After what happened in the early hours of Thursday morning on one of SXSW’s main thoroughfares, any sort of “Hey, we saw this band and it was good” recap feels understandably frivolous. Although most of the A.V. Club staff was at Stubb’s on Red River—a block or two from where everything happened—none of us was ever in any danger. The nature of SXSW fosters a lot of mingling in and out of its many venues, which is why the streets are closed to vehicular traffic. It could’ve happened to anyone at SXSW, and that makes it hit close to home for everyone at the festival. It’s an awful situation that obviously didn’t need to happen, bringing a tragic pall to a festival that’s otherwise all about revelry.
But SXSW is too large and its inertia too strong to be stopped, so the festival will carry on as planned, though a portion of Red River will remain closed for most of the day while authorities continue their investigation.
To use a cliché that’s frequently deployed whenever something like this happens, Wednesday began normally for the first big day of SXSW Music. Although I usually avoid bands I’ve seen before at the festival, the schedule at the Spotify House promised a “special guest” would be performing with Dum Dum Girls at 2 p.m. I like the band quite a bit, but Dee Dee Penny and company have never been the most engaging live act. A cool detachment is part of the band’s whole aesthetic, so the quartet—this time joined by an unidentified male on third guitar—usually performs nearly stone-faced, with little in the way of audience interaction. That was the case again as Dum Dum Girls played 10 songs pulled from all of its albums—sadly, no “Little Minx”—during a set that was fine, but not necessarily suited for an outdoor stage in a party atmosphere.
Comedian Dave Hill introduced the band, and even though he’s known to rock out, he wasn’t the secret special guest. Considering Dum Dum Girls’ sound and style, the smart money was on Debbie Harry, because Blondie is performing at SXSW this year. A set list posted on one of the stage speakers listed the last song as “Pale Saints Dreaming,” the “Pale Saints” part presumably a red herring. (The British band rock had a song called “True Coming Dream”). The “Dreaming” part was right, though: Harry came out to a thunderous reception to play the Blondie hit with Dum Dum Girls, whose cool demeanor was broken by wide smiles and glances to each other on stage that said, “Can you believe this?!” The crowd reciprocated, clearly reveling one of those perfect SXSW moments when worlds collide in the best way.
The most effective palate cleansers at SXSW are punk, metal, and hip-hop showcases, particularly the first two, whose power and aggression wipe out traces of overly fussy indie rock. At the Brixton Agency/Run For Cover Records party, New Jersey duo Dads played a blistering, brief set that was followed by the more melodic You Blew It! I tend to favor these smaller, off-the-beaten-path showcases, which cut through the heavily branded noise of SXSW and offer a more visceral experience. It’s an excellent way to get over the “seen it all” weariness that strikes people who have attended SXSW so many times that they spend most of their times complaining about the festival now. “This is fun,” said Dads drummer John Bradley between songs. “Things are only as awkward as you make them.”
On the flight to Austin, the woman across the aisle from me had a violin, and I noticed her studying some sheet music. I couldn’t help but see the title of one: It was “Street Hassle.” Lou would’ve been psyched, I think.
Overheard during a bouncy set by the hip California band Gardens & Villa: “It kinda sounds like they’re not trying.” That might have been a compliment, but it didn’t really sound like it. The band’s recent Dunes is solid but not terribly remarkable, as was this, the first full performance I saw at SXSW Music 2014.
But the reason I was at the Jansport showcase—it wasn’t to score a backpack from 1990—was to see Cloud Nothings, who played a tinny but awesome set of snarlers that sounded like nothing more than prime-era Dinosaur Jr. (which is most eras of Dinosaur Jr., really). I then hopped next door to see a few songs by the legendary punk band X, which wisely stuck to songs from its first two classic albums, including the awesome “Your Phone’s Off The Hook (But You’re Not).” The band’s fashion sense has not kept up with the times—guitarist Billy Zoom hasn’t changed a bit, while singer Exene now sports a Gemma-from-Sons Of Anarchy look, but they were still able to charge through some amazing songs. Not sure what the upside for a band of that history is to play at Mohawk during SXSW, but I’ll take it.
We left the club, mercifully, about 20 minutes before the tragedy took place outside.
My Wednesday experience was all about super talented women. I kicked off the day with the easy pop sounds of Portland’s Pure Bathing Culture, a group that’s headed up by Sarah Versprille and Daniel Hindman. Their set at the Paste magazine party was the perfect kick-off to kind of a laid back day, and the band seemed pretty locked in, despite playing fairly early in the afternoon.
A little later I caught Angel Olsen at Spin’s party at Mohawk, and I’m fairly confident that she’s my favorite SXSW act so far. I’ve seen her play live (full disclosure: My husband is her booking agent) a number of times, but she just keeps getting better. Plus, her new record, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, is downright stellar. She’s a strong solo frontwoman, and has this kind of “I’ll fuck you up” attitude onstage that mixes perfectly with her cooing vocals. I adore the whole thing.
After Angel, I headed over to see EMA, who’s putting out a new record in April on Matador. Though her show at Flamingo Cantina was tainted by the pervasive smell of an intense pizza place next door, she absolutely owned the room, intimidatingly destroying us all with her new songs and sunglass covered glare. The whole thing just served to make me more stoked for The Future’s Void, which is out April 8.
Later, I popped into Kelis and St. Vincent at Stubb’s, but Sean can tell you how those went.
