Foster the People at SXSW 2011

SXSW 2011, Cults, Esben and the Witch, Foster the People, Gayngs, Smith Westerns, Lia Ices, The Luyas

SXSW 2011 Day One Review - Gayngs, Cults, Smith Westerns, Esben and the Witch, and more, March 17th, 2011

Mar 22, 2011 Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Web Exclusive
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Esben and the Witch's music is a bit too doom and gloom to be experienced at 2:30 p.m. on a bright Texas day. We wandered into the Lipstick 24 for an unofficial SXSW party put on by Flavorpill, MuseBox, I Rock I Roll, and The Bell House NY as the British trio were launching into their final song, which was incredibly loud until sound problems caused the vocals to go out for half the song. The set ended with the band all bashing angrily on the drums before front-woman Rachel Davies stormed off stage, perhaps frustrated by the sound difficulties. And, thus, appropriately began my SXSW 2011. SXSW is a free-for-all, in which bands are forced to play strange venues at weird hours with varying degrees of sound quality. Over the week bands played everywhere from pizzerias to parking lots to churches; from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. (or even later). And day and night there was almost always some artist of interest worth checking out.

We next stopped by one of Windish Agency's many SXSW events, this one at the packed Mohawk, to see Foster the People. The Los Angeles-based trio (who was a five-piece live) was very professional and crisp sounding, channeling early MGMT and treading that line between major label and indie (as if those tags mean much anymore). Songs from their recently released self-titled EP sounded best. But songs unfamiliar to this reviewer, presumably to be found on their forthcoming debut album, Torches, were less strong. One song (I think it was titled "Hustlin") featured an awkward vocal arrangement and in the middle of "Don't Stop" frontman Mark Foster laughed weirdly (was it part of the song?). The set ended with the EP's two strongest songs. Single "Pumped Up Kicks," which featured actual whistling and is kind of the band's "Young Folks," featured an audience sing-along and "Helena Beat" was equally well received, ending things on a high note.

Next door at Club de Ville we came across Smith Westerns playing a party for their label Fat Possum. At SXSW, it's always nice to surprising stumble upon a band you're eager to see. Unfortunately the sound at Club de Ville (whose stage essentially in a parking lot) wasn't great; the vocals weren't high enough in the mix. Frontman Cullen Omori hid behind sunglasses and didn't appear to be in the lightest of moods. "To the fucking bitch who spilled my drink, fuck you," the singer said at the end of the band's set, just before jokingly threatening to kill another audience member.

Most of our evening was spent at the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans showcase, which was spread over two stages at Red 7. We were mainly there to see what the SXSW guide listed as "special guests," who we already knew were Gayngs. But first were sets from Lia Ices and The Luyas. The former was pleasant, but uninvolving. The latter featured Arcade Fire's Sarah Neufeld on violin. "Hey everybody, I feel like I'm putting on my socks in front of you," joked Luyas singer/guitarist Jessie Stein as her band sound-checked in front of the audience.

Comedian Tig Notaro introduced Gayngs, who went on late and thus played a disappointingly short set. Still, the supergroup (of sorts) played the best set we witnessed the first day of SXSW and were one of the highlights of the week. The band (which featured Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and The Rosebuds' Ivan Howard, among others) opened with single "The Gaudy Side of Town" and from the start settled into a smooth and hypnotic groove. Gayngs are one of the few bands to actually make Auto-Tune work and are singlehandedly bringing the alto saxophone back to rock (the set was Kenny G'd to the max). Small Black's Jeff Curtin was playing his first gig with the band and this was made apparent when Howard got his name wrong when introducing him. Har Mar Superstar guested on one song and the set ended with "Ride" and "No Sweat." Gayngs' all too short jam session left us wanting more.

For our final show of the night we headed over to the Windish Agency House @ ND (which was ever so slightly out of the way on the other side of the 35 freeway) for a midnight set by Cults. The duo (who have an expanded lineup live) was playing its first SXSW and was only just beginning to create a buzz with the release of their debut EP when the festival descended upon Austin last year. A year and a ton of blog-buzz later and the band is signed to a major label. Madeline Follin's vocals were tentative at first, but improved as the set went on, and four-fifths of the guys in the band had shoulder length hair or longer. Guitarist Brian Oblivion asked the audience who was the best artist they saw that day. After he waved off several suggestions that Cults were the best, a few people suggested James Blake, to which the band admitted they couldn't get into. Unfortunately Cults' set was not the best we saw that day, mainly due to some technical problems. The sound from the Cults video projected on the screen to the side of the band suddenly came on while the band was playing a totally different song. The band bravely soldiered on, but perhaps should've just stopped and started over. "Oh my god," exclaimed Follin when the song ended. "That was a cool, right, it was like a medley," added Oblivion. "That was a cool little rendition of our slow song...hope you guys liked the remix/mash-up," joked Follin. Alas we didn't, but it wasn't the band's fault. Even without the screw up, Cults didn't quite live up to the potential of their EP, but they didn't sound a little better the next night when performing in a church, which I'll tell you about later. 




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