Photos by Rob Hakimian
Day one of the music portion of South By Southwest is a little strange. Many music fans have not yet arrived for the festival while it also happens to be the final day of SXSWi – the interactive portion of the festival – so there’s a strange mix of the dedicated music bloggers and the dedicated tech experts. There’s also not quite as much music going on as there is in the rest of the week (this by no means means that there’s a shortage of things to see whatsoever, as you’ll see below) so day one is more of an acclimatizing day; a day to get your bearings, figure out whereabouts everything’s situated, and try to see some of your more anticipated acts before the real music crowd rolls into town.
– Rob Hakimian
First things first. I blame the millions of SXSW previews that forgot to remind me to charge my phone and bring my ID downtown with me. I had a little moment of panic when I opened my wallet to hand my driver’s license over to get my wristband only to see it gone. But an old college ID buried deep in there with my face as good as scratched off was apparently satisfactory. All the sunblock in the world couldn’t help me. In any case, when we arrived at the Mohawk it was double Xs on the hands for the first time in a long while.
The Mohawk is a pretty cool venue. The outdoor stage is surrounded by a patio/balcony thing that wraps right around next to the stage where the select few who push their way to the railing can look straight down at the performers. And the stage itself is tucked under a giant steely wedge. Bear Hands were up to bat as we arrived and we caught, maybe, the latter half of their set. I’d never heard of the Brooklyn 4-piece, but despite a long trek down 6th Street prior they were honestly the first thing to pull my attention off the sidewalk. The Mohawk crowd was more affable and relaxed than chomping at the bit for Bear Hand’s post-hardcore dub rock. Even a grinning marijuana shout-out only received a smattering of applause instead of the usual (eye-roll inducing) roar of approval. The venue’s energy was far from dead though. The crowd seemed more content to hang out and just let the group wash over them rather than get too involved. Bear Hand’s mixture of glassy, jagged guitar reverberation and careening synths certainly filled the place, punctuated by Dylan Rau’s energetic syncopated, speak-sing vocals.
The Strange Boys
At a festival like SXSW, which is now host to acts both brand new and long-running, you’re likely to see a big difference in the confidence and comfort of bands up on stage. However, I feel I’m unlikely to see a band as comfortable as The Strange Boys for the rest of the week. The guys hail from Austin, and if anyone didn’t know that before the show they quickly did as singer Ryan Sambol came onto the stage to mess around by himself on the keyboard and interact with the crowd while his brother Philip ran a few blocks home to grab something he’d forgotten. Where some people may have been panicked or been on edge, Ryan was comfortable and in his element, playing improvised little ditties and getting the opinions of the audience, which helped the time fly. When the rest of the band did finally appear, it turned out that Ryan’s confidence was equally prominent in his brother and the rest of the band members as they jovially played their way through a set that included mostly songs from throughout their discography. In the mid-afternoon sun with free beer flowing, there probably couldn’t have been a better band to passively watch, as most people in the audience were doing.
– Rob Hakimian
Following up The Strange Boys were White Denim – another band from Austin. The fact that the Mohawk was packed out despite this being White Denim’s fifth consecutive year playing SXSW says something about how the level of hometown support at South By Southwest, but it says even more about how brutally excellent White Denim are as a live band. In a 50-minute set, the band tore through several songs from their most recent album D plus some earlier material with barely any stops between songs. The crowd down the front was pumped and active from the get go, while wiping the smiles from the faces of singer James Petralli and guitarist Austin Jenkins would have been a nigh impossible task. The way the two guitarists egged each other on as they went careering through swathes of psychedelic solos was a joy to behold, as they grinned with happiness and grimaced with concentration almost simultaneously. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the excellent rhythm section of bassist Steve Terebecki and drummer Joshua Block. With the signal that they had 15 minutes left to go, the band set out anew to blow minds, rolling and tumbling into the next song, incorporating a fan request (“All I Really Want” – which gave Petralli his first chance to show off his glorious voice), and moving swiftly to the concluding “No Real Reason.” However, with this much momentum, White Denim were not going to be able to stop so with one glance around to his band mates and then a glance to the sound guy, Petralli guided his band smoothly into the true conclusion of “I Start To Run” without a pause between songs – an impressive moment to say the least. By the end of the set Petralli and Block’s shirts were soaked through with sweat, as were those of several audience members; a sign that a good show was had, if ever there was one.
– Rob Hakimian
White Denim is a band that has slowly trickled onto my radar over the past year or so, but I’m still as ignorant as ever regarding their discography. I’m kind of glad I had a chance to go in fresh to the quartet’s fiery live show though. At this point, I’d had a chance to find a spot along the Mohawk’s balcony railing right above the band with a full view of the spectators at the stage’s center. From the start, the group seemed to emanate a kind of unpretentious, no-nonsense attitude, letting the music get out in front of them. They just setup and played. It was refreshing considering soundchecks and intros (per Rob’s The Strange Boys writeup above) can often feel more time consuming than the actual show (especially at Festivals when you have to watch the process dozens of times). Guitarist/vocalist James Petralli barely introduced the band before they jumped into the first song. As I said, refreshing.
