Photos by Rob Hakimian
If I’ve learned anything at SXSW it’s that when you’re onto a good thing you should stick with it. Thursday for me had been a fairly unsuccessful day of trying to bounce around between shows, as I ended up running into huge lines at every place I tried to enter. Friday was the exact opposite as there were a few showcases that beheld a string of bands consecutively that I wanted to check out. So I could stay in one place and soak up the atmosphere. And of course my feet appreciated that too.
It was an early start for the We Listen For You show at Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, a small plot of land a little way off the beaten track with no advertising, no crowds and no clues as to who would be playing. Everyone sat on lawn chairs and amidst an overcast sky and sat patiently, unsure what to expect. The first artist to take the stage was Scott Kirkpatrick aka Bro. Stephen, who just released his debut album Baptist Girls. Joined by another of We Listen For You’s favourite new folk acts, Cheyenne Marie Mize, he gently lulled the crowd into a hush as he delivered several of his finest Microphones-lite songs. It’s hard to make a grey day beautiful, but the peace that settled over the lot during his 15 minutes was one of the moments that has most resonated with me at this festival.
That peace was quickly undone by Brooklyn punk band Radical Dads. Usually a punk band, this trio seemed to enjoy the challenge of transforming their sound into something more suitable for the setting. Even with one drum and two acoustic guitars the band the band managed to keep their peppy sound and undoubtedly woke up anyone who might have been drifting into a nice dream following Bro. Stephen’s set.
Conveyor’s brand of off-the-wall indie rock is one that sounds fantastic when well-produced on record, but I was unsure how it would translate live, especially in a stripped down setting like this. My fears were quickly allayed as the band, set up in a line across the stage, appeared not only confident but entirely comfortable with the situation. The harmonies between the foursome were even more astounding with less going on around them musically, and the songs were as powerful as ever. The Brooklynites also showed the best piece of innovation of the day, replacing the weird sounds that are usually made by a synthesizer by holding up cell phones to the microphones and receiving feedback of an oddly pleasing quality in return. In fact, so impressive were they that I decided to go see them again later in the day, and I wasn’t the only one.
Todd Goldstein (ARMS)
ARMS frontman Todd Goldstein was next to the stage and despite lacking the rest of his bandmates for the set, the performance did not lose any punch. Playing from ARMS’ recently released debut Summer Skills the man’s delivery made the lyrics seem as personal as ever, with the closing “Heat & Hot Water” going down as possibly the most intense performance of the entire show.
The Henry Clay People
Dent May’s music is made for the summertime, so a breezy day under an overcast sky wasn’t exactly the ideal time to see him play. However May and his band brought the summer vibes with their performance, playing cuts from his upcoming album Do Things. His laidback approach was reciprocated by everyone lounging in their deck chairs in pure satisfaction. A special mention has to go to his bassist who’s mere appearance suggested fun times. And his bass playing wasn’t half bad either.
Miracles of Modern Science
I’ve been wanting to see Miracles of Modern Science for a long time now. I’ve enjoyed their music since they released their debut EP a few years ago, and enjoyment turned to love when they released Dog Days at the end of last year. Setting up as a quartet, comprising of drums, mandolin, violin and their double-bass playing lead vocalist Evan Younger, the band hurtled through a set of many of the finest cuts from their album. Completely throwing themselves into their performances, the band played with zero abandon, and Younger’s powerful vocals were pitch-perfect throughout. The band showed a level of polish that I hadn’t expected either, moving smoothly from “Friend of the Animals” into “Space Chopper,” and they had no trouble seamlessly adding an extra song to their set to fill up some spare time before the next act. I’m of the opinion that nobody can dislike Miracles of Modern Science, and I’m convinced that everyone in the lot was converted by this astounding performance.
Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal)
The genius of We Listen For You’s show was that he hadn’t announced anybody on the lineup at all. Before the bands took to the stage, nobody knew what was coming next. This was a great opportunity for him (We Listen For You’s Zach Hart) to show off several of the bands he’s been championing over the last year or so, and every single one stepped up to the plate and delivered on their promise. These performances had already more than rewarded all in attendance, but I suppose the ultimate reward was the surprise star arrival, Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes.
