My last day at SXSW was the least rigorous in terms of the number of bands I saw, yet it felt the most strenuous, perhaps due to accumulated fatigue. Believe me, SXSW is incredibly fun, and covering it for work is a privilege I wouldn’t trade, but it's as taxing as it is thrilling.
Hence, my final day started early and ended early. I spent most of it at Mohawk for the MOG party, which featured many of the more ubiquitous SXSW acts plus some hefty headliners. But first I checked out the trade show, where music technology companies were heavily represented and musicians could get a personal critique from A&R people among other attractions. I also stopped by Flatstock, the annual rock poster convention presented by Rovi (not to be confused with roeVy), which of course offered significant visual stimulation.
As for the musical portion of my day, it started with tune-yards, the idiosyncratic project of Merrill Garbus, who appeared on the “Our Band Could Still Be Your Life” panel with Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab on Wednesday. Garbus mentioned this MOG event was her last performance in a week full of them, and it’s a good thing I saw it because I would have been foolish to leave SXSW having skipped tune-yards.
Garbus has an approach all her own. I’m not even sure which artists or genres to reference when describing her music, but it’s intense on the melodic and rhythmic axes yet sweet and infinitely approachable. Her band at the Mohawk was her with a ukulele, a bassist and two horn players, plus a bunch of drums that she used to build loops to form the backbone of her songs. It was one of the most stirring, joyful performances I’ve ever seen and an instant highlight of the week. Big thumbs up. Can’t wait for her new album next month, and Wexner Center or BenCo better bring her to Columbus this year or they’re screwing up.
Stepped outside next so I could finally see Wild Flag, the punk supergroup featuring Sleater-Kinney alums Carrie Brownstein (“Put a bird on it!”) and Janet Weiss, both of whom are personal heroes and universal rock goddesses. Mary Timony (Helium) and Rebecca (The Minders) round out the lineup.
Singer-guitarists Brownstein and Timony trade lead duties — when one is singing, the other is shredding. It’s a pretty sweet system because both players bring a lot to the table, Timony with her finger-tapped pogo melodies and Brownstein with that familiar angry attack. Weiss continues to be a total badass, and Cole adds a fascinating sonic twist by playing keyboard instead of bass. Plus all four of them sing, and Brownstein’s kicks and windmill strums are back in full force.
Their set was rousing to say the least. At one point Brownstein offered a tongue-in-cheek apology: “Hope it wasn’t too early for that. It’s 1:10, but we don’t have any beach songs.” They are the rare supergroup that lives up to the hype.
The next act I watched was Austin hometown crew Okkervil River. I've been biased against this band ever since they opened for the New Pornographers at Newport three years ago and delivered one of the more obnoxious emo-folk sets of my lifetime. Since then my impression of them has only gone down considering the number of horrid wannabe folk-rock heroes they've influenced. On this day, though, Will Sheff and his band seemed less concerned with tortured artist serious business and more about rocking out, so I warmed up to them quite a bit and rekindled a fond relationship with "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe" that had been soured by the Newport show.
TV on the Radio followed with perhaps the loudest performance I've ever heard. It was one of the few times I've regretted not wearing earplugs at a show; my ears were literally in pain from standing so close to the speakers, and eventually I had to retreat.
Musically, though, it was solid. For all the sonic finesse of their records, TVOTR is basically a punk band on stage, exemplified by the way they ramped up "The Wrong Way" from an already bustling urban storm into a monolithic low end roar. I usually prefer this band about three or four songs at a time, so their hour-long set tried my patience, but when they finally got to "Wolf Like Me" it was yet another confirmation that that song is among the greatest achievements in rock history and a powerful shot of adrenaline.
TV on the Radio
I stepped back inside at this point to get a closer listen to Yuck, one of the breakout bands of the festival for their England-born rehash of 1990s American indie rock. As previously stated, I don't have any problem with bands lifting from acts like Pavement or Yo La Tengo if it's resulting in more great songs, and Yuck's songs are pretty freaking great.
