SXSW mid-week: Wednesday 10

SXSW mid-week: Wednesday

By Peter Dysart and Mike Hughes

Mike: Wednesday was going to provide no respite on the sleep front. You gotta have a plan for SXSW and mine was to aim for one or two main ‘must-do’s per day, then fill in the rest. Today’s first imperative was to see Tegan And Sara, who  I last saw in 2010 at the Roundhouse in London, and compared to that, I was surprised at just how mixed the audience was, jocks as well as emo boys and girls. Chatting to some people, their new album ‘Heartthrob’ has taken off enormously, apparently achieving that elusive mainstream cross-over. The gig was a bit of a jungle and I was suffering in the Texas sun (just how much would be revealed tomorrow by my flaking head and peeling red nose). Tegan And Sara though were lovely. They played mainly from their new album, but there was the anticipated crowd reaction for ‘Back In Your Head’. When they dedicated a song to “all the crazy ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends that we know are out there” I knew I was in the right place. The little photo at the top is maybe 10% of the people queuing to get their stuff signed by T&S after the set.

SXSW2013IMG_1931 Tegan And Sara

Peter: My first gig of Wednesday was an early afternoon affair at the British Music Embassy, graciously hosted by Latitude 30, a music bar that is so unlike many Austin bars. It’s very tidy, ultra clean, and the staff is friendly and very attentive. Latitude has invested in its technology, too, making it one of the finest sound boards and monitor systems for bands in smaller clubs. Hell, even the loo is clean and well appointed. Plus the vibe is unmistakably British (and Scottish, Welsh, etc.). First up were Y Niwl (which Mike translated for me as “The Fog”). This trio from North Wales, helped me ease into the day with a very nice dose of surf rock. I later learnt that the trio lives in the mountains and don’t really surf. Could have fooled me. Nice sound.

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Y Niwl

As part of my SX advance research, Man Without Country was high on my list. Whilst their vibe is definitely a darker one (perhaps that of a man truly without a nation), this Cardiff duo of Ryan James and Tomas Greenhalf showed up as a trio at SX — adding a drummer, Mike Monaghan, to their mix, a chap who truly added a deeper dimension to the act. They