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Casual Sex, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, EMA, Belle and Sebastian, Kirin J Callinan, San Fermin, Woman’s Hour, SXSW 2014, Future Islands

Austin’s SXSW 2014 Recap: Awards Edition, March 15th, 2014

Mar 18, 2014 Casual Sex
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I’ve spent the last six days down in Austin, Texas, taking in this year’s South By Southwest. In the times I’ve tried to describe the experience since returning, a Douglas Adams quote has come to mind: “Space … is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.” SXSW, when you’re there, feels similarly staggering in its scale. It stretches across a sizeable chunk of a large city. There are hundreds of artists playing official showcases, hundreds more playing unofficial ones, and a couple dozen just playing on the streets. Chances are good that at any given moment there are five or six bands you want to see playing shows, while there are around 100 others you’re probably missing. It’s overwhelming, I’ll tell you what.

This is a recap of what I saw, heard, and liked at this year’s SXSW. I didn’t see Jay-Z and Kanye perform, or Gaga getting puked on, but if that’s something you’re interested in I’m betting you’ve already read all about it. I went in without a badge and planned to see a bunch of lesser-known artists perform—many for the first time at South By—and that’s exactly what I did. And it was a blast. Instead of giving you a play-by-play, “this is what I saw, when and where”-style recap, I’ve created a bunch of award categories that I’ll bestow below. First, a couple disclaimers…

Disclaimer One: My name is Austin; I don’t represent the city of Austin in any way. I can understand the confusion if you’ve somehow stumbled across this page through a search engine. Again: I am not a city.

Disclaimer Two: These are my personal takeaways from SXSW. My friends and beloved colleagues at Under the Radar saw their own sets of shows beyond our three day parties. They all have exquisite tastes in music, and I encourage you to check out their festival recaps when they arrive in the near future.

Disclaimer Three: I’m not a photographer. My best pal even hooked me up with an idiot-proof camera, but I’m afraid I somehow overloaded its idiot resistors. (Be thankful I spared you the London Grammar set I shot, as the photos turned out looking like those blurry Bigfoot images you see in the Weekly World News.) Thankfully, we had real photographers on the scene, and their shots will be posted for your perusal in the coming days.

Let’s begin…

Discovery of the Festival Award: Vaadat Charigim. I was sent a lot of music in the weeks leading into SXSW, and I did my best to listen to as much of it as I could. (‘What I could’ was probably about 50 percent of what arrived—it was a lot of music!) One of the few which caught my attention was Vaadat Charigim, a shoegaze three-piece from Tel Aviv, Israel. Their single, “Odisea,” is outstanding, so I made sure to see them play while I was down there. Their set didn’t disappoint at all. Check out their other tracks, particularly if you’re a fan of Ride or Swervedriver.

Best Dancing: Future Islands. Because, you know, obviously. They put on a killer set at our first party of the festival, but midway through there was a momentary scare when lead singer/dancer Samuel Herring thought he might have torn his meniscus. Any lesser artist might have stopped dancing like a maniac at that point, but Future Islands kept the show going. It was suffering for one’s art if I’ve ever witnessed it. (One fan in attendance shot some video from a perch in the back of the venue, which proves Future Islands can be appreciated from any angle.)

Showcase Which Has Me Seriously Considering Flying Back to Austin In A Couple Months: Austin Psych Fest. I’m a sucker for vintage psych music, which comprises the largest portion of my record collection. I looked into flying down for Austin Psych Fest several years ago, back when Fever Tree reformed to play the festival, but couldn’t work it out. I was able to catch the tail end of their day-long showcase at Hotel Vegas, and the whole thing was totally my vibe. There were two grimy indoor stages and one big one out in the courtyard, which allowed plenty of space to chill out (and space out) while taking in bands like Vaadat Charigim, Bo Ningen, and Blouse, or to flip through record bins full of Kaleidoscope and Tomorrow represses. I dug the whole shebang, and if those few hours were any indication I’d probably love their annual festival.

