A deluge of rain marred the penultimate day of SXSW 2015. In the mid-afternoon, after a week of foreboding forecasts, the sky finally gave way and gave Austin a near-endless downpour. Seemingly out of nowhere, throngs of people could be seen sporting trash bags or branded rain slickers. Some huddled under awnings while others stubbornly queued up for their chosen events. At Stubb’s, what could have been the week’s best day party, the SPIN Party, became a slightly less than full event where multitudes shivered in the muddy slope of the venue. Curiously, the venue’s security was denying people the ability to bring in umbrellas. It’s hard to know what danger umbrellas posed, or how anyone could justify making people stand in the rain, but those are legal questions we won’t bother to tackle here.
Two bands alone made almost the whole week of SXSW worth it on this day. The first, hip-hop breakout stars of 2014 Run the Jewels commanded the headlining slot of the SPIN party with authority. The duo featuring El-P and longtime Outkast alum Killer Mike demonstrated powerfully the value of skill and the confidence to wield it correctly. As soon as Killer Mike took the stage he stated, “We’re going to burn this fucking city to the ground,” before the group launched into their set. It’s rare that such bragging (even figuratively so) measures up to the hype, but the two emcees have stellar chemistry.
On “Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry)” and “Lie, Cheat, Steal” they employed a variety of verbal techniques, at some points firing out lyrics lightning fast and humorous and offbeat at others. “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck” was performed sans-Zack de la Rocha but lost none of it’s dominating power. Fully in control, the duo excited the crowd through nearly ever verse, keeping them engaged and entertained through the duration. They ended on a couple of slower numbers, “Early” in particular came off poignantly as a deep mediation on police brutality.
Much later on, and thankfully inside the converted Yahoo Brazos Hall, Failure played to a packed and eager crowd. Not enough good things can be said about this band. After a long dormancy, the band reunited last year for a tour and then a couple of incredible shows called Cinquanta with Maynard James Keenan’s Puscifer and A Perfect Circle. The band has spent the better part of six months working on their first album in almost twenty years. The band opened strong on fan-favorite “Saturday Savior,” prompting a loud singalong from the crowd. “Dirty Blue Balloons” and “Another Space Song” came next, both playing metaphorically with two of the band’s favorite subject drugs and science fiction. Lead singer Ken Andrews happily proclaimed that the band was nearly complete with their new album and then indicated, “I’ve always wanted to say this. This next one is the first song on our new album.” The new song “Hot Traveler” could fit comfortably with any in their prior catalog.
“Frogs” featured the super thick bass chug they do so well, allowing it to double as a second featured character in the band along with the guitar. About as fast tempo as it got was “Magnified,” which brings up an interesting facet of the band’s sound. Categorically they might be classified as hard rock, but the band operates in a decidedly lower BPM than many bands put in that bucket. It’s not that they flow at a turgid pace, more that they somehow impossibly rock hard without ever having to be patient. Near the end of their set, “The Nurse Who Loved Me”—famously covered by A Perfect Circle on their 2002 album Thirteenth Step—was an epic delivery of a total package of artistic precision. The song’s plaintive musings on a total fallout and hospitalization blended with the musings of someone completely able to take care of a person’s need speak volumes about how special the band is. They render something that transcends mere verse-chorus-verse song structure. Each track is like a polished work of heart. Somewhere at the heart of everything is the voice of lead singer Ken Andrews. Just a tiny bit raspy, there is an irreplaceable world-worn quality about it that puts the whole sound in a place unique against other rock acts. He traded off duties on bass and guitar with Greg Edwards. Not to be left out, drummer Kellii Scott pummeled his kit like a latter-day John Bonham on closing tracks “Stuck on You” and “Heliotropic.” The band encored with “Smoking Umbrellas” and “Daylight.” Not everyone may have been familiar with them, but everyone there left happy. This alone made the entire SXSW 2015 festival worth attending.
Photos by Raymond Flotat