In which our intrepid reporter finds out SXSW really is as exhausting as everyone says it is, but rallies to attend more shows.
By day three, I had personally confirmed what we’ve all been told: SXSW kicks your ass. I managed to drag myself downtown before noon only by promising myself a cup of coffee at Mellow Johnny’s, where Wye Oak was playing a 12pm set.
The band was already playing as I bought my coffee, but I couldn’t tell if they were playing an old song or a new one. Like mr. Gnome, Wye Oak hasn’t changed their sound very much between albums #3 and #4. Jenn Wasner has switched from electric guitar to electric bass, and Andy Stack has added an electronic drum-pad to his kit, but at SXSW they were quite recognizably the same band. Wasner even managed to make her bass sound light and silvery at times, which was the most unexpected thing to jump out at me from their performance.
Ultimately this is unsurprising, considering the lyric-based character of Wye Oak’s previous records. Now as before, listeners should expect to make the music into a contemplative experience in order to really absorb it. Wasner — an extremely approachable frontwoman, if anyone ever wants to stick around a show to chat — understandably feels that anyone who doesn’t “get” it should listen to virtually anyone else: she performs for herself and for her fans. She’s quite open about her difficulties with writing a fourth record, and maintains that switching her instrumentation reinvigorated her creative process while inspiring her to keep getting onstage day after day. Judging by their latest single and the SXSW show I saw, fans of her established sound will definitely be interested in and not alienated by the band’s new work.
Next: blogmistress Jennifer had put in detective work to find out when Charli XCX was playing, so I put her time to good use and went to see my favorite British pop star play at the Flamingo Cantina.
Since I’d learned a lesson about being late, I went early, and that was a wise choice. For one thing, plenty of free swag was available for my free choosing. For another, I was treated to a charmingly eccentric set by a Welshman called Gruff Rhys, whose style shifted from guitar-driven folk to semi-pop to the only reggae I’ve ever heard played by a white man that didn’t make me feel instantly angry.
Finally, I got to watch the venue fill to capacity from an actual seat with an actual view of the stage.
Which was lucky, because Charli XCX‘s sets are made to be seen and not just heard. The young Brit, who is currently touring with a full female band, has a true rock-and-roll sense of style and stage performance — she roams the stage, dances, thrashes, flings her head of huge curly hair, and generally lets herself be free.
Some of it is surely due to the fact that she’s only 21, with years of international pop performance already under her belt, but none of it is obviously faked or put on: her rock-stardom seems as honest and natural as her breezy offstage attitude does when you, say, run into her at a vendor’s stall. She clearly makes big, brassy, sometimes silly, but nonetheless sincere pop music because that’s what she wants to make, just like she dances “like you’ve never seen anyone dance before” because that’s simply how she dances. The straightforwardness makes her live shows into a genuine thrill and a front-to-back good time, whether she’s belting out an ode to drunken crushes or a break-up song, and I genuinely hope age (and years in the industry) never tarnishes her luster.
Speaking of age: despite being somewhere just south of thirty myself, that show wore me out. After trying for the second time that week to see a Felice Brothers show and being thwarted by a long line, I scrapped plans in favor of taking a break. Somewhere along the way I helped myself to one of many Deap Vally posters as a reminder to gather energy for their set later that night.
That break became longer than I’d expected, though, since I did not arrive early enough to beat the line for Klassik either.
To my delight, however, I have found that I can hear #Klassik from outside the venue, and what I hear is good.
— paleotrees (@paleotrees) March 15, 2014
The best I could manage was snapping a shot through the Thirsty Nickel window:
My lesson was relearned, too: thick drunken crowds on “Dirty Sixth” Street notwithstanding, I arrived at Trinity Hall when the Cherrytree Records party was just gathering steam. In fact, I even had time to catch a quick nap-sitting-up in one of the venue’s deep windowsills, and was a little revived for Sir Sly.
Since this band was one of Jennifer’s picks that I’d never listened to before, I briefly thought a pair of stage-divers were the actual band — although to their credit, they played a pretty decent impromptu song before exiting to cheers and clapping.
The real Sir Sly, however, combined surfer-ish rock with some hip-hop beats and no small number of huge pop hooks. Hearing that they hail from Orange County, CA, brought it all together for me: some bands sound like someone squeezed their geographic area into a pure living distillation, and Sir Sly is a particular subset of Orange County poured straight onto a record.
They threw themselves into their songs with untempered spirit, singing about love and angst the way only a recently-post-teenage Californian band can, winding the crowd up into one chanting sweating almost-entity. It reminded me of a sunnier version of that time we saw New Jersey kids moshing unrepentantly at a Titus Andronicus show.
After Sir Sly shook themselves off and loaded their gear out, it was Deap Vally time, though not everyone in the audience was excited for the same reasons.
And I was really not in the mood for certain individuals’ reactions for many reasons, not least because it was clear within half a second of the set that these women were serious musicians. I was closest in proximity to Julie Edwards, who eagerly laid into her drumkit like it had wronged her. Meanwhile, guitarist and lead vocalist Lindsey Troy proved she could nail the ’80s-hair-metal thing live as well as she can in the studio, gleefully shredding and growling and screaming as though personally putting Steven Tyler in his place. They were everything I’d expected: loud and crass and good at what they do, purely and simply very entertaining.
Although this is obviously not their first rodeo, I would still happily punch anyone who ever reduces them to their bodies in my earshot again, and I think they’d approve of that on the basis of punk rock.
The only truly unfortunate part is that, as usual, I couldn’t stay for the whole late set. Instead, I met up with a fellow audience member I’d overheard delivering a perfect verbal smackdown to her own sexual harassers; we walked one another to our bus stops, taking more souvenir Deap Vally posters from the phone pole along the way. Although it was a little less showy than punching some asshole in the face would have been, looking out for each other seemed pretty in line with the band’s ethos too.