Every year, The A.V. Club reports from the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. This year, we have five writers—Kyle Ryan, Marah Eakin, Josh Modell, Sean O’Neal, and Marc Hawthorne—in town. Here’s our daily mini-reports on the best stuff we saw, ate, and did. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
The bulk of my Friday was taken up by The A.V. Club’s “Rainey Day Party #12 & 35,” our first day party to take place at Blackheart Bar on Rainey Street, and possibly the greatest, most solid day party in the history of this storied festival. (This festival also includes a lot of urination on the street.)
The venue itself was fantastic and couldn’t have been more accommodating, and the bands were uniformly excellent. So I’m just going to run them down, thank them (and you, for coming, if you got in), and then be on my way.
South London’s Public Service Broadcasting mixes vintage sampled voices with electronics, live drums, banjo, and guitar, and the result is somewhere between Trans Am (but not as standoffish) and RJD2 (but not as electronic). The band’s excellent Inform Educate Entertain came out late last year.
I was surprised and delighted by how quickly the next duo, Sylvan Esso, had the crowd riled up, considering it has barely released any music yet. But people were bumping along with Nick Sanborn’s electronics and Amelia Meath’s sensual, trip-hoppy ways. Their self-titled debut comes out in May, and you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it, both around here and elsewhere.
British rock band Eagulls had some monitor problems, which made singer George Mitchell get a little saucy and cut the set short—and that only added to the charm of their snarl. Eagulls seem to be having a moment this year, which makes sense: Their record just came out, and it’s a bullshit-free rock antidote that recalls the post-punk greats, from Wire to The Cure.
After Speedy Ortiz singer Sadie Dupuis thanked The A.V. Club for having the band play, drummer Mike Falcone announced that he had been a member of his school’s A.V. club, though only briefly. And the band proved noisily that if you don’t own last year’s Major Arcana, then you’re missing something great.
Wye Oak—our third duo of the day, for those counting—introduced a bunch of songs from its upcoming Shriek, an album that contains basically zero of Jenn Wasner’s excellent guitar skills in favor of roomier electronics and bass. Despite some gear difficulty—Wasner told the crowd it was witnessing Wye Oak’s worst show ever—everybody seemed to enjoy the more groove-oriented material (and of course the already classic “Holy Holy” and “Civilian,” the latter of which ended the set it a fiery way).
And finally Bob Mould: A couple of people in the crowd asked me if he was going to do songs from Workbook, his famously introspective 1989 album that he’s been playing on tour this year. But no no no, Mould and his rock trio—Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster, who are also half of Superchunk at the moment—set up a little late and played like a tornado, ripping through songs from the upcoming Beauty & Ruin (which comes out in June and promises to be face-melting) before peppering in some classics. Mould is 53, and he plays with more intensity than ever—it was an incredible way to end the day.
We all spent most of Friday at the Blackheart for The A.V. Club’s annual SXSW shindig, which was a great time and afforded me the opportunity to introduce one of my heroes, Bob Mould, so it was a banner day all around.
Mould’s set featured a number of new songs from the upcoming Beauty & Ruin, including a blistering new song that set the tone for my night, which was dominated by aggressive rock bands. I started at the tiny patio at Headhunters for Toronto pop-punk band Pup. The band’s self-titled debut comes out next month on Side One Dummy, the label founded by Joe Sibb of the ’90s band Wax. It’s a good fit: Pup sounds almost conspicuously similar to Wax, albeit with a punker, snottier edge. There’s no stage on the Headhunters patio, so band and audience are separated by only a few feet. Only vocals get miked, and the sound man sits directly next to the band. It’s charmingly low-rent, though I’m sure it bums out bands that are expecting something more professional. Pup apparently had such expectations—singer-guitarist Stefan Babock mentioned he expected the show to be shitty—but the quartet clearly had a good time playing its raucous, rowdy set.
