Wednesday, March 25, 2015

SXSW 2015: The Loud, the Quiet and the Mind-Blowing (plus where to catch stand-out acts in Florida soon)

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2015 at 3:07 PM

click to enlarge Mitski at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Mitski at SXSW 2015

I overheard 100 different people rattling off 100 different reasons they came to SXSW last week in Austin, Texas. Drinking, networking, hooking up, landing a deal, doing drugs, making money, blowing off steam … But for me, it’s all about one thing: seeing as many bands in as many different venues in as short a time as possible.

Perhaps it’s a motivation ingrained in my native Floridian makeup – if a band you like comes within driving range, you jump at the opportunity. But how do you manage when 2,000+ artists are all in town at the same time playing overlapping sets 18 hours a day? That’s a struggle I’ll never overcome – but what a struggle to have.

Below were my favorite performances this year, grouped at random. Many of these artists are on their way to Florida later this year, many will drop new albums soon, many may become your new favorites – and hopefully next year, I’ll see many of you at SXSW.

The DC Loves Dilla showcase on Tuesday night hosted one of the happiest crowds I saw all week, which was fitting considering its status as an annual memorial and fundraiser tribute to legendary hip-hop producer J. Dilla. The 13-piece band The Players funked up the space between sets, but it was Prince George County rapper Oddisee who shined brightest, his no-nonsense appearance belying the speedy consciousness of his rhymes.

click to enlarge Viet Cong at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Viet Cong at SXSW 2015

At the House of Vans-sponsored Mohawk, which featured the longest lines of any SXSW venue, Calgary post-punk ragers Viet Cong showed no signs of the recent controversy swirling around their band name. In fact, the only evident setback came from drummer Mike Wallace’s broken and immobile left hand and frontman Matt Flegel’s detuned bass. But even a one-handed percussion section and a slightly off tone couldn’t temper the sweaty, atonal crush of Viet Cong’s excellent new work. On record, they exude an us-versus-the-world urgency, and that came through even stronger on stage.

click to enlarge S'mores! - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • S'mores!
Happy SXSW accidents are the best, and my favorite came when I had 30 minutes to kill at Side Bar and happened onto Public Access TV’s melodic set. Although they look like suburban 19-year-olds, these four dudes hail from downtown New York, so comparisons to the Strokes are inevitable. But I thought PATV’s interlocked four-part harmonies and golden garage rock riffs are already way tighter now, before their debut album even drops, than Casablancas and company ever was.

Speaking of unexpected rock moments, I knew Chicago’s Twin Peaks were good, but I had no idea how good: catchy as hell, uptempo classic punk played by four dudes going absolutely nuts on stage. By the end of their 45-minute show at Cheer Up Charlie’s, their heads threatened to fly right off their bodies and they got all up in the grill of a security guard trying to discourage stage-diving. It isn’t easy to evoke a full-blown mosh pit at a “Bonfire Session” co-sponsored by Jansport and Noisey with s’mores available to all attendees. But Twin Peaks pulled it off.

I enjoyed the hell out of Waxahatchee’s set at Cheer Up Charlie’s, as I’m enjoying the hell out of Katie Crutchfield and company’s upcoming album, Ivy Tripp. But after playing two solo shows to kick off SXSW, Katie and her touring band, which includes twin sister Allison of Swearin’, Keith Spencer, Katherine Simonetti, and Ashley Arnwine, gelled well, adding extra crunch to this collection of passionate tunes.Surely it will be even more so when the band hits Gainesville, Tallahassee and Pensacola between April 16-18.

click to enlarge Waxahatchee at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Waxahatchee at SXSW 2015

Earlier in the day, on the same stage, San Francisco’s Deerhoof proved that nothing has to be smooth to still be great. These longtime experimental stalwarts were even more adventurous than I expected: frontwoman Satomi Matsuzaki showing off some endearingly goofy dance moves in between her call-and-response vocals. Meanwhile, guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez were locked in a complicated back and forth of disjointed, otherworldly riffs, all while drummer Greg Saunier kept everybody on their toes with multiple time changes and skittering solos. Somehow, nothing ever felt out of sync.

click to enlarge Cancer Bats at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Cancer Bats at SXSW 2015

Toronto hardcore hellions Cancer Bats launched a terrifyingly heavy blast of metal at Red 7’s Brooklyn Vegan Day Party. And although they cleared the room of skinny indie rock hipsters hustling outside to see Mitski (more on them later), their presence was replaced by long-haired thrashers hurling themselves toward stage and shouting along with lead singer Liam Cormier. Feel how you will about metal – I’m not a huge fan myself – but you can't deny the dynamism of four dudes destroying any remaining tenderness left on an otherwise unremarkable Thursday afternoon.

