SXSW 2016 - Tornados, Broken Elevators, Hospitalized Guitarists, and Bill Murray | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Julien Baker at the Central Presbyterian Church


SXSW 2016 - Tornados, Broken Elevators, Hospitalized Guitarists, and Bill Murray,

Apr 12, 2016 Web Exclusive Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

It was a bit unnerving when we were driving on the 40 between Memphis and Little Rock in a terrible rain storm and a loud emergency alert flashed up on my phone telling us there was a tornado warning and to take shelter immediately. What shelter? We were in the middle of nowhere, with flat fields on either side of us. My wife (and creative/business partner) Wendy and I were driving on our way to Austin for our annual trek to SXSW. In the back seat was our three-year-old daughter Rose, who asked, “What’s wrong with the car?” as water started to leak in on the floor of the passenger side.

With no shelter and near-zero visibility, should we pull off to the side of the road and wait it out? After we drove past a car that had slid off the road and was two-thirds submerged under rising floodwater (the police were dealing with it), and as we saw a hint of clear skies ahead, we pushed on to downtown Little Rock. There we checked into the first hotel we saw, a Presidential-themed Holiday Inn with a strong emphasis on local hero President Bill Clinton. The lobby TV was tuned to a regular-program-interrupting local news broadcast with a weather map that revealed that the whole state was covered in tornado warnings and that we had just driven in between two potential twisters. Thus began a memorable SXSW 2016-and we hadn’t even gotten to Austin yet.

It was also a bit unnerving when we walked into the lobby of our hotel in downtown Austin only to be confronted with cries of “Help!” from one of the elevators and the woman trapped in it. We immediately informed the front desk and the understandably hysterical guest was soon rescued. We took the stairs the rest of our stay (luckily we were only on the second floor).

Wednesday, the first proper day of SXSW Music, was full-on for Under the Radar. We had an unofficial daytime party at the Flamingo Cantina (where we’ve hosted SXSW events for several years now), followed by an official nighttime showcase at Central Presbyterian Church. The venues were several blocks from each other, and there was only an hour and a half between the end of one and the start of the other. In between, magazines, photo gear, banners, posters, and the backline gear (the drum set, amps, etc.) had to be transported between the two locations (with the partial help of the great people at Austin Backline).

The day party-which was sponsored by Readly, Sapporo USA, Gretsch Guitars, Kanine Records, and Chromatic Publicity-featured a capacity or near-capacity crowd most of the day and strong sets from seven bands hailing from four different countries. London, England trip-hop trio HÆLOS opened the day, and the Matador artists impressed right out of the gate with their crisp and chill sound as they performed their first ever SXSW set. Australian two-piece (just drums and guitar/vocals) and Kanine Records signees Hockey Dad were the near opposite and played a high-energy punk-fueled set to help wake us up to SXSW.

The momentum continued with Hinds, the all-female four-piece from Spain, who ran through cheeky cuts from Leave Me Alone, their fun lo-fi debut album. My three-year-old loves their song “Warts” and so she briefly ventured out from backstage to hear them play it (don’t worry, she had noise cancelling/ear protecting headphones on) before being overwhelmed by the crowd and retreating back to the safety of her aunt Kathy (Wendy’s sister), who was watching her during most of SXSW. It was Hinds’ first of 17 SXSW shows, and it would’ve been interesting to catch them on their 17th show to see if they still had so much enthusiasm.

Brighton, England’s Fear of Men (another Kanine band) took the mood to a more somber, but no less interesting, place. Clad in black & white, they had that loud/quiet thing going for them as they previewed songs from their upcoming sophomore album, Fall Forever. By the end they were more loud than quiet, with a rocking-out finale. New York trio Sunflower Bean were a pleasant surprise; they were more freeform live than on record, with guitarist/vocalist Nick Kivlen and bassist/vocalist Julia Cumming feeding off one another and leaning into each other as they jammed their way through songs from their debut album, Human Ceremony, building to an incredibly loud climax.

“It’s so hot, milk was a bad choice,” Yuck’s Max Bloom joked as the London, England band ran through a spirited set of their ‘90s-indebted songs. The day party was rounded out by New York’s Caveman, who previewed songs from their bosswave-inspired forthcoming third album, Otero War, including the singles “Never Going Back” and “Human,” ending things in a relaxed mood.