I had some time to kill before seeing Perfect Pussy, so I ducked into the Metal Sucks showcase to see Iron Reagan, an old-school, full-on-head-banging thrash band. I first noticed the group thanks to the awesome cover on its debut (which I mentioned in the year in band names), but had never see it perform. Iron Reagan played what felt like a couple dozen songs during its 35-minute set—it’s releasing a Flexi-Disc for Decibel that features 13 songs in seven minutes—with titles like “I Ripped That Testament A New Asshole” and “Your Kid’s An Asshole.” (Not all of the song titles have “asshole” in them.) Unsurprisingly, frontman Tony Foresta is a grade-A smartass, which made for some excellent banter between songs: “Can you feel the exposure in the air?” he said at one point. “Can you feel how much exposure our brand is getting tonight?” I’m psyched for Iron Reagan’s second album, due out this fall on Relapse and being mixed by Converge’s Kurt Ballou.
From there I walked to Red 7 to check out another alumnus of the 2013 year in band names, Perfect Pussy. The band’s eight-song EP, Say Yes To Love, has caused a stir, and the group was high on my list of must-see bands at this year’s SXSW. And now it’s on my list of disappointments of the festival. Perfect Pussy plays confrontational noise-punk that generally comes roaring out of the gate as soon as drummer Garrett Koloski finishes counting off. So does singer Meredith Graves, whose voice is buried in the mix and unintelligible—she asked the soundman to make her voice “pretty much as loud and awful as you can make it” before the group started. It works pretty well on Say Yes To Love, but live, the songs all blended together. No one in the band said a word to the audience, and after a quick 20-minute set, Perfect Pussy packed up its gear and left the stage without a word. The crowd looked a little confused, but didn’t ask for any more, either.
After spending all day watching indie-rock darlings at the glorious A.V. Club party, I decided to shake things up a bit at night. First, I went over to the Pandora Discovery Den to check out “Queen Of Rockabilly” Wanda Jackson. Although she’s 76 and nearly 60 years deep into her storied career, Jackson’s voice is still there. She ripped through classics like “Funnel Of Love,” “Fujiyama Mama,” and “Let’s Have A Party,” and did her own spin on both “Heartbreak Hotel” and Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” The highlight of the whole set, though, was Jackson’s yodel-riffic take on Bob Wills’ classic “I Betcha My Heart I Love You,” which was just perfect for an early evening under the Texas sky.
After some solid pizza-eating and people-watching, I headed over to an insanely, dangerously crowded bar to catch Tinariwen. The Tuareg band wowed with its desert soul sound, and while watching 60-year-old men and women literally fall into a blissful trance over the band’s hypnotic tunes was fun, I bailed a little early to head back to my room, take off my shoes, and dig deep into the Veronica Mars movie.
I spent most of my day catching up with old friends—a purely selfish pursuit of promoting my brand, and creating social awareness among a targeted group of opinion-shapers—so like most of SXSW now, I wasn’t all that focused on music. I did see a bit of Mark McGuire’s set at Red Eyed Fly, where the ex-Emeralds member was performing stuff from his new, heady Along The Way album. McGuire is a talented musician, and his impeccably precise guitar-playing over arpeggiated synths and washes of distortion still calls to mind classic krautrock/ambient forefather Cluster, as well as neon-lit night-driving montages in ’80s movies. But he’s not much of a singer, to be frank, and as a solo live performer, he’s so squarely focused on his bank of pedals, it’s like watching some dude have the best jam ever at Guitar Center. So all in all, it had difficulty keeping my attention.
Over at Holy Mountain, production duo Blue Sky Black Death launched into its swimmy take on ambient R&B instrumentals, but the size of the crowd in the tiny venue sadly relegated it to background music; luckily I’ve seen the group before. Anyway, most of those people were crammed in to capacity to see legendary hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics/Souls Of Mischief, but—by the time they spread across the stage to relive classic tracks like “’93 To Infinity”—I was so sick of trying to find a space to stand untrammeled that I bailed before the group I really came to see, Mobb Deep, even showed up. Instead I made the pilgrimage to Whataburger, where of course it was every bit as crowded and tense. Nothing like waiting in line for a burger with a heavy police presence.
