Sunday, March 29, 2015

South by Southwest 2015 Final Thoughts

Like last year, after writing up all my thoughts about the bands I saw at SXSW, I still have a few thoughts left to share about the event as a whole. First, though, for the sake of reference, here is the list of all the bands I saw with links to the reviews:

Day 1: Fotogramas / Marineros / Dead Leaf Echo
Day 2: Talk in Tongues / Mai Dhai / Mother Falcon / TV on the Radio
Day 3 (parts 1 and 2): Hundred Waters / Alvvays / Will Butler / Title Fight / Twerps / DJ Windows 98 / Deerhoof / Think No Think / Golden Dawn Arkestra / Holy Wave / Merchandise / Moon Duo / Songhoy Blues / The Pop Group / Gang of Four
Day 4: The Shivas / The Lemons / Today's Hits / Gap Dream / Courtney Barnett / Run the Jewels / Homeshake / Kate Tempest / The Church / Tanya Tagaq
Day 5: Spencer Mackenzie Brown / Bruiser Queen / Psychic Heat / Something and the Whatevers / CS Luxem / Gateway Drugs / Swervedriver / The Church

Like last year, I made a concerted effort to see international performers and a few things outside of the rock and pop universe (e.g. Mai Dhai and Tanya Tagaq), but I got to see a few old favorites of mine (The Pop Group, Gang of Four, The Church), a couple recent favorites (Hundred Waters, Merchandise), some bands from my Midwestern home turf (see day 5), and a variety of bands that I didn't know well or at all. I again found it difficult to decide what to see, and although some of my choices really paid off, others were not as successful.

Part of the challenge comes in balancing competing interests. Should you see bands you know and love, should you look for bands with high profiles or encouraging recommendations that you think would be good to see, or should you hunt for new discoveries and great bands still under the radar? The bigger-name stuff might have longer lines and more crowded spaces, but sometimes ends up being a great opportunity to see a band in a smaller, more intimate venue than they normally play, and sometimes it's just an opportunity that you wouldn't otherwise bother to take or even get at all.

I went for a mix of things, which came out with equally mixed results. The day party I saw at Beerland on day 4 was a lot of fun, even if only one band (The Shivas) really impressed me. Considering my love of The Church, I had high hopes for the relatively bigger-name bands playing before them at Emo's on day 5, but I ended up sorely disappointed. And with no idea what to expect from the I Heart Local Music day party at Shangri-La earlier that same day, I thoroughly enjoyed the event. I missed my chance to see bands like Spoon, Real Estate, and Viet Cong that I was rather interested in, but I did get to experience TV on the Radio, Courtney Barnett, and several other rising bands.

I think if I did one thing right, it's that I followed my suggestion from last year and tried to focus on finding venues or areas with good lineups and doing less running around all across town. This worked out especially well for me on day 3, where I hung out at Pitchfork's showcase at Mohawk all afternoon and then Levitation's showcase at Hotel Vegas all evening. If nothing else, it's certainly easier to pick one or two places to spend your night instead of trying to decide on six bands to see that happen to all be at different venues.

A complicating factor with SXSW is that most bands only get 30 or 40 minutes to play, and to maximize exposure and compensation, they play several events, both official and unofficial, sometimes even in one day. Some bands really step it up for these short showcases and manage to compress their energy. Some bands seem to need more time and space, be it for proper soundchecking (e.g. The Pop Group, apparently), the widescreen scope of their sound (some bands just sound better in bigger places), or the sprawling, extended nature of the songs (e.g. The Church, apparently). It can be hard for bands to get it right and make a good impression in such a short burst.

The last thing I want to say was that this year's SXSW definitely felt toned down a bit from last year. I'm not the only one who noticed this. It wasn't just the increased barricades and police presence in response to the fatal accident last year, and I also don't think it was just because of the rain that fell on at least three days. There was a little bit less going on in general, not as many mega-high-profile acts, and just barely not as many people in the streets. I think there might be changes afoot, although what I don't know. Are the incredible number of copycat festivals having an effect? Is Austin reaching the limits of its tolerance? Has SXSW just grown too fast? I suspect it's just hard to keep up the intensity year after year, and maybe SXSW needs some rethinking to keep it cutting-edge.

[Sixth Street from the rooftop of Maggie Mae's on day 4.]

Saturday, March 28, 2015

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 21 March 2015

Introduction: I started my day at I Heart Local Music's day party as part of the Midcoast Takeover at Shangri-La. They had been forced to move inside due to continuing rainfall, but that just meant the audience got a more intimate show and we could be closer to the performers, so it wasn't a bad deal.

Spencer Mackenzie Brown: Spencer and his four bandmates offered some solid music that resided somewhere in the realm that could be called Americana. I don't always like that term nor the musicians that are described with it, but I thought Spencer and his band had a great blend of indie rock, folk harmonies, and just a hint of country rhythm. The bassist was great, the drummer was good, and the vocals were just right. They might not be revolutionary, but they certainly put on an enjoyable show.

[Spencer MacKenzie Brown at Shangri-La.]