We made it over to Central Presbyterian Church without much trouble, grabbing grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner on the fly. New York’s Mass Gothic opened, with frontman Noel Heroux (ex-Hooray For Earth) clad in a trucker cap promoting his new label, Sub Pop, and sounding fantastic. England’s Younghusband were “a man down,” as guitarist Adam Beach wasn’t let into the country due to visa issues. They had to play as a three-piece. Having only seen them live once before, it was difficult to tell the difference. No doubt Beach helps them sound even more dynamic live, but the trio convincingly pulled off songs from both their albums, with singer Euan Hinshelwood taking on all the guitar parts. New York’s TEEN were quirky pop fun, playing songs from their recently released album, Love Yes (the all female band’s third and best album). My daughter danced to a couple of songs from the balcony, but was having more fun in the church nursery, where she had free rein.

Car Seat Headrest may have a kind of terrible name, but you better get used to hearing it, as the young Seattle-based band, fronted by 24-year-old Will Toledo, brought the house down with blistering guitar solos and their modern take on ‘90s alternative rock. Without question, Car Seat Headrest were one of the most buzzed-about bands of SXSW 2016. The capacity crowd stuck around to watch Eleanor Friedberger sing from the pulpit.

Then came the highlight of the night. Julien Baker performed solo, just her voice and electric guitar (with an array of effects pedals). I’m admittedly not much of a fan of stripped-down singer/songwriter fare, but the 20-year-old Memphis musician was so captivating you could hear a pin drop. “Thanks for being so eerily quiet,” Baker told the crowd. The to-capacity attentive audience and beautiful church setting humbled Baker (she was the perfect kind of artist to play such an ornate and acoustically perfect venue). “This is breathtaking. This is my first SXSW, my first time in Texas actually,” she said. Baker’s set ended with a standing ovation, the only one of the night. Backstage, the young singer told me it was best show she’d ever played. All throughout the festival, all my music industry contacts could talk about was Baker and how every important indie record label was trying to sign her.

The evening ended with a beautiful dream pop set from Still Corners. The duo was formed in London (singer Tessa Murray is British and multi-instrumentalist/producer Greg Hughes is American), but at the time of SXSW, they were temporarily based in Austin. They’ve released two criminally underrated albums for Sub Pop, with a third one on the way. They performed with cool psych images projected onto the band, and their gorgeous tones were hypnotic, but also welcoming enough to help usher us all off to sleepy time. “It’s very late, it’s past our bedtime,” Murray joked (Still Corner’s set did end at close to 2 AM).

Our day party back at the Flamingo Cantina the next day was a bit off. It started out well enough, with strong sets from Northern Ireland post-punkers Girls Names and Seattle electro-poppers Pillar Point (who are signed to Polyvinyl, one of our sponsors for the day, and who got the crowd dancing). But then an Irish marching band stormed the venue in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, complete with bagpipers, which was all well and fun until it turned out they were promoting a rival beer company to the one who was actually sponsoring our event (Sapporo USA).

Former Smith Westerns frontman, Chicago’s Cullen Omori, and Welsh singer/musician Gwenno (aka Gwenno Saunders) both played great sets, but the crowd was sparser than expected. The latter played songs from her debut solo album, Y Dydd Olaf, which is sung in all Welsh (except from one song in the even more obscure Cornish language) and takes its title from Owain Owain’s 1976 novel about a dystopic future where robots have conquered the human race. “Not dissimilar to what’s happening now,” Saunders joked. She played sci-fi political songs about a patriarchal society, which she joked were lovely songs for a Thursday afternoon. With time for one more song, Saunders gave us a choice: we could have a song about revolution or one about robot clones. I can’t remember which one we chose, but it was a spirited finale nonetheless, with Saunders hunched over her table of electronics as she sang, her foreign tongue in no way a barrier to our dancing. Back in 2006, Saunders played the very same venue at an Under the Radar SXSW party with her previous band, The Pipettes, who were promoting their buzzed-about debut album at the time. A decade later, she was back with her critically acclaimed solo debut, but that’s not all that had changed. Backstage was her 4-month-old son (prior to SXSW, Saunders and my wife were trading emails about the best way to handle a baby at the festival, as we first brought our daughter to SXSW when she only two and a half months old).

