Baby’s First SXSW: Saturday

Holing up in a bungalow down the street from a yuppie mall had its decided advantages. There was a pool (though it was a bit chilly for swiming, we stuck our sore, swollen feet in more than a few evenings) a decent amount of peace & quiet, a sleepy looking orange cat who was feral but friendly enough to come say hello in the mornings, and proximity to Waterloo Records, where Boise dream pop darlings Youth Lagoon played to packed parking lot. The ephemeral tracks on debut album Year of Hibernation were recorded by 22-year-old Trevor Powers, who on stage hunches over a keyboard and wails earnestly into a microphone, while friends from the bands he’s played in his whole life back him up. Youth Lagoon have played a few NYC shows to much acclaim but I’d been hesitant to check them out, worried that all the bleary wonder of Hibernation would would dissipate, eroded by the boys’ precociousness, but I’m happy to say that it was in no way a detriment. While Hibernation is imbued with a huge but lonely sound, it doesn’t suffer at all in a live setting as I had feared it would. In fact, their faithful renditions and impassioned delivery were a great reminder of what makes Youth Lagoon’s slow-building, languid anthems so fresh and immediate. Maybe all my misgivings were indicative of my disdain for growing older (or feeling older, really), and let’s be real – in New York, I’d probably be surrounded by college undergrads still suffering from acne. Instead, I had the unusual pleasure of being encircled by a diverse audience that even included families with children, illustrating Youth Lagoon’s wide appeal and accessibility. It was a lovely afternoon treat, to be sure.

I headed downtown for the Village Voice showcase at Red Eyed Fly, a bar setup I was now becoming familiar with for its typical Austinness – divey hunting-lodge interior, dusty patio with scraggly trees, cheap Lone Star tallboys. Outside, L.A.-based babes Bleached were setting up. Last October they’d taken CMJ by storm but I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of taking in their fiery, in-your-face garage rock. They blazed through a rollicking set, slaying hearts and eardrums. Fronted by sisters Jessica and Jenn Calvin, Bleached fully satisfies all my riot grrl leanings of years past – they play fun, fast, and loose, in a nonchalantly sexy kind of way, snaring you with their trashed-up brand of eye candy but then proceeding to melt faces.
After a few songs I moseyed inside to see Pyschic Ills. The band’s 2011 release on Sacred Bones, Hazed Dream, sees the band’s culmination as blues-infused stoned-out psych droners. Before a backdrop of thick, raggedy velvet curtains, Brandon Davis’ sprawling keys, and the thudding bass of gothy-romantic Elizabeth Hart, backed the heavily glazed drawl and meandering guitarwork of Tres Warren, clad in grungy denim. By now I was convinced that everything is just louder in Texas. Psychic Ills’ normally mellow vibe was here amped up high enough to blast through concrete, though that wasn’t a huge loss. The highlight for me was sexy slow-burner “I’ll Follow You Through The Floor”, which got treated with a little extra jamming out. Between Bleached and Psychic Ills it was great to get a healthy dose of rock-n-roll from some bands with a more traditional set-up, since it seemed that this year’s acts were largely favoring tables of electronics to actual instruments.
Class Actress also played the showcase, and falls squarely into the former category. While they did have a drummer instead of a machine that played drum sounds, the line-up still hinges on the guy-with-gadgets/charismatic-girl-with-mic dynamic. When I’d first seen them it was just after their inception, opening for Yeasayer. In that time I would say that though their sound has not diverged much from their initial vision they’ve certainly come into their own. Elizabeth Harper’s carefully honed stage persona is nothing short of rock star – she wore mirrored shades the whole time, flitting across the stage, shimmying before the swooning audience as if it were one of her first SXSW performances rather than, by her count, the ninth in five days. She performs as if born to do so; in watching Harper’s flirtatious stage moves you could just as well be watching her do a photo shoot in a fashion magazine. This is a quality she’s always possessed, but she’s grown even more bold in her role not just as singer but as entertainer, never content to be relegated to a position behind the keyboard she mostly ignored throughout the set. The glamour-infused party jams from 2011’s Rapprocher were incredibly well-received by the crowd; it was hard to tell if these folks had just happened onto the scene and become instant converts or if they were long-term fans seeking out the chance to dance along with their idols.
Because Saturday was not just the final day of SXSW but also St. Patrick’s Day, the streets were flooded with a hoard of idiots dressed in green clothing, so I’d had enough of that scene for a while. Besides, Sun Araw and Cloudland Canyon were playing a so-unofficial-it’s-practically-secret gig with some electronic drone and psych bands at the Monofonus Press compound, a crust-punk utopia four miles outside the downtown area in a remote sector of far East Austin. In a maze of salvaged vintage trailers and corrugated tin sculpture was situated a grassy stage. The trees were decorated with blown glass ornaments and rusting basketball hoops. There was an inexplicable pit of abandoned bowling balls, next to which some middle-aged hippies had spread a comfy patchwork blanket on which to mind their unwashed children. Colorful DIY merch was spread on those over-sized spools, as were a pile of free zines, one of which was entitled Cool Magic Tricks for Teens (I snapped that one up immediately). Say what you will about a scene such as this, but after unwittingly absorbing the barrage of marketing campaigns being hurled at me by every corporation with a stake in SXSW, it was nice to be in a space free of advertisements. Not to mention, I got to enjoy the sedated set offered by Cloudland Canyon, whose droning, drowned psych rock I’ve loved since the release of their stunning Requiems Der Natur, a compilation of the Krautrock-influenced vibes they’d explored in the early part of the decade. It had been my plan to arrive in time to catch Sun Araw’s set, but I’d somehow confused the set-times and so only caught the last brilliant moments of a few of their submerged, tropicalia-laced jams.
Cloudland Canyon’s furious knob-twisting resulted in a woozy wave of noise most informed by the sounds on their 2010 release Fin Eaves. The crunchy, skittering synth effects and dense, distorted guitar melodies melded thickly in the balmy air, cascading through the leafy heights of attendant elms. Up in the farthest reaches, Kip Uhlhorn’s insistent moan arced through these saturated compositions, acting more as instrumental component than sonic focus. Uhlhorn’s wife, Kelly, was welcome addition to the band after the departure of longtime collaborator Simon Wojan, her stoic electronic manipulations melding everything together in a terrific wave of lush squall. I was so blissed on their performance I didn’t even whip out my iPhone to snap pics or capture video, as I am often wont to do; the kaleidoscopic magic of the Monofonus compound, bathed in the bubbling, staticky lull provided by Cloudland Canyon, hardly seemed the place for such obtrusive, new-fangled machinations.
A friend of mine I’d not seen in ages suggested we meet at House of Commons, a DIY showspace in a huge house on the University of Texas campus, so I eventually peeled myself from my grassy slumber and headed Northwest. The campus area is pretty revolting even with all the pledges out of town for Spring Break, although not unlike my own experience of the sprawling OSU campus in Columbus. Added to my deja vu and general disgust, the fact that this friend of mine was a no show made me want to get the hell out of there, but I figured I might as well grab some food that wasn’t made in a truck (also a big mistake; I had the most desultory bahn mi I’ve ever eaten)so I started wandering around. I was hearing music coming from somewhere, and it didn’t take so long to figure out it was coming from the back of an Urban Outfitters and the performer was none other my girl Grimes. It was obviously packed to capacity so I grabbed a chair from a nearby patio and craned my neck over the fence with a few others who had been denied at the door. She seemed to have slept in the clothes I’d seen her in last night and was still suffering from vocal strain but as I now KNOW I’ve mentioned before I’m in love with Claire Boucher, so it didn’t matter.
Afterwards, I did poke around HoC a bit, as Cleveland’s HotChaCha was playing. This is a band I’ve already seen far more times necessary, due to the fact that they’re from Ohio and we have some mutual friends. By the time and Jovanna Batkovic and Co. had started bringing their YeahYeahYeahs-esque brand of dance punk around Columbus I was kind of over that scene, but had still admired the talented all-girl line-up for their bravado as well as their skilled playing. Unfortunately, like most things coming out of Cleveland, HotChaCha has deteriorated from their former gloried state as I remember it from my youth. In this somewhat pitiful and desperate incarnation of the band, Jovanna dramatically burned herself with cigarettes and her friend took over the mic at one point to perform an impromptu rap about hipsters. Weird times are still good times, but I’d had enough of both, so it was back to civilization for me.