Favorite Venue: Hotel Vegas. Piggybacking off the last category, Hotel Vegas was pretty rad. There was very little noise bleed between the three stages, and the indoor/outdoor arrangement made half of it feel like a relaxed beer garden, while the other half felt like a hip dive bar. (Plus, sound bleed from stage to stage was barely noticeable.) It’s on the other side of the freeway from most of the action and several blocks uphill, but totally worth the trek.

New Favorite “Girls” Band: September Girls. I’ve gotten skeptical of bands named [Insert Anything] Girls over the last half decade. There are so many of them: Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls, Casket Girls, etc. and while I’ve enjoyed a lot of those records to some extent, I’ve never really loved any of them. When September Girls came along, I unfairly dismissed them after only listening to a couple tracks. (“Oh, no, not another Something-Something Girls band, mehhh,” – Me, presumably.) Anyhow, I caught one of their SXSW gigs—again, at the Austin Psych Fest showcase—and it rocked really hard. I liked how they traded off vocals between themselves. It gave the performance a variety of flavors, and that’s probably harder to appreciate on record. They’re going to be the first band I go back to re-evaluate post-SXSW.

(For what it’s worth, my favorite “___ Girls” band is Parenthetical Girls. But there’s only one girl in that band.)

The Performance Which Somehow Exceeded Meet My Ridiculously High Expectations: Yamantaka // Sonic Titan Closing Out Under the Radar’s Final Party. It’s no secret I’ve been nuts for this band—they’re easily my favorite to pop up in the last few years. I’ve written a pair of features about them for Under the Radar, and anyone who’s met me in the last year or so has been personally beaten over the head with their latest record. I learned we’d booked YT//ST for our party just hours after I purchased my flight to SXSW, which I interpreted as a sure sign the planets had aligned in my favor for this trip.

I was in Germany and Istanbul the last two times they came through NYC, so finally getting to catch them live was a show I was looking forward to most at SXSW. I’d managed to hype myself up so much for their gig that if they didn’t summon water dragons or shoot fire out their hands during the performance, I was worried I might feel let down. I’m happy to report that even without any psychic fireballs, YT//ST manage to live up to the exceedingly high bar I’d set for them in my head. (And that’s in spite of losing their laptop/visuals before our gig.) Vocalist Ange Loft hopped off the stage during their last song and barreled through the audience backwards—without tripping or missing a beat of her performance—and it was the wildest thing that happened at one of our shows.

Best International Showcase: Showcasing Scotland at Latitude 30. The night’s emcee, BBC Radio Scotland host Vic Galloway, is a friend. But even if he wasn’t the one introducing the bands, I appreciated that they had somebody giving the audience some background on who was playing before they took the stage. Too many of the bands playing SXSW are still searching for their shameless self-promotional skills, and at best can only muster a simple “we’re ____, from ____, uhhh…” [awkward pause before diving into first song.] It was nice to have somebody familiar with all the artists booked for a showcase who got up and told us about the bands, their backgrounds, and whether or not they had records coming or already available. (It made the whole thing feel organized.) Plus, Showcasing Scotland had a really good lineup: Withered Hand, Meursault, Casual Sex, Honeyblood, and We Were Promised Jetpacks—who I caught—and Young Fathers, who were among the artists I’m most bummed about missing at SXSW.

Best Meal: Flash-Fried Brussels Sprouts at the Goro & Gun Truck at 1am. They were served with raisins and fancy vinegar. It sounded weird enough that I had to try it, and it was good. I also had their shrimp kimchi grits.

Most Ridiculous Meal: Death Metal Pizza’s Giant Slice. My UTR family introduced me to Death Metal Pizza, which is located next door to the Flamingo Cantina, where we throw our parties. The slice was so comically large that I could’ve worn it as a slightly-immodest t-shirt.

