (I recognized the members of Electric Eye at the show and said hello to their publicist/friend again.) While Dråpe was definitely floaty, dreamy, and maybe even a little spacey, they weren't nearly as psychedelic or prone to drone. The songs were more conventionally structured and less experimental. While I liked the instrumental work, and I thought the band could rock rather well, nothing stood out strong enough for me to call the music great. But it was good.

I then decided to head to Congress Avenue to see Imarhan Timbuktu (supposedly "Those Who Love Timbuktu") at the Speakeasy. The band, mostly comprised of a set of Tuareg siblings, come from Mali and speak more French than English. However, a few members of the band apparently had visa troubles and were unable to make it into the country for the show. To make up the difference, Sihasin, the Najavo bass-and-percussion duo I'd seen a few nights before, stepped in to back the available members. It made for quite a unique cross-cultural experience.

[Imarhan Timbuktu with Sihasin at Speakeasy.]

The bandleader and his younger brother both played electric guitar, but while the younger brother played very simple but highly rhythmic parts (never more than two chords!), the older played fluid riffs that dwelt somewhere between rhythm and lead. Both guitarists played with no distortion and no effects. (Quite a departure from most contemporary electric guitarists!) It was an impressive style; it seemed partially improvised and partially carefully planned. The older brother did most of the singing, but the younger joined in on choruses. Their sister played a hand drum (she was the one that had previously sat in with Sihasin) and also occasionally sang in the choruses; she would also wield powerful trills at seemingly arbitrary points during instrumental sections. Sihasin mostly kept to the back, filling in the arrangement but sticking close to the chords and beats set down by the primary members.

The music wasn't particularly dynamic, but it was captivating nonetheless. The overwhelming feel was that of a drone or a raga, which probably fit in surprisingly well with all the pysch bands at SXSW! The highlight was certainly the lead guitar, which wrapped around the groovy syncopated rhythms and wielded an odd strength despite the clean tone.

Scores:
The Defibulators: C
Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds: D
David J: A-
Pure Bathing Culture: B
Hundred Waters: A-
Dråpe: B
Imarhan Timbuktu: B+

Final Thoughts:
I had debated seeing Hundred Waters again at the Central Presbyterian Church, but it was the same time as Imarhan and I thought it would be best to diversify. I probably wouldn't have gotten the view I got at the Owl, but something tells me the sound would have been far better in the more reverberant (and probably better grounded) space. Either way, I was too worn down after four days of non-stop action to see anything after Imarhan, so I just went home. There were certainly more bands that I was interested in (Quilt, Temples, Dum Dum Girls, Dosh, etc.) but I just couldn't do it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 3

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 3
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 13 March 2014

Introduction: After a late night of concertgoing from the night before, I took my time getting up and planning out my day. Unfortunately, I didn't do a great job of it, or at least at first. For some reason, I also didn't take many pictures, but I'll share what I have.

Kurt Vile (at Weather Up): After hearing his name a million times from places like Pitchfork, I decided it would be in my best interest to catch one of his many appearances at SXSW. I picked a free, unofficial, early afternoon showcase in East Austin. However, I didn't anticipate the line crawling along two blocks past the venue nor the blazing sun. (I had a half "snow" day the week before, so I wasn't prepared for Spring yet.) He was playing outside, solo on an acoustic guitar, but the soundsystem was decent enough that I could hear him okay from the line, even if I couldn't really see him. By the time I got to the entrance gate, he was wrapping up, so I didn't even end up going in. I didn't think the performance was anything special, but it wasn't bad either. I'm not sure I got the best experience.

I then headed to the madness of Red River Street to try to see Hundred Waters at the Empire Garage (another free, unofficial showcase). Seeing another two-block line in the sun, I decided to forgo the sunburn and do something else. I wandered around 6th Street for a bit and then headed towards my next scheduled show, figuring the early arrival time might be necessary.

