Sunday, March 27, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016 Final Thoughts

Once more, I'd like to summarize my experience at South by Southwest this year and provide some additional thoughts about the festival. First, the more-or-less complete list of bands I saw:

Day 1: Boraj / Natisú / Spiral Vortex
Day 2: Moonlandingz / Noveller / Iggy Pop
Day 3 (parts 1 and 2): Your Friend / Julia Jacklin / Daniel Romano / Thao & the Get Down Stay Down / Frankie Cosmos / SIR / Ian Fisher / Great American Canyon Band / Vaadat Charigim / Yonatan Gat / Elephant Stone / Noura Mint Seymali / Bombino / Faust / Electric Eye
Day 4: Ian Fisher / Eleanor Friedberger / Your Friend / Morly / Mitski / Growls / Small Houses / Great American Canyon Band / DJ Dodger Stadium / Crystal Castles
Day 5: Stiff Middle Fingers / Bummer / Kasey Rausch's Country Duo / Bruiser Queen / Assuming We Survive / Ian Fisher / Hinds (did not actually perform!) / Lusts / The Ripe / Judah & the Lion / Ian Fisher (again)

Now for a few miscellaneous thoughts about the big picture.

The Hype: Much like last year, but unlike the year prior (2014), there didn't seem to be quite the same level of buzz and excitement. I heard this from several regulars. There were certainly plenty of big name performers, but not actually all that many, and many of those that did appear only played one or two sets (including unofficial ones) and then disappeared. There were several such bands that I missed one opportunity to see and then realized I wouldn't have another, such as the Dandy Warhols, who only played at 1am Wednesday night, Erykah Badu, who only played at 12:40am on the same night, and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, who only played two sets. Plenty of other mid-level acts did the same, such as Kreidler, Barry Adamson, and Ghostland Observatory. I guess I got lucky that I did manage to catch Iggy Pop's only public show (although he did an ACL taping at the same venue the night prior).

Venues at Capacity: I can't tell you how many times I heard the word "fire marshal" this year. I really wonder if there was some sort of crackdown by the city on enforcing the fire code venue capacity limits. In the previous two years, I can't remember a single time that I couldn't get into a venue for any reason. There were a few times I bailed from extremely long lines for unofficial day parties, but that was different. This time, I missed out on George Clinton and Mumiy Troll because of capacity limits, and I had friends that failed to see The Roots, Sun Kil Moon, and others. (Apparently the Sun Kil Moon show was booked up because one of the bands on the bill had an incredibly long guest list.)

Scheduling Challenges: I didn't do a very thorough job planning out my schedule this year, in part because I had more friends in town that in years past, and in part because I'd told myself before that there were benefits to just going with the flow. To some extent, I still think that's true, and I did benefit from seeing some shows based on my friends' preferences, but I may have gone too easy. I missed out on a lot of bands I wanted to see (many of the aforementioned, in addition to Bloc Party, Neon Indian, Lower Dens, La Luz, Protomartyr, Shannon and The Clams, Mercury Rev, Thee Oh Sees, Waxahatchee, etc.) and yet had plenty of periods where I struggled to figure out what to see at the last minute. Some of that may just be the nature of the festival (certain periods may be fairly "dry" for my tastes), and I certainly don't regret getting to spend time with friends – that was a major highlight.

Set Length: Most scheduled sets are somewhere in the area of 40-45 minutes, usually with about 20 minutes between bands for the changeover. While this seems to work for many venues and bands, it seemed like there were many cases where things were running late or there were major delays and problems with soundchecking. This was particularly noticeable at the Portals showcase and the Levitation showcase at the Hotel Vegas Patio – and oddly enough, in my prior experiences with both of those events, those problems were present before (see here and here), but even worse this time around. Hotel Vegas tries to circumvent this problem by having a massive stage with room for two bands, such that one can set up while another performs, but in practice it only halfway works. Across the board, though, it seemed like most of the set lengths were more like 20-30 minutes instead of around 40. (Naturally, the major headliners like Iggy Pop get longer sets. In his case, it was actually like a normal concert, which was quite nice.)

Sound Quality: Probably for many of the reasons I just listed, many of the showcases featured rather poor sound quality. The mixes were often uneven, performers frequently complained about monitor levels, feedback was common, and vocals were rarely clear, crisp, or understandable. This is almost certainly somewhat inevitable, and probably a common problem at festivals like these, but this year it stood out to me. Perhaps my ears have become more discerning, or maybe I was influenced by my friends, many of whom were musicians or audio professionals, or maybe it really was worse this year. Apparently, because of the huge number of venues all hosting live music simultaneously, the industry becomes overtaxed and has to hire almost every sound engineer in Texas, regardless of experience or quality. Sometimes you get lucky – and certainly the bigger-name bands had great sound – but many shows suffered. This is particularly conspicuous because the audio quality of most shows in Austin is phenomenal (at least compared to what I was used to in the Midwest).

