Under the Radar SXSW Party Recap: Niki & The Dove, The Drums, Chairlift, of Montreal and More
FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. At a festival the size of SXSW, the terror that someone—somewhere—might be having a better time than you is an ever-pressing concern. Well, everywhere but at Under the Radar’s three-day parties. I realize my option is somewhat suspect, seeing as they sign my paychecks, but believe me when I say that, for at least three days of the fest, there was nowhere else I would have rather been than The Flamingo Cantina in Austin, Texas.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see every set. Due to being “on the clock,” much of my time was spent darting around the venue, and—in one terrifying instance—leaving to party a band’s van so they could get on with the important business of being rock stars. (To Choir of Young Believers: Your faith in my abilities to drive several blocks through SXSW traffic and remain unscathed was incredible.) Sadly my duties did mean I missed some fantastic artists—perhaps most heartbreakingly Lost in the Trees, who were finishing the tail end of what looked like an incredible set as I sprinted back into the venue.
The sets that I was able to witness uniformly blew me away. As a critic, it’s easy to get cynical, to pick music apart and forget about the sheer joy of hearing a great set, drink in hand, flanked by a few good friends. Here’s a rundown of what I was able to catch (and greatly enjoy) each day.
One of my jobs at the party was to live tweet performances. I had to stop halfway through Niki & The Dove. You know those bands that inspire such a positive response you start worrying that your superlative statements no longer hold any meaning? For me, that’s Niki & The Dove. The Swedish electro-pop duo took the stage at the 350-person venue as though they were performing to a stadium of fans. Singer Malin Dahlström waved her bead-clad hands above her head as she sang—as though casting a spell on the audience. Even at the early hour, it was easy to get lost in their complex and stunning tunes—the majority of which came from forthcoming full-length, Instinct.
This year marks Hooray for Earth’s second appearance at an Under the Radar SXSW party—and as far as I’m concerned they can play every event from here on out. Even without backing vocals from Cristi Jo and Jessica Zambri (who would play our party the next day) the New York-based band shined, their day-glow tunes from last year year’s debut-full length True Loves still sounding fresh and exciting. To the band: I hereby apologize for the barrage of “hooray for you!” tweets, but it was either that or actively jumping up and down like a sugared toddler. Even on day one, my energy levels wouldn’t allow for that option.
Admittedly I went into The Drums set a bit ambivalent. It’s not that I disliked them, it’s just that, there’s only so much time and iPod space for music. You can probably see where this set-up is going. Frontman Jonathan Pierce (who won me over pre-set by admitting he’s influenced by the Swedish pop scene) owned the stage like some crazed incarnation of Buddy Holly. When I finally reached my hotel that night (long after the witching hour) I fired up Spotify and dove into their back catalogue. To Pierce and the gang: you have earned yourself a new fan.
Day two came packed with many of my favorite acts from the last year. Through a stroke of luck, it was also a day where I was able to catch a majority of sets.
British two-piece Slow Club is probably tired of having the cute/twee card thrown at them. While multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Rebecca Taylor and guitarist/vocalist Charles Watson do make an incredibly good looking Bonnie and Clyde, their set proved that they’re more than a couple of pretty faces. Dipping into the folk, rock, and pop cocktail of sophomore album Paradise, the pair far exceeded expectations. (Which were already sky high.) Taylor hilariously took time out to point out that live, they’re a three-piece…all the better to schlep their gear around.
I know that musicians tend to cringe at being compare to other artists—so I hope the ladies (and touring members) of Zambri will forgive me for saying this. But why, oh why, isn’t the Brooklyn-based duo as popular as Bat for Lashes? Cristi Jo and Jessica Zambri trade in the same otherworldly melodies as Natasha Khan. Their tunes though, have an extra layer of mystery—complete with industrial squeals, pounding drum machines, and 1980s-flavored synths. (Please, go listen to EP Glossolalia while you twiddle your thumbs and wait for the full-length.) Ultimately, all theses layers should translate to a trainwreck on stage. But the band pulled it off with the style and grace of a much older band, Cristi Jo and Jessica playing synths and juggling multiple microphones with a fantastic ease.
I’ve been a fan of Victoria Bergsman since catching one of the first Taken by Trees sets in Stockholm in early 2007. Since then, the chanteuse has put out two standout albums, and turned what was once a painfully shy stage presence into one of quiet grace. Clad in a pretty pink skirt, Bergsman delivered a placid set of tropical tunes from her forthcoming third album. The singer was flanked by a talented backing band that included a steel guitar player. A nice touch was the incense lining the stage—you know, just to get us all in the right headspace.
On the opposite end of the energy spectrum was Bear in Heaven, whose space-age disco-rock tunes got the crowd jumping. They apologized for playing exclusively new tunes from upcoming album I Love You, It’s Cool—but judging by fans’ response no one really minded a lack of sing-alongs. In a final show of exuberance, frontman Jon Philpot brought the dance party to the front of the stage, clapping and dancing directly into individual audience members’ cameras.
Several years ago I saw Chairlift at the Troubadour in Los Angeles—a show, which forever remains burned into my memory as one of the most disappointing performances of all time. Now one member down, and free of the internal strife that was getting them down, Chairlift has reorganized as a duo, and is all the better for it. Performing material exclusively culled from sophomore album Something; bassist Patrick Wimberly and vocalist Caroline Polachek actually seemed to be having a good time. No longer stuck behind a keyboard (the pair brought along a backing band to handle musical duties) Polachek was free to move around the stage indulging her inner diva with a standout vocal performance that stands among one of the SXSW’s most memorable moments.
Day three kicked off early with opener Django Django showing up almost an hour and a half ahead of schedule. Not only were the British four-piece incredibly professional (and rewarded with one of the most detailed sound-checks our party has had to date) they brought with them truly infectious electro-pop tunes. For the rest of the day, it was not uncommon to hear an Under the Radar staffer hum the earworm refrain of “Default.” (And by “a staffer” I mean me.)
I’m not a huge fan of Vivian Girls, so it was with some surprise that I found myself really getting into Vivian Girl side-project, La Sera. Like shot directly to the brain Katy Goodman’s lo-fi beachy refrains evoke the best of 1950s pop—all earworms and tunes about lost love. Sometimes you just want to sing along. Despite delivering a set of songs from her sophomore album Sees the Light—which wouldn’t be released until the follow week—Goodman’s engagingly simple song-structures allowed audience members to do just that.
And then…there was of Montreal. The closing act to our three-days of parties, they were the band most fans were there to see—many even heading to the show in their finest of Montreal garb. Not only did the band’s announcement that they’d be playing The Sunlandic Twins for the first—and perhaps only—time ever inspire a line down the street, it also encouraged most attendees to come early and stay all day. Later, we learned that the last person let into the venue had been waiting in line for three hours. Now that’s dedication!
Not only was it an incredible honor to have the band play such a unique set at our party, it was a lot of fun. Now seven years old, The Sunlandic Twins still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did in 2005. Clad in a red-ruffled blouse I wish I had the guts to pull off, frontman Kevin Barnes bounced through the set with an undeniable mirth. Exuberant—and more than a bit sweaty—the crowd danced along with him. It was a perfect way to end our three days of madness.
A huge thank you to all the bands that played for making our seventh year of SXSW parties such a success. We sincerely hope that everyone who attended had as much fun as we did. See you all in Austin next year!