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.
Even with the accident that killed two people and injured nearly two dozen others weighing heavily on everyone’s minds—the driver’s name and mug shot were released yesterday—SXSW has so much going on in so many places that distractions are plentiful.
And the biggest distraction of the day was the looming specter of Lady Gaga performing at Stubb’s. The city of Austin had turned down her permit to perform on Doritos’ notoriously garish Bold Stage—sorry, #boldstage—so Frito-Lay descended upon SX’s large open-air venue to make sure patrons understood Lady Gaga was brought to you by the kind of bold flavors favored by people like @DadBoner.
Gaga’s fans are famously obsessive, and to SXSW’s credit, the festival was ready for them. The area outside of Stubb’s on Red River was cordoned off into various lines, security was on the ball, and the staff wasn’t taking any shit.
These kinds of big performances often go off at the end of the night, but Gaga was hitting the stage at 10 p.m. and, surprisingly, only playing for an hour (much like Coldplay at a different venue the first night). I think Gaga is fine, but I love a good spectacle, so I couldn’t turn down an invite from Fuse to watch the show from its private balcony, especially when Gaga’s performance was just a prelude to a bonkers set by Big Freedia on a small, indoor stage.
I counted nine songs (including a twangy, instrumental hoe-down and a sing-along with Semi-Precious Weapons), with “Bad Romance” being the sole representative of Gaga’s pre-Artpop days. Gaga definitely could’ve fit a couple more songs in had she curtailed her between-song monologues about self-empowerment. (“It’s so much easier to be yourself than to be someone else”; “Fuck your cell phones! Fuck your friends instead!”; “We’re all just wandering the Earth trying to find each other”; “When you leave the Earth, no one’s gonna give a fuck about what you tweeted”; etc.) But you get the sense Gaga’s monsters love her maternal platitudes almost as much as the music.
They’re probably less into green vomit, which is all everyone’s been talking about since Gaga played “Swine” about halfway through her set. (“This song is about rape,” Gaga said as a preface, and a Frito-Lay executive somewhere hoped no one was tweeting that with the #boldstage hashtag.) A woman Gaga only identified as Lily came onto the stage while Gaga played drums in the song, stuck her fingers down her throat, and vomited dark green liquid onto Gaga. Repeatedly.
Lily then ascended a giant mechanical bull with a keyboard affixed to it, where Gaga joined her. They scissored and flailed, Lily trying to vomit again (but mostly dry heaving) while Gaga screeched, “Fuck you, pop music! This is Artpop!”
It’s something. After all the build up, Gaga’s set felt a little light on the kind of full-bore bangers like “Applause” (which closed the set before an encore of “Gypsy” dedicated to the victims of the accident the night prior). To her credit, Gaga didn’t hold back in her performance, but fewer motivational-poster platitudes and “Look at us now!” reminiscing with her pals on stage would’ve been nice.
Back in the Fuse building, New Orleans bounce star Big Freedia followed Gaga. I stood near a subwoofer and another speaker, and the guy working sound on the small stage warned some women sitting under the speakers about the volume. (I always roll with earplugs.) “We’re gonna get a musical facial!” one of them squealed.
I tried to see Big Freedia at SXSW a few years ago at a much more low-key gig, but I turned out to be in the wrong venue. (Sun Airway was playing, which is about as far from Big Freedia’s bass-heavy bounce as you could get.) But now that Freedia has a show on Fuse, Big Freedia: Queen Of Bounce, she’s all over SXSW this year, and she brings a Gaga-worthy spectacle. Flanked by scantily clad dancers who twerked the whole time, Freedia played a stream of bangers whose bass likely broke up any kidney stones I may be developing. The mood in the Fuse house was ecstatic, especially when Freedia invited crowd members on stage to twerk—which included a husky Asian guy in a tan backward Ralph Lauren hat and button-up striped shirt. “Ask not what you can do for you country, but your country can shake your ass!” bellowed a guy next to me nonsensically. Freedia has a couple more SXSW gigs coming up (including one tonight at the Austin Ballroom and Saturday night at the Fuse Box), so I suggest Austinites go.