Cancellations: Again, many bands announced for the festival never appeared: Garland Jeffreys, Soda Fabric, Holy Fuck, Joan of Arc, Suzanne Vega, and plenty of others. It's nearly impossible to figure out why, but it is disappointing.

Diversity: South by Southwest seems to do a better job than many festivals in sponsoring bands with a variety of backgrounds and identities, but the music industry remains conspicuously male-centric. I haven't particularly gone out of my way to see bands with women members at SXSW, but I think I usually end up seeing a decent mix each year. This year it seemed like I saw an even higher percentage of bands with women (4 all-women, 13 with men and women, 19 all-men) but I still saw more bands without women than with. That's weird, right? I do think SXSW does a decent job including Black and Latin@ bands, but I only managed to see a handful of non-white and non-Western bands.

The Last Word: Even with all the above complaints, the inevitable exhaustion, the occasional bad weather, the impossible challenge of trying to sort through 2000 bands to see across five days, the disgusting amount of trash littered about Sixth Street, and the gunshot that was fired at the end of the last night, it's still a blast. I don't know how many years I'll have the energy to keep doing it, but it sure is a lot of fun and a quick way to wrap your head around the current state of the music industry. To anyone who says there's no good music anymore... you're just not looking.

Friday, March 25, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016, Day 5

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 19 March 2016

Much like last year, I started my day at the I Heart Local Music day party connected with the Midcoast Takeover at Shangri-La. This time, it was sunny and pleasantly cool, so the event was set up outside. I arrived in time to see some of the Stiff Middle Fingers, an aggressive hardcore band whose singer featured an anti-Sam Brownback shirt. I appreciated the politics and the energy (the singer jumped off stage and approached every single audience member to sing at each of them individually), but I was turned off cold by their song "Psycho Bitch". It wasn't made better by the claim that it was written "for everyone's significant other".

The next band, Bummer, was a heavier, thrashier affair that wasn't really up my alley either. I went inside for a break (and a free Boulevard beer!) and it turned out that another band had set up on the inside stage: Kasey Rausch's Country Duo featuring pedal steel and lead guitar by Marco Pascolini. Even though it was fairly standard country-flavored fare, I enjoyed the easygoing vibe and the respite from sonic assault.

I eventually wandered back outside for a set from Bruiser Queen, who I had seen at the same showcase last year. They outdid themselves this time around, with a great combination of punchy energy, enthusiastic presence, and positive vibes. They were just a bit punky, but not harsh, and just catchy enough to keep me focused. They manage to make a big impact with just guitar, drums, and two voices. Their high spirits were infectious with lines like, "Have fun before you die / Anything else is a waste of time".

[Bruiser Queen.]

I trekked the length of Sixth Street back to the Firehouse. I caught part of the set from Assuming We Survive, a pop-punk group that did absolutely nothing for me but plenty for the modest crowd they'd assembled. My real purpose was to see a set from Ian Fisher with a full band featuring a few old friends of his (although not the same group of musicians that have been following him around Europe).

Here's the setlist:
1. Nero
2. Constant Vacation
3. Again & Again
4. Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin
5. Candles for Elvis
6. If You Wanna Stay
7. Almost Darlin'
8. Faceless

[Ian Fisher at the Firehouse Lounge.]

Ian again started things off slow and easy with album opener "Nero", with the subtlest lead guitar and bass imaginable from Curtis Brewer and Kit Hamon, respectively. Drummer Ben Majchrzak didn't even play; he just added some backing vocals near the end of the long song. The band joined in full for "Constant Vacation" and turned the song into quite a lively number. Beginning with "Again & Again", Ian switched to electric guitar for most of the rest of the set, which only further increased the energy level. "Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin" was transformed by the band into a solid rocker, quite a bit stronger than the solo take. "Candles for Elvis" and "Faceless" are both older songs; while the former has always be a favorite of mine, the former has only improved with age. Ian and company did it in a clipped, abrupt style culminating in both guitarists jamming out wild solos.

After Ian's performance, I spent some time walking around and hanging out with various friends, enjoying the nice weather and taking a break from the music. Before long, though, I was ready for more, and being simultaneously in need of nourishment, I sought out the Southbites Trailer Park, where I'd heard the Spanish band Hinds would be performing in the midst of the food trucks. Being on foot for the day, I made it there just in time for what I'd thought was their start time, but I saw no sign of a band nor even a stage. Eventually I heard a woman on a PA in a tent announcing that the band on their way. I was ordering my food when they finally showed up, but it turns out that they only appeared to share their guacamole recipe and talk about food. I guess I didn't read the fine print of the announcement, because that was a sore disappointment compared to what I'd been expecting!