Bruiser Queen: Although this event was focusing on Lawrence, Kansas bands, this punky duo from St. Louis managed to sneak in. The frontwoman had a powerful voice and great energy, and she proved it by really throwing herself into her singing and guitar playing. She was a very physical performer, which I think works well for a band like this. The drummer wasn't showy but accompanied the singer perfectly, and even contributed some backing vocals, too. The lyrics were standard fare, but the two musicians were so tight that the music was far more than the sum of its parts. They were fun to behold.

[Bruiser Queen at Shangri-La.]

Psychic Heat: These four dudes went straight for the gut with a very intense, hard, punky style. The musicianship was decent, but it was missing an element of depth. The audience didn't seem to mind, as a few people started moshing in the small space they had available. I did appreciate some of the swirling guitar sounds I heard, evidencing traces of psychedelia. Someone has kindly put their setlist online:

1. Mortal Concept
2. Stargazer
3. How Many Licks
4. Elixir
5. Anxiety Eater
6. In Two

[Psychic Heat at Shangri-La.]

Something and the Whatevers: This band is quite an experience. They are nominally a three-piece with a high-energy style, but they play as if they are the backing band of a robot leader. Their entire set was carefully timed with a laptop, hidden behind what appeared to be a giant cardboard mp3 player, such that between every song, a robot voice would speak to the audience and announce songs. They had a punky spirit, but considering the use of a drum machine and that one of the members played keyboards, I think punk might be too limiting here. It was an intense performance that was hard not to want to watch every minute of. The lyrics covered ground such as hitting the snooze button too much, locking one's keys in the car, general self-deprecation, and general self-description. It was probably the most postmodern performance I saw at SXSW.

[Something and the Whatevers at Shangri-La.]

CS Luxem: Last on the bill for I Heart Local Music's part of the event was CS Luxem, an indie rock three-piece with some tricks up their sleeves. They too had punky elements, but they didn't let themselves be constrained by that. They had great dynamics and had more nuance than just always being loud and in-your-face. It did seem, though, that they played a rather short set.

[CS Luxem at Shangri-La.]

At this point I took a break from things to walk around downtown with a couple friends. We walked past the Fader Fort and started hearing the many conflicted rumors as to whether Kanye West was the surprise guest that night. (He wasn't.) We ended up just eating some food and taking it easy for a while before splitting up to follow our own paths. I bike across Town Lake and headed south to Emo's, where I stayed for the rest of the evening.

Gateway Drugs: I thought this band had some promise, but when every song came off as just dirty, over-distorted, heavy, hard rock, there wasn't much for me to appreciate. The bass frequencies noisily overwhelmed the sonic spectrum and the vocals where mixed very low. There was no nuance, subtlety, or grace, just loud guitar rock. They also had a strange habit of sampling a brief section of each song as it ended and repeating it through the PA until they started the next song. The only parts of the set I actually liked were a few sections where the noise had just a shade of psychedelic beauty, but those were infrequent moments.

[Gateway Drugs at Emo's.]

Swervedriver: I was actually fairly interested in this band on the basis of their original shoegaze roots, but unfortunately, they've really moved away from that direction over the years. Instead, their sound was just a lot of guitars in a 90s alt rock mode. It was surprisingly bland and tame – there just wasn't a lot of melody or rhythm or really anything that stood out. It was mildly rocking but just not exciting. Most of their setlist has been posted online:

01. Autodidact
02. For Seeking Heat
03. Setting Sun
04. Rave Down
05. These Times
06. For a Day Like Tomorrow
07. [Unknown]
08. Deep Wound
09. Son of Mustang Ford
10. [Unknown]
11. Duel

[Swervedriver at Emo's.]

The Church: This band is the real reason why I was at Emo's. After the slight disappointment of seeing them the night before, I was particularly excited at the prospect of them playing a more traditional set length (90 minutes). Here's the setlist (with some help from here):

01. Is This Where You Live
02. Delirious
03. Laurel Canyon
04. You Took
05. Metropolis
06. Toy Head
07. Vanishing Man
08. The Disillusionist
09. Old Flame
10. Reptile
11. Block
12. Under the Milky Way
13. Miami

[The Church at Emo's.]

The Church were in much better form on this night. They seemed more comfortable and in control. They again opened with the sprawling, extended "Is This Where You Live", and again played many long, slow-burning, crescendoing songs, but they also played a bunch of other types of songs, which made for a much more dynamic and enjoyable show. They even played some of their hits! Singer/bassist Steve Kilbey was actually fairly humorous and engaging throughout the set, unlike the night before, where he had cited a lack of time to be able to joke or banter. When announcing "Metropolis", he said it was the time of the show where they were going to play their last hit, but it wasn't the one we thought it was. ("Under the Milky Way" has been a more persistent part of cultural history, but it was released in 1988, whereas "Metropolis" was 1990.)

"You Took", from their second album, The Blurred Crusade (1982), was a major highlight, a great song with a good bass riff which they stretched out with extensive guitar interplay. Sadly, there were no other pre-Starfish songs (except the aforementioned "Is This Where You Live"), but we were treated to two consecutive tracks from the excellent Priest=Aura (1992). Of course, I think both "The Disillusionist" and "Old Flame" are actually fairly weak representatives of that album, but they still have their nice parts.

