SXSW Day 2: We Were Promised Jetpacks, Sondre Lerche, Holly Miranda, Watson Twins, It’s True, Digital Leather, Quasi, Bear Hands, Les Savy Fav…
They say one of the best parts of South by Southwest is the “day parties.” These are showcases held at the same venues that host the evening shows, but they’re sponsored by industry shlubs — usually websites or publications, just about any communications entity that’s after a young, hip demographic that I guess they feel is just out of their reach. Day parties always promise free beer and free food. But for the two years I’ve been going to SXSW, I’ve never seen any substantial free food. Oh sure, there’s usually beer — but who wants to drink at 11 a.m. while nursing a hangover? Apparently a lot of people.
Anyway, Friday afternoon was spent at a series of day parties — showcases held in the daytime free of charge (no badges/admission needed to enter). It was another chance to catch bands missed the night before, as most acts play five or six times over the course of the weekend. I do not envy them.
The first band of the day was Scottish act We Were Promised Jetpacks (see photo), yet another combo that falls into the same category of back-beat jump-dance indie rock that includes Tokyo Police Club, Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, so on and so forth. WWJP’s takes the youth-dance vibe and jumpstarts it with the necessary Cure guitar drone and an extra helping of Cursive howling. Bands like WWPJs (and those mentioned above) are The New Emo, a product of growing up listening to their hipster parents’ post-punk record collections, a sound best heard decked out in white sunglasses, skinny jeans and thin-striped hoodies. But unlike the originals, there are no discernible lyrics to this new music, certainly none you’ll remember. Instead, it’s all about the slap-beat, the staccato rhythm guitar and the whiney frontman with the winning hair. This is what passes for rock music these days.
Now who’s whining? I’ll be honest, I don’t hate this stuff. It’s fun to listen to, even if it’s as light and fluffy as a marshmellow pie. But I’m getting tired of hearing it again and again and again. If last year’s SXSW was dominated by garage bands, this year’s is dominated by New Emo guitar-driven pseudo “dance bands.” I’m not sure which is worse.
WWPJs played in a cool outdoor venue called Mohawk Patio, a tiered concrete facility with plenty of railing space and broad main floor down below. Right next door is Club deVille, where I spent most of the afternoon. CdV is a parking lot cut into a limestone hill covered by a large tent. Today was the Brooklyn Vegan day party, and by god there was even free food! Too bad it was vegan. On stage: Nicole Atkins and her band. She’s been compared to Jenny Lewis — an extreme stretch. Instead, she’s a run-of-the-mill “adult alternative” blues singer trying to channel Janis Joplin and/or Chrissie Hynde but sounding like a wounded Sheryl Crow. Signed to Columbia, we’ll be hearing more from her whether we want to or not.
Atkins was followed by Norwegian singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche, a super-skinny, witty blond Viking (quick, someone cast him as Elric of Melniboné), who plays a gorgeous guitar but with a showtune panache like an indie version of Michael Bublé (see bad photo). During his set, Lerche told a story about jogging around one of the local lakes and subconsciously singing a Big Star song, a song that he then started to play but immediately stopped, saying it was “too soon.” The crowd didn’t think so.
He was followed by Holly Miranda, who’s playing at The Waiting Room Tuesday night (and who I sort of interviewed here). I don’t know if it was the stage or the set up or if Miranda was tired, but her set was uneven and uneventful — mailed in — not nearly as good as what you’ll hear on her new album. But hey, don’t let that dissuade you from buying tickets to TWR show.
That was it for the pasty, emaciated Brooklyn Vegan showcase. After slamming down a hot-sausage link smothered in grilled onions and ketchup, I hiked it about a half-mile west on 6th St. to yet another in a series of spectacular outdoor venues — The Belmont — to catch The Watson Twins. If my life depended on it, I couldn’t have told you what the Watson Twins looked like — the only time I’ve seen them in person was from the balcony of the The Scottish Rite Hall back when they were performing with Jenny Lewis, years and years ago. So naturally I figured that the trio on stage performing when I arrived — two of whom were wearing identical dresses and looked sort of alike — were the Watson Twins. I quickly snapped a photo with my trusty iPhone and forwarded onto Twitter, still not sure it was them (see mislabled photo).
