March 12th, 2014 will be a day that will live in infamy in the annals of SXSW history. We’ll refrain from going into detail here as the facts are still rolling out, but a tragic event occurred not far from where some of what you’re about to read took place. We’ll come back to that, but for now, let us just convey with all the sincerity we can muster, our hearts go out to the family and friends of anyone effected by this tragic auto accident. To everyone else here in Austin, please, stay safe. Care for those around you and in spite of all the celebrating/rejoicing, make sure you make safety—the safety of you and yours and all those around you—your top priority.
We’ll do our best here to recap the immense talent we encountered on this day. Much, much earlier in the day, at the Nettwerk event at Friends, we got a chance to enjoy the smoothed-out style of Canadian rock band Current Swell. Much in the vein of good vibes music (think Donovan Frankenreiter) Current Swell is breezy without ever floating to boring. Fun, a little upbeat and soothing. In a climate dominated by music that practically necessitates “edge” or “hipness” to maintain attention, it’s noteworthy that a band like this is supremely impressive just by being enjoyable. Also at the Nettwerk / Silver Jeans Co event, The Pack A.D. were one of two bands on the day that played a rocking set that demonstrated how girls have as much to offer the hard rock genre as any man.
Later at the Antiquiet event at Rusty’s (the party we were involved with last year was also there), three different female-led bands exhibited diversity, power and skill. Nicole Atkins, fresh off her excellent new album Slow Phaser, played singer-songwriter disco jams that showed off her impressive vocal range and nimble vocal dexterity. Austinites Ume went for the throat with a rollicking strand of hard rock. Lead singer/guitarist Lauren Larson has a unique guitar style, playing a spacious variety of scales, jumping massive notes in sequences to form unusual melodies. Perhaps the best and only equivalent would be the early axe-work of the Kirkwood brothers from The Meat Puppets. Husband/wife duo 8mm mutated the dark side of folk and sprinkled it with a small amount of sequenced drum tracks. Particularly good was their subdued cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.”
Up the road at The Mohawk, the weeklong home of the House of Vans parties and showcases, the SPIN party was well under way. Charli XCX was on the main/outdoor stage playing a more band-based instrumentation arrangement of her music. Quite appropriately, she did a lively cover of The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy.” Immediately thereafter, Dum Dum Girls were up. The band’s music varies from indie to a goth-y form of new wave and much more, but always has a flair for retro nuance and style. Impossible not to say, probably the easiest group on the eyes out there today. Inside at the same venue, Los Angeles’ Deap Vally did hard rock with a confident, sex-infused edge. Lead singer/guitarist Lindsey Troy blasts out dirty distortion while drummer Julie Edwards rolls the toms like a manic Gene Krupa. Consider this the opposite of The White Stripes. Edwards is a human highlight reel. Her skill pretty much single handedly makes the band impossible to ignore and thrilling to watch.
Lastly, on the afternoon, Against Me! rocked the Consequence of Sound Party at the Hype Hotel. It has to be called out, transgender lead singer Laura Jane Grace (originally known by birth name Tom Gabel) is loved by the crowd. Be honest with yourself, think. Even five years ago, would the music crowd have accepted and welcomed Grace so openly. Times are changing, and for the better.
After a stellar afternoon, it was hard to imagine the day getting any better. It did though. Back at the evening showcase for SPIN, again at the House of Vans at The Mohawk, the crowd on hand got a rare and truly odd and amazing performance. Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang was well… a kind of plucky, twang-y insanity. Famous for his pioneering slap-bass work in Primus, here Claypool is joined by guitarist Bryan Kehoe. Both members played acoustic (Claypool still playing slap) seated behind a fake campfire. The band mixed Primus covers (“Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” and “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver”) with hilarious covers of Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” and the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”
Shortly afterwards on the same stages, Crosses (often typographically represented †††) was a jarring and supremely excellent offering. Fronted by Chino Moreno (known for Deftones and his other new band Palms), Shaun Lopez and Chuck Doom, here the band played as a five-piece with two different keyboardists. With the exception of Moreno’s unmistakable howl, the band alluringly defies convention and description. At some points, they are soft and atmospheric, much like Moreno’s other side project Team Sleep. At others, they are explosive, rocking and electronic. Whatever you call it, Crosses are not to be missed.
Just a short ways down the road, NPR Music’s showcase was well underway, and like every year featured a one-of-a-kind performance, the only SXSW show from St. Vincent. Riding as high as humanly possible following the recent release of her stellar self-titled album, Stubb’s BBQ was packed. The singer and amazingly skilled guitarist Annie Clark worked and danced in mechanized poses, acting as if a stoic and robotic porcelain doll. “Birth in Reverse” and “Digital Witness” both excelled with charming jubilation and intricate fretwork. “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” were performed on top of a pyramid-stepped riser. There is an opportunity here, and certainly St. Vincent’s management knows it. There could be a star in the making here and of the best variety. An artist who is both joyfully accessible, but still wildly experimental. Kind of a cross between a beautiful Cat Power type with the guitar technique of Tom Morello.
And finally, mxdwn favorites Sisu played a midnight slot at the Valhalla showcase. Comprised of Sandra Vu and Jules Medeiros of Dum Dum Girls, Sisu features Vu on vocals/guitar instead of drums. Sisu aims for the gothic heart of early 80’s pop music. Some tracks bound with a peppy danceable spirit, but others reside in a lower BPM, almost like a darker variety of ballad, patient and pensive.
Right around this time, the accident mention in our previous story took place, mere blocks from these locations. A lot happens at SXSW each year. And each year, it seems to only grow and become more elaborate, complex and overwhelming. Most likely, the spirit of the next few days will be one cautious remembrance, but there will almost assuredly also be a notion of “the show must go on.” Either way, here’s to hoping that this is a wake-up call to everyone to make safety a top priority. No matter what the gains, whether for fame, business or good old-fashioned fun, there’s no need for senseless loss of life. To all of those still in Austin, be careful. Stay safe and have a good time.