Frustrated at my lost opportunity, I wandered back to Sixth Street and caught Lusts at Latitude 30 just as they were starting. They sound like some sort of 80s throwback in deep debt to Echo & the Bunnymen or even New Order (in the vocals, at least). The band only consisted of two members: a drummer and a guitarist/vocalist. Someone must have been operating some serious backing tracks, though, because I also could hear plenty of bass and synth. Furthermore, there were occasional backing vocal parts that I wasn't quite convinced were coming from the drummer. At any rate, I found them pleasurable but a bit derivative.

[Lusts.]

At a loss where to go next, I ended up at the Velveeta Room seeing The Ripe. They were playing a rather generic pop-rock that was reasonably catchy but not quite compelling enough to convince me to stay. I tried to get in Maggie Mae's Gibson Room to see the Russian bizarro rock group Mumiy Troll, but the venue was at capacity and the line wasn't moving. I eventually gave up waiting and just chatted with a friend while he was in line to see The Roots at Brazos Hall. (He ultimately didn't actually end up getting in).

[The Ripe.]

Eventually, I made my way to Lamberts. Judah & the Lion were on stage when I arrived. They seemed like your average alt/country/pop band, but they were clearly aiming for commercial approval, which seemed to work for some of the audience. There were several people on stage handling a variety of folk and country instruments, ranging from banjo to accordion to mandolin, in additional to the normal rock instruments. The surprise element was a keyboardist that also added some samples and even dropped a hip-hop breakdown at one point. The musicians were skilled, but they'd honed their sound so perfectly for radio consumption that I was left feeling like I couldn't be sure these were real people.

Next up was Ian Fisher again, this time finally appearing for his official SXSW showcase. With his band in tow, they played the same setlist as earlier but added the existential singalong "Nothing" to the end. Whereas the afternoon crowd at the Firehouse needed some convincing, this bunch was on board as soon as Ian's vocal intensity picked up in the second half of "Nero". The more intensity Ian and the band put in, the more the crowd responded. It was a strong set, and they performed even better than they had in the afternoon. Ian's guitar was out-of-control loud for the concluding solo of "Faceless", but the audience didn't mind; indeed, someone in the audience shouted "louder!" in response.

At that point, it was about midnight, but I was ready to be done. I can't imagine a better way to have closed out the festival, anyway.

[Ian Fisher at Lamberts.]

Scores:
Bruiser Queen: B+
Lusts: B
The Ripe: C
Judah & the Lion: D+

P.S. Again, there were several bands I didn't really see enough of to grade, and I've chosen not to grade Ian due to my overwhelming bias.

P.P.S. I Heart Local Music's write-up of the show at Shangri-La can be found here.

P.P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa, Fally, Susan, Luann, Ian, Ben, Nina, and Jacob for meeting up throughout the day!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016, Day 4

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 4
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 18 March 2016

Introduction: Friday started off fairly slow for me, but the respite was welcome. Unfortunately, later in the evening, storms settled over Austin and caused many outdoor events to get canceled. The weather cleared up quickly, and some events were simply rescheduled later into the night, but others were simply dropped.

My morning included a stop by one of my favorite Austin establishments, a single building housing Sweet Ritual (a vegan ice cream parlor), a JuiceLand, and Exploded Records. At the latter, Ian Fisher was scheduled to do an in-store performance to be broadcast via dublab. He did another solo acoustic set and promoted his new album, Nero. He focused almost exclusively on songs from the new album, including the rarely-performed "Too Bad". Presumably, the performance should become available in the dublab archives soon. [Edit 2016.04.24: See here.]

Here's the setlist:
1. Nero
2. Invisible Cities
3. All Ya Need
4. Too Bad
5. You're the One
6. Constant Vacation
7. Comin' Down
8. Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin

[Ian Fisher.]

The next band to appear in the record store was Faust, and appropriately enough, two of their members arrived while Ian was performing "Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin". However, it appeared that they were there only to discuss, not to perform. Although I had to depart, I'd be curious to hear the recording if it too becomes available in the dublab archives.