Once I got to Waterloo Records for yet another free, unofficial showcase, I realized there was no line at all. (Of course.) There were plenty of people, but plenty of space, and as it was a dozen blocks or so from the epicenter of SXSW, I guess fewer people were wandering in from the streets. I caught the end of a set by Charli XCX, an all-woman power pop type outfit. They were playing "I Want Candy" when I walked up, which did not endear me to them.

Next on the bill was Gary Numan, perhaps a little bit of a divergence from the preceding act. Frustratingly, he was at least fifteen minutes late and only played five songs. At least the performances were strong, even if he does rely on more samples than I wish he did. I think his (relatively) recent change of look and sound to an explicitly darker, gothier, more industrial direction has worked in his favor, even if his band just barely overdoes the brooding, all-in-black aesthetic. However, Numan himself smiled and showed sincere gratitude at the end of each song. Here's the setlist:

1. I Am Dust
2. Metal (with M.E. outro tease)
3. Love Hurt Bleed
4. Cars
5. A Prayer for the Unborn

[Gary Numan at Waterloo Records.]

Of course he played "Cars"; it was the only song most of audience recognized. It was also the only song Numan got behind a keyboard for, but only for the whirly bit at the end. Otherwise, he just sang and played a little guitar. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Numan give a nod to Nine Inch Nails by including a tease of the synth part from "M.E." at the end of "Metal", just as NIN did for their cover from Things Falling Apart.

After that, I ran across town back to the East Side to eat dinner and then get to Hotel Vegas as the official showcases began. I had to wait in line, but my wristband at least sped up the process for me. I missed the first few minutes but managed to get inside in time to catch most of a fantastic set by Electric Eye, hailing from Bergen, Norway. They set down really nice psychedelic grooves rooted in classic synth tones and carefully crafted drumming. The bass parts were mostly rather repetitive but felt just right. The guitar was actually a twelve-string, frequently played with a slide. The total sound was huge, especially considering that it was just four musicians. I asked them if they had an album out, and they directed me to a friend/publicist, who very kindly gave me their debut album, Pick-Up, Lift-Off, Space, Time. (It's quite good and just about lives up to the live show.)

Then I charged back to 6th Street to get to the Parish. I saw the end of a set by Vertical Scratchers, who were playing a rather inauspicious brand of pop rock. My real goal was to see Saint Rich, who had blown me away when I saw them at a Fun Fun Fun Fest aftershow. I had purchased their album and I was and am impressed by the combination of folk stylings, tastefully skillful guitarwork, and good lyrics. Seeing them live a second time, they mostly showed the same strengths as before, but this performance was almost assuredly slightly superior (and I already gave their last Austin appearance an A!). The guitarist (Steve Marion of Delicate Steve) makes it look like playing perfect guitar parts is as easy as walking down the street. (Dare I say he has a Johnny Marr vibe?)

1. Crying from the Home
2. Young Vultures
3. Sorry/Sadly
4. Dreams
5. You Ain't Worth the Night
6. Already Gone
7. Officer

The band seemed to be having a little more fun than last time, perhaps showing a bit more confidence. They started messing around during "Dreams", at one point asking the audience for a number of beats to play a note in series. They tried 37, but the third guitarist hit an extra one, so they tried again with 45 and did it right.

I was feeling pretty worn down by this point, as it was 9:30 and it had already been a long day. I had one more band I knew I wanted to see, and I decided to forsake all other options to make sure nothing got in my way of seeing Boogarins at 11:00 at Red 7. Kurt Vile was playing another set at 10:00, but it was at a venue that would have required another bikeride through the hordes and the risk of missing my top choice of the night. Gary Numan was also playing another set at 11:00, followed up at the same venue by Blondie at midnight, but since I'd just seen the former and recently the latter as well, I decided I had to prioritize.

