SXSW 2015: Tuesday and Wednesday - The War on Drugs, Future Islands, Natalie Prass, Laura Marling, Real Estate, and More | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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SXSW 2015

SXSW 2015: Tuesday and Wednesday - The War on Drugs, Future Islands, Natalie Prass, Laura Marling,

Mar 27, 2015 Web Exclusive Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share


SXSW 2015 had a more scaled back vibe than recent years. After SXSW 2014's tragic deaths due to a car slamming into a crowd of attendees and last year's over-capacity issues, as well as charges in recent years that the conference was becoming too commercialized and overtaken by huge artists, 2015 seemed like a breath-catching year. Kanye West wasn't the big surprise guest at the FADER Fort and there was no artist the size of Lady Gaga hogging a bunch of press coverage from smaller buzz acts this year. There were still plenty of events sponsored by corporations, but nothing as garish as the Doritos Stage of the last few years (a giant Doritos vending machine towering over Sixth Street). Ex Cops even declined to play the McDonalds stage because they didn't want to be associated with the brand, and also because the hamburger chain weren't paying any of the artists (a common thing with SXSW events, but not so forgivable with such a huge corporation); thus drumming more press than they likely did for last fall's sophomore album, Daggers. Austin cut back on the number of permits that were given for SXSW outdoor events this year and the fire marshals seemed even more vigilant in enforcing venue capacities. And I personally knew a lot of SXSW veterans who gave this year a miss. That doesn't mean that there wasn't still a plethora of fantastic performances and social media worthy moments at SXSW 2015.

Unlike big music festivals in a field somewhere (such as Coachella or Bonnaroo), which are more of a collective experience with only a handful of stages to choose from and many people focusing on the main stage performances, SXSW is a very individual experience, with hundreds of bands playing every day and night in venues scattered all around downtown Austin and beyond. There's something for everyone and each attendee has their own personal SXSW experience based on what they decide to see out of the multitude of options. Here is a diary of what I personally saw at SXSW 2015 on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the music portion.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

It's only in recent years that SXSW has started doing full on music showcases Tuesday. Traditionally it's been a Wednesday to Saturday affair. There are still a lot less showcases on Tuesday than the other nights, but this year the likes of Spoon, Twin Peaks, East India Youth, TORRES, Speedy Ortiz, and others would play the opening night. I caught some of those artists later in the week, but eased into SXSW by mainly sticking to Cheer Up Charlie's, a venue I'd revisit several times in the week, for a showcase hosted by the indie PR firm Riot Act Media. Cheer Up Charlie's has two stages, a tiny indoor one and a bigger outdoor space, with Riot Act set up indoors.

I was mainly there to see Richmond, VA-based singer/songwriter Natalie Prass, but first caught a song each by Tom Brosseau and Jess Williamson. The latter was a charming Austin-basedsinger/songwriter with a backing band and the former is from Los Angeles. Brosseau was clad in jeans and a tucked in, buttoned to the collar, white shirt, sans tie. He performed solo on acoustic guitar and sang about our modern disconnect: "I long for you to hold me in your arms, but instead you cradle your device."

When Prass was booked for such a small venue she likely had not yet received all the rave reviews for her self-titled debut album (released in January) and all the buzz connected to that. The room was overflowing with people and packed to a level too uncomfortable for at least one friend of mine, who decided to escape the crowd. From the get go Prass announced that she'd be down an important instrument tonight ("we're going to play with no Wurlitzer tonight, but fuck it"). The stage was so low that it was hard for anyone not right up front to see her and Prass revealed that she was "definitely getting dripped on by something." She also said that the band had just flown in from Norway and introduced a member who had just joined the band. Prass skipped songs due to the lack of an organ and admitted at one point, "We're like struggle-ville up here...thanks for bearing with us." Her live band could really use a horn and/or string section on top of the Wurlitzer to translate the ornate arrangements of her classic soul-influenced debut, something I suspect Prass and her label would be in favor of too if she continues to take off and the budget allows.

Despite all those challenges, the good songs (such as single "Birds of Prey") and Prass' warm stage presence both won out. In a compelling contrast, Prass was wearing a Kiss T-shirt and stood up on one of the speakers to sing the decidedly Disney-esque and jazzy album closer "It Is You." She tried to whistle part of the song, but then laughed it off, realizing the futility of attempting a perfect set that night, but also enjoying the moment.

I then ventured next door to Mohawk to catch a few songs by Angel Olsen, who performed on the outdoor stage. I saw her at SXSW last year, performing with her full backing band. And while I loved last year's Burn Your Fire For No Witness album, I found her less than dynamic live. This year she performed solo, just her and an electric guitar, and had a firmer command of the stage, assuring, "It's special being onstage. It's fucking special. There's nothing to complain about." She actually started her headliner set earlier than scheduled, since she was already ready to go ("I'm last, so I tried not to get drunk," she explained, without clarifying if she succeeded). Solo versus a full band set she was more haunting, but also quieter. "I'm trying to put you all to sleep," Olsen joked at around 1:30 in the morning. "I'm trying to go to sleep." Clearly in a humorous mood, Olsen told the audience "you all smell interesting tonight" and kidded that she was going to close out her set with a 30-minute Grateful Dead cover.