Best Band Watched Through A Venue’s Window: San Fermin at Latitude 30. Badges!? I don’t need no stinkin’ badges! … that is, unless I wanted to get into the British Embassy/NME/PRS showcase on Saturday night. I did SXSW badge-free this year, and for the most part it worked out for me, except when it came to getting into Latitude 30. The lineup—San Fermin, Bo Ningen, Temples, Fat White Family, Drenge—was good, so even those who had badges still had a half hour’s wait outside the door. Fortunately, the venue is wide open in front, the street is blocked off on both sides, and the weather was gorgeous that evening. I was able to watch and hear just fine from the middle of the road. (The only thing I wasn’t able to see from my vantage point was Fat White Family’s underpants, which I’m okay with.)

And San Fermin was pretty incredible. They didn’t let me down live, even after their debut record landed high on my ballot as one of the best of 2013. I’m looking forward to catching them with a string section in NYC.

Best Cover Performed At One of Our Parties: Woman’s Hour covers Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Their competition was Charli XCX’s cover of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy,” but I’m giving Woman’s Hour the nod for making the Springsteen hit their own.

Best Cover, Non-UTR Party Edition: Stepdad covers The Cranberries’ “Dreams.” Before SXSW, I only knew this Michigan band through their creative music videos: “Will I Ever Dance Again” totally nails the old Miller/Boyett sitcom intros (think Family Matters or Full House) and “Pick & Choose” is one of the weirder, brighter-colored animations you’ll see this side of Adventure Time. I went into their Wednesday night showcase based on my love of those two videos alone, and the performance were a lot of fun. The highlight, though, was when they closed with The Cranberries’ “Dreams.” I was impressed by how well ultramark’s—their singer—voice fits the song.

Strangest Audio-Visual Pairing: Alexander von Mehren and Pro Wrestling. I’m a big fan of Alexander von Mehren, and his late-night set at the very end of SXSW was great. But it was weird to see his upbeat, jazzy pop—sung in French—paired with the pro wrestling broadcast being shown on the TVs at Quantum Lounge, where he performed. It didn’t hurt the music at all—I mean, I could watch videos of puppies being scolded set to his music and come away feeling slightly better about it because of the soundtrack—but it was a little surreal.

Cutest Performance: The Barton Hills Choir Opening A Screening of Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl. Laura Studarus and I took a breather on Saturday afternoon and caught the SXSW premiere of Stuart Murdoch’s film, God Help the Girl. The movie was cute, but the warmup act was cuter: 35 fifth and sixth graders performing renditions of the film’s songs, as well as a cover of Belle and Sebastian’s “Mayfly.” (I almost lost it when the little girl went into the kazoo solo.)

Snapshot Moment from SXSW that will Sum Up This Year’s Festival For Me: Rose Poses With Yamantaka // Sonic Titan. Speaking of cute, Under the Radar’s fearless leaders, Mark and Wendy, have a baby that historians will likely put down on record as one of the cutest children of the 21st Century. Watching her get her photo taken with YT//ST—in full stage makeup—was simultaneously the most adorable and the most rock ‘n’ roll thing I saw at South by Southwest. It made me feel warm, fuzzy, and badass all at once.

Closing Sentiments re: SXSW Stolen From an Artist and Then Twisted to Better Match My Own: Courtesy of Kirin J Callinan. At his final gig of the fest at Holy Mountain on Sunday afternoon, New Zealand’s Kirin J Callinan expressed feelings that his time at SXSW this week had renewed his faith in modern music. While my own faith in music has never wavered, this week in Austin certainly energized me in amazing ways. I left Texas more excited about bands and records than I was on my way down there. I’ve got new favorite bands, a pile of records, several hours’ worth of interview tape, and a long list of encore shows to catch when these artists come back through NYC. I’m beyond pumped about all of that. It’s a little weird to leave a music festival energized rather than exhausted, but that’s how I feel.

I can’t wait to go back next year.


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