Sipping on coffee, Barnes commented that he’d just woken up, but his typically immaculate attire suggested otherwise. Starting off in a relatively muted manner, Barnes played a strangely re-arranged for acoustic guitar version of “Suffer For Fashion” to begin with. He followed this up with a couple of covers including a rather spellbinding performance of Morrissey’s “Every Day Feels Like Sunday.” One strange moment occurred when Barnes started messing around on guitar and as we all expected him to move into a song he abruptly stopped and admitted “I could do that all day”; it was a strangely endearing moment that added credence to his claims of tiredness. However, by the time he came to the concluding “She’s A Rejector” those cobwebs had been brushed away as he knocked it out of the park, hitting the chorus’s high notes pitch-perfectly.
And like that, he was gone, whisked downtown to play another show. It was something of a surreal moment, but the exact kind of thing that I’d hoped to experience at SXSW. In fact the whole show seemed out of step with the rest of this year’s festival, seemingly taking it back more towards its roots with the bands seeming pleased rather than stressed, and happy to hang around and talk with the audience members after. Of all the things I’ve experienced this week, I think these joy-packed few hours will live longest in the memory.
Next it was back into the center of town to catch the Anti- Records showcase at Speakeasy. I had only intended to see Lost In The Trees, but I’m over the moon that I arrived early and saw the majority of Glen Hansard’s set beforehand. The man is a captivating presence, throwing as much soul and earnestness into his music as I’m likely to see this week. He was joined onstage by saxophonist Jay Clemmons (nephew of “Big Man” Clarence) who mirrored his passion and added more fire to the songs. The crowd for the show also deserves a mention for being the most “normal show”-like group of the whole festival. By that I mean that they weren’t stand-offish, everyone was entirely focused on the performance, and everyone was happy to join in singing along. The set culminated in a perfect moment as Hansard sung an acappella number in dedication to his father who had passed away on this day some years ago. Towards the end of the song Hansard ordered a shot of Jameson from the bar (noting that “they always give it to you free if you order from the stage”) and ending up with two. Rather than taking both himself, he shared with Jay in a heartwarming moment for all in attendance.
Lost in the Trees
Off the bat, I just want to say that Lost in the Trees’ new album A Church That Fits Our Needs is stunning, so going into SXSW they were one of the bands I was most excited to see. And I’m glad to say they definitely did not disappoint. The sextet used an array of instruments from your regular guitar, to violin, to cello, to autoharp, to French horn, to tuba, in order to bring their epic folk to life. Possibly the most impressive instrument though was the use of voice. Singer Ari Picker’s fragile vocals brought the delicate lyrics to life, but I was stunned by the additional vocals of Emma Nadeau and Jenavieve Varga whose wordless chimings added an eerie atmosphere to the performance. Most impressively the band seemed entirely in tune with each other, having no trouble in reproducing the multi-faceted songs on the stage, the smiles radiating from the stage were also a pleasure to behold. Altogether these elements cmbined to confirm Lost in the Trees as one of the most talented bands currently making music, and certainly a band who should see an exponential rise in popularity this year.
The next stop was Uncorked Wine Store for the show being put on by The Wild Honey Pie and Paper Garden Records. In the intimate and homely back porch everyone sat under golden glowing bulbs as bands took to the stage, and every single one of them mentioned how beautiful the venue was.
The first band that I had the fortune to catch was Lucius. The quintet dressed in matching outfits, which put me off them to begin with, however not only were they in tune with each other fashion-wise, but more importantly musically too. Bringing their ultra-upbeat rousing pop rock to the stage they really brought the party. The two girls leading the charge danced non stop throughout, and if they hadn’t had to be on stage to sing into the microphones I’m sure they would have danced their way around the garden enlivening everyone. As it was, they did a damn good job of getting everyone pumped from the distance of the stage.