South Africa’s Petite Noir got into a nice groove and brought in a bigger crowd, but then England’s MONEY went on late when frontman Jamie Lee briefly went missing, but eventually got it together (“We’re without a string player, so imagine an orchestra,” Lee joked).

At the start of the party we had been told that Alex Robertshaw, the guitarist for our headliners, Manchester, England’s Everything Everything, was in the emergency room with a severe case of food poisoning. We were warned that the band would maybe have to pull out, but it would be a wait-and-see situation, in case Robertshaw improved. As the day progressed it seemed less and less likely they would be able to play and we needed a backup plan. Do we end the party early after MONEY’s set? Do we extend everyone’s set times? Or do we try to find a last minute replacement?

The other three members of Everything Everything came down to the venue to help break the news to their fans and tell us that they wouldn’t be able to play even an acoustic set without Robertshaw. They had some of the members of their friends Foals with them, and we hinted that if the massive British band wanted to do an acoustic set instead that’d be fine by us, but alas Foals’ singer Yannis Philippakis was not among them. Eventually we had to give in and start sending texts and emails to find a replacement.

Two artists confirmed at the same time and so we invited them each to play three songs. Very promising new Dutch artist Amber Arcades (aka Annelotte de Graaf and backing band) rushed across town from another gig to play selections from their forthcoming debut album on Heavenly, Fading Lines, for a compelling blend of some of de Graaf’s influences (which include Broadcast and Stereolab). Then Julien Baker showed up, doing us a big favor despite just playing for us at the church the night before. She plugged her guitar directly into the amp, forgoing her effects pedals, and did a Hank Williams cover and two of her originals. Unfortunately, despite a last minute tweet to her followers (and our own social media efforts), no one knew that one of the buzziest artists of SXSW 2016 was playing a surprise set and so the crowd was much thinner when compared to the night before. Everything Everything’s disappointed fans had long since left once singer Jonathan Higgs had announced the bad news from the stage following MONEY’s set. But to Everything Everything’s credit, they stuck around until the end and seemed impressed by both Amber Arcades and Julien Baker. I suggested they take both artists out on a European tour with them, where Everything Everything are much bigger than they are in the U.S.

Exhausted from three back-to-back Under the Radar events, I still mustered enough energy to catch some other shows Thursday night. Chairlift were in good form; they even had a saxophonist and played a brand new song, but the sound at the Coppertank venue (which was programmed by YouTube Music) was terrible unless you were right in front of the stage. For the rest of the night I planted myself at the two-stage venue Barracuda for the Secretly Group and Friends showcase (the labels Secretly Canadian, Jagjaguwar, and Dead Oceans). Frankie Cosmos (aka Greta Kline) was having an off night, performing without her full backing band (it was just her on guitar and an unassuming female backing singer) and fighting a cold. Her set was a little too low-key and battled audience chatter (“Thanks for being respectful…. And if you’re not, no thanks,” she said). Kline felt the need to make apologies: “I promise you I’m not a wild card. If you want to sign me to a label, I’m not crazy.” Still, it was nice to hear “Sinister,” one of the highlights of her new album, Next Thing.

I walked to the other stage to catch the end of Marlon Williams’ set. The tall New Zealander and band were getting all old school country, huddling around a microphone with a standup bass as if they were in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Alas, it was end of the set, but it was enough to make me question my initial mixed reaction to Williams’ self-titled debut album. Next up was Kevin Morby, playing songs from his fantastic third album, Singing Saw, including single “I Have Been to the Mountain.” Morby was in good form, but had to compete with the loud punk sounds coming from Bleached on the main stage in the next room. A more immediate distraction for me was the couple having sex in the photo booth I was standing next to! I left after catching a couple of pleasing songs by soul-country newcomers Whitney (which features other former members of Smith Westerns). On my way back to my hotel I walked by Cheer Up Charlie’s outdoor stage where Detroit’s Protomartyr were playing, but the post-punkers were making too much of a racket for me to handle at 1:30 in the morning, especially as the venue sound wasn’t great. More fun was briefly hanging out with my happy-drunk publicist friend.