I decided to do a second round Cheer Up Charlie’s, where Javelin and Teengirl Fantasy were on the bill. To start, I’m not sure what Javelin were doing at SXSW this year; the showcase they’d played two years ago to the day in the exact same location made a lot more sense as that’s when Javelin was really on the rise, making a name for themselves as partytime sound collagists who blend every style from disco to R&B to funk to pop. But they’ve since established quite a reputation for themselves and as far as I know don’t have a new release coming out anytime soon. That’s not to say their presence wasn’t much enjoyed; their live shows are infused with the kind of energy usually seen in daycares where the charges are provided with espresso shots. Cousins George Langford and Tom van Buskirk know how to throw a party, and it’s nice to see them branching out and expanding their talents as musicians (Tom had a guitar on stage, which he told the crowd he was learning to play) while staying true to their DIY junk-shop pop ethos. Shortly into the set, one of the speakers blew, but a quick change-up gave the dudes new life and new excuses to bring the noise. All the improvisational elements of Javelin’s live shows were here as well, from made-up-on-spot verses to a cover of “Sabotage” that Nite Jewel tweeted was the “whitest” thing she’s ever heard, possibly because she forgot that the Beastie Boys, too, are white.

Following up such an animated performance with the same gusto was no small challenge. Oberlin grads Logan Takahashi and Nick Weiss are beatsmiths of the finest order, and though their delivery of tracks from 2010’s 7am was a bit more scaled back it still had the crowd dancing. Like a bottle of cheapish champagne chilled to just the right temperature, TGF popped off tracks like “Cheaters” and “Portofino” with at synths and samples at once glistening and fuzzy. The highlight of the set featured an appearance from vocalist Kilela Mizankristos who brought some serious soul to TGF’s disco pop flourishes.