Later that afternoon, I returned to the Urban Outfitters Space 24 Twenty to see Eleanor Friedberger, one half of Fiery Furnaces. She was backed by four rather young-looking men and together they produced some solid indie rock jams. The music was good if unspectacular, and in stark contrast to the fast-paced rollercoaster ride of her previous band, it actually suffered a bit from monotony. I suspected that the lyrics were probably a highlight of her work (as they were with the Furnaces), but the mix was such that I couldn't understand them. There seemed to be sound problems, and perhaps as a result, Friedberger and her band all seemed somewhat upset. The dark clouds looming in the sky probably didn't help, and she may have been annoyed that the crowd hardly responded when she mentioned that she used to live in a dorm across the street (at the University of Texas) and her then-boyfriend lived around the corner.

[Eleanor Friedberger.]

Despite the darkening of the skies, I decided to head east to see a set by Mitski. The buzz surrounding her has been getting louder, and I liked what I heard in advance, but I had missed several opportunities to see her already. I didn't want to miss another, and so I took my bike several miles past the downtown core of the city into a very residential neighborhood in East Austin. I was looking for the Portals showcase, a semi-official event being held at a place called Pen. It turned out to literally be someone's (rather small) house. I eventually ended up standing in the kitchen with a row of knives just a couple feet away. The event was sponsored by Topo Chico, and sure enough, there were smashed and littered bottles all around the place. (Later, I realized that this was the same series that held an event at another random East Austin residential space called The Owl where I saw Hundred Waters two years ago.)

When I initially squeezed inside, I realized that things were running late and Your Friend (whom I had seen the previous afternoon) was playing. There was no stage and a rather minimal sound system, leaving the band to play semi-acoustically. This was actually the exact opposite of what they'd been forced into the day before at Cheer Up Charlie's, so it was an interesting variation. Their sound was much sparser and spacey. They only had room for a tiny drumkit, and one member had to sit down on the floor to play his keyboard. The ethereal vibe was great, but unfortunately the sound quality was not.

[Your Friend.]

They were followed by Morly, who opted to appear with just her acoustic guitar instead of her regular electric or electronic outfit. While I appreciated her flexibility and the speed with which she got ready to play (a welcome change for SXSW), her actual set merely consisted of four rather uncompelling singer-songwriter covers. The overcrowded space and poor acoustics did not do any favors.

[Morly.]

Finally, next on the lineup was Mitski. She too performed without her normal band, but she managed to make the most of the mediocre situation with her adept electric guitar work and genuinely strong presence. I really liked the thick and chunky tone she wielded with her guitar, and she at least managed to get something of a groove going.

As her set drew to close, I could see lightening and a nefarious color in the sky. Not wanting to get stuck in a semi-dilapidated house miles away from any part of town I was familiar with, I ran to my bike and pedaled as fast as I could back downtown. I made it to the relatively new Antone's on Fifth Street just as the rain started to fall. I'd hoped to get in to see George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, but the venue was already at capacity and there was a lengthy line on top of that.

It was about at this time that SXSW started canceling many of the outdoor events for the evening as the storms got worse. I took shelter with a friend at Tellers. I made it in while Growl was in the middle of making some fairly basic but decent rock. For whatever reason, the music was really loud and the vocals were not. They seemed young, and they had some punky charm, but their sound was rather generic.

After them came Small Houses, who took a while to soundcheck as a full band and yet initially appeared only as a solo acoustic performer. The singer had a very unusual voice, such that if he used it right, it sounded unique and captivating, but most of the time it was a bit grating. The room seemed to overpower him, and while he displayed mild annoyance at the audience's ambivalence, it wasn't until halfway through the set that he brought the rest of the band up. Suddenly the crowd snapped to attention as the music noticeably improved. They worked in a kind of Americana style with some nice slide guitar and bass parts. The vocals were still weird, but less so, and the inclusion of backing vocalists helped a lot. They closed with a cover of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer", which seemed like a terrible choice, not because it's a bad song, but in that it is very long and any cover during a 40-minute showcase represents a lost opportunity to make a meaningful impression on the audience.

The highlight of the lineup at Tellers was the Great American Canyon Band, whom I had seen the day before in a more stripped-down setting. While they may have lost a hint of the haunting mood that I liked the first time, they gained plenty in the fullness of their sound. It was almost a more aggressive approach, and the addition of the bass certainly rounded it out. The reverb-laden lead guitar and the strong vocals remained highlights. On the whole, it was a rather different affair, and I'm hard-pressed to decide which version was better.

[Great American Canyon Band.]

I was ready to strike out for a different venue, but I was having trouble deciding where to go, and the confusion caused by the storms made it difficult to be sure what was happening when and where. The weather was already clearing up, and some events that had been canceled were back on track. For lack of a better plan, I followed another friend's lead and ended up seeing the end of a set from DJ Dodger Stadium on the Easy Tiger patio. I'll admit I don't know anything about house music, and while I found the experience fascinating, I did not find it engaging. It was also incredibly loud, but that may have just been caused by standing two feet from a massive speaker.