Conveyor’s full-band evening set was quite different to their morning stripped-down one. So much so that I didn’t even realize they were playing the same song to open the set as they had that morning until the vocals came in. The full band set up emphasized the weird and complex arrangements that their songs behold. Impressive once again were the vocals, specifically thos of singer Tim Masters, which were piercingly high and eerily beautiful, particularly in the song “Mukraker.” By giving us plenty of previews of their new material, Conveyor’s album has shot to the top end of my most anticipated of 2012.
If someone described Kishi Bashi to you they’d probably say he’s a violinist with looping pedals, which makes him easy to dismiss as another Owen Pallett or Andrew Bird sound-a-like, but that’s simply not the case. The garden had packed out just in time to see the man, and he had them all captivated from his first notes. Incorporating pop, beatboxing, classical and purely weird electronic effects Kishi Bashi put on the most intriguing and unique set that I’ve seen at SXSW. One minute he was bringing a party to the scene by layering and looping several beats (produced vocally) while the next he was indulging in a more classically-rooted song without vocals, layering his violin and altering its pitch to the point where it seemed like he was a one-man string quartet. The whole performance was transportitive, and although we were right by the highway it seemed like we were thousands of miles away in some remote European village enjoying being serenaded in a remote garden. The effect upon the audience was profound and Kishi Bashi was grinning from ear to ear throughout, thanking the audience profusely. Honestly, we should have been the ones thanking him for such a special performance. An Owen Pallett or Andrew Bird sound-a-like? No, he’s much more than that.
A few people have asked me over the course of the week what my favorite shows have been and after listing a few sets that I’ve really, unconditionally enjoyed (White Denim, Matthew Dear) I’d usually tell them that I haven’t yet stumbled into the perfect showcase. There’s so much going on simultaneously at SXSW, each showcase so incredibly diverse that just because you might like one band doesn’t guarantee you won’t hate the one after. I hadn’t quite felt completely satisfied with where I was standing at any given show knowing there’s millions of other amazing sets I might be missing that I don’t even know about. You have to take a few chances at SXSW if you want to find some great music.
I honestly had no idea what to do on Friday. I hadn’t seen enough electronic music this week, so decided to head over to Madison on 5th at 8pm where Sepalcure would be closing things out at midnight. Madison was the anti-SXSW venue. It was intimate, very cold, and if you’d added a dozen or so people with cigarettes to the gaudy velvet-covered, chandelier-regaled club, it might have been something out of classic noir. I was also sitting, essentially, on the stage for most of the night as well. Berlin folktronic artist, Touchy Mob opened things with maybe two dozen people in the room, which was kind of perfect. It was a great start to a showcase full of artists that more than surprised me. Touchy Mob was an unlikely mixture of Berlin minimal techno – crisp percussive loops bouncing between the speakers – and Four Tet’s glimmering textures with a singer-songwriter sensibility. Ludwig Plath has an excellent falsetto and he sticks to the track like a synth pop artist, varying between halting dance beats and more ambient electro-acoustic exercises.
The rest of the night continued with a number DJ sets beginning with Montreal producer, Jacques Greene. I’d heard the dude’s name in tandem with NightSlugs, but hadn’t had a chance catch him yet despite an appearance at Lustre Pearl on Wednesday. I started to get the sense that I might have been one of the few in the audience who hadn’t just wandered on in, but Greene’s full-steam-ahead house filled with enough woozy bass-informed R&B touches to keep the knees weak was enough to pull most of the Madison occupants back into the stage area, a wallflower dance party soon following. Greene also threw in a couple of seamless hip-hop burners for good measure, slowing the pace down from the constant 4/4 nod to a more bodied sway, and a remix of Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower” served to wind things down from the set’s peak. If you’re at SXSW on Saturday, I strongly recommend catching Greene at Barcelona.
