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.

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