Alvvays hail from Toronto, too, but they’re the exact opposite of Cancer Bats: bright, shimmery and easygoing, but still thoughtful and technically adept. Everyone was clearly there to see frontwoman Molly Rankin soar through hit single “Archie, Marry Me,” but I was surprised at how fun the rest of Alvvays’ set was, particularly “Party Police.” These Canucks demonstrated their depth and have nowhere to go but up from here.
SXSW is famous for giving international artists a stateside audience, but let’s be fair: Giant music industry gathering or not, Amsterdam’s Jacco Gardner was always going to attract an American cult with his jangly psych rock. It’s quirky and kaleidoscopic, but it’s also vaguely menacing, which is a refreshing change from today’s default garage goofiness. Jacco played just about more shows than any other artist I followed this year, but I thought his tunes worked best in the mud and rain at Hotel Vegas for the Panache Booking Showcase.

click to enlarge Alvvays at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Alvvays at SXSW 2015

Ever since I randomly stumbled across them in 2013, I’ve struggled to accurately describe Autre Ne Veut. Is it Justin Timberlake gone abstract? Frank Ocean with more feeling? Who knows? What I do know is that Arthur Ashin and company’s minimalist R&B can feel transcendent in the right setting. Unfortunately, that setting was not the cavernous Hype Hotel, which felt like an airplane hangar and buried Ashin’s psychologically dense lyrics underneath huge blasts of bass.

Last year, I somehow missed every one of Guantanamo Baywatch’s shows at SXSW, so they were near the top of my list in 2015. I caught them first early in the afternoon at The Liberty for Breakthru Radio’s unofficial showcase, and although I could tell Jason, Chevelle and Chris were tired, they still ripped through some drenching wet surf rock that would make Dick Dale’s reverb setting proud. Now if only I could have gotten in to their nighttime showcase at Mohawk’s awesome inside room – or what I’m sure was a barnburner at Hotel Vegas.

click to enlarge Guantanamo Baywatch at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Guantanamo Baywatch at SXSW 2015

Speaking of drenched, the crowd to see Earl Sweatshirt on Thursday was happy to get soaked by the steady rains that started Thursday afternoon. Earl delivered essentially the same dark, paranoid set pulled from new album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside at Stubb’s for the Spin showcase and across town at the Gypsy Lounge for the Converse/Thrasher Death Match in the same day. But the latter venue went way more nuts, perhaps reflecting its skater-heavy, anti-authoritarian demographic. Earl Sweatshirt comes to Venue 578 on Saturday, May 2.

New Jersey’s The Everymen didn’t let the rain dampen their spirits, even though they were performing under a tiny tent on the tiny rooftop of Cheers Shot Bar. Their burly, beery heartland rock, a la Bruce Springsteen or the Men, held up to the deluge, too, getting the small crowd hyped as they sang about how “I can feel the water in my shoes.” So could we, guys. Hopefully, it won’t rain as much when they come to Will’s Pub on June 4.

There ain’t no party like a Vockah Redu party, perhaps because there ain’t no entertainer like Vockah Redu. Equal parts MC, acrobat, hype man and preacher, this New Orleans native and his Cru will either confound an audience, as happened at the swank Palm Door on Sixth for the official SXSW closing party, or whip them into an ass-shaking frenzy, as happened last year for my wife and me. Either way, Vockah does what he does like nobody else on Earth. And that is what a clearinghouse of talent like SXSW should highlight.

Tom Brosseau maybe have been dressed like a rough-and-tumble old country and western singer in a starched white button-down and Wranglers. And he may have spent much of his Riot Act Media showcase set at Cheer Up Charlie’s fingerpicking old blues traditionals like “Candy Man.” But his playfully resonant voice still filled all corners of the crowded inside room, which remained pleasantly quiet. When he sang “Ain't it hard to love someone that never did love you/Ain't it hard to love someone that'll never be true,” it felt like he was singing directly to me.

Later the same evening, Natalie Prass filled Cheer Up’s front room with her honey-dipped AM rock, which is right on the brink of experiencing critical mass. Like her mentor Jenny Lewis, Prass is skinny and unassuming, but also elegantly groovy, climbing on top of a room divider (and, later in the week, a railing at Maggie Mae’s) to deliver her angelic, high-pitched vocals. Seeing her in small clubs here felt revelatory, as she’ll surely be graduating to bigger rooms soon. (Drive to Tallahassee to see her on Thursday, March 26 to see what I’m talking about).