On the way there, through the piles of garbage that have made it so my feet haven’t touched actual pavement since Wednesday, I was texted about yet another reminder that this year’s festival is “out of control,” after years of “control” becoming a distantly vague concept: A group of skaters from the Thrasher showcase reportedly started a brawl at the nearby Yellow Jacket Social Club—a low-key locals bar where I spent many a night when I lived here—which apparently started over one of their 18-year-old members being understandably kicked out. Skateboards were smashed into heads, two of the male employees suffered broken noses, a female employee ended up with two black eyes, and every Austinite on my Facebook feed wondered, again, when all of this will finally become too much for this city to handle. And after the tragedy on Wednesday night, Tyler, The Creator exhorting crowds to smash down a Scoot Inn fence and inciting a near-riot on Thursday, and now this, the only thing I’m hoping to see on Saturday is for no one else to get hurt or killed.
Church is probably the best place to turn after a day of relative debauchery, so night four found me in a pew at Central Presbyterian Church, where Pitchfork was doing its thing. I’d actually been there earlier in the night before deciding to (unsuccessfully) see Mark McGuire at Red Eyed Fly (a place that always seems to have a line, even if it’s for Mark McGuire at 10 p.m.), but made it back in time to see all of Forest Swords. The project of English producer Matthew Barnes and assisted live by a bass player, Forest Swords is mellow and beats-laden and made perfect sense in the setting. The audience clapped three times, but I have a feeling we heard more than three songs, none of which significantly stood out from the other.
Then about five minutes before he was scheduled to go on, Mark Kozelek was already performing. It was my fourth time seeing Kozelek in the past month (yes, my love for the former Red House Painters frontman is well-documented): The Portland and Seattle shows were billed as Sun Kil Moon while the San Francisco one was just under his own name, though all three were essentially the same, with Kozelek assisted by drummer Eric Pollard and keyboardist Chris Connolly. This time around he just had Pollard with him, but the significance of the drummer’s contributions couldn’t be overlooked, specifically the sweet backing vocals.
Armed with an acoustic guitar, Kozelek focused mostly on songs from his new Sun Kil Moon album, Benji, which, surprise surprise, Pitchfork is in love with—though in typical Kozelek fashion, he tried to push some buttons, wondering out loud why he got a 9.2 instead of a nice big 10. (Yeah, he was just goofing around, but after enduring some pretty tense banter during those West Coast shows, it’s clear that battling the crowd is a permanent on Kozelek’s set list.) I was actually surprised there wasn’t a confrontation at the beginning of his set when some cameras started to pop up, as it was spelled out to press last week that the only two performers during all of the SXSW that weren’t allowing photos or video were Lady Gaga and Kozelek. (No, seriously.)
But the hour-long set went off without a hitch, and it sounded great, thanks to the fact that Benji really is great. Kozelek’s been on a here’s-my-entire-diary-on-record kick lately, but Benji is the first one that feels super focused and easily reels in listeners with compelling stories about his genuinely interesting life. He’s getting old, and he likes to remind us and himself of this on a pretty regular basis, but if he can keep channeling it all into wonderfully poignant songs like these, then he’s going to remain as relevant as he was back in the ’90s. Highlights included “Dogs,” if for no other reason than it was kind of crazy hearing Kozelek singing in a church about going down on two girls at once (among other youthful sexual exploits), as well as “By The Time That I Awoke” from his Perils From The Sea album with Jimmy LaValle. The latter had to be significantly reworked to account for no keys, but it still sounded pretty perfect.
Getting the chance to sit down and dry out at the church was fine and all, but as the night moved toward 1 a.m. it was time to get back into a rock club. I tried to check out Diarrhea Planet again (no, I'm not going to stop talking about it until I convince everyone it’s fantastic), but the massive line outside the Parish sent me back over to Red Eyed Fly, where I was able to get into the Secretly Canadian/Dead Oceans/Jagjaguwar showcase to once again see my Santa B homies in Gardens & Villa. I’m telling you, guys, this is some synthy indie-rock magic. Check out Dunes now.