From there we ended up at Stubb's, where the newly reconfigured Crystal Castles were underway. Neither I nor my friend were particularly impressed by the recent antics of Ethan Kath and his disparaging comments about former collaborator Alice Glass, and our skepticism was not unfounded. I liked the presence of a live drummer, but new hire Edith Frances appeared to be an unsubtle stand-in for Glass. Right as I was leaving, they stormed off the stage and stopped the set prematurely.

I had been particularly interested in seeing Barry Adamson, one of my favorite bassists with groups like Magazine, Visage, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, but he was scheduled to play at 1am and I was already exhausted. (At least the Austin Chronicle covered the show.) I went home and fought the wind the whole way.

Scores:
Eleanor Friedberger: B-
Your Friend: B+
Morly: D
Mitski: B
Growls: C
Small Houses: C+
Great American Canyon Band: B+

P.S. Again, I think the conflict of interest with Ian is too high for me to be comfortable assigning a score. (It probably goes without saying that I think his music is excellent.) I also don't think I saw enough of DJ Dodger Stadium or Crystal Castles to fairly assign a score.

P.P.S. Thanks to Ian, Ben, and Jacob for making the day worthwhile!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016, Day 3, Part 2

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 3: Levitation Showcase
Venue: Hotel Vegas (outside stage)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 17 March 2016

Introduction: As previously mentioned, this was a long day, so I've split it into two reviews. The previous post covers the various day parties I attended, and this one covers the Levitation showcase at Hotel Vegas. I've come to really treasure the ability of the people who run Levitation to curate the bands they sponsor. The lineup of this year's Levitation Festival might look rather populist, but they still find lots of great bands. Last year's Levitation SXSW showcase was so impressive that it was an easy choice to return this year.

I got through the gate with what I thought was just a few minutes to spare before Elephant Stone started. However, things were running obviously late, and Vaadat Charigim was just starting. I didn't complain, except that almost every band of the evening was forced to play a truncated set. Anyway, Vaadat Charaigim are a noisy, shoegazing power trio from Tel Aviv, Israel. Their preferred sound was a thick, heavy, solid wash of guitar. It was actually rather nice to get lost in, but the lack of variation was disappointing. Since they sung in Hebrew, there was no additional thread for me to follow in the lyrics, although to be fair, meaningful lyrics are rarely important for shoegazers.

[Vaadat Charigim.]

After a long break came Yonatan Gat, another rock trio originally from Israel. Their gimmick is to set up right in the middle of the audience and let the crowd encircle them as they flail about. The music was purely instrumental and focused primarily on the improvisational guitar of the frontman. The drummer was wild and intense, but I wasn't even sure there was a bassist for the first half of the set. I liked the energy level and the creative, tense, spindly guitar runs, but I wasn't up for fighting through the crowd, and I suffered from a lack of a view. It got a bit tiring to just listen when I really wanted to see.

Elephant Stone finally went on and immediately delivered some great psychedelic grooves. The frontman alternated between bass, keyboard, and sitar, while two other members handled guitars and keyboards (and some bass) and a fourth drummed. Alex Maas of The Black Angels joined them on vocals for one song as well. The mix was frustratingly terrible, but I still enjoyed what I could hear. The bass in particular was smooth and skillful, and when the sitar was audible, it added a great dimension to the sound. The music was just barely danceable, as if it begged to soar and be heard in a more pure setting.

[Elephant Stone with Alex Maas.]

After another long break, Noura Mint Seymali of Mauritania began playing. It was a little unclear where the soundcheck stopped and the set began, but their first extended piece featured the frontwoman playing an ardin, a type of harp, while seated. Her husband accompanied on guitar, and a bassist and drummer completed the band. I was disappointed that Seymali didn't continue with the ardin after the first song, but the guitarist increased the intensity of his playing to fill in the void. Between her vocals and his blistering guitar, they made for quite a powerful, twisting, contrapuntal musical experience. By the end, they were doing some kind of funky blues, but they were cut short by the limitations of their set length.

[Noura Mint Seymali, playing the ardin.]

The appropriate successor to Seymali was Bombino, who I've seen wield his guitar like a blazing hammer once before. The Tuareg bandleader had his own share of sound problems, including his guitar dropping out a few times, but did his best to bring an incredibly funky and infinitely groovy set. The bassist could be a star in his own right, and his solo was unbelievably good. Bombino even gave the drummer and rhythm guitarist their own turns at brief solos that were also no disappointment. The band was tight and the blistering guitar of Bombino was as mesmerizing as ever.