So I simply walked to Red 7 to see whoever was there. Right when I came in, I caught the closing a capella song of who I think was Jonny Fritz. Hard to say much, but I liked the couple minutes I heard. Since Red 7 has two stages, one indoor and one outdoor, I went outside and heard a few songs by Touché Amoré, a (post-?)hardcore band with plenty of fans in attendance. While that really isn't my style of music, I was amused by the non-stop stream of stage-divers, and I appreciated some of the singer's sentiments. After that, I went back inside and caught a few songs by some sort of country band. I didn't catch the name, but the official schedule listed Robert Ellis. He and his band mostly stuck to fairly conventional country rock sounds, but periodically they would suddenly flip into some strange alternate universe and you'd realize they were playing something akin to prog or experimental psych music. Then they'd flip right back as if nothing had changed. It was quite odd and very intriguing. I now regret that I hadn't stuck around for more.

Instead, I went back outside to see Tijuana Panthers. At face value, they're some kind of modern surf rock band, maybe with some rockabilly roots. Actually, I'm not sure why I wanted to see them at all, since those genres usually don't yield a lot of fruit for me. But anyway, I did. I was impressed that all three members sang (sometimes in pleasant harmony), and that the basswork was good, but the guitar and drums weren't very notable. Some of the lyrics were clever, some were banal. Overall, I couldn't really get into it, but I admit their sound was a little above average.

Finally it was time for Boogarins, a Brazilian psychedelic band with a rather sunny sound. Their live sound was heavier than on record, but it worked quite well. It was a fun show with good grooves and a nice spacey sound. I thought both core members were excellent – one was the lead singer and rhythm guitarist, the other lead guitarist and backing vocalist, and both blew me away with their effortless skill. I wasn't feeling great by this point, but I still dug the jams enough that I bought their debut album afterwards. (It's quite good, but just a little short. It also has a somewhat different feel than the live show, as mentioned above.)

[Boogarins at Red 7.]

And at that point I decided I needed some rest.

Scores:
Kurt Vile: B-
Charli XCX: D
Gary Numan: B-
Electric Eye: A
Vertical Scratchers: D
Saint Rich: A
Touché Amoré: C
Robert Ellis: B+
Tijuana Panthers: C+
Boogarins: A-

Final Thoughts:
I didn't see enough of Jonny Fritz to be able to make an evaluation, and I wouldn't hesitate to admit that my scores for Kurt Vile, Charli XCX, Vertical Scratchers, and Robert Ellis are rather tentative.

Monday, March 17, 2014

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 2

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 2
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 12 March 2014

Introduction: I worked during the day and thus missed any daytime showcases, but spent a long night running between venues to catch a variety of artists I was interested in. From this night onward, as I often found myself in the first or second row, I started taking pictures with my phone. While most didn't turn out well, I'll share a few anyway.

Sihasin (at Javelina): A Navajo duo out of Arizona. Both members sang; one played bass and the other percussion. Amazingly, that was enough. The bass player had a great tone and played with creative skill. The percussionist too was quite innovative with his mix of rock and traditional instruments. They traded vocal parts and complemented each other with simple but strong harmonies. Between songs, the bassist encouraged us to respect each other and fight for rights for all. She was particularly vocal against usage of the term "illegal" to describe humans, which I appreciated. Before one song, they invited a percussionist from the Malian band Imarhan Timbuktu to (literally) sit in with them; she played a water drum considered rare but yet shared by both the desert cultures of Mali and the Navajo.

[Sihasin at Javelina.]

The Great Wilderness (at Javelina): A shoegazing band from San José, Costa Rica, fronted by two women singer/guitarists. They had a definite My Bloody Valentine vibe, but were a little heavier and less concerned with the carefully crafted high ends. I liked the guitarwork, but the vocals were indecipherable and a little too aggressive and heavy for me.

[The Great Wilderness at Javelina.]

