Having essentially marinated in a stew of rock guitars for the past two days — not that that was a bad thing! — on day three of the 2015 South By Southwest Music Festival I decide to traverse as many genres as I possibly can. From a Korean doo-wop girl group to Long Beach rap, with some detours into neo-soul and freaky British electropop, my findings are stimulating and surprising through and through. I also spend a lot of time in churches, which yields gorgeous acoustics and some new favorite singer-songwriters. For the sake of attempting some modicum of coherence, I’ll group artists according to the broad genre traits that they share, though that’s not at all meant to undersell the distinctive qualities of each performance.
Little Simz press photo by Owen Billcliffe
Two wise-beyond-their-years rappers, the U.K.’s Little Simz and Long Beach’s Vince Staples, deliver self-reflective and socially conscious rhymes in drastically different venues. Little Simz, an early-20s MC who’s already released a slew of mixtapes, is given the challenging task of getting her audience on their feet inside a conference hall meeting room, yet that brightly lit and somewhat suffocating space didn’t stop her from persuading the small crowd to rap, clap, and sing along to her fast-paced songs. Little Simz is beguiling and provocative all at once. Her song “Time Capsule” imagines the words of advice she’d give to her younger self, a potentially cheesy concept that she executes cleverly, while “Devour” addresses those skeptics who might underestimate her skill and power as a young female rapper: “Many many men will attempt to devour my throne / I empower my own.” Those skeptics be damned; the lady can pack as many syllables into a line as Nicki Minaj without ever dropping a beat or taking cheap shots at others.
Later in the afternoon, I find myself feeling like a chaperone among the droves of seemingly under-aged partiers at the Mohawk bar, where Vans, Pitchfork, and other brands sponsor a weeklong slate of showcases. It’s sweaty and crowded, with warm beer spilling left and right, but when Vince Staples takes the stage, he commands that crowd’s attention like a preacher. Addressing issues of systemic racism and disenfranchisement in America, Staples’s rhymes give voice to the anger about but also the commitment to resisting problems of police brutality, rampant incarceration, and economic inequality. His song “Hands Up” revolves around a double entendre that works brilliantly in a live setting: the hook (“Put your hands in the air”) references police arrests and the Michael Brown protests, but it also mimics the common injunction at live shows for audience members to, well, put their hands in the air. The sight of hundreds of raised hands during that song resonates provocatively on many levels, and I’ll have that image seared in my mind long after SXSW is over.
Kristin Diable (photo from official website)
Swinging to the other side of the genre pendulum, it turns out that a church might be the perfect venue in which to see warmly acoustic, lyrically sophisticated singer-songwriters. I catch three of them in a row between St. David’s Episcopal Sanctuary and Central Presbyterian in the evening hours. Dressed in golden-edged, flowing white robes and a cowgirl hat, Kristin Diable hits the musical and stylistic sweet spot between old-school soul and contemporary alt-country. Diable has one of those voices that you can’t train for or manufacture; it boasts the contoured edges of Amy Winehouse’s rasp as well as the clarity of Emmylou Harris’s high range. Her bass and keyboard players offer subtle harmonies to enclose her vocal throughout a set that ranges from the driving, upbeat “Time Will Wait” to an a cappella rendition of “Honey Leave the Light On,” stripped down to a simple three-part harmony and Diable’s rhythmic finger snaps.
James Vincent McMorrow
Later on, the Irish singer James Vincent McMorrow astounds all of those who pack the pews at Central Presbyterian. Talk about a voice: at first contact, McMorrow’s falsetto sounds like a dead ringer for Bon Iver’s, yet late in his songs he opens up into astoundingly resonant high riffs, almost as though he were pumping a bellows inside his chest. He also sings at times in his lower register, demonstrating a range that extends from that of your typical male folk singer to a formidable female belter. In the second auditorium at St. David’s, I manage to catch the end of Australian duo Luluc‘s tapestry of gorgeously lilting melodies. From “Small Window” to “Passerby,” the songs maintain a tonal cohesion that lends the set the feeling of a comforting embrace or a lullaby.
It was not bedtime for me yet though, and as an antidote to the serenity of those two churches I head to the densely packed K-Pop showcase at Elysium. I’m there mainly out of curiosity about the Korean doo-wop group the Barberettes, who, when I arrive, are shooting sparkly beams of light (thanks to sequined gold dresses) and hermetic three-part harmonies throughout the club. Though it’s hard to hear specifics given how thick (and annoyingly chatty) the crowd is, it’s clear that they’re executing spot-on homages to the Ronettes and other ’60s American girl groups. Their set seems mainly comprised of covers, but their charisma, vocal skill, and cheeky crowd engagement make me anticipate the original music they’ll surely put out before too long.
Also in the throwback vein, Leon Bridges and his exceptional backing band (including two members of au courant rock group White Denim) guide the generationally mixed crowd into the early morning hours at Hype Hotel. If you’ve heard Bridges’s song “Coming Home,” then the ghost of Sam Cooke probably presented himself immediately. Simply slotting Bridges into that soul legend’s lineage, however, would be to undersell the uniquely crafted vibe that Bridges has going on in his work. His voice is butter-smooth, a bit deeper than Cooke’s, and the backing music is more muscular and rock-based than that of earlier crooners. A trained choreographer, Bridges moves like a frontman and a ballerino alike, and there’s a gentle control-freak quality to the set, apparent in the tender loving (yet tight as hell) sax solos and the synchronized pair of backup singers. Bridges will inevitably skyrocket to fame when he releases his LP this summer, and it feels like a total coup to watch him from ten feet away before he starts selling out major theaters across America.
My tastes being what they are, the day wasn’t complete without some rootsy, guitar-based rock, and the Indiana-based quartet Houndmouth and Alabama-raised singer Waxahatchee provide that in energetic bursts. This was my fourth time seeing Houndmouth, and their scrappy instrumentation and cleverly narrated, persona-inhabiting songs light me up every time. Their sound echoing through the Convention Center multiplied a tiny initial crowd into an almost full auditorium. Waxahatchee, playing in the searing Mohawk sun, jammed way harder on new songs and left me psyched to hear what songwriter Katie Crutchfield has in store on her third album Ivy Tripp, out later this year. Finally, though they defy any easy genre categorization, I’d be remiss in not shouting out the critically acclaimed funk-influenced British electropop group the Ting Tings. From Stax-y guitar lines to beat frenzies and massive vocals, the group leaves no moment unadorned. Just look their music up if you’re looking for a party.
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