Even though White Denim blend a lot of genres or whatever, they’re a rock band to the bone. Petralli has a silky but edged croon that gives the vocal-lead parts of their set a melodic hook, which I’m sure translates even better on record. The real centerpieces of their set were the acidic, heavy-riffing, fret-shredding prog workouts. By the time they got there on their opener, the Mohawk crowd kind of woke up, or at least I did. The most fun and engrossing rock bands to watch live aren’t necessarily the “best,” however you’d define that, or the most listenable – they’re the ones that seem to synchronize as a unit and embody or inhabit the music pouring from their amps. White Denim’s stage energy was incredibly infectious. I’ll probably see a lot of bands this week worried about what they look like in blog photos the next day, but White Denim seemed to just let go of all that peripheral nonsense that often informs a group’s stage presence. Each member had a big doofy grin plastered to his face for most of the set; guitarist Austin Jenkins looked like the happiest boy in the world before getting down with some goofy but radical duckwalk type maneuvers; I’m pretty sure Petralli started doing some spinning jumping jacks at one point. And the front row was giving it right back to them (including my colleague in arms). The quartet’s technical skill is kind of breathtaking to watch, especially considering how well it informs the music’s breakneck, abandon-everything energy instead of bogging it down.
Next stop was the Black & White Iris showcase. Black & White Iris have been a label through which bands have released quality singles as a stepping stone before moving onto bigger labels, but for opening act Sundress that step has not yet been taken; with their single still to come out the pressure was on them to open the show as the least-known band on the bill. Fortunately a sizeable crowd turned out (thanks in no small part to the free beer and vinyl) to see their set. Sundress impressed with a sound heavily-indebted to My Bloody Valentine, but with some slightly poppier elements. The singer had a Thom Yorke-esque falsetto drawl that floated through the mix nicely. Sundress were a band that could have been forgotten by many in the audience, but they handed out their EP for free at the end, and their performance at least warranted a cursory listen from those who picked one up and from there they might pick up a new following.
– Rob Hakimian
Superhumanoids are riding high at the moment with a lot of buzz around their song “Jerry.” This was a good opportunity for them to capitalize upon that, and despite some technical issues in the first song they quickly got set into their groove. “Jerry” came up second in the set, which was a ballsy move, but with the quality of the rest of their songs you can understand why. Cameron Parkins and Sarah Chernoff traded off vocals with ease over the synth soundscapes. Chernoff’s vocals were impressively theatric in person and probably could have reached the back of the venue without amplification. The band were heavily into their performance and Parkins’ shuffle-dancing was surely aided by the smooth wooden floors. It was an assured performance from this up-and-coming band, and the only real complaint that can be had at this point is that all their songs sounded a bit too similar, but as their music gets out there a little more and people get to know them, I’m sure this problem will quickly subside as fans begin to learn the ins and outs and intricacies of each one.
– Rob Hakimian
Back to the Mohawk for Pitchfork’s first showcase (which I didn’t realize I was at until maybe a half-hour in due to the lack of signage). I think I was interested to see how Sun Araw’s rhythmic, slow-mo dub jams translated live more than anything else, as I’d never seen them on stage. The group depends on the loop and build method more than I might have imagined. Cameron Stallone lays the foundational guitar and keys work as a programmed drum loop and bass lock into an unconscious, head-bobbing grove and then some synth and guitar improvisation happens. It worked well on the opener where things reach a spiraling psychedelic climax as the sounds clash and ebb enough to sort of get lost in. On the following two cuts, however, things were left a little dry and untreated and I remained a dude watching a Sun Araw show instead of attaining any kind of ascension. The closer was the most up-beat, enough so that that those around me made a point of swaying their hips side to side instead of just nodding, eyes-closed, in perpetual approval. I’ll say this: if I’d had a bed to lie in, the set would have been fantastic.
Mr. Muthafuckin’ Exquire
Bear in Heaven
With the release of their second album, I Love You, It’s Cool, a mere few weeks away, Bear in Heaven are hitting SXSW hard this year. This was the first official day of the music segment of the festival, yet it was (at least) their third performance. The band did not look at all jaded or tired though – particularly not singer Jon Philpot who danced his ass off the whole time – most notably during the breakdown of recent single “The Reflection of You.” He even lambasted the crowd for not joining in, but only jovially as he was clearly having too good of a time to be really annoyed. They played mostly from their upcoming album, but big cheers were had for the songs from their debut Beast Rest Forth Mouth, particularly “Lovesick Teenagers.” The set was only 45-minutes long, but with their swirling synths and psychedelic colours whirling around the background it was easy to be hypnotized by their performance, which made it seem like a pleasant day-long dream. It also helped ease any aches from trekking around downtown Austin. Overall, it was an ideal culmination of the first day.
– Rob Hakimian