The Monday of South By Southwest’s week-long takeover of Austin is always a strange day, as the Interactive portion of the festival (read: network-happy tech entrepreneurs and designers) comes to an end while droves of decidedly less put-together fans descend in preparation for the Music festival, which starts on Tuesday. This means that eager, jumpy music obsessives end up rubbing shoulders with well-appointed Silicon Valley types, the latter becoming tipsy on fancy cocktails and dropping words like “disruption” and “synergy” that music fans were familiar with long before the ‘90s tech boom made them trendy. It’s an odd mix, but these encounters make for exactly the kind of serendipetous weirdness that distinguishes SXSW from other, more thematically cohesive festivals.
If you come for the music and can’t summon the gumption to sneak into one of the swankier Interactive closing parties, there’s still plenty of great unofficial (i.e., not formally affiliated with SXSW and always free) music to be seen on Monday night. The Austin-based choral folk band Mother Falcon, for example, host a well-stocked showcase at the Empire Garage featuring many local, unsigned artists eager for exposure and a big break. Many of those bands seem primed to achieve exactly those goals, in particular the rowdy, stomp-heavy folk/bluegrass band Hello Wheels. As four bearded, affable-looking dudes playing string instruments (plus the occasional trumpet), Hello Wheels could easily penetrate the current market for Mumford & Sons-like roots uplift. What distinguishes them from such peers, however, is that their vocal effects are more varied than straight-up four-part harmonies: they put each voice to productive use by trading off lead vocals and backing each other with rhythmic, almost percussive utterances. Additionally, the band’s arrangements are deceptively complex given how much pure joy the music summons; they get jazzy and funky on certain songs, with one member at one point playing a trumpet with one hand while banging a tambourine with the other. Though most crowd members (yours truly included) seem to have wandered in without knowing what to expect, Hello Wheels quickly have us all stomping and clapping along with them as though we were longtime fans.
An equally noteworthy Austin band would be Riders Against the Storm, a hip-hop collective that inspires the outside Garage crowd to dance and groove along to their medley of funk, hip hop, and offbeat theatrics. Nine performers strong, Riders Against the Storm sound like the lovechild of Nas and George Clinton, as they manage to infuse urgently political songs like “Ghetto People” with cathartic, ecclectically exuberant energy. Husband-and-wife fronters Chaka Mpeanaji and Qi Dada lay down rapid-fire rhymes while adding, alongside two backing vocalists, powerful melodies and melismatic crescendos. Even though Empire boasts three stages often featuring bands playing simultaneously, RAS was impossible to ignore, and the scale of their sound feels deserving of national, rather than mostly local, recognition.
After Mother Falcon close out their own party with a burst of string-heavy choral compositions accented by strident harmonies, I head across the street to hustle through the doors of Red 7, where Aussie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett is about to top off a night-long dose of fervently buzzed-about new artists that included METZ, Cymbals Eat Guitars, and former Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser. Barnett is easily one of the most anticipated artists showcasing at SXSW this year, so I’m grateful for the chance to catch her before the adoring throngs arrive in full force later this week. I must confess I wasn’t at all prepared for the sheer grit, volume, and rock factor of her live show, as singles such as “Avant Gardener” and “Pedestrian at Best” stand out for Barnett’s witty yet blasé, almost stoner-ish speak-sing delivery. While the singer and guitarist’s earlier recordings proceed on a fairly mellow sonic wavelength, the new songs off of her upcoming début LP Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit (out 23 March) are way harder-rocking, shot through with tons of reverb and percussive firestorms. Barnett informs the crowd that this is the three-person band’s first performance together, but it didn’t show; her bass player shredded chords while Barnett ravished her fretboard and essentially shouted the lyrics to “Pedestrian at Best,” while still managing to stay on top of the lyrics’ tricky, irregular cadence. Based on the power of their début, Barnett and her new band are sure to live up to the hype that has anticipated their arrival at SXSW.