Meanwhile, on Mohawk's small indoor stage, hyped British producer SOPHIE was confirming that he's both male and not particularly good live. In what essentially appeared to be a DJ set, he "performed" obnoxious and overly caffeinated electronic music (sounding akin to eating a 7-Eleven glazed donut sprinkled with Splenda artificial sweetener) as images of sport cars superimposed over a giant eyeball flashed behind him and some random guy jumped up on stage and started dancing (or was he part of the act). A few minutes were enough to convince me it was time to go back to my hotel and to bed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wednesday's listening began with a late afternoon set by British singer/songwriter/guitarist Laura Marling, who performed a 3 PM set hosted by the Los Angeles public radio station KCRW at theRadio Day Stage in the Austin Convention center. As strange as it was to see a folk-rock performance in a darkened convention center ballroom, Marling pulled it off, dressed in intimidating impossibly high-wasted retro looking white pants and charming the audience with her deft guitar playing and confessional lyrics. My 2-year-old daughter Rose enjoyed it, running around and dancing in the back of the room.

My evening listening began with a set by Chicago singer/guitarist Ryley Walker at Central Presbyterian Church. Walker has drawn favorable comparisons to Nick Drake and Tim Buckley and that sounds about right. His fingerpicking and emotive vocals were a good fit for the church setting and he sounded best when his songs stretched out and got into a bit of a groove. Walker, whose sophomore album, Primrose Green, is about to be released by Dead Oceans, was simply appreciative that anyone showed up. "There's lots of stuff going on. You could be anywhere, but you came here," he thanked. He then dedicated a song to the band Kansas, a song which may or may not have been a Kansas cover. "If anyone from the band Kansas is here tonight I want to hang out with you all night."

I next tried to get in to see Alvvays at Mohawk, but the line was too long ("Next of Kin" sounded good from the street), and only managed to catch the last Shamir song at Stubb's, which sounded different enough from his much blogged-about single "On the Regular" that I was convinced the stage was running late and it was a different artist. Then we headed off to see Future Islands and The War on Drugs. We were stuck in a one-out-one-in line situation outside during Future Islands' set and only heard a muffled version of it, but made it into the venue just in time to see The War on Drugs. Even though they had a 10:30 set time, they were the headliners and the rumor was that they might play as long as two-and-a-half hours (whereas most SXSW sets are around 40 minutes).

Philadelphia-based The War on Drugs were playing the YouTube stage at Coppertank-an incredibly branded venue, with the YouTube play button logo projected on the band. Lost in the Dream was my favorite album of 2014 and although I'd seen The War on Drugs perform before, I hadn't seen them since that album had been released, so it was a much-anticipated set. They started with Lost in the Dream album-opener "Under the Pressure," which was also my favorite song of 2014. 2014 was a bit of a tough year for me, in large part because of the passing of my father and his illness before that, and the near nine-minute long epic really helped me escape some of the hard times. Finally seeing it live was an emotional experience. Slave Ambient standout "Baby Missiles" followed. Frontman Adam Granduciel pointed out that his "sister's best friend in the whole world," Josie, was down in front and that they had played in a bike shop several years ago at a previous SXSW.

The sound mix at Coppertank was a bit too loud at first, but that suited "Red Eyes" well, which seemed slightly expanded in live form. Soon Granduciel announced there would only be two more songs, which seemed to dispel the rumor of an extra long set, and two songs later, as the band seemed to be gearing up to play another one, he unexpectedly dropped his guitar and quickly said, "Show's over, bye," before leaving the stage. But it's a fake out and almost just as quickly they return to the stage. All-in-all it ended up being a one-hour-and-forty-minute set, not quite as long as rumored, but more than twice the length of an average SXSW set and the band played most of what I was hoping to hear (including "An Ocean Between the Waves" and set closer "Lost in the Dream"). During the final song I noticed a grey-haired couple, perhaps in their 60s, hold each other and sway to the music and hoped that my wife and I would still have the same passion for each other and new music that they had.

It was off to Cheer Up Charlie's outdoor stage, where I didn't really pay attention to Waxahatchee's set while waiting for Real Estate to come on. The New Jersey band's latest, Atlas, was my #2 favorite album of 2014, so it was only fitting to see them right after The War on Drugs. Jansport put on the show to promote their Bonfire Sessions-outdoor shows featuring a bonfire. Despite promise of an actual bonfire, understandably in the center of Austin we had to settle for a fake fire.

I had seen Real Estate at SXSW last year, when they played a spellbinding headliner set at Central Presbyterian Church. Unfortunately Cheer Up Charlie's cannot match such magic as the church. Firstly, it's essentially a stage set up in an empty lot. Secondly, the stage is on an upward slope, making it hard to see the artist unless you're right up front. Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney remembered, "We played on this stage in 2009, at noon." Real Estate dedicated a song to Alvvays and revealed that they didn't really put together a set list, but also weren't taking requests.

Future Islands played a second set that night, next door at Mohawk. While there was a long line earlier to get in, I was able to walk right in-the venue was on the way back to my hotel. The band was playing their announced final song. Frontman Samuel T. Herring was sweating up a storm and seemed a bit hoarse, the likely byproduct of playing two shows in one night, but the trio appeared in good form per usual.

As I walked away the sounds of a Future Islands encore wafted up the street. I was momentarily tempted to turn back around, but my hotel bed beckoned louder.




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