Prior to all this madness, I had been at Red 7 for a pulverizing set by California hardcore band Touché Amoré. The group’s recordings hadn’t hooked me like they have a lot of people I know—including The A.V. Club’s David Anthony—but live, Touché Amoré was a sight to behold. The phenomenal “Anyone/Anything” was the highlight of what I saw; I couldn’t stay for the whole thing because vomit and twerking awaited.
I got an invite earlier in the week to make a sponsored trek out to Willie Nelson’s Luck Ranch for the annual Heartbreaker’s Banquet, a sort of local jam-out ostensibly curated by Nelson himself. Vaguely promised a “surprise headliner” that I pretty much guessed straight up (coughWilliecough), I make the 45-minute ride out to the site, which was goddamn incredible. Luck Ranch is basically a faux-Old West town that’s been used for movies, and the whole thing was quaint and incredibly charming, making for one of the best possible settings for an outdoor fest. (The free oysters in VIP didn’t hurt, either.) I caught a little bit of J. Roddy Walston & The Business and Amy Nelson (daughter of Willie) was more than ribald in her Folk Uke project, but the real attraction was the man himself, who took to the stage right at 10 for a tight one-hour greatest-hits set. Nelson’s voice is still all there, and songs like “Whiskey River,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to the late Waylon Jennings, reminded me that Nelson is not only a legend, but also one of the singular most distinctive voices in music today. Nelson closed with what he called “a gospel song,” “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” which is a relatively new cut, but a total jam. For the last couple tracks Nelson was joined on stage by X’s Exene Cervenka, Nelson kids Micah and Amy, and Billy Joe Shaver, making the whole event more of a celebration of life and family than of corporate sponsors and who’s got a new record coming out. It was a refreshing change from the Sixth Street grind, though taking the long bus ride back to Austin with locals who’d been drinking free moonshine all day definitely took the edge off my concert high.
My two favorite things today—not counting the free massage and brisket at the Ticketfly/Billions Booking party—were awfully similar. This afternoon, at Taco Bell’s Hype Hotel (that’s a real thing), I saw Chet Faker, an Australian electronic-soul guy who looks kinda jock-ish—baseball hat, bushy bear, T-shirt reading “Don’t Sleep” in a cheap font—but plays sweet and deceptively simple songs that might’ve been called trip-hop in 1994 but now will probably just get called “James Blake-ish.” But he’s a far more straightforward performer than Blake, with skitterish but never off-putting beats, and samples of organic instruments. When he plays alone—as he did here—it can seem a little like a karaoke act, since everything is played through a laptop, but the songs on his upcoming debut album Built On Glass are strong enough to make up for that, by a long shot.
SOHN is in a similar boat: He’s a British dude playing largely electronic music, though his three-piece band included a live bassist. His voice is higher than Faker’s, and his lyrics not as good, but his highest peaks—especially the driving, mournful “Lessons”—are higher than Faker’s. But there’s no use comparing them, really: If you like one, chances are good that you’ll like the other, and both are powerful performers.
Flutes and falsetto got my third day of SXSW off to a good start, as the guys from Gardens And Villa continued to prove that their second album, Dunes (Secretly Canadian), is already a strong contender to be my album of the year. The synth-driven sounds produced by Tim Goldsworthy got a nice little boost in the live setting, and the early-afternoon crowd at Paste’s party at Swan Dive responded in kind. Like G&V, I’m from Santa Barbara, so I cornered singer Chris Lynch after the show to have the obligatory Toad The Wet Sprocket talk. Good times.
The rest of the afternoon turned out to be a bit of a bust, or maybe it was just the universe’s way of reminding me that I don’t need to see 50 bands a day down here. The line to get into the Hype Hotel to see Dum Dum Girls was ridiculous, especially at 1:45 in the afternoon, and there was free food and beer but no band yet at Rachael Ray’s thing that’s moved back over to the east side. (And, from what I could tell, there was no Rach yet, either.) The trek back to the middle of things on Sixth included a stopover at the IFC Fairgrounds event at Palm Park, the setting for what’s turning out to be one of the most depressing places here: I mean, the space is nice and big and everyone working there is super friendly, but every time I’ve swung by, the place has been virtually empty. Even promises of free beer (”Everyone’s a VIP right now!” said the voice over the PA) and a street team trying to lure people from the massive line waiting to get into the Woodies next door didn’t seem to be working. I was excited to make it to the Flamingo Cantina in time to see Sweden’s The Mary Onettes play the Under The Radar party, but after four dreamy pop songs they were gone in a flash, forcing me to figure out another time to see them this weekend. I won’t, however, be seeing Night Terrors Of 1927 again: At some Neiman Marcus event on Rainey, the new project from Rilo Kiley’s Blake Sennett felt worlds away from his old job, with a sound that wanted to be slick and soulful but seemed really forced. It’s weird when every member of a band seems like a session musician.