“Well, I can successfully say this is the first time we’ve ever played inside a bank,” Best Coast‘s frontwoman Bethany Cosentino declares on Tuesday afternoon inside the Capital One on the corner of 6th and Congress. “South By Southwest, you’re crazy!” It is indeed a strange venue within which to see a punk/surf-rock band like Best Coast, whose trio of guitars, plus an electric bass and a drum kit, summon an eardrum-piercing level of noise that rattles through the bank’s pristine interior. Best Coast’s earlier songs, such as “The Only Place” and “Boyfriend,” evoke the sunny haze of a California beach day, yet at this live show I’m struck by how the band brings out the darker tones within those songs, enfolding Cosentino’s vocals in a dense shroud of instrumentation. The singer, however, totally holds her own amidst the ruckus that her bandmates create, also gamely sassing back to hecklers in the crowd plus whatever technician was responsible for a shockingly oppressive smoke machine. (“That thing makes it really hard to sing!” she explained). The songs from Best Coast’s new album California Nights sound far more punk-influenced than those from 2013’s Fade Away, and as I exit the Capital One into the five PM dusk I feel a slightly alarming yet mainly invigorating high-pitched buzzing in both ears.
The twilight hours at Cheer Up Charlies featured a slate of bands so new that their music has yet to appear on Spotify, among them St. Louis’s indie-pop group Scarlet Tanager and Austin natives Moving Panoramas. The former complements charming melodies with harmonies, “hey!“s, and other vocal sounds, while tambourines and high-pitched keys lend a sparkly tint to their music. The all-female trio Moving Panoramas, who had to get dressed in the bar’s bathroom for lack of green room space, describe their music as “dream-gaze”, suggesting a cross between dream pop and shoegaze. Their sound evokes the Dum Dum Girls’ even-tempered rock, though Moving Panoramas’ tone sounds smoother and more soothing than that band’s sharper edges.
As one of the hottest and most heavily populated venues at SXSW, Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel generates a dense line of fans hoping to access an evening showcase headlined by Spoon supported by San Fermin, Amasen, and Odesza, among others. Once inside, fans who have braved the line are greeted with drink tickets for Red Bull spiked generously with Tito’s Vodka, a concoction that seems a necessary fuel for those (myself included) inclined to take in the entire six-hour-long showcase. I’m glad to have gotten there early, as the opening band Parlour Tricks completely blows me away. The band features three women dressed in black gowns and belting huge-voiced harmonies reminiscent of Lucius or the Dirty Projectors, soaring over an electro-pop base comprised of thudding drum pad hits and resonant synths. The band has recently gained traction in their hometown of New York, but this is by far the most exciting new band I saw all day. Their singles “Requiem” and “Lovesongs” are eminently worth checking out.
Most energetic and crowd-pleasing award of the night goes to Brooklyn-based baroque-pop band San Fermin, who are prepping for the release of their second LP Jackrabbit on 21 April. The band’s new songs veer in an edgier direction, replacing the orchestral grandiosity of their début with big pop hooks on songs like “Jackrabbit” and haunting melodies punctuated by ominous, discordant clashes between instruments on “Parasites”. In their live show, San Fermin’s six members whip themselves and the crowd into a kinetic fervor: lead vocalists Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate dance over cables onstage in between their vocal parts, while trumpet player John Brandon and saxaphonist Stephen Chen mount speakers in order to exchange dramatic, dueling solos. It’s quite impressive that the band is able to dance, move, and emote that hard onstage without missing a single beat of their intricately arranged compositions.
Finally, pushed back from their one in the morning slot by at least a half hour, Spoon takes the stage to greet a throng of eager fans. Their set has to be shortened, to everyone’s dismay, due to lengthy soundchecks throughout the night, and the band opts for gratifying longtime fans rather than promoting songs from their new album They Want My Soul. Along with recent single “Rent I Pay,” which included Britt Daniel adding coy vocal inflections here and there, the band plays older favorites like “I Turn My Camera On” and “The Way We Get By”. The band expertly balances dirty eruptions of guitar noise with spotless rhythmic precision, and the crowd is basically salivating for more of that when the set has to end at two in the morning. Spoon leaves the stage amidst an enduring chamber of reverb, a strangely pleasant lullaby for those of us who had just stayed out way past our bedtimes on SXSW Music’s opening night.