Amalie Bruun of Ex Cops at SXSW 2013
Divine Fits, Cirque du Soleil, CHVRCHES, Alt-J, Ex Cops, Peace, NO CEREOMONY///
SXSW 2013 Tuesday and Wednesday Recap – Divine Fits, CHVRCHES, Ex Cops, Alt-J, Peace, and more,
Mar 22, 2013 Web Exclusive Photography by Mark Redfern
My wife Wendy and I were warned not to bring a baby to SXSW but had little choice but to take our two-and-a-half-month-old daughter Rose to Austin with us. Pat, Wendy's mother, accompanied us, serving as babysitter as much as possible. This allowed us to run Under the Radar's three day parties, but still made it tricky for both Wendy and I to catch shows at night, with Wendy often hanging back at the hotel during Rose's customary evening fussy time. Here's a recap of what I saw Tuesday and Wednesday night during the music portion of SXSW in between worrying about the new addition to our family.
In recent years SXSW Music has expanded from it's traditional Wednesday to Saturday span to bleed into SXSW Interactive, with shows now on Tuesday night too (don't be surprised if they start adding shows to Sunday night at some point). After months of dealing with a newborn I was already worn out by Tuesday night, it feeling akin to a Friday or Saturday of previous SXSWs in terms of my energy level. So I opted for a partially seated show at ACL Live, one with a slightly bizarre bill: Divine Fits, Cirque du Soleil, and DJ Sam Spiegel.
Divine Fits barreled through a short, no nonsense, mainly banter-free set. A Thing Called Divine Fits, the quartet's 2012-released debut album, is remarkably solid considering it was made by an indie supergroup (of sorts). It stands toe to toe with the best of Britt Daniel's work with Spoon and Dan Boeckner's music with Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs. Divine Fits is a supergroup that actually works because it feels organic and like a real band, rather than a collective of egos jockeying for attention. Divine Fits' tight and crisp set ended with Boeckner throwing his cowboy hat into the audience.
It was unclear what to expect from a Cirque du Soleil show at SXSW, but it seemed worth sticking around to find out, even if it was a weird fit to follow Divine Fits. Amanda Palmer, for example, would've sat better on a bill with the cabaret-style Canadian circus performers. Red clown noses were given out to the audience as we entered the venue, although they weren't needed during the performance. The showcase started with a video of all the exciting Cirque du Soleil shows from around the world and it turned out to be a tease, a look at all the amazing feats they wouldn't be able to pull off at a SXSW showcase. Why even do a Cirque show at SXSW? That question was never answered. But still, it was a nice distraction from all the rock posturing. Uncomfortable tricks of balance were followed by a contortionist, mimes, and a performer spinning on rings high above the stage. Most of this was fairly standard circus fare, but the set climaxed with some incredibly impressive acrobats, with the tour de force being a tower of standing people four persons high.
Sam Spiegel of N.A.S.A. had the unenviable task of spinning a DJ set right after Cirque du Soleil's show, as most of the audience were filing out of the venue (including this writer). It was good exiting music.
And with that I returned to the hotel to see my wife and child. At every SXSW it's hard not to lament all the other artists I could've seen. On Tuesday night I missed sets by IO Echo (I caught the last 30 seconds of their strobe light aided last song, "When the Lilies Die," but saw a great full set later in the week), Jim James, Charli XCX, Icona Pop, Indians, Willy Moon, Nicolas Jaar, Mozart's Sister, Japandroids, Wavves, Tegan and Sara, HAIM, and DIIV (the latter two I also saw later in the week).
My Wednesday daytime was taken up by Under the Radar's first of three day parties, which saw impressive sets from DIANA, Big Black Delta, Shout Out Louds, Marnie Stern, Doldrums, Young Dreams, and Surfer Blood. Wednesday night the main goal was to see Chvrches at the Windish Agency showcase at Red 7. The awkwardly spelled band rode a tidal wave of buzz across the Atlantic from their native Scotland and were one of the most talked about new acts going into SXSW 2013, despite only releasing a few songs prior to their Austin shows. We showed up at Red 7 early (just in case there was a crazy long line for CHVRCHES) and caught a set by the new British band Peace, who have gotten their fair share of buzz back in the U.K. Peace's debut EP, EP Delicious, contains the sprawling 10-minute long semi-title-track "1998 (Delicious)," which has hints of shoegaze à la Ride. The rest of the EP is less ambitious, trading in more standard 2010s British rock. "Bloodshake" is the requisite catchy single in the vein of Two Door Cinema Club and "California Daze" channels The Beach Boys by way of Smith Westerns. Live it was same deal, with "1998 (Delicious)" impressing the most and the band's more standard rock songs coming off about as inspired as the band's name (Chvrches replaced the "u" with "v" to make them more searchable on the Internet, try Googling "Peace" and you'll be hard pressed to find anything on the band on the first page of results). I'd still be curious to hear the band's debut full-length. "It's been wonderful being here. Got nothing else to do," mused singer/guitarist Harry Koisser, displaying a similar lack of enthusiasm that the audience had watching their set. Fellow Brits NO CEREOMONY/// were found playing in Red 7's adjacent smaller room. The electronic female-fronted three-piece were more detached, rather than the mysterious air they were likely trying to convey, and didn't leave much of a lasting impression.