After catching up with a college friend who also happens to be one-half of the St. Louis indie-rock duo Sleepy Kitty—they played a Music Saves Lives event at the Firehouse—I made my way over to the old Emo’s (now called The Main) to get my twerk on at Big Freedia. Things were just as bootylicious here as they were when I saw her open for The Postal Service last summer, if perhaps a bit less shocking for the audience. Then again, all that bouncing really is an eye-opening special event no matter the time or place.
It turned out that Big Freedia wasn’t the only reality-TV star I saw on Thursday night: The Blondie show at Yahoo!’s thing at Brazos Hall doubled as an ad for the Smithsonian Channel’s doc on the 40-year-old (!) band that’s airing on March 21. Gary Numan tried to put everyone into a retro mood with great old songs like “Cars” and “Down In The Park,” but too often his set just sounded like a tired industrial band influenced by Gary Numan. Eventually Debbie Harry and her cohorts (both old and younger) came out and played hit after hit, with only “Hanging On The Telephone” sounding like it was, um, phoned in. I suppose we could have also done without that cover of “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!),” but even the new stuff sounded solid. Closing with “Call Me” was a fine choice, made even better by a keytar solo.
Seeing—and playing—electronic music at a festival like SXSW is a total crapshoot, dependent on so many uncontrollable factors (the sound system, the mood of the crowd) that you never know what you’re going to get. All the showcases I saw illustrated that. First, New York-based electro-pop duo ASTR played the makeshift outdoor stage at Bangers (by day, a beer and sausage house) and found its set overwhelmed by a muddy mix, technical difficulties, and even wardrobe malfunctions, as writhing singer Zoe Astr repeatedly had to stop and adjust her shirt, so she wouldn’t—as she put it—flash everyone her nipples. As a result, getting through the group’s limited repertoire, including the Rihanna-esque single “Operate” and a cover of Drake’s “Hold On We’re Going Home,” felt like it took twice as long as it should have.
There were no such sound problems for The Range over at the tiny Silhouette (most nights, a sushi and karaoke bar), though the volume was all but wasted on a crowd of maybe 15 people. Producer James Hinton has equal affection for ’90s hip-hop and ambient glitch, and on record it makes for an entrancing, if not always arresting listen. Live, he falls into the common crowd-pleasing trap of also trying to play DJ and letting his samples run untouched, as when he allowed Puffy’s whole verse from “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” or most of Aphex Twin’s “Flim” to unfold. In those more straightforward jukebox moments juxtaposed with the sparseness of the crowd—who were all spread out against the wall with faces buried in their phones—it felt like an awkward junior high dance. But when Hinton concentrated on his own sparkling, alien R&B tracks, the emptiness worked to everyone’s advantage, allowing a retreat to that private headspace where his music lives.
The mystery man producer known as Slow Magic deals with the disconnect between electronic musician and audience by adding live beats, thrashing on a set of floor toms over his dreamy, psychedelic washes. It also helps that he wears a giant, glowing tribal mask. Granted, watching him jump around on the Holy Mountain Stage like a one-man Blue Man Group—over tunes that are otherwise just unfurling from a laptop—is a bit gimmicky. But it was a welcome respite from watching guys who may as well be checking their email.
Finally, Shlohmo took the midnight to 2 a.m. closing set at Elysium’s Resident Advisor showcase, which I had been very much anticipating. It’s the perfect time for Henry Laufer’s slow-drip R&B echoes, made for twilight comedowns. But I was surprised to find Laufer employing heavy EDM and hip-hop beats—seemingly as a sop to a soused crowd that was still obviously in a party mood. It made for a sound that may have gotten a lot of people dancing, but was far less distinguishable. It was only in the waning moments of his set that Laufer dipped into the half-time, hypnagogic soul he’s known for, right around the time most in the audience decided to call it a night.