After the set, I headed to Longbranch Inn to check out Impose Magazine’s final showcase. The venue was running behind schedule, so I walked in on the last of Xander Harris’s droney electronic set. He was followed by Sapphire Slows, a Tokyo-based electronic composer who effectively hides behind a tiny set-up of gadgets and keyboards and shifts around listlessly while reproducing her submerged but polished beats by pushing a bevy of buttons. Layering laconic vocals over her sultry compositions proved an effective means of winning over the audience; I heard one guy repeatedly gushing over how stoked he was to see a female truly deliver on an electronic performance (apparently he didn’t get a chance to see Grimes?). While Sapphire Slows’ rhythms are moody and honed to perfection, there wasn’t much to see in terms of her delivery. She remained pretty stiff, her stare a bit blank, as if trying to remember which knob to twist. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by the tallest audience ever, including a dude well over 6’5” in a Kevin-Arnold style Jets jacket that Paul and Winnie could have also climbed into to camp out in. Every time I thought I’d secured a spot with some decent visibility, some overgrown Austinite would lurch in front of me. I was finally jostled into a corner between a jukebox and the edge of the stage where I could perch while Tearist delivered the most mind-blowing performance I saw all week.

Not knowing much about L.A. band Tearist prior to SXSW, my only expectations were based on a glowing review of a set a friend had caught earlier in the week. Vocalist/feral child Yasmine Kittles stood on stage, tiny in an oversized camouflaged hunting parka with her brown tresses done up in a huge top knot. She carried a large, rusting table fan onto the stage and set it to blowing, tugging her hair down around her face and removing the jacket to reveal a tiny frame clad in black lacy top, leather shorts, and ripped tights. The fan whipped her wildly around wide black eyes lined with black mascara. She howled over a sludgy backdrop of insistent beats and grinding synths produced by her cohort, William Strangeland-Menchaca, her voice deep and resonant. She writhed across the stage as if performing some ritual, lifting her arms up and sweeping them to the floor in one gracious motion. At one moment she was kneeling, at another attempting to climb the Impose-bannered curtains. Throughout the set, Kittles maintained an intensity in her faraway gaze as if the seething masses worshipping her at the foot of the stage were no present, but was also acutely aware of her surroundings, like a caged animal searching for an escape route. The visceral, almost autistic urgency in Kittles’ performance is consistently anchored by the stoic presence of Strangeland-Menchaca, whose rhythms sizzle and pop. They are punctuated by Kittles’ occasional swings at hammered metal box she holds in one hand and attacks with a metallic receiver she holds in the other, the sound coming out somewhere between a clashing clap and electronic thunderbolt. I obviously see a lot of live music, and I’ve seen performances of this nature more than a few times, but there’s simply something about Tearist that is specifically mesmerizing, exciting, and electrifying. With Kittles’ unabashed lack of self control, you’re left to wonder what she’ll do next; its as though she’s suffering some intense rite of passage and every shred of intensity is both turned inward and focused on deliverance outward, like lava flowing from an erupting volcano.

Peaking Lights offered a mellowed change of pace, providing the perfect comedown. While 2009’s Imaginary Falcons was a sublime piece of psych drone, it was last year’s widely acclaimed 936 that broke the band to larger audiences. Hailing from Wisconsin, married couple Indra Dunis and Aaron Coyes meld together swirling, heady notes with dubby 8-tracked beats, forming a narcotic poetry. Looking ever part the opium-den goddess, Indra swayed back and forth, alternately shaking maracas, tickling the keys of a tiny vintage piano, and crooning into her mic, clothed in yellow silks depicting peacocks. Coyes was a more unassuming entity in his jean jacket, manning drum machines and samples with an occasional shake or nod of his head. The set was shortened by the closing of the bar, the show having run way past its 2am end time. While doped-up devotional “Amazing and Wonderful” was sadly missing, the set was an interesting look into what we can expect from upcoming release “Lucifer”, likely to be a bit more playful and perhaps even disco inspired, as their most recent mixtape indicates.
Though Longbranch had let the band keep playing beyond last call, once the last beats faded the lights came up and the bartender shouted, “That’s it, folks… South by Southwest is over, thank fucking God!” I’m guessing it gets pretty grating on locals to have thousands of hard-drinking, heavy-partying music fans descend on your otherwise quiet, quirky little patch of dirt, even if they are stimulating your local economy and putting you on the map in the most innovative tech, music and film circles.

I had to go meet up with my posse, who were at that time witnessing the now infamous Vice party in which Trash Talk prepped their wily fans to turn A$AP Rocky’s set into an all-out brawl. I waited patiently while a throng of disbelieving revelers trudged out of the venue and into the dust, likely as exhausted from all the insanity as I was. Nothing lasts forever, as they say, and though I’d missed my opportunity to see more than a handful of acts I’d really been looking forward to catching, I was walking away having seen over thirty bands in the space of four days. My phone had no remaining memory for photos or videos. I’d earned eight badges in fourSquare. Including transportation and lodging, I’d spent less that $400 bucks. And I’d be back to do it all again next year, no doubt.

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