Naturally, the real excitement came in the form of the two best tracks from Starfish: "Reptile" and "Under the Milky Way". Both were extended with two long guitar solos. The latter song actually seemed a bit mellow or tame, almost as if they were intentionally underplaying it. It was still a beautiful song, but the first guitar solo (the ebow/bagpipe-esque one as heard on the recording) was unspectacular, and it wasn't until the ending and second solo that it picked up and got more wild.

The Church might be aging, but I admire them for following their own path and not just playing to expectations, even if I prefer their jangly guitars to their spacey progressive tendencies of late. The band has lost some of their nuance with the departure of Marty Willson-Piper, but replacement Ian Haug did a decent job of filling in for him. Kilbey is a great semi-mystical frontperson, and Peter Koppes is an excellent guitarist, albeit one who seems to shy away from the spotlight. Together with drummer Tim Powles, they played a lot of strong material and closed the festival on a high note.

[The Church at Emo's.]

Scores:
Spencer Mackenzie Brown: B+
Bruiser Queen: B
Psychic Heat: C
Something and the Whatevers: A-
CS Luxem: B
Gateway Drugs: D
Swervedriver: C
The Church: B+

P.S. I Heart Local Music's write-up of the show at Shangri-La can be found here.

P.P.S. Big thanks to Fally!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 4

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 4
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 20 March 2015

Introduction: I started this day late and worn down after a long day and night before. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do and see, and heavy rain was in the forecast. After much delay and debate, I finally put on my raincoat and took the bus downtown. I started out at an unofficial showcase hosted by a bunch of indie bandcamp/cassette labels at Beerland, a small dive bar wedged between some bigger places.

I missed the first few acts but got in just in time to see The Shivas. They immediately had me hooked. They're the best type of garage band: they have great energy, really tight drums and bass, and some reasonably catchy tunes. All three members knew exactly what to play; no one ever over- or underplayed. Some of the lyrics were a bit cliché ("you make me want to cry / you make me want to die"), but they wisely mixed in several instrumentals with melodic guitar parts. On the songs with vocals, the drummer's backing parts helped quite a bit, too. They might be stuck in the 60s, but at least they have all the right vibes.

[The Shivas at Beerland.]

Then came The Lemons, a very curious bunch. All five members sang, mostly all together, but not necessarily quite in time or in key. Every song was very short (less than two minutes) and they all relied on simple chord patterns. One song was performed twice. They were practically anti-professional, but not without some charm. They had some degree of hard-to-take-seriously innocence and a feeling of novelty about them; the lyrics were about simple pleasures, like sharing jellybeans and going out for ice cream. One member, a singer and tambourine player, managed to knock over the drummer's cymbal – not once but twice.

[The Lemons at Beerland.]

As if that wasn't odd enough, after 15 minutes they started leaving the stage, but the drummer came forward to speak to the audience. A "special surprise" was announced, which ended up being the four-piece band Today's Hits, in which the Lemon's drummer and bassist transitioned to singer and guitarist, respectively. The whole thing was very strange. The drummer-turned-singer started dissing Uncle Funkle, apparently a labelmate, but it was clearly in jest. The band was okay; they played annoyingly basic songs with terribly clichéd lyrics without much to recommend. The frontperson seemed like a bit of an intense character, but probably also quite a joker.

[Today's Hits at Beerland.]

Next on the bill was Gap Dream, which is actually the only band I previously knew. They follow a conventional psychedelic path, and on record, it seems to work out pretty well. Live, they were a mess. The instruments weren't properly tuned, they made several obvious mistakes, the music was meandering and bland, and the whole thing came off rather uninspiring. The guitarist/frontperson dabbled in some worthless noise, gradually lost interest, and stopped the set after starting into just the fourth song. The drummer was the same guy that had drummed for The Lemons and sang for Today's Hits, and he may have been the only member keeping it together. It seemed like something went awry.

[Gap Dream at Beerland.]

After that disappointment, I left and went next door to Stubb's, where I watched Courtney Barnett play in the rain. She gives off a very casual, unpretentious vibe, which I found rather endearing. Her songs weren't musically sophisticated, but her lyrics are clever and the performances were solid. She manages a good balance of accessibility and personality. [Edit 2015.03.28: I originally had posted a setlist, but it was actually for her show at the same venue two nights prior.]

[Courtney Barnett at Stubb's, in the rain.]

Not quite sure where to go next while it rained, I stuck around to catch a few minutes of Run the Jewels. I thought they were okay, but I had to leave after too much usage of the word "bitch". From there I caught a bus home while the rain picked up. After a short break and some comestible replenishment, the rain had let off a bit and I went back into the maelstrom.

My first stop was the rooftop of Maggie Mae's, which not only had a good view of 6th Street, but also a couple bands that turned out to be fairly good. I caught about half of a set by Homeshake, the side project of Peter Sagar, an affiliate of Mac DeMarco. With three other musicians, he presented some kind of weird pop thing. It was low-key, mellow, and a little hard to hold on to. The bassist consistently played great parts and had this really watery, enveloped sound. He had me sold and made it worth watching.