[Bombino.]

Finally, the main reason I was there: Faust, the storied, pseudo-mythical, avant-garde, German band from the early 70s. This particular configuration of the band features just two of the original five or six members: Jean-Hervé Péron on bass, vocals, and samples, and Werner "Zappi" Diermaier on drums. (Hans Joachim Irmler fronts another version.) They were joined by French synthesists Éric Débris (of Métal Urbain fame) and Maxime Manac'h (although the latter was absent for the first half of the set). After an infuriatingly long soundcheck, they fumbled into a song mostly consisting of repetitive vocal samples and aimless drumming. Péron would occasionally shout-sing seemingly disconnected phrases into the mic or veer into a flurry of rhythmic bass work. These trends continued for the remainder of the set. Most songs were apparently unstructured, and whatever message may have been intended was unclear. However, knowing this band's roots in dada, improvisation, and sonic experimentation, they might be more interested in the method than the result. The only attempt made to appeal to the audience was the inclusion of the refrain to the classic "Mamie Is Blue", but even that sounded little like the original other than sharing the same words. Their obstinate artistic sensibility and general joie de vivre was somewhat endearing, but I felt like I was missing the joke.

Here's my best guess at the setlist:
1. French National Anthem
2. Dada Hierarchy (written by Jean-Marie Drot?)
3. Fresh Air
4. Mamie Is Blue
5. Listen to the Fish

[Faust.]

I was exhausted but still hoped to see one more band: Electric Eye, the Bergen, Norway psych band I'd seen on the inside stage of Hotel Vegas two years prior. They were an absolute highlight of my first SXSW and I still enjoy their debut record. This time, they were playing inside on the Volstead Lounge stage, but as things were not running late on the inside, I only caught the last ten minutes of the their set, which included part of a new song and all of "Tangerine". They were going strong but it was over all too soon.

Scores:
Vaadat Charigim: C+
Yonatan Gat: B-
Elephant Stone: B+
Noura Mint Seymali: B-
Bombino: A-
Faust: C

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016, Day 3, Part 1

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 3: Day Parties
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 17 March 2016

Introduction: Much like last year, the third day of the festival was the longest day for me, and so I'm going to split it into two parts. This post will cover the various day parties I attended, and the next one will cover the Levitation showcase at Hotel Vegas.

I took the day off work and made it down early enough to catch the first band playing on the inside stage at Cheer Up Charlie's for Brooklyn Vegan's day party: Your Friend from Lawrence, Kansas. Their set was marred by the really loud rock music of White Reaper blasting in from the outside stage, but they persevered and brought up their intensity to rise to the occasion. Nominally a dream pop band, they showed a slightly heavier and more psychedelic sound as a result. They certainly weren't aggressive, but they were rather powerful when they were trying to be. They had great keyboard tones, and I liked the spacey vibes even when they were interrupted by the outdoor interference.

Next up on the same stage was Julia Jacklin, a singer-songwriter with an electric three-piece band. Jacklin herself was definitely the main focus, as the lead guitar was barely present, and the strongest element of the set was her ethereal, mellow, longing, reverb-laden vocals. The occasional harmony helped, too. The music was fairly simple, rootsy, Americana-type rock, which wasn't outstanding but worked for the songs. They never got heavy in terms of instrumental sound, but it was easy to get lost in the vaguely heavy emotional content.

[Julia Jacklin.]

I got some tacos and tots at the always-wonderful Arlo's outside and went back inside for a few minutes to catch some of Daniel Romano's set. I only saw enough to know that it was some sort of alt/country/rock thing that seemed to work.

From there, I decided to hop on my bike and try my luck at the new Urban Outfitters backyard venue, Space 24 Twenty. I was skeptical because the trendiness quotient seemed out of control and it was a few miles out of the way of most of the fray of downtown. However, it is right across from the University of Texas and just a block down from the Hole in the Wall. The main draw for me was Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, whom I've been interested in seeing for a couple years. They offered solid indie rock with a free-spirited, exploratory vibe. Their roots may lie in folk, but I actually found it to be more soulful, experimental, and rock-oriented. I liked the unusual rhythms, the variety of synth and synth-like sounds, and the off-kilter energy of it all. Thao mostly played guitar, but switched to electrified mandolin for a few songs. She dedicated the last song to survivors of sexual abuse and rapped a powerful lyric.

[Thao & the Get Down Stay Down.]

I stuck around for Frankie Cosmos, who came out with just an electric guitar and a friend to provide additional vocals. Her standard band was absent for unspecified reasons. Her songs were rather minimal, and her guitarwork was not what I would consider proficient. She wasn't without charm, but the songs just weren't held together well enough.