Friday was fairly chill. During the day I took my daughter Rose to see a stripped down set by her favorite band, Scottish electro-poppers CHVRCHES, at an all-ages show at the Radio Day Stage in Austin’s convention center. Every Open Eye, CHVRCHES’ excellent second album, has been in heavy rotation in our car trips to and from preschool and Rose’s default for car listening is often “I want CHVRCHES.” She got to see and enjoy a proper set by them at the Landmark Music Festival in Washington D.C. last fall, but her three-year-old brain was a little thrown off by the scaled-back nature of this set. While CHVRCHES certainly didn’t perform acoustically, it was simply the three of them in a row, with Lauren Mayberry singing and the other two messing with electronics and keyboards. As the songs didn’t sound as close to their album versions as their usual live shows, Rose was a bit restless. But of course Mayberry was in good form, with lots of self-deprecating stage banter.

Later, after Rose was back with her aunt at the hotel, I stopped by the Mohawk for a set from Baio (aka Chris Baio of Vampire Weekend), who performed in a white jacket and shirt in the venue’s very packed and claustrophobic smaller room. Baio was sweating like crazy and an audience member shouted, “Take it off!” It was Baio’s last show of SXSW and the final show of his six-week tour. He manned electronics and sang, and had a guitarist with him. The setup wasn’t as impressive as the fuller band he had when performing on Late Night with Seth Meyers last year, but he made it work, ending his dance-y set with a cover of Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again.”

That night, the worn-out Under the Radar team all planted themselves back at Central Presbyterian Church. I had been impressed enough by Marlon Williams the night before that I thought he’d sound fantastic at the church and convinced everyone to join me. But first we had to sit through boring (but seemingly nice) British singer/songwriter Billie Marten. Her real name is Isabella Sophie Tweedle and she’s only 16, but looked a lot older (I didn’t know she was that young until I looked her up to write this article). She was a pretty girl, with an average, but pretty voice, playing average, but pretty songs on acoustic guitar. Julien Baker she was not. But maybe she was just having an off night. “I’m so tired. I’m really sorry if that comes across,” she apologized.

Then came one of the highlights of the festival: Marlon Williams sounded amazing in the church, and this was despite the fact that the standup bass was laying broken backstage. The harmonies of Williams and his backing band sailed around the cavernous church, filling it with gorgeous sound. And when he covered the 1957 folk song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (written by Ewan MacColl for his future wife Peggy Seeger to sing), just Williams’ voice and his acoustic guitar, all the women in the audience (my wife included) swooned and some seemed ready to bear his child (my wife hopefully not included). And what a voice he had! It was a cross between Jeff Buckley’s and Richard Hawley’s. For his final song, Williams took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and got out into the church aisles to sing. We then stuck around to watch another good set from Petite Noir.

The next day was Saturday and the last day of SXSW. It’s usually a quieter day at the festival, but this year’s SXSW had one more surprise in store. I spent most of the afternoon at Cheer Up Charlies for the Brooklyn Vegan party. I tried to check out Richmond, Virginia singer/songwriter Lucy Dacus on the indoor stage; Julien Baker had recommended I see her. But the audience was talky and she was competing against the louder sounds coming from the main stage outside. “Thank you guys for coming to this, because I’d be at Car Seat Headrest if I wasn’t playing a show,” Dacus admitted. As the indoor stage is small and not raised, making it hard to see the artists if you’re not right up front, even for a tall guy like me, I took her advice and watched Car Seat Headrest again for a song or two (the band sounded better at the church). Then it was back to the small stage to see a bit of Girls Names again, but the sound was a bit muddy (which didn’t stop a five-year-old girl who was in the front row with noise cancelling headphones on). After that, promising new Saddle Creek band Big Thief played in the same room to a 10-month-old boy on his father’s shoulders (at least he could see), also with headphones on. I didn’t find out until later that frontwoman Adrianne Lenker also had noise-cancelling headphones on under her wool cap due to rupturing her eardrum just before SXSW. Gwenno performed again, explaining, “All my songs are in Welsh because I never imagined myself having to explain them to people.” Back on the main stage outside, Julien Baker was battling noise pollution from a punk band at Mohawk next door, as well as insects on stage. “There’s a bee that’s making me very nervous,” Baker said fearfully, admitting that she was terrified of bees. The church was a much better venue for her hushed singer/songwriter fare.