Chastity Belt may share a scene with louder, snottier female-fronted Pacific Northwest bands. But the nervy, subdued nature of their taut rock surprised me — in a good way. And even though these ladies’ style choices are awesome Blossom hilarious and seem designed for ironic impact, their music derives its strength from understatement.

click to enlarge Chastity Belt at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Chastity Belt at SXSW 2015

reminded me of Chastity Belt – and sure enough, those ladies were watching as Mitski Miyawaki wielded her hot-pink bass and gave sad indie rock songs new life for a receptive crowd. As she said at The Liberty as rain began falling heavily on Friday, “I’m so tired. But I’d rather be tired doing music than be tired not doing music.”

I haven’t been able to turn anyone on to them yet, but I keep trying: Los Angeles’ Avid Dancer, fronted by combat veteran Jacob Summer, plays beautifully intricate pop masterpieces – they even have a bona fide Song of the Year candidate under their belts in “All Your Words Are Gone.” Sustained chords, slow grooves and just the right amount of danceable beats can be plenty cool.

In a similar vein, Burger Records signee Michael Rault’s melodic grace won over a crowd of drunken students and hangers-on at the Pearl Street Co-Op, which is located less than a mile from the UT campus in the kind of student ghetto we all remember living in. But the free, inclusive, $1-beer show was the perfect antidote to SXSW’s corporatism. Talking shop with Burger Record head honchos Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard with no more than 20 other garage rock heads around was awesome, too.

click to enlarge Michael Rault at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Michael Rault at SXSW 2015

I love New Jersey guitar rockers Real Estate, but I’ll be the first to admit that their trebly groove didn't resonate well in the closing 1 a.m. hour, when most attendees were either drunk or dying to dance. I wish I had seen ‘em earlier in the day, instead, when their noodling would have perfectly accompanied a golden-hour sunlight.

At 1 p.m. the following day, Yotam Ben Horn of established punk rockers Useless ID talked the crowd away from the stage and into the front bar area, where he jumped around and played passionate acoustic versions of emo classics by bands like Swervedriver. Only one or two fans knew what they were getting, but the pull of his personality made up for any unknowns.

Tobias Jesso, Jr., is blowing up this year, but even a showcase at the Tumblr IRL showcase didn’t feel like overload. With the Vancouver native plying his piano ballad trade, a camera mounted above him broadcasted his keys-tickling work for the whole crowd to see. That allowed anyone seated at the 30 or so practice keyboards in the back of the room to play along while Tobias narrated his movements and talked about his own circuitous route to learning piano. It wasn’t as moving as I expected from the soulful balladeer, but at least he and Tumblr put technology to use in a truly interactive way for once.

Speaking of waiting … I blew it and waited too long to try and see retro gospel-and-soul hot commodity Leon Bridges on Friday night. Over 250 people were lined up inside St. David’s Episcopal Church to try and squeeze into their tiny Communion Stage room, and once the fire marshal arrived to check things out, everybody had to go. Hopefully I get a chance to see Bridges again (and hear his retro-fuzz guitar playing too) again soon, because EVERYBODY was raving about him.

Big Phony is a Korean-American New York native who recently immigrated to Seoul, where he’s a movie star and mover and shaker on the celebrity scene. But his musical MO was at major odds with the buzzy crowd at Majestic, where his friend and fellow Ktown Cowboy star Danny Cho introduced him with a frat-worthy speech – before Big Phony ambled into his gently fingerpicked, quietly stunning folk rock. “I play sad songs,” he told the hopped-up crowd before opening with a number about a depressed young woman who watches I Love Lucy reruns. “So now if you want to leave, go ahead.”

It’s hard to put Montreal’s Bloodshot Bill into the quiet category since he screeches and bellows and howls through his primitive rockabilly repertoire. Bill’s closing night performance at Palm Door on Sixth was plenty raunchy and energetic, but the room was simply too big for his setup of hollow-body electric guitar, upright bass and pared-down drum set.

click to enlarge Bloodshot Bill at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Bloodshot Bill at SXSW 2015