A prime example is the beautifully simplistic "The Wall", which they were rolling out just as I entered the room. This was Yuck's final SXSW show too, and they definitely seemed worn out from playing two or three gigs a day. Fortunately, when you're conjuring the slacker era you don't necessarily need to sound alert.
I saw Big Boi at the Pitchfork fest last summer, and his set to close out the MOG party was essentially the same: a rapid-fire assault of OutKast's greatest hits, followed by a voyage into some of the group's early dirty south bangers and new solo joints from "Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty".
It's impossible not to get swept up in that string of OutKast hits, particularly the "Aquemini" and "Stankonia" tracks. Absolute 100 percent classics, all of them. I have to plead ignorance on the stuff from "ATLiens" and "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik", but I'm a big fan of the solo album too, so I was glad to hear selections like "Daddy Fat Sax" and "Shine Blockas".
For his part, Big Boi seemed to be having a swell time grooving his way through his collected works; he's like an old blues man up there, only instead of clasping a guitar in a chair like B.B. King, he's busting out dance moves that are at once hilarious and cooler than any dance moves I'll ever muster. And he still nails his lines; the verbal acrobatics from "Miss Jackson" assured us of that.
After sitting down for dinner, I caught a few more performances before calling it a night. First up was Lydia Loveless, the underage Columbus country-rocker who just signed to Chicago's venerable Bloodshot Records. She and her band were, appropriately, opening the Bloodshot showcase at Red Eyed Fly.
I've always found Loveless' songs a bit samey — it seemed like she was just bashing out the same chords, melodies and classic country tropes about drinking and heartbreak, song after song into infinity. Saturday's set made it clear that her songwriting is advancing at an accelerated clip. The new material was a decided break from the established template, with different tempos and feels and a lot more nuance. Credit some of that to her crack band of Columbus roots rock veterans, particularly Todd May's transcendent lead guitar work. But chalk most of it up to a songwriter who's blooming before our eyes. I'm officially psyched to hear Loveless' Bloodshoot debut this fall.
I headed down to the free Mess With Texas party in the field at East Side Drive-In hoping to get one more dose of Odd Future, who had so captivated me the day before at the Thrasher party. I darted through a thousands-strong throng at the tent-covered second stage to get close for the young ruffians, only to catch the end of Big Freedia's set.
I had never heard of Big Freedia at the time, which explains why I thought she was a man Saturday night. It turns out she's the ringleader of New Orleans' Sissy Bounce scene, a mostly gay and transgender hip-hop community that's attracted attention from Fader and The New York Times Magazine among others. Her show, a blizzard of big beats and booty dancers, concluded with an a cappella freestyle that showed there's some legitimate rap skill behind the bounce circus.
When Big Freedia finished, the Odd Future crowd began its customary rush toward the stage. Then somebody got on the mic and announced Odd Future would actually be performing on the outdoor stage instead, which inspired a terrifying stampede out of the tent, up the hill and over the fence into the outdoor area. Having pressed my way up to the stage to shoot photos, I was caught up in the current, and for a few seconds I was legitimately afraid I was going to be crushed to death, or at least get my phone or camera destroyed. Thankfully I got my foot unstuck in time to speed out of there unscathed.
This experience inspired enough claustrophobia that I decided to stay away from the pit and take in Odd Future from a distance. Friday's Thrasher show was chaotic in the best way, but from the start Saturday's Mess With Texas headlining stint was chaotic in a much less invigorating fashion.
First the customary opening "Sandwitches" beat was too quiet, so Tyler, The Creator, barking orders through his mic from backstage, berated the sound guy and made DJ Syd tha Kid start again. Hodgy Beats ended up on stage before he was supposed to be, making Tyler's big masked entrance a lot less climactic than it should have been.
When the whole lot of them finally stormed out, they seemed a lot less on point and a lot more like a bunch of jacked up kids who are performing in front of 5,000 people for the first time. It reminded me of many of the mediocre local crews that sometimes get trotted out to open big rap shows — lots of garbled group shouting, with little discernable charisma. Nobody would accuse them of failing to keep things lively, though.