[Homeshake at Maggie Mae's rooftop.]

Next was Kate Tempest, an English spoken word and hip-hop artist. Her lyrics were great and the beats were good, but the only problem was that the beats often obscured the words too much – especially since I must admit there was also the barrier of accent. Between the hip-hop songs done with her backing band, she'd spin into a pure spoken word piece, and those I could usually follow more easily. I wish I'd been able to understand the whole thing.

[Kate Tempest at Maggie Mae's rooftop.]

I then went a couple doors down to Buffalo Billiards to the see The Church. If there was ever a venue that really shouldn't be a venue, this would be a contender. The lower level of the place is a pool hall; half of the upper level is full of ping-pong tables, and the other half is a crowded bar that somehow had a stage squeezed in. Of course, the best spots in the house are inaccessible because there is a giant bar there. What a terrible design! Maggie Mae's might not be much better, but this might be the worst venue I've seen yet in Austin.

At any rate, The Church's sound crew took their time to set up and the band never quite seemed to settle in. They started with "Is This Where You Live", an extended piece from their first album, Of Skins and Heart (1981). They drew it out even longer and really turned it into an epic. That was cool, but instead of taking the energy they built up and running with it, they followed it with two new songs from Further/Deeper that were in exactly the same mold: slow builds that eventually crescendoed into a few minutes of ecstatic rock fervor. Most of the time, though, the band was focusing on these very long, drawn out, open, crawling sections. Everyone was waiting for them to burst into something more exciting, but they spitefully only played three songs and no hits. It did not seem like their brightest moment. Worse, they cancelled their appearance at the South by San Jose party the following day, supposedly due to scheduling conflicts or the weather. Anyway, here was the setlist, if memory serves me well:

1. Is This Where You Live
2. Toy Head
3. Miami

[The Church at Buffalo Billiards.]

I was getting tired, but I checked out one more act anyway. I went over to the Speakeasy, another rather mediocre venue, to see Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit vocalist. She is known as a throat singer, and her skill lies in her ability to make an incredibly wide array of sounds with just her voice. If you didn't know that she was the one making the sounds, you wouldn't necessary know the source was human. It's quite a trip. She performed one long, continuous piece with the assistance of a drummer, a violinist, and some minor effects. Her unceasing power and ability was mightily impressive (she never let up for more than a second!), but it was quite an avant-garde experience and hard to appreciate as anything but performance art.

[Tanya Tagaq at Speakeasy.]

Scores:
The Shivas: A
The Lemons: B-
Today's Hits: D+
Gap Dream: F
Courtney Barnett: B
Homeshake: B-
Kate Tempest: B+
The Church: C-
Tanya Tagaq: C+

P.S. Video of Courtney Barnett at Pitchfork's day party two days prior can be found here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 3, Part 2

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 3: Levitation Showcase
Venue: Hotel Vegas (outside stage)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 19 March 2015

Introduction: As previously mentioned, I've split this day into two parts, and this post will cover my evening spent at Hotel Vegas. Levitation, previously known as the Austin Psych Fest, sponsored showcases all day at the venue, starting with unofficial events in the afternoon, transitioning to an official SXSW event at 7pm, and running well past 1am. They ran three or four stages (depending on how you count): two separate ones inside, and one big one outside, which was loosely split in half so that one band could set up while another was performing. It was a little weird, but it mostly worked. I stayed outside and hung out for as long as I could.

I actually got there a little before the official events commenced, so I saw the end of a set by Deerhoof. I only saw enough to know that they certainly aren't your average band. They were trying to do an audience-interactive call-and-response thing in an odd time signature with stop-start rhythms. I'm amazed that it even halfway worked.

Then came the official showcases. First up was Think No Think, an Austin power trio. They had a little too much of a bro-ish cock rock vibe for me. They were far too invested in upholding rock 'n' roll cliché. They could play reasonably well, but they stuck to standard noisy, thrashy hard rock, the kind of stuff Led Zeppelin and The Who did much better once upon a time. They were big fans of their feedback to a point of excess.

[Think No Think at Hotel Vegas.]

Golden Dawn Arkestra: This Austin band is apparently unrelated to the original 1960s Austin psychedelic band The Golden Dawn. They are, however, definitely psychedelic, but in a much, much funkier sense. I guess this is what is known as Afrobeat. This was some sort of really out-there, high-energy, post-apocalyptic, semi-mystical experience. I think there were fourteen people on stage, but it was hard to tell who counts as a member among the many people that were performing music, dancing on stage, and dancing through the audience. Everyone was dressed in some sort of cosmic outfit, there were props, there was a lot of percussion, and I think there was a heavy dose of Sun Ra influence. There were horns, there were hints of reggae, there was rhythm, and there was a lot of funk. There was also a lot of singing about unity and visions and awakening. It was great.

[Golden Dawn Arkestra at Hotel Vegas.]