Three-hundred-pound Albanian-American MC Action Bronson dropped more fire in the 30 minutes I saw him at Scoot Inn than most rappers do in a year – maybe even a lifetime. Bronson, a former chef, raps in a rhythmically measured but narratively wild cadence, drawing comparisons to titans like Ghostface Killah and Kool G Rap. (I’m going to refrain from telling you how pissed I am that I missed Ghostface’s Saturday set with jazz band BADBADNOTGOOD and his Saturday night set with Raekwon, when the two Wu-Tang members played Rae’s classic Only Built For Cuban Linx in its entirety). But Bronson’s own deliciously filthy but lovable character, a fat white guy with a giant red beard and a perma-blunt in his hand who, the following afternoon, was hanging out in a food truck serving up his Mr. Wonderful Texas Style Poutine. Anybody that jams out to “Runnin’ with the Devil” and then raps over a live rendition of “Gimme One Reason to Stay Here” deserves a medal. But it was Bronson’s psychedelic closer, “Easy Rider,” that reached the most epic acid-fried climax. Pick up his new album this week and then go see him in Tampa in May 8-9 because fuck, everything about Action Bronson is delicious.

click to enlarge Action Bronson at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Action Bronson at SXSW 2015

I want to hate Jack Antonoff and Bleachers. Like, a lot. But every time I run into the man, I just can’t. After seeing him and two bandmates play an acoustic radio session for 101X FM on Thursday morning, when he raved about the importance of assisting homeless LBGTQ youth, my wife and I set off for the Uproxx House that night with high hopes. They were tempered by the in-your-face Miller Lite branding and the abundantly late set. But then Bleachers took the stage and launched into a boisterous, fist-pumping set of electro-rock that had everybody (including me) dancing and shouting their asses off. I quickly realized that this big, beefy, bespectacled goofball is actually one of rock & roll’s best frontman, a fact reinforced as Antonoff and his bandmates traded off showboating solos on “Roller Coaster.” Go see him on tour in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, March 25.

click to enlarge Bleachers at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Bleachers at SXSW 2015

click to enlarge Jonathan Toubin’s New York Night Train/Soul Clap Dance-Off at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Jonathan Toubin’s New York Night Train/Soul Clap Dance-Off at SXSW 2015
If you like to dance, you can do no wrong attending one of New York DJ Jonathan Toubin’s New York Night Train/Soul Clap Dance-Off events. Spinning nothing but vintage 45s all night long, it’s a soul and R&B fan’s wet dream. And the interaction level elicited by the dance contest rivals any other musical event I’ve ever attended. I tell Toubin every time I see him that he has to get to Florida stat.

Run The Jewels’ afternoon closing set outside in the rain at Stubb’s for the Spin party felt like defiance incarnate. Not only do Killer Mike and El-P spit vehement rants about killer cops, society’s ills and the battle between good and evil, but they do it with an endearing mix of braggadocio and humility; Killer Mike introduced one song as “This one goes out to fuck you Ferguson Police” and another with “Ya’ll are so brilliant and show so much empathy and care for each other.” As for RTJ’s perseverance? Consider the fact that Mike nearly got sucker-punched onstage on Tuesday, fought the would-be attacker off, finished the set, flew home to Atlanta on Wednesday, was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, and then elected to fly back to Austin against doctor’s orders to “give it all I’ve got” for the duo’s remaining shows. That level of independent intensity is nearly unparalleled in today’s corporate-driven musical landscape. Consider it a must to hit up Big Guava in Tampa on May 9 for RTJ and Action Bronson.

click to enlarge Run the Jewels at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Run the Jewels at SXSW 2015

How can one Uruguayan folk singer with an acoustic guitar, a tiny keyboard, a bongo drum and two bare bulbs for a light show whip an entire drunken crowd into a frenzy? Simply by being himself. Like a Latino Paul Simon, Juan Wauters’ man-on-the-street observations are wry, incisive, multilingual and backed by some of the most upbeat folk on the planet. Put that in front of passionate fans like those getting rowdy inside Hotel Vegas on Friday night and the results will intoxicate.

Thee Oh Sees capped off Friday night under a steady downpour at Hotel Vegas’ outdoor stage. The grounds were a full-fledged mud pit, and John Dwyer and company took the stage an hour later than their appointed set time. But as soon as they ripped into their propulsive, shrieking, double-drum assault, all hell broke loose, with more stage-diving than at any other show I’d seen all week. The mosh circle was ferocious, the rain never stopped falling and then, with five minutes left in their set, Thee Oh Sees invited Bushwick Bill on stage to perform a psychedelic version of the 1992 Geto Boys classic “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.” My body was sore, my shoes were destroyed and the four-mile bike ride home soaked me to the bone. But I realized as soon as Dwyer unplugged that this was the kind of show I’d be talking about forever. And that’s why I came to SXSW. 

click to enlarge Thee Oh Sees at SXSW 2015 - PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Photo by Nick McGregor
  • Thee Oh Sees at SXSW 2015

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