Other, less women-centric acts I caught: The Family Crest, an impressively professional orch-pop septet from San Francisco; James Supercave, a power pop band from Los Angeles; and Panama, an Australian trio with fairly heavy Passion Pit influences.
I also checked out the Haggar slacks house, just because it’s my “favorite” example of corporate SXSW branding this year. While there were precious few pairs of free sensible, wrinkle-free khakis to be found, there were caricature artists drawing butt portraits, so that’s something. (Please note the egregious typo in the photo below.)
St. Vincent took the Stubb’s stage for her first SXSW performance since 2009—though, in many ways, she could hardly be said to be the same performer. Gone was the charmingly awestruck Annie Clark in those weeks just before Actor, who seemed wowed by her rising profile and waved to her family watching from the pews of Central Presbyterian Church. Like the cool, imperious cover of her new, self-titled album, the St. Vincent who strode out to headline NPR’s showcase exuded a regal confidence, and an artful detachment that suggested any vestiges of “Annie Clark” (onstage, at least) have all but vanished.
The set list stuck to songs from that album—“Digital Witness,” “Birth In Reverse,” a particularly menacing “Rattlesnake”—and a handful from the past that matched them in attack and oddball grandeur (Actor’s “Marrow;” Strange Mercy’s “Surgeon,” “Cheerleader,” “Year Of The Tiger”). Wearing a red-blotched dress and black stockings, her platinum hair in permanent electric shock, she resembled more than ever the disaster-movie Disney princess her warped fairy-tale music has always evoked. Once given to down-to-earth chatter with the crowd, her between-song banter was now a rehearsed prose poem about fire. (Or something.) And in between meticulously choreographed dance moves—traces of her tour with David Byrne—she slinked across an ivory bench that echoed the imposing throne of her album, before triumphantly playing astride it, high above the crowd, a coronated new star in the sky. It’s been a five-year climb to that vantage point; at this rate, come 2016, who knows whether she’ll even be on this astral plane.
I’m in Texas, after all, so appropriately enough, day two of SXSW started and ended with the fiddle, and in between I got myself a whole lotta Diarrhea. The good, life-affirming kind.
At the Sub Pop Licensing party at The North Door, The Haden Triplets harmonized their way through some old-timey country songs (The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers, etc.), which was a nice, laid-back way to start a hectic schedule that eventually took me to all corners of downtown. (Including the exact spot on Red River where the accident took place, but Kyle covered that.) I’ve been meaning to check out their Ry Cooder-produced album that recently came out on Jack White’s Third Man imprint. As I left The North Door, I got an email telling me about the Paste party at the Swan Dive, and the detour rewarded me handsomely: I enjoyed the inside set from New York indie-pop outfit Ski Lodge, but it was on the outdoor stage where I had what could very well turn out to be my favorite moment of the week. It’s sort of annoying that I’m always going to have to preface it with, “Seriously, forget about the name,” but I’m not shitting you: The four-guitar attack of Nashville’s Diarrhea Planet blew my mind. Seriously, forget about the name! Or not, because they certainly like to have fun with it, giving away Diarrhea Is The New Fuck T-shirts to anyone willing to crowd surf. (And there were lots of people crowd surfing to the band’s Rocket From The Crypt-meets-Murder City Devil assault.) I think the last time I was this excited about a big, loud rock band was the first time I saw Rocket a hundred years ago.
The rest of my day schedule put me in front electro-tinged New York pop group Haerts (at the Pandora party where people seemed more excited about the free makeup and massages; sadly I wasn’t impressed with the band either, despite their relationship with St. Lucia), The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (also pop, also from New York, but much more compelling, despite not being the SXSW darlings they were a few years ago) at Under The Radar’s thing at the Flamingo Cantina, and the always dependable Hold Steady at the IFC Fairgrounds event at Palm Park. I’m definitely excited about the band’s forthcoming Teeth Dreams, though solid oldies like “Stuck Between Stations” and “Chips Ahoy!” (basically anything from Boys And Girls In America slays me) were the highlights. (Side note: Even though it can sometimes feel like everything’s been done before, when I was confronted with Mr. Bonetangles, the rock ’n’ roll skeleton marionette, on Sixth Street, I knew I was seeing something special. Seriously, YouTube it. Like right now.)
Nighttime took me to Mohawk to see Chino Moreno’s new Crosses project; despite the fact that I’m not the biggest Deftones fan, I’ve always been intrigued by the guy, and I did really like that Team Sleep album he made a while back with people like Zach Hill, Mary Timony, and Rob Crow. But I’m not sure I’m sold on Crosses, which is sorta electro and sorta heavy, but is also a little too straightforward. I kept getting the feeling that their Pandora channel would give me a lot of Imagine Dragons, which is a good way to bum yourself out. But I felt like the whole day was just leading me back to my Diarrhea boys, who blew more eardrums and gave away more T-shirts at Lamberts, which was a bit of a trek from Mohawk but well worth it. (And, as it turned out, maybe saved my life, and I’m not saying that casually at all; knowing how crowded things were out on that street makes the thought of the accident that much more horrifying.) My last stop of the night was supposed to be at the Vulcan Gas Company to see Spandau Ballet’s first U.S. show since the Dark Ages, but with multiple non-moving lines spread out along Sixth Street, I decided instead to see David J. And, it turns out, thanks to him ending his folkified set with three Love And Rockets tunes (for those keeping score: “No New Tale To Tell,” “Waiting For The Flood,” and “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven”), I knew two more songs that I would have at Spandau Ballet.