Of course it wasn’t the Watson Twins at all, but another combo called The Living Sisters who are on the same label and that play music like the Watson Twins used to sing. Not anymore. The real Watson Twins are trying to take the piss out of indie rock, and are failing. They also look like they’re a decade younger than the Living Sisters, dressed in American Apparel indie attire (see photo). As old-fashioned and sometimes cheesy as they were, I preferred The Living Sisters over the Twins.
I told myself last year and again this year that I wasn’t going to waste a lot of time seeing Omaha bands play in Austin, but I couldn’t help myself, which is why I ended up at B.D. Riley’s to see our fair city’s favorite unsigned ban (not counting Brad Hoshaw’s ensemble) It’s True play in front of about 50 people inside the old-fashioned oak-adorned club while another 30 or stood outside listening through the open windows right behind them (see photo, complete with a bearded Kyle Harvey looking like an Islamic terrorist). Jamming the front of the stage was half of Omaha, like a room full of proud parents watching their children’s first recital. Hawkins, wearing a blue-cloud bandana, let it all go, flipping off his glasses sometime during the second or third song, while the rest of the band also rose to the occasion, generating that crowd outside the club (see photo). I was excited for them, though afterward the whole thing seemed like a dream, and I wondered if anything was going to come of their performance at SXSW. Does anything really happen for bands in Austin?
The plan was to see Thurston Moore at a tiny club called Red 7, but I knew it wasn’t going to work as I turned the corner and saw a line 500 people deep running down 7th St. I kept walking, back to Mohawk Patio to see Digital Leather, passing a long line to get in — the magic badge lets you bypass such inconveniences (and is the only reason to get one). I figured it was going to be packed inside. Instead, that big open floor in front of the stage was empty except for DMax and Landon of Little Brazil. I still don’t know what was going on, why they weren’t letting people into the club. As a result, Digital Leather played to an audience of about 15 or 20 people, while 150 waited outside. It was the strangest moment of SXSW. I think the flaccid audience also killed the band’s performance, and they sounded like they were going through the motions, just trying to get their “official” showcase in and get off stage (see photo). I’m told DL’s best shows were held at Beerland — a venue that has nothing to do with SXSW — which I guess makes it cooler than the rest of the festival.
After that, it was a series of gaffs. I headed to Cabana Halle 6 to see Cast Spells, but when I got there, The Ugly Beats were on stage playing their brand of wind-up clock keyboard rock that was too tame to call punk. I don’t know how the screw-up happened, but Cast Spells wasn’t even scheduled for the venue.
Three songs in and it was off to find a place to relieve myself of Lone Star, and Emo’s Annex — a tent located across the street from Emo’s — seemed as good a place as any. Inside was Michael Stipe-connected Athens band Twin Tigers. The four-piece band has a male lead and a female second vocalist — all wearing white T shirts — whose expertise is soaring indie rock. It was sort of a shoegaze thing by a band that’s listened to its share of Jesus and Mary Chain. Not bad.
I told the Landon and the rest of Little Brazil that I would catch their showcase at 10 at Wave — a 6th St. bar with a surfer theme complete with stuffed shark and surfboard tables. Upstairs on the deck a singer/songwriter named Cocoon played a set under the stars. His quiet music was about to get blown to bits. I’ve seen Little Brazil somewhere around 1,000 times (but whose counting?). Played to a crowd of around 50, their set was as good as any, even though guitarist Greg Edds looked like a ski bum with his foot in a giant black boot/cast. I didn’t stick around to the end. (see photo).
Instead, I headed a half mile back west on 6th St. to a huge venue called Antone’s to see Portland band Quasi, whose new album American Gong, has been on rotation on the iPhone lately. I’ve been a Quasi fan since Featuring “Birds” came out in ’98. The trio, which featured Sam Coomes on guitar and vocals, Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss on drums and Malkmus/Jick Joanna Bolme on bass, opened with a F”B” song before kicking into a set of rough-hewn Gong songs. It was loud — uncomfortably loud. Still, a great set (see photo).