[Frankie Cosmos.]

I went back downtown and wandered Sixth Street for a bit. I saw a few songs by SIR, formerly known as Sarah and the Meanies, on the rooftop of The 512, but their sound was a fairly generic pop/rock affair, and I moved along. My real destination was the Omni Hotel, where my friend Ian Fisher was preparing to play a solo acoustic set in the middle of their massive lobby. I've reviewed him before, but I think my conflict of interest is too high to provide a score. I'll still share the setlist and a few thoughts.

[Ian Fisher.]

Setlist:
1. Nero
2. Invisible Cities
3. Constant Vacation
4. All Ya Need
5. Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin
6. If You Wanna Stay
7. Almost Darlin'
8. Comin' Down

Ian normally plays with a band these days, but did this show on his own with just his acoustic guitar. His set relied heavily on his new album, Nero, but offered a couple unreleased songs, including "Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin", a rare example of his German language skills, seemingly connected with his disenfranchisement with Berlin and his recent move to Vienna. A special novelty came in the form of the incredible reverb of the venue. It seemed somewhat frequency-dependent, so certain notes would echo through the building unbelievably long while others moved along quickly. It was a cool effect, and Ian chose songs that were well suited to the environment. The most bizarre and hilarious part of the show was that Mannie Fresh of the Cash Money Millionaires was in the audience, and at the end of the set, one of his companions taught Ian how to dab.

The next band to play the hotel lobby stage was the Great American Canyon Band, a quartet from the Baltimore area. The rhythm guitarist had apparently recently broken his thumb, but it was mended well enough that he could still play, although he didn't try anything fancy. Their bassist opted to just focus on vocals, and the drummer relied solely on a snare and a suitcase. The stripped-down sound worked well with the almost overwhelmingly reverberant venue, where the haunting vocals and lead guitar shined in the spotlight of endless echo. When the drummer would occasionally hit hard, it was terrifically powerful. The music was folky, serene, and very pleasant.

[Great American Canyon Band.]

Scores:
Your Friend: B+
Julia Jacklin: B
Thao & the Get Down Stay Down: B+
Frankie Cosmos: C-
Great American Canyon Band: B

Monday, March 21, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016, Day 2

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 2
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 16 March 2016

Introduction: There was a lot going on this evening, but I had friends arriving from out of town fairly late, so I wanted to be home to greet them. I still had time to catch a few bands, and I decided to just spend the evening at the esteemed Moody Theater (home of Austin City Limits), where I knew there would be seats and good sound.

First up was Moonlandingz, which has some sort of complicated history involving Fat White Family, Charlotte Kemp Muhl, and (maybe?) Sean Lennon. The latter didn't appear on stage, but Muhl and six other performers did, even if half of them were inaudible. The band appears to be some kind of joke, and their lyrics and performance lend credence to that. I was vaguely interested because Muhl and Lennon's other pysch rock outfit was unexpectedly really good (Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger), but this is something entirely different. There wasn't actually any psychedelia – just noise, raw punk energy, and a bit of crass behavior. There was no depth to the music, and certainly nothing in the way of a hook. It was trashy and thrashy seemingly just for the fun of it.

[Moonlandingz.]

Incongruously, the second band was a solo instrumental guitarist who goes by Noveller. Normally, I expect SXSW to do a decent job lining up bands that might share an audience, but this was a bit of a stretch. However, I vastly preferred Noveller's warm, synthy, layered, beautiful sound to Moonlandingz's raw buzz. This was almost like seeing a classical performance in comparison. Her combination of loops, effects, and guitar finesse yielded great tones reminiscent of a less aggressive My Bloody Valentine. In a few parts, she did let loose with some solid riffing, but most of the time her music was more of the trance-inducing variety. I enjoyed it, but it did feel a bit tame at times, and it was easy to get distracted. During a break between pieces, she confessed that this was a special performance for her, in that it was her birthday and that she played her first show in Austin while a student at the University of Texas.

The main draw of the night was Iggy Pop, one of the few major headliners to appear on the official SXSW schedule. Unlike most showcases at the festival, he played a complete show of over an hour and a half. I had to leave a bit early, but still caught most of the set.

I will admit that I harbor mixed feelings about Pop, as he has a long history of deliberately creepy, arbitrarily crass, and unnecessarily confrontational antics. Nonetheless, he is a talented performer and hailed as an influence by many others. I like the Stooges as much as the next person, but the side of Iggy I always have liked best is his arty, mechanical, experimental work, best exemplified by his two Berlin-based albums in collaboration with David Bowie. However, considering that Pop released his new collaborative album with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age two days after this show, and Homme appeared on stage as the lead guitarist, I wasn't expecting to hear many of my favorite Iggy songs.