Holy Wave: An El Paso psych band. These guys were very much in the traditional vein of psych rock, with hippy hair and looks to prove it. Their music was fairly straightforward but easy to enjoy. Their guitarist somehow managed to break two strings in rapid succession, which put a bit of a damper on their energy level.

[Holy Wave at Hotel Vegas.]

Merchandise: By now this band is an established favorite of mine. I can't get enough of their blend of Chameleons-style ethereality, quasi-industrial noise, and pop hooks. I was surprised to hear they were playing SXSW again, but I wasn't about to complain. Here's their setlist:

1. No You and Me
2. Little Killer
3. Green Lady
4. Anxiety's Door
5. Long noisy jam with unknown special guest

[Merchandise at Hotel Vegas.]

I still can't really figure out what was going on at the end. They started with a relatively weak song and then played three really awesome songs, so they were on a good path. But then they said they wanted to do something "special", so they brought out a guest and started some sort of dark, noisy jam. I can't even tell what the guest was doing – he was just holding some little device in his hands. Guitarist Dave Vassalotti spent most of the jam crouched down by his effects pedals, and although I couldn't see him, I think I could hear his instrument. The whole thing was very self-indulgent. At least the rest of the set had something going for it, even if Carson Cox's vocals had too much reverb and they used backing tracks in the absence of guitarist/keyboardist Chris Horn.

[Merchandise again. Who is that guy in black!?]

Moon Duo: This duo plus drummer psych/shoegaze band hail from San Francisco. They make a great space with the synth and drums, and the guitarist solos beautifully on top. There are vocals, too, but it's more likely that the listener will end up hypnotized by the music than told any sort of story. It did start to drag a tad, but on the whole I found it rather entrancing.

[Moon Duo at Hotel Vegas.]

Songhoy Blues: This is a Malian "desert rock" group, exiled from troubled Timbuktu but apparently making big waves (they are the first African band signed to Atlantic since 1972!). I've reviewed other Malian bands that played major festivals in Austin (Imarhan Timbuktu at SXSW 2014 and Bombino at Austin Psych Fest 2014), and they've all taken different approaches, all rather successfully. Songhoy Blues, though, might just be the best band I've seen yet from Mali. Their style was very funky, very danceable, but also with a strong rock edge. The drummer was excellent, always offering energetic, syncopated rhythms; the bassist was really funky; the singer was charismatic and enthusiastic, even if I couldn't understand his lyrics; and the lead guitarist was simply on fire. He never slowed down! He just kept tearing it up, constantly playing amazing lines of lead guitar. It was an incredible experience to behold.

[Songhoy Blues at Hotel Vegas.]

The Pop Group: Well known as the furthest thing from an actual pop group, I'm not even sure how I feel about them as a studio band. I bought Y in London in 2009 after years of hunting for it (it's never been released in the USA), but it's a bizarre album. They had three amazing singles, a few scattered other notable tracks, and a lot of extreme experimentation that wasn't always very successful or listenable, and then they broke up. Their new, post-reunion album (Citizen Zombie) has a few decent moments but is mostly not very good. I'd heard that they were best seen live, so when I saw a chance to do so, I wasn't going to pass it up. Sure enough, they delivered. Here was the setlist:

1. We Are All Prostitutes
2. Citizen Zombie
3. Thief of Fire
4. Shadow Child
5. She Is Beyond Good and Evil (cut mid-song)

Unfortunately, the band took forever to set up and soundcheck, despite the intended rapid-fire schedule set by the venue. I couldn't tell exactly what was wrong and who was on stage making demands. It seemed like someone with the venue was trying to fix a microphone feedback issue, but I think there were band associates making various complaints and demands as well. At any rate, the band took forever (relatively speaking) to hit the stage. But when they did, they did it with full force. Five aging men turned into a lurching, jagged, aggressive mass of energy. They rocked with an incredible force, as if they were struggling to contain it. They walked a line of being too much, too far, of being just about to fall apart and shatter into pieces – but they held it together as if they were strong enough to form the chaos into music.

Bassist Dan Catsis was incredible, forming the foundation of the sound with hard, angular funk. Mark Stewart's vocals were somehow surprisingly clear, even despite the mess of a soundcheck (or maybe because of it!), and the words all made sense, conveying a terrible feeling of socio-political frustration. "Thief of Fire" was a performance like I'd never seen before: brimming over, at the edge, barely contained. Even the new songs soared far above their studio counterparts. "She Is Beyond Good and Evil" was about to transcend space and time, but then suddenly the stage went dark and all sound was cut. The drums stuttered to a halt. Stewart, clearly enraged at the indignity, yelled at the sound crew to at least let them have a closing word with the audience, but the sound was not restored. Instead, spitefully, over the PA came Roy Orbison's "It's Over". Other attendees have suggested that they blew the circuit and lost power, but I am suspicious that an active role was taken by the venue.

[The Pop Group at Hotel Vegas.]