It was back to the heart of the 6th St. beehive for Brooklyn band Bear Hands at Maggie Mae’s. They were yet another one of those college back-slap Cure-inspired bands with a lead singer whose voice sounded strangely familiar… Oh I know who he sounds exactly like: Robert Smith. That said, their music is a big step above the usual cadre of New Emo bands, with a thicker, heavier, and slightly darker sound that I found entrancing. According to their Myspace page they’re unsigned, which can’t be right, can it?
After that, it was back to Emo’s Annex for Crystal Antler,s a Long Beach five-piece band that has received dollops of love from Pitchfork over the years. This night they were unveiling a set of all-new material, and as much as I tried to like it, the blaring keyboard and overall lack of anything resembling a solid melody did little more than grate on me. Pounding. But boring.
Finally, it was off to the back-alley entrance to The Galaxy Patio, an improvised venue created just for SXSW — which means it’s another tent in a parking lot. The featured band at 1 a.m. — post-hardcore geniuses Les Savy Fav. Balding giant frontman Tim Harrington was in rare form, climbing atop amp stacks to mess with the stage lighting, eventually turning all the flood lights off, leaving the stage in darkness, until he decided to turn one flood back on, to the annoyance of the SXSW folks, who kept turning the lighting rigs on, only to have Harrington walk and shut them off again. Fun, but not their best set, as an impromptu crowd dive screwed up Harrington’s microphone for the rest of the night.
That was it for Day 2. Fifteen band in 12 hours. It’s noon on Day 3 as I write this and I can’t get motivated to get the ball rolling. The temperature has dropped to 41, with a cold, wet 30 mph wind blowing against dark gray skies. It’s not going to be fun walking around 6th St. in a heavy rain coat with gale force winds blowing garbage into the sky, but it has to be done on this, the last day of SXSW.
And now, here’s the Chris Aponik report:
After an exhausting Thursday, I decided to stay on Red River St. for the duration of Friday. Right off the bat, Louie Bankston’s new band King Louie & the Missing Monuments made a good impression with simple, hook-laden power pop. I expected as much from the man who co-wrote many of the gems on the Exploding Hearts’ only album about seven years.
I really didn’t leave Beerland after a mid-afternoon break at Mohawk, where I tried to catch Zeus but instead watched an alright Frightened Rabbit set. Mohawk seemed to be off schedule, so I situated myself for a night at Beerland, where In the Red Records hosted a showcase of their bands. Despite having bands like the Vivian Girls and former Yo La Tengo tourmates Cheap Time on the roster, the label refuses to do SXSW, instead hosting a night at Beerland — a venue that often hosts In the Red bands during the rest of the year. It was also a rare night when Beerland charged admission — for $8, it’s quite a deal.
The In the Red show opened with momentary Pitchfork darlings Vivian Girls. The Girls are starting to redefine their hazy shoegaze indie-pop with sharper playing. The rest of the night followed with bands I had seen earlier in the week turning in stronger sets than they had when I saw them before. White Mystery, TV Ghost, Cheap Time and especially Fresh & Onlys provided deepened impressions. Fresh & Onlys proved that their update on San Francisco Summer of Love psychedelica is powered by strong songs and novel impulses. They drench ’60s rock in a post-punk echo chamber, adding new dimensions that greatly distinguish their artful sound. Meanwhile, TV Ghost played a forceful set that gave hints of a madcap, destructive streak. Youth, brilliance and depth are quickly combining in a post-millenial American recreation of the Birthday Party.
The In the Red party ended with another Spits party and a set from Puerto Rico’s Davila 666, a six-piece band that sings gang vocals over messy Black Lips-style garage rock that’s wholly endearing and a lot of fun. It’s basically a gang of street punk kids putting on a party, and it was a great way to end the night.
Here’s my breakdown from the past two days:
Great: Harlem, King Louie & Missing Monuments, Thee Oh Sees
Very Good: Home Blitz, Earthmen & Strangers, Bad Sports, Vivian Girls, Wizzard Sleeve, Tokyo Electron, Davila 666
Good: Hex Dispensers, Daily Void, Gun Outfit, Frightened Rabbit, Mickey
Okay: Lullaby Arkestra, Charlie & the Moon Hearts, Audacity, Shannon & the Clams, Kid Congo
No: Wounded Lion
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