I was standing by the entrance to Cheer Up Charlie’s with one of my best friends, Laura Ferreiro, who was working with one of the sponsors for the event, when lo and behold, none other than one of the most beloved comedians of the last 40 years walked up to the venue, a man who is notorious for his antics with strangers and his appearances at SXSW. I turned to Laura and said, “That’s Bill Murray!”

“Should I escort him in?” she asked.

I replied, “Yes!”

“Mr. Murray, would you like to come in?” Laura asked the legend. He replied yes and she waved him past the line and into the venue, introducing herself. Murray headed for the list of set times on a nearby wall and then returned to Laura, asking her by name where he would find Margot Price playing. I had no plans to watch the recent signee to Jack White’s Third Man Records, but if Bill Murray was watching Margot Price, then I was watching Margot Price. Her set was effective if you’re into that country thing. Bill approved, but instead of clapping, after one song he raised his hand and repeatedly snapped his fingers.

Murray soon left, and as I was heading off to see Neon Indian I did too. As I watched people do double takes as Dr. Peter Venkman/Herman Blume/Bob Harris/the voice of Garfield wandered off down the street talking on his cell phone, I ran into two of the guys from Girls Names, who told me that their friend used to be Murray’s assistant. Then while waiting in line to see Neon Indian I ran into Jenny Lewis, who has been friends with Murray for years. It was a Bill kind of day. Of course, I couldn’t help but have regrets; if only I’d spoken to Murray, then maybe he would’ve taken me on one of his adventures, as he has with other strangers/fans. But it was enough to add a bright spot to a slightly off, but still enjoyable SXSW.

Neon Indian put on an energetic set, their last of SXSW 2016, even if I only caught the end of it due to the Murray delay. The set ended with two highlights from last year’s VEGA INTL. Night School, “Slumlord” and “Baby’s Eyes” (with frontman Alan Palomo on percussion), followed by earlier hit “Polish Girl,” which understandably really got the crowd amped.

On Saturday night I tried to see the end of Scotland’s The Spook School, but they had gone on 15 minutes earlier than advertised (why would they do that?) and by the time I got there they had just finished. The rest of the night was at the Hype Hotel, which was a little out of the way on the other side of the freeway, but worth it to catch two great British acts. The only other times I’d seen Oxford, England’s Chad Valley (aka Hugo Manuel), the singer/electro-pop artist was performing solo with a sampler. Since then he’s considerably upped his game with a huge array of synths and electronics and the addition of Pamela Martinez, also on vocals and electronics. His sound has become much bigger, with the floor actually shaking due to the rumbling bass during one song Manuel accurately called a “sexy slow jam.” The crowd went wild when Manuel announced Martinez was a Texas native. “Fall 4 U,” probably Chad Valley’s best song to date, sounded massive. He definitely won new fans that night and with his soulful vocals and catchy dance-pop singles, I couldn’t help that think that Chad Valley would’ve been a huge star in the ‘80s.

Finally we got to see a recovered Everything Everything, who all seemed well and accounted for, and also sounded fantastic (in all honesty, a nighttime set at the slick Hype Hotel was probably a better way to see such a well-produced band than an afternoon set at the Flamingo Cantina). Afterwards we ran into the band, who were all apologies again for cancelling on us and joked that their guitarist was now “suspiciously well.”

On the way back to the hotel I considered checking out one or two more shows before heading to bed and our three-day drive home (which was thankfully tornado-free). Bloc Party were still playing, as were an intriguing new Toronto band on Bella Union, Doomsquad. But I resigned myself to the end of SXSW 2016. Julien Baker succinctly summed up the pleasure and frustration of SXSW when speaking from the stage at Central Presbyterian Church at the start of the week: “I saw 10 great bands today, but even though I saw 10 great bands, I missed 20 great ones.”


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