Next came a typical SXSW dilemma—should I hang out at Red 7 for the next two hours watching bands I didn't care about while waiting for CHVRCHES or should I leave the venue to see artists I was interested in checking out, thus running the risk of not being able to get back in to see CHVRCHES. My show-buddy and I decided to risk it and ventured off to the Swan Dive for the Quebec showcase to see Young Galaxy. Alas, the venue was running late and we arrived as a tame hip-hop group called Ain't No Love was still playing. They had a track about dropping to the ground when you hear gunshots, which included gunshot sounds and an accompanying ducking dance move. Yet the group seemed more suburban than ghetto—how dangerous can Montréal be anyhow?
We left the delayed venue and headed over to The Parish for the High Road Touring showcase just in time to catch Brooklyn's Ex Cops, who played the first (and perhaps only) truly great set I witnessed that night. The dream-pop of the band's debut album, True Hallucinations, translated extremely well to the live setting and made me appreciate the LP even more.
My faith in modern music momentarily restored, we returned to Red 7 to be predictably met by a long line to return inside to see CHVRCHES. Should we wait or head over to the much larger Stubb's venue around the corner to see Alt-J (which we'd surely get into, as the venue would have just emptied out a bit following sets by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Yeah Yeah Yeahs)? It would have been less than ideal to wait for CHVRCHES and end up missing both CHVRCHES and Alt-J in the process. Thankfully we made it into Red 7 just as the Scottish trio was taking the stage. CHVRCHES came on to a weird spoken word intro that was hard to hear and then launched into songs from their debut EP, Recover. It was just as well that we hadn't stuck around the venue for two hours waiting for CHVRCHES, as live they were a bit underwhelming. The band has a Purity Ring vibe, but lack that duo's theatricality (no weird homemade instruments or a stage lit by lantern, for examples). In Under the Radar's interview with CHVRCHES' singer Lauren Mayberry in our current issue, the former drummer admitted to being a less than confident frontwoman and being more comfortable in the dark back behind the drum kit. This was apparent at Red 7. I'm not sure if I thought that because the article was still fresh in mind or if I would've independently picked up on it, but Mayberry could do with bolstering her stage presence.
After a handful of songs, we decided to leave and catch some of Alt-J (thus allowing two poor souls still in line to see CHVRCHES the chance to get in and catch the end of their good, but not spectacular set). Stubb's was running late, so we made it just as Alt-J were starting (win-win, we saw both bands!). The band from the U.K. (which seemed to be the nation of the night, bar Brooklyn shoegazers Ex Cops and those safe Canadian rappers) confidently ran through songs from their Mercury Prize-winning debut album, An Awesome Wave. When the band was first getting talked up by the British music press in 2011 I wasn't completely sold on them. Were Joe Newman's off-kilter vocals weirdly endearing or simply grating? Was their name, which is technically written as ∆, the symbol that pushing the 'alt' and 'j' buttons on a Mac keyboard makes, just another in a long line of 21st century's frustratingly oblique band names that garner brief attention but aren't backed up music of any substance? Eventually I grew to fully appreciate the quartet's hard to classify rock/folk/electronic/pop sounds. Although we were able to walk right into Stubb's, Alt-J still commanded a formidable crowd and seemed to appreciate such success. "It's pretty fucking amazing to be on the same stage as Nick Cave and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in one night," exclaimed keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton before the band launched into "Matilda," a song inspired by Natalie Portman's character in The Professional (aka Léon).
As ever, there were a lot of other great artists I could have chosen to see on Wednesday night instead, including the aforementioned Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as Lord Huron, Iron & Wine, Tegan and Sara, Willy Moon, The Eastern Sea, Toro Y Moi, Phosphorescent, Foxygen (who I'd see the next day at Under the Radar's party), Jim James, Japandroids, Local Natives, Iggy and the Stooges, Wampire, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, The Besnard Lakes, Icona Pop, Ash, The Black Angels, IO Echo, Austra, and no doubt others (the latter two I would see later in the festival). But to see all those bands that night would've required undergoing a cloning process or some sort of time travel, both of which aren't scientifically possible yet and would probably be illegal if they were.
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