Now that the dust has settled (literally; nobody returns from Austin without accidentally exporting a good handful of gold-toned Texas dirt) from this year’s SXSW Music Festival, we’re left with the headlines—Kanye! Foos! Tasers as indie-rock crowd control!—and the memories.
Of 2,000 bands, a mortal human can only conceivably see some small, smidgen-y percent. But even smidgens translate into dozens, and below, my L.A.-based colleague James Hibberd and I list our favorites outside the Kanye/Foos/taser axis.
(If you weren’t there but you want to fake it, iTunes also has its own dozens of digital-only live-performance EPs from this year’s festival, ranging from Ryan Bingham and Jessica Lea Mayfield to Glasser and Lucinda Williams, most for under $5; click here to view.)
I mean, I’m not exactly going out on a limb with this one; people talking about OF at this year’s fest was the new people talking about where the best free day-party booze is. And frankly, the L.A. hip-hop collective is not a remotely sure thing; an incendiary Thrasher party set (in which de facto leader Tyler the Creator broke a kid’s nose in a speaker-stack dive; kid subsequently seemed pretty stoked with his bloody badge of honor) and scene-stealing Woodies performance was just as likely as the 15-lackluster-minutes-and-a-walk-off they pulled in their headlining slot at the Billboard showcase.
Still, there’s something about their whole ethos—in a lot of ways, much closer to the ’90s hardcore/skate-punk scene than anything resembling modern commercial hip-hop—that felt fresh; little else in rap these days feels dangerous or spontaneous in the way Tyler and Co. do, even if all that swag stuff is just extremely smart guerrilla marketing.
No crazy game-changing here, just headily melodic, vaguely disco pop-sugar pastiche from L.A. major-label newbies (they recently signed to Columbia).Think sweetened-up MGMT hand-clap anthems—minus the pouts and the ponchos, plus a little Peter Bjorn & John whistle-break boogie. Now go stream “Houdini” and “Pumped Up Kicks” here.
Again, not breaking the barriers of new sound, but after days of overly-hyped letdowns (Yuck‘s Dino Jr. fuzz never gelled for me live; Twin Shadow similarly proved that alt-’80s imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, not mastery) these new Sub Pop signees felt like laying back in a patch of soft green grass (not beer-vomit-soaked dirt). The easy-like-Sunday-morning side of me that very much enjoys a straightforward, expertly-crafted folk-rock hook got what she wanted with TH&TH; of almost every new band I saw at the festival, these guys seemed the most ready for their “Tonight’s Saturday Night Live musical guest is…” closeup. Commercial? Absolutely; they’ve undoubtedly studied at the feet of current/former labelmates the Shins, Fleet Foxes, and Band of Horses. And clearly learned a lot.
Tune-Yards (a.k.a. tUnE-yArDs)
Back to weird, excellently. One-woman bedlam-generator Merrill Garbus’s loop-pedal-assisted, primally rhythmed chants and skronks were the sonic equivalent of a hidden-treasure junkyard jalopy: wildly torqued, possibly not street-legal, and never, in the best way, the same ride twice.
OK, I’m cheating on this one; I know he’s hardly new, and the “show” was actually me and about eight other bystanders (you are unchanged, Mr. Matt Pinfield!) on the sun porch at the MTV Hive house somewhere deep in the Austin suburbs. But the chance to see an artist I love while birds chirped and breezes blew and nobody threw a Sparks can at anybody’s head was kind of unbeatable. And even though I caught him again the next day with a full band (and without half of his just-stolen gear), preceding Philadelphia’s Tom-Waits-at-the-carnival pranksters Man Man at Auditorium Shores, watching him plink away all by himself on spare, heartbreaking versions of his “Jesus Fever” and “Baby’s Arms” was possibly the loveliest moment of the festival for me.
L.A.-based beach hippies may not have the most polished live act (they only formed last year), but their self-titled EP has one hook-filled song after another, and the bandmates have cute-appeal to spare. Fans of the Thrills will take to this outfit, whose upbeat songs like “Colours,” “Don’t Say Oh Well” and “Naked Kids” remind me of sunny, top-down convertible days in Southern California.
“We hate every f–king thing about this f–king venue,” declared Beach Fossils lead singer Dustin Payseur from the stage, dead serious. “This venue f–king sucks!” Well, not everybody can get a showcase at Stubb’s. Brooklyn’s Beach Fossils was stuck upstairs at Buffalo Billiards. The cause of the singer’s distress wasn’t evident to the crowd, and the situation only got worse when he broke a guitar string without having a backup ready. “Does anybody have a guitar we can use?” he asked, before taking a mid-set break to restring. That none of this actually mattered is a testament to the strength of the band’s songs and performance—their energetic surf-indie rock wowed the crowd.
One of the best things about SXSW is not the bands you plan to see, but the bands you happen to catch by accident. That was the case with roots rockers J-Roddy Walston and The Business, who commanded an intense set during Rachael Ray’s party at Stubb’s (say what you will about her TV show, Ray knows how to throw a live music showcase). The band has opened for acts like the Black Keys and the Hold Steady, and fans of both will find something to like here.
Another unexpected find: This Newcastle buzz band have been compared to Vampire Weekend and Mystery Jets, and is fronted by a high-pitched singer performing moody atmospheric pop songs. They’ve taken a unique approach to marketing: Crashing U.K. universities for quick impromptu mini-shows before running from security; thankfully nobody chased them from the SXSW stage during their first visit to the U.S.
Considered one of the best bands to come out of Austin in years, Black Joe Lewis has a garage-rock R&B sound— high-energy, brassy-horned, Southern-fried soul. The outfit is backed by Spoon drummer Jim Eno as producer, and anybody with a single called “Booty City” must be checked out.