With Lady Gaga and her bucking vomitron in my rearview, my personal goal for Friday at SXSW was to find some good old-fashioned, turned-to-11 rawk. I had already seen a lot of about-to-break indie, a handful of promising rappers, and one gigantic intergalactic pop star. Now it was time to find some volume.
Anybody who has read my tweets or been forced to sit outside my office for months at a time under the auspices of “work experience” (sorry, interns!) knows that I like things fast and loud, which often means in extreme metal. But punk, garage rock, prog – these are all things that will satisfy my jones, and I was determined to seek out as many opportunities to permanently damage my hearing as I could find.
The day opened at Stubb’s at the Spin magazine party, a tradition that stretches back more than a decade. This year’s bill featured a fine cross-section of indie rock and fringe rap, with a lineup that included Future, Cloud Nothings, Against Me!, and Schoolboy Q. But my main concern was Radkey, a group made up of three brothers (ages 16, 18, and 20) who grind out delightfully unhinged punk tunes that also owe a healthy bit to Reagan-era thrash. It’s grim-sounding but well-executed, and as soon as their songwriting evolves even a tiny bit, they are going to be dangerous.
The rest of the early afternoon at Stubb’s was nondescript, with neither the Orwells (a more muscular version of Mudhoney fronted by a guy with less charisma but way better hair) nor Temples (a slightly goth-flavored British psych combo) leaving much of an impression. Respect to Future Islands, though – their brand of best-case-scenario synth rock doesn’t always grab me, but they build grooves expertly and frontman Samuel Herring has a great way with banter.
After a brief interlude to interview former Blur and Gorillaz mastermind Damon Albarn (that conversation, about his upcoming solo debut Everyday Robots, will be in a future issue of EW), I found myself back on the path that led me to Austin’s famous Waterloo Records. I’m a sucker for local, independent music shops, so I made the pilgrimage west to check out the free shows they run in their parking lot during SXSW. The lineups are usually solid, and I arrived to discover something truly amazing: The next band up on the Waterloo stage were American Sharks, a local metal act I had heard some buzz about.
It was well-founded. American Sharks play exactly the kind of scuzzy, pounding, muscular dirtbag metal I’m always looking for. Not only did they grind out a series of jams from their excellent self-titled debut, bassist Mark Hardin also proved a dynamic frontman, riffing between songs about being mocked by his mom and constantly joking that the band was just getting warmed up.
It was pure self-deprecation, because the band’s sludgy, snappy riffs – especially the QOTSA-esque “Indian Man” and the manic “Overdrive” – were delivered with style and power. Extra points go to drummer Nick Cornetti, who played with the untethered intensity of a psychopath and stalked the stage around his drums in between songs. American Sharks are unlikely to have a pop moment, but they are a force to be reckoned with.
Next up was a Yahoo showcase headlined by Foxboro Hot Tubs, aka Green Day Plus A Couple Of Other Dudes. The band began as a dirtier, nuttier side project for the Green Day guys during their heavier American Idiot era, and they have continued as an occasional musical costume that lets them put their arena rock mandates aside and indulge in some sloppy fun. Wearing a top hat and looking vigorous, Billie Joe Armstrong used the intimacy of the setting (there could not have been more than 200 people in the space) and the chaotic nature of the songs to connect with an audience in ways he really isn’t allowed to anymore. The set included a handful of songs from Green Day’s ¡Dos!, which has been referred to by the band as the unofficial second Foxboro Hot Tubs album. Those songs – including “F— Time” and “Makeout Party” – gave the show its best jolts of adrenaline.
Opening the show was Emily’s Army, a wry pop-punk four piece from Oakland that happens to include Billie Joe Armstrong’s son Joey on drums. Their first album, 2011’s Don’t Be a Dick, was all teenage brattiness and third-generation punk angst. But they made a huge leap with the follow-up Lost At Seventeen, and their time on the road has shaped them into a far better-oiled machine than their youthful glow would suggest. They play with speed and abandon, and brothers Max and Cole Becker are gradually honing their co-frontman assault. The speedy, punchy “Kids Just Wanna Dance” was one of the purest bits of rock and roll abandon of all of SXSW.
But to truly get my ears ringing, I had to scale one last height. It turned out that was literal: Soundgarden (pictured above) played on the roof of a parking garage for a taping of Guitar Center Sessions, which airs on DirecTV. The slow trek up the ramps felt like a trial of some kind, as though everybody was going to have to earn the veteran Seattle band’s smoldering hunks of meaty riffage. They spent the night before at the iTunes Festival playing through their classic 1994 album Superunknown in its entirety (the album just hit its 20th anniversary and is getting a deluxe reissue later this year), though that must have been an odd show because the sequencing of that album is all over the map.
Freed from the shackles of that gimmick, the band stuck primarily to Superunknown material but also allowed themselves to drop in the big singles from the rest of their long career. So in addition to Superunknown, deep cuts like “Fresh Tendrils” (frontman Chris Cornell admitted he didn’t know what the word “tendril” meant when he wrote it) and the mostly instrumental “Half,” there was also “Outshined,” “Burden In My Hand,” and a brisk take on the newer single “Been Away Too Long.”
The Sub Pop-era nugget “Hunted Down” was a highlight, but despite the presence of the huge singles “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” the evening’s best moment came during the show-closing “Rusty Cage,” which oozed and lurched with sinister intentions. When it was over, bassist Ben Shepherd played around with his cabinet for nearly 10 minutes, unleashing a torrent of low-end gurgles that had people covering their ears. I let it wash over me knowing I had successfully melted my brain once again, and that Friday at SXSW was an unmitigated success.