Gang of Four: The Pop Group and Gang of Four make a great double-billing: two pioneering post-punk groups with extreme political bents; sharp, angular, and funky instrumentation; and careers that rose and fell in just a couple years. While The Pop Group never reunited between their 1981 breakup and their reformation in 2010, and their membership has hardly changed over those two periods, Gang of Four have had a much more complicated history. After hemorrhaging members and quality in the early 80s, the two remaining members (vocalist Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill) have periodically revived the band with various lineups from then until now. They managed to reunite the original lineup in 2004, but this only lasted until 2006. In 2012, even King left, but Gill refused to let the band go and has still carried on, now with a replacement singer, John Sterry.

Sterry might not be King, but at least he can approximate the vocals reasonably well. Gill still plays his guitar deftly, but the whole thing looked and sounded a bit odd. Bassist Thomas McNeice and drummer Jonny Finnegan are reasonably good musicians, but one can't but notice that Gill is quite a bit older than the other members, and he seems out of place in his own band. Gill, Sterry, and McNeice kept shuffling their positions on stage and trading microphones, and bizarrely, it appeared that Gill was repeatedly pushing Sterry around. One gets the impression all is not well and cordial within the band. It doesn't help that Gill wears a constant grimacing expression of scorn.

The performance was fairly good, but the newer songs are conspicuously of lower quality than the older ones. "To Hell with Poverty!" was a highlight of the set, but "Anthrax" came out a little weird. Gill and Sterry attempted to recreate the asynchronous dual-vocal parts of the studio version, but Gill's spoken part came out choppy and inconsistent. I guess it sort of worked, as far as reinforcing the disaffection and disillusion of the song, but it certainly didn't turn out as well as the studio version. Here's the full setlist:

1. Where the Nightingale Sings
2. Not Great Men
3. I Parade Myself
4. Anthrax
5. Stranded
6. Damaged Goods
7. To Hell with Poverty!

[Gang of Four at Hotel Vegas. Gill's sneer is partially obscured by the microphone silhouette.]

Scores:
Think No Think: D
Golden Dawn Arkestra: A
Holy Wave: B
Merchandise: C-
Moon Duo: B
Songhoy Blues: A
The Pop Group: A-
Gang of Four: B-

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 3, Part 1

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 3: Pitchfork Day Party
Venue: Mohawk
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 19 March 2015

Introduction: I'm going to split this day into two parts for two reasons. First, it was a very long day, and second, I spent it all at two events/venues that nicely divide the day into two halves. The first part of the day, i.e. all afternoon, I spent at Pitchfork's day party at the Mohawk. Say what you will about Pitchfork (and there is plenty to be said!), they get some things right, and one of them was their lineup for this event. I couldn't resist, especially since I rather like the venue.

When I first showed up about fifteen minutes before the first band hit the stage, the line wrapped around about two blocks. I modestly walked to the end and resolved to just suffer through it. After my failures last year involving waiting in long lines for day parties (see here and here), I decided to just be patient and deal with it. I figured it was earlier in the day than when I'd tried getting into unofficial events last year, and the doors had only just opened. Thankfully, my patience was rewarded: I made it in just after the bands started playing.

First up for me was Hundred Waters on the outside stage. Yes, I saw them last year at SXSW, but since I've missed them on two other occasions, I really wanted to see them again. Here's their setlist:

01. Out Alee
02. Cavity
03. Murmurs
04. Show Me Love
05. Xtalk
06. Down from the Rafters
07. [Animal]

While I was disappointed that they didn't play anything off of their debut album, they mostly picked the best songs off their second album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell, and they even managed to take the worst song on the album, "[Animal]", and make it way better. Trayer Tryon's live bass made a big difference, and they quite successfully brought the song to a big crescendo to close their set. I wish they'd use more live (i.e. non-electronic) instrumentation like that, as it was the blend of acoustic and electronic that first drew my attention to the group. Nonetheless, the live drumming is great, and the music noticeably improved whenever Nicole Miglis played keyboard parts. It was amazing to watch her play tricky parts without even looking. She took "Show Me Love", previously an a capella song, and accompanied it with a beautiful, cascading piano part. (A similar version appears on their new remix album.) "Down from the Rafters" was also performed in a rearranged manner, mixing up the sections of the song and adding several new sounds. I think the band's willingness to continually grow their songs and their sound makes them stand out all the more.

[Hundred Waters at Mohawk.]

Next up was Alvvays on the outside stage. I don't know where this band came from, but they seem to already have quite a following. I thought their music was pleasant but a little lightweight. They have good pop hooks married to a basic indie rock sound, and they seem to have an aversion to abrasion. They just let the music flow along. It was enjoyable even if not transcendent. Their setlist has been posted online:

1. The Agency Group
2. Next of Kin
3. Your Type
4. Atop a Cake
5. New Haircut
6. Dives
7. Adult Diversion
8. Party Police
9. Archie, Marry Me

[Alvvays at Mohawk.]