Mutual Benefit (at Hype Hotel): First, a note on the venue. It isn't actually a real venue, but rather a temporary, artificial space in some dirty old building downtown. To get people to fill it, they offer free drinks, but the lines at the bar were long and I wasn't impressed by the tenders' arts, so I didn't even try. Most of the crowd was clearly more interested in the drinks and each other than any band on the stage. Hence, my attempts to get a good view and listen of Mutual Benefit were marred by tall dudes milling around talking about boring things. Despite a delay due to feedback and mixing issues, I did eventually get to see the band (mostly). On record, the band is one person and a large cast of guests. Live, they act as a seven-piece, complete with strings and keyboards. The set was short, there were a couple feedback explosions, and I hated the venue, but I thought the band did a good job of reinterpreting the material. I even wrote down the setlist (basically most of their impressive debut album, Love's Crushing Diamond):

1. Strong River
2. Golden Wake
3. Advanced Falconry
4. C.L. Rosarian
5. Strong Swimmer

[Mutual Benefit trying to get decent sound at Hype Hotel.]

Sisu (at Valhalla): It was getting late (midnight) and I was getting tired, so I didn't pay very good attention during their set. I was mostly there to see the "headliner" of the night. Nonetheless, their clever cover of The Magnetic Fields' "If You Don't Cry" was unexpected and caught my attention. Their sound was fairly dark and heavy but sadly didn't stand out much to me.

David J (at Valhalla): Perhaps best known as the bassist for Bauhaus and Love & Rockets, he also has carried along a solo career in between and after his other projects. Despite his goth rock roots, his solo work is much more in the vein of singer-songwriter territory, maybe a little folk, and recently, even country. His current band features a standup bassist (Tony Green), a violinist (Aubrey Richmond), and a mandolin player (Lisa Salloux) alongside a keyboardist (Susan Costantini Green), a percussionist with a rather unusual set (Raven), and David on acoustic guitar. Not quite what you'd expect from the man who wrote "Bela Lugosi's Dead". Anyway, to the setlist:

1. Dust in the Wind
2. Hot Sheet Hotel
3. You Saved a Rainy Day
4. Where the Bloodline Ends (Vasectomy Song)
5. The You of Yesteryear
6. The Dog-End of a Day Gone By (originally performed by Love & Rockets)
7. No New Tale to Tell (originally performed by Love & Rockets)
8. Waiting for the Flood (originally performed by Love & Rockets)
9. Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven (originally performed by Love & Rockets)

[David J at Valhalla, with Lisa Salloux and Raven behind him.]

The first five songs are all new and soon to be released on a forthcoming album, The Eclipse of Ships. While initially not excited about the project due to supposed theme ("a paean to Woman as muse"; ugh) and the preview video (featuring women in lingerie), after hearing some of the songs, I'm reconsidering my initial opinion. After all, David is not usually one let himself be wrapped in gross cliché so easily. Now I take note that David paid no notice to the women in the video and that his lyrics betray a deeper story of personal and interpersonal growth. And of course, "Where the Bloodline Ends" is rather hilarious and bold.

Gifting us with countrified renditions of four choice Love & Rockets tunes is no small matter, either. I wish I had recordings of these versions; they were actually quite enjoyable and well-arranged. The rather small but dedicated audience begged for more but were let down. I made up for it by chatting with David briefly after the show. When I thanked him for trusting me and sending an extra copy of an album years ago when the first apparently got lost in the mail, he said I "looked like an honest guy". I hardly knew what to say.

Scores:
Sihasin: A
The Great Wilderness: C+
Mutual Benefit: B-
Sisu: C
David J: A

Final Thoughts:
This was the night of the accident that made many headlines. It happened during David J's set, and Valhalla is on Red River Street, just a couple blocks away from the site. I was safely inside, but it was the word on the street as soon as I left the venue.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

South by Southwest, Introduction & Day 1

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 1
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 11 March 2014

Introduction: Maybe you've heard of SXSW. Maybe you haven't. But since it keeps getting bigger and bigger each year, and this year had a couple particularly notable incidents, chances are, you probably have. I'm not really sure how it got to where it is now. I know it started in 1987 as a purely musical endeavor, later adding film and interactive media components, but now it is quite likely the place to be to find new developments in music. It also features several other sideline events focused on subjects like education, gaming, and comedy. And because thousands of official concerts weren't enough, thousands of other unofficial shows happen around the same time. It's very confusing and quite nearly completely overwhelming, and I don't think I understood it until I was already well in the thick of it.