The band opened with the distinctive "Lust for Life", which I figured wasn't entirely out of place, but followed it with the strange "Sister Midnight", which was a delight and a good sign of what was to come. He ultimately played 13 of the 17 songs on his two Bowie-era albums, The Idiot and Lust for Life. He also did most of the songs from the new album, Post Pop Depression, but almost nothing else. He didn't perform a single song from the Stooges' canon. I was surprised by his choices, but I largely got what I wanted, and the new material was passable. I rather wonder if he was trying to do a conscious tribute to Bowie by doing so many of their collaborative works.

Iggy might not play any instruments on stage, but he ran around, jumped about, and injected enough energy in the vocals to make it easy to understand why he just focuses on the words. He came out wearing black pants and a black suit jacket (with no shirt, naturally), and it only took two songs for the jacket to come off. About thirty minutes into the set, he did his first stage dive and crowd surf. Some things never change – and thankfully that includes his powerful voice.

The band did a great job capturing the raw power of Iggy's music, but was also able to lend nuance to the more synthetic songs. I was quite surprised that they were able to take such a mechanized song like "Mass Production" and make it work so well live. "Nightclubbing" was a similar success, even with the plodding beat of the most basic drum machine imaginable. Somehow they captured the passive spirit of the song without making it feel tedious or dull. "The Passenger" was an immediate highlight.

The downside is that Iggy is still Iggy. He couldn't resist performing the truly disgusting "Sixteen", and he apparently still hasn't realized that "China Girl" is problematic. There are plenty of other lyrics that are simply cringeworthy, even when in the midst of otherwise brilliant material. At least he wasn't particularly verbose in his banter, and when he did speak, it was usually just ridiculous or hilarious.

Here's the setlist (with some help from here):
01. Lust for Life
02. Sister Midnight
03. American Valhalla
04. Sixteen
05. In the Lobby
06. Some Weird Sin
07. Funtime
08. Tonight
09. Sunday
10. German Days
11. Mass Production
12. Nightclubbing
13. The Passenger
14. China Girl

Encore:
15. Break Into Your Heart
16. Fall in Love with Me
17. Repo Man
18. Gardenia
19. Baby
20. Chocolate Drops
21. Paraguay
22. Success

Scores:
Moonlandingz: D
Noveller: B+
Iggy Pop: B

P.S. Photography was not allowed and I was told to put my phone away after taking the picture of Moonlandingz above. Oh well.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016, Day 1

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 1
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 15 March 2016

Introduction: Another year, another SXSW. I've noticed that the first official night of the festival tends to be fairly tame, and they seemingly purposefully refuse to book any major acts for it. If you want to go out, there aren't any obvious choices: you have no choice but to do some work to decide what to see. I went for a Chilean showcase at Friends that seemed to feature a bunch of atmospheric bands. I realized on the way that I had coincidentally also seen some Chilean bands on the first night of SXSW last year.

Boraj: A seven-piece band in the vein of atmospheric, spacey indie rock, including violin, saxophone, keyboards, acoustic and electric guitar, drums, auxiliary percussion, and bass. Despite the number of musicians, the music was rather sparse and minimal. Some sections picked up and rocked more, and many songs featured good, unusual rhythms, but I was a bit confused by some of the arrangements. It seemed like some of the musicians barely played anything. I liked the general sound, but as is common at SXSW showcases, they had to fight through some sound problems that clearly didn't help set the mood right.

[Boraj.]

Natisú: A trio led by a frontwoman handling guitar, keyboards, effects, and vocals, backed by a bassist and a drummer. The set started with some almost industrial beats and fuzz bass. They gradually moved into a more indie rock direction, but the bassist continued to play strong parts, the drummer often supplemented her sound with electronic pads, and the singer used a lot of effects and loops to keep things interesting. The less heavy songs tended to be a bit vague and unfocused, and I welcomed the return of the industrial sound near the end of the set.

[Natisú.]

Spiral Vortex: I wasn't sure what to expect with such a clichéd name (their highlighted track on the SXSW website was even called "Geometry"!) but they actually delivered solid psychedelic rock. They appeared as a quartet (bass/vocals, guitar/keyboard/vocals, keyboard, and drums) and they managed to merge their sounds quite well. The bassist had consistently great tone and used some heavy effects quite proficiently. This drummer also used some electronic pads. The keyboards were nice and thick and laid a great foundation for a big, hazy, warm sound. The vocals weren't particularly strong, but the music was superb.

[Spiral Vortex.]

Scores:
Boraj: C+
Natisú: B
Spiral Vortex: A-