Then came Will Butler of Arcade Fire on the outside stage. He brings a lot of enthusiasm and energy, but not a lot of nuance, which is a bit ironic considering his role as a multi-instrumentalist and embellisher in Arcade Fire. The big surprise was that his lyrics are pretty good – which you wouldn't know from his main project, since the words are usually dominated by his brother Win and Win's partner Régine Chassagne. Will's vocals might be merely decent, but they were enhanced by a crew of three women singers, two of which also contributed keyboards. The result was something of a classic 50s/60s rock 'n' roll rave-up style. Every song was upbeat! The downside to this style was a tendency to take one hook and abuse it just past the line of being annoying. His setlist is available online:

1. Son of God
2. Surrender
3. Anna
4. Something's Coming
5. What I Want
6. Take My Side

[Will Butler at Mohawk.]

Fourth on the outside stage was Title Fight. I had a hard time figuring them out. I'd heard that they were a hardcore band experimenting with shoegaze, but in concert they leaned heavily on the hardcore/emo/punk side and only barely dipped into the shoegaze side. When they did venture out, it worked, and they might one day find some interesting ground there. But most of the time, they kept to a generic, thrashy, intense corner of sound. Highlights were the introduction to the second song ("This is another song about foliage") and the guitarist's Siouxsie shirt.

[Title Fight at Mohawk. Note spraying bottle of water and plastic cup captured in mid-air!]

I then moved inside to catch Twerps, an Australian indie rock group. They split vocal duties between some sort of stoner bro guitarist and a rather unemotive woman guitarist/keyboardist. They gave off a laid back vibe, and even if their music wasn't very exciting, they did manage to reach some good places, which they were smart enough to hold on to for a long time, but not too long. It was just enough that they never got annoying. I caught a few snatches of great lyrics, such as the first lines they sung: "Are you wise enough to be in this bar? / Are you cool enough to be with the stars?"

[Twerps at Mohawk.]

Last up on the inside was DJ Windows 98, also known as Win Butler of Arcade Fire. He came out in a bandana face mask along with two Haitian drummers. Win started DJing Haitian music with his laptop and soundboard while the drummers drummed. After the first song, a man in a gold bodysuit joined the crew, but I was never able to figure out exactly what he was contributing (or who he was). About halfway into the set, Win switched over to more mainstream American pop and hip-hop. The first part was great – there was a welcoming party vibe, and the percussionists were putting down great beats. But when the music transitioned, so did the quality level. The tunes weren't as good, the vibe changed to a generic club feel, and the drummers didn't really have as much to contribute. The highlight for the crowd appeared to be a mashup of Beck's "Loser" with Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" (which can be heard online). I don't think I understand live DJ sets.

[DJ Windows 98 at Mohawk. The man in the gold suit is not pictured here. Sorry.]

Scores
:
Hundred Waters: A-
Alvvays: B
Will Butler: C+
Title Fight: D
Twerps: B
DJ Windows 98: C+

P.S. Videos of songs from Hundred Waters, Alvvays, and Title Fight have been posted by Pitchfork.

[Edit 2015.03.25:] P.P.S. Footage of Twerps and DJ Windows 98 is now also available at Pitchfork, also featuring a photo with that guy in the gold suit.

[Edit 2015.03.28:] P.P.P.S. Footage of Will Butler can now also be seen at Pitchfork.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 2

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 2
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 18 March 2015

Introduction: I worked during the day, but managed to get out and see a few bands in the evening before it got too late. I also met up with a friend midway through, so I prioritized socializing over trying to squeeze showcases into every spare minute.

Talk in Tongues (at Cheer Up Charlie's): I love this venue so much that I couldn't resist the opportunity to start my evening there. Thankfully, I had a reasonably good excuse in the form of this shoegazer quintet. They opened with a Ride-style song with great three-part vocals, but no other song quite lived up to that level. In fact, their vocals were usually quite difficult to understand. On the other hand, their musicianship was great – when they felt like bringing it. Some songs got lost in a vague haze, but they really rocked when they broke out into something bigger. Their bassist put down some good grooves that helped keep them afloat.

[Talk in Tongues at Cheer Up Charlie's.]

Mai Dhai (at the Victorian Room at the Driskill Hotel): Somehow this moderately-sized event space at the oldest and most prestigious hotel in Austin was home to a Pakistani showcase on this evening. I couldn't tell you much about Mai Dhai other than that she sings traditional songs and plays a hand drum along with two additional hand drummers and a hand-pumped harmonium player. The four musicians wore elaborate dress and serious expressions. I found myself rather hypnotized by the complex beats, and amazed that the percussionists would throw in a sudden accent or alternate part in simultaneous coordination with no apparent warning or signal. Although the spoken language was obviously not one I could understand, I also felt that there was a rhythmic or melodic language that was outside of my awareness. Mai Dhai's vocal and the pump organ followed melodies that I found unpredictable and unrestrained by patterns that I was familiar with. I was fascinated initially, but I'll admit I gradually began to find the wandering lines of music a little droning and repetitive.

[Mai Dhai at the Driskill Victorian Room.]