Callum Wright aka D/R/U/G/S kind of the blew the doors off. The club attendees seemed more morbidly fascinated with the British producer’s rock chiseled tech house than exactly moved by it, leaving a gapping, semi-circle hole in front of the stage that had been at least sparsely populated during Greene’s time. It’s hard to blame them. The seismic measurement of Wright’s whiplash kick jumped pretty significantly from Green’s. Where the Canadian’s rhythms were jumpy enough to keep the dance floor aloft, D/R/U/G/S’ just buried themselves into the earth beneath ravenous bass synths, cheese grater organs, and oppressive, battered kick. The intensity levels weren’t equivalent to an artist like, say, Vitalic, but Wright brought a similarly confrontational and punk rock edge. Even a remix of Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Junes” couldn’t derail the through line of ribcage-collapsing heaviness. It was also kind of awesome how the dude just walked on stage, wrecked a set, then walked off without a word. There was now telling who he might have been other than a robotic voice intoning “D-R-U-G-S” during the set’s crumbling outro.
I was pretty happy to catch Gonzales after missing him at the Friends of Friends showcase a day earlier, and the Texan producer definitely offered up something pretty special in the midst of some high-energy house (though Gonzales made a momentary stop there part way through his set). We mostly got the rubbery, organic IDM from his most recent album, the excellent Natural Traits, but Gonzales’ approach was more abstracted and collage-y than the previous producers who bounced from one track to another. Gonzales somehow hand molded the gooey synths and puddling bass up from some chilled glitch-hop into more four-on-the-floor driven pulses with some quivering, gut-punching starts and stops, before heading back down again to a remix of Lapalux’s “Moments”.
By the time Manchester, UK duo, Ghosting Season, set up Madison had started to feel like it might turn back into SXSW again. Along with the usual laptops and pads, the duo had brought a couple of guitars with them as well as a violin bow and drum sticks. My instinct was to look on a little skeptically as these unities between laptops, MIDI pads, and guitars don’t always end well (unless you’re Ben Frost or Yellow Swans or something), but Ghosting Season were sublime. The set started out traditionally enough with some oil stained minimal tech, but before long drumsticks were banging along a pad and both Gavin Miller and Thomas Ragsdale were wielding guitars and strumming earnest power chords and tremolo melodies beneath a million years of delay continually crushed by the kick drum. The guitars sounded like mechanical waves continually crashing over and over, building in and out of cresting mountains, accompanying the machine rhythms and amniotic-colored synths. The whole thing was, essentially, post-rock minimal techno. Like if Fuck Buttons had listened to more Chain Reaction records.
Then Sepalcure performed. Madison had turned from fridge-cool lounge back into Texas sweat house as the room finally filled the hell up for Travis Stewart and Praveen Sharma’s genre-hopping bass music. I was especially excited because I had regrettably missed Travis Stewart’s Machinedrum set at Barcelona the night before. But, fuck, if the two New Yorkers didn’t put on a fantastic show. Madison turned quickly into a smelly, drink-laden dance party (one of my sleeves was soaked with beer by the end of the night). And none of that half-measure stuff from earlier. Sharma, especially, looked joyfully ecstatic, mouthing along with each track’s vocal samples between a think grin, eyes closed and throwing his hands up in triumph every time the beat punched back in out of a swamp of EQ trickery. At centerpiece moments like the clamped 4/4 stomp on “The One”, the melodic breakdown on “Pencil Pimp”, or the vocal sample (“mountains high and low!”) build-up on “Breezin” everyone in the place pretty much lost it and the duo wrung every drop of energy out of each, churning out rapid fire crescendos one measure after the other. The whole forty-minute set was breakneck enough that I pretty much stumbled out of Madison in a daze. But if I can analyze how the music plays in a live setting for a bit, the sophistication of each song’s structure and willingness to explore and change makes for an incredibly active live experience. Unlike the constant pound of earlier sets, here we got 2-step, jungle, juke, house, etc mixing and matching across single songs and if you’re along for the ride, it’s a hell of a workout. It was my last set of SXSW and easily my favorite.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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