Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 4
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 18 March 2016
Date: 18 March 2016
Introduction: Friday started off fairly slow for me, but the respite was welcome. Unfortunately, later in the evening, storms settled over Austin and caused many outdoor events to get canceled. The weather cleared up quickly, and some events were simply rescheduled later into the night, but others were simply dropped.
My morning included a stop by one of my favorite Austin establishments, a single building housing Sweet Ritual (a vegan ice cream parlor), a JuiceLand, and Exploded Records. At the latter, Ian Fisher was scheduled to do an in-store performance to be broadcast via dublab. He did another solo acoustic set and promoted his new album, Nero. He focused almost exclusively on songs from the new album, including the rarely-performed "Too Bad". Presumably, the performance should become available in the dublab archives soon. [Edit 2016.04.24: See here.]
Here's the setlist:
2. Invisible Cities
3. All Ya Need
4. Too Bad
5. You're the One
6. Constant Vacation
7. Comin' Down
8. Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin
The next band to appear in the record store was Faust, and appropriately enough, two of their members arrived while Ian was performing "Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin". However, it appeared that they were there only to discuss, not to perform. Although I had to depart, I'd be curious to hear the recording if it too becomes available in the dublab archives.
Later that afternoon, I returned to the Urban Outfitters Space 24 Twenty to see Eleanor Friedberger, one half of Fiery Furnaces. She was backed by four rather young-looking men and together they produced some solid indie rock jams. The music was good if unspectacular, and in stark contrast to the fast-paced rollercoaster ride of her previous band, it actually suffered a bit from monotony. I suspected that the lyrics were probably a highlight of her work (as they were with the Furnaces), but the mix was such that I couldn't understand them. There seemed to be sound problems, and perhaps as a result, Friedberger and her band all seemed somewhat upset. The dark clouds looming in the sky probably didn't help, and she may have been annoyed that the crowd hardly responded when she mentioned that she used to live in a dorm across the street (at the University of Texas) and her then-boyfriend lived around the corner.
Despite the darkening of the skies, I decided to head east to see a set by Mitski. The buzz surrounding her has been getting louder, and I liked what I heard in advance, but I had missed several opportunities to see her already. I didn't want to miss another, and so I took my bike several miles past the downtown core of the city into a very residential neighborhood in East Austin. I was looking for the Portals showcase, a semi-official event being held at a place called Pen. It turned out to literally be someone's (rather small) house. I eventually ended up standing in the kitchen with a row of knives just a couple feet away. The event was sponsored by Topo Chico, and sure enough, there were smashed and littered bottles all around the place. (Later, I realized that this was the same series that held an event at another random East Austin residential space called The Owl where I saw Hundred Waters two years ago.)
When I initially squeezed inside, I realized that things were running late and Your Friend (whom I had seen the previous afternoon) was playing. There was no stage and a rather minimal sound system, leaving the band to play semi-acoustically. This was actually the exact opposite of what they'd been forced into the day before at Cheer Up Charlie's, so it was an interesting variation. Their sound was much sparser and spacey. They only had room for a tiny drumkit, and one member had to sit down on the floor to play his keyboard. The ethereal vibe was great, but unfortunately the sound quality was not.
They were followed by Morly, who opted to appear with just her acoustic guitar instead of her regular electric or electronic outfit. While I appreciated her flexibility and the speed with which she got ready to play (a welcome change for SXSW), her actual set merely consisted of four rather uncompelling singer-songwriter covers. The overcrowded space and poor acoustics did not do any favors.
Finally, next on the lineup was Mitski. She too performed without her normal band, but she managed to make the most of the mediocre situation with her adept electric guitar work and genuinely strong presence. I really liked the thick and chunky tone she wielded with her guitar, and she at least managed to get something of a groove going.
As her set drew to close, I could see lightening and a nefarious color in the sky. Not wanting to get stuck in a semi-dilapidated house miles away from any part of town I was familiar with, I ran to my bike and pedaled as fast as I could back downtown. I made it to the relatively new Antone's on Fifth Street just as the rain started to fall. I'd hoped to get in to see George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, but the venue was already at capacity and there was a lengthy line on top of that.
It was about at this time that SXSW started canceling many of the outdoor events for the evening as the storms got worse. I took shelter with a friend at Tellers. I made it in while Growl was in the middle of making some fairly basic but decent rock. For whatever reason, the music was really loud and the vocals were not. They seemed young, and they had some punky charm, but their sound was rather generic.
After them came Small Houses, who took a while to soundcheck as a full band and yet initially appeared only as a solo acoustic performer. The singer had a very unusual voice, such that if he used it right, it sounded unique and captivating, but most of the time it was a bit grating. The room seemed to overpower him, and while he displayed mild annoyance at the audience's ambivalence, it wasn't until halfway through the set that he brought the rest of the band up. Suddenly the crowd snapped to attention as the music noticeably improved. They worked in a kind of Americana style with some nice slide guitar and bass parts. The vocals were still weird, but less so, and the inclusion of backing vocalists helped a lot. They closed with a cover of Neil Young's "Cortez the Killer", which seemed like a terrible choice, not because it's a bad song, but in that it is very long and any cover during a 40-minute showcase represents a lost opportunity to make a meaningful impression on the audience.
The highlight of the lineup at Tellers was the Great American Canyon Band, whom I had seen the day before in a more stripped-down setting. While they may have lost a hint of the haunting mood that I liked the first time, they gained plenty in the fullness of their sound. It was almost a more aggressive approach, and the addition of the bass certainly rounded it out. The reverb-laden lead guitar and the strong vocals remained highlights. On the whole, it was a rather different affair, and I'm hard-pressed to decide which version was better.
[Great American Canyon Band.]
I was ready to strike out for a different venue, but I was having trouble deciding where to go, and the confusion caused by the storms made it difficult to be sure what was happening when and where. The weather was already clearing up, and some events that had been canceled were back on track. For lack of a better plan, I followed another friend's lead and ended up seeing the end of a set from DJ Dodger Stadium on the Easy Tiger patio. I'll admit I don't know anything about house music, and while I found the experience fascinating, I did not find it engaging. It was also incredibly loud, but that may have just been caused by standing two feet from a massive speaker.
From there we ended up at Stubb's, where the newly reconfigured Crystal Castles were underway. Neither I nor my friend were particularly impressed by the recent antics of Ethan Kath and his disparaging comments about former collaborator Alice Glass, and our skepticism was not unfounded. I liked the presence of a live drummer, but new hire Edith Frances appeared to be an unsubtle stand-in for Glass. Right as I was leaving, they stormed off the stage and stopped the set prematurely.
I had been particularly interested in seeing Barry Adamson, one of my favorite bassists with groups like Magazine, Visage, and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, but he was scheduled to play at 1am and I was already exhausted. (At least the Austin Chronicle covered the show.) I went home and fought the wind the whole way.
Eleanor Friedberger: B-
Your Friend: B+
Small Houses: C+
Great American Canyon Band: B+
P.S. Again, I think the conflict of interest with Ian is too high for me to be comfortable assigning a score. (It probably goes without saying that I think his music is excellent.) I also don't think I saw enough of DJ Dodger Stadium or Crystal Castles to fairly assign a score.
P.P.S. Thanks to Ian, Ben, and Jacob for making the day worthwhile!