Mother Falcon (at Bethel Hall at St. David's Episcopal Church): The local Austin band performed as a twelve-piece in a modern church hall. It was hard to keep track of who was playing what, as the band's members all play multiple instruments and many members share the microphones. In fact, I'm not even sure I know the names of all the instruments they played! Apart from the standard array of classical and electric rock instruments, I believe there was also a bouzouki. Most or all of the members struck me as trained musicians, i.e. music school students or graduates. I guess this is a sort of classical ensemble, but there was a clear indie rock influence. They struck me as more like post-rock (if that term wasn't already taken for something else), post-indie, post-classical... post-something. I think the difficulty of attaching a label and their talent at arranging complex and diverse material meant that it was a very fun and compelling show to watch. They might take themselves a little too seriously, but at least they were able to joke about that fact.

[Mother Falcon at St. David's Bethel Hall. Apologies for the blurry shot. Note that the drummer is not visible.]

At this point I took a break and met up with my friend. We went to Stubb's and caught the last few minutes of a set by Stromae, a Belgian pop star. It didn't seem up my alley, but his vocals sounded great. What we were really there for, though, was TV on the Radio. I've wanted to see them for a long, long time. Back in 2004, when they toured with The Faint and Beep Beep, I was excited to see them in Lawrence, Kansas. But for some reason, on that one night of the tour, only Beep Beep opened. TV on the Radio wasn't on the bill. I still don't know what the story was. At any rate, now that they are big and famous, I finally got my chance to see them. Someone even already put the setlist online:

01. Young Liars
02. Lazerray
03. Golden Age
04. Happy Idiot
05. Could You
06. Wolf Like Me
07. Love Dog
08. Province
09. Winter
10. DLZ
11. Trouble

Unlike most SXSW showcases, TVOTR got a full hour to perform, and they made full use of it. The four primary members were augmented by two touring members, meaning there was quite a bit of space for instrumental complexity. However, I was surprised at how rhythmically uncomplex the music was. They really focused more on atmosphere and vocals. While vocal work was strong, and I really like the very different sound of their multiple vocalists, the atmospheres were a more mixed bag: sometimes great, but sometimes dull. Too many songs felt static and stuck in one place. Often, though, the occasional little touches and punctuation of lead guitar, keyboards, and trombone helped make it interesting.

[TV on the Radio at Stubb's. Yes, I know it's hard to see.]

Scores:
Talk in Tongues: B+
Mai Dhai: B-
Mother Falcon: A-
TV on the Radio: B+

Thursday, March 19, 2015

South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 1

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 1
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 17 March 2015

Introduction: After how exhausted I was after SXSW last year, I wasn't immediately sure I wanted to go again. But as soon as the lineup announcements started coming, I knew there was no way I was going to say no this year! I bought a wristband as soon as they went on sale, so I got the early-bird $30 discount that I didn't know about last year.

For my first day at the festival, I figured I would just check out a couple bands and make it an early night. It might not have been a big, exciting day for me, but I was pleasantly surprised to run into Fally from I Heart Local Music! Considering how few people I really know in Austin, I could hardly believe that I could run into a friend on the street.

Fotogramas (at Icenhauer's): I was really excited about this Chilean shoegaze/indie band based on their great song "Algo", but seeing them live, it was as if they were an entirely different band. The singer/rhythm guitarist was in decent form, and the bassist was solid, but the lead guitarist was low in the mix and rather unspectacular. The atmospherics and big sound that I was expecting were replaced with steady, unceasing guitar chords and bits of ineffectual lead parts. Even worse was the drummer: he couldn't hold a beat. He certainly tried to pull out a number of rhythms, but they regularly failed, and I'm surprised some of his more obvious mistakes didn't throw off the rest of the group. Tellingly, the recorded version of "Algo" featured a drum machine.

[Fotogramas at Icenhauer's.]

Marineros (at Icenhauer's): I didn't have any big expectations for this two-woman pop duo from Chile, and when they struggled with sound problems for 15 minutes, things weren't looking good. But once they started their set in earnest, I was immediately eased into enjoying their honed skill. Although they relied on rather unexciting preprogrammed backing music, the guitarist's tasteful style kept me entranced. She had an amazing ability to get the most out of a few simple effects without letting them overwhelm her sound. Her parts fit the grooves perfectly, and it was a thrill to see her break into a bigger riff when the songs demanded it. She took a single solo that was executed perfectly. The other member did most of the vocals, and while she was also talented, the highlight was when both members sang in harmony. Their tunes might not be complicated or revolutionary, but their effortless abilities had me hooked.

[Marineros at Icenhauer's.]

Dead Leaf Echo (at Cheer Up Charlie's): This band seems almost too deliberately caught in the mold of My Bloody Valentine. While I love the sound of heavy, driving, spaced-out shoegaze, I couldn't help but feel like they were copying the classics a little too closely. Nonetheless, the ethereal vocals of the singers fit in just right with the thick guitars. They had the texture down to a science. For some reason, they were playing at a deafening volume; yet again, a classic shoegaze cliché.

[Dead Leaf Echo at Cheer Up Charlie's.]

Scores:
Fotogramas: D
Marineros: B+
Dead Leaf Echo: B

P.S. Cheer Up Charlie's is apparently the first place in Austin to carry Club-Mate. I had no idea it was even available in the US! I haven't had it since I left Germany almost five years ago. What a treat!