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 biked 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!

[Edit 2015.04.26:] P.P.P.S. An incomplete setlist for Swervedriver has been posted here:
1. Autodidact
2. For Seeking Heat
3. Setting Sun
4. Rave Down
5. These Times
6. For a Day Like Tomorrow
7. Last Train to Satansville
8. Everso
9. Duel

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