Part of the confusion stems from the lack of clarity about how to get into the various conference and concert activities. Conferences can only be attended by those who purchase badges, which are very expensive ($795). Those badges also grant the holder to priority access to all official concerts. Then there are wristbands, intended for local residents only, as a way to give them a chance to see the bands. Wristbands are cheaper ($189) and allow priority access to the official shows after the badge-holders get in. After that, many (but not all) venues will allow anyone else in for a relatively low price ($10-20).

As for the unofficial activities, the vast majority are free and open to all, but the lines sometimes stretch down multiple blocks. Sometimes you can walk right in. It's awfully hard to predict. Some events, official or otherwise, have free drinks or even free food. Obviously, those events tend to be popular and thus more crowded and difficult to get in to. It's also worth noting that almost all the sets are only 30-40 minutes long, although a few lucky ones are allotted 50 or more minutes. Hence, the goal is breadth and variety, not depth and singular focus.

The other factor is that the events are spread across town. The majority are located in the main music district around 6th Street and Red River Street, but plenty stretch across the wider downtown and East Austin landscape. A few reach out even further. Transportation is a challenge, because car traffic can hardly move in these areas, but relying solely on your feet may limit you to how far you can go and how fast you can get there.

All of this is a long way to explain my plan of attack. Being a local resident, I was able to get a wristband, and I decided to make the most of it. I saw something like 20 or 30 bands across the five main days of the music festival portion of SXSW. There was plenty more I could have done, but even I have my limits. For me, careful planning and constant usage of my bicycle was essential. There is most likely no other way I could have hopped from venue to venue as I did any other way. (For the record, even motorbikes and pedicabs moved slower through the city than I did on my bicycle.)

So for my first night, I decided I would just check out a couple things to see how it all worked. I wasn't sure what to expect, and I couldn't be out too late since I had to work the next day, so I just went with an open mind.

Mozes and the Firstborn (at Bar 96): A Dutch band gaining some attention for their intense playing and their rather catchy tunes. I would call them class A stoner rock. They sound like Brian Jonestown Massacre with a little less intellectualism and a little more thrash. While their single "I Got Skills" has got all the hooks, I'm still not really sure how to feel about them and their intentions. Their stage presence didn't hold up as well as their studio work; the songs just didn't feel as together or quite as catchy. The stage banter made them come across a little too weird and rude. The performance was still entertaining, but perhaps not quite up to the high expectations I had set based on other reports.

Mister and Mississippi (at Bar 96): Another Dutch band; the whole night at Bar 96 was a Dutch showcase. I hadn't heard of them, but I stuck around because they seemed interesting. They sound a little folky and a little spacey. The band is two guitarists and two vocalist/percussionists. The lack of bass contributed to a general feeling that sometimes they floated a little too far adrift. I liked the xylophone bits and I thought their general delay-laden sound was cool.

Arc Iris (at the Central Presbyterian Church): I knew the venue was hosting a showcase for Bella Union Records, started by former Cocteau Twins members and home to a bunch of good bands (including Midlake). I just showed up to see if there would be a line. (There had been a rather convoluted one at Bar 96.) There wasn't. I got in in time to see half of a set by Arc Iris. They are a weird sort of seven-piece country/folk band. I couldn't understand any of the words and I had trouble making much sense of the music. I wanted to like it but found it hard to put a handle on it. The most notable things were probably as follows: 1. the venue has awesome stained glass and what seemed like could be very good acoustics; 2. the entire band was dressed in silver outfits, except the frontwoman, who was in a gold jumpsuit; 3. I think Andrew Bird was standing off to the side just in front of me. (He's also on the same record label.)

Scores:
Mozes and the Firsborn: C+
Mister and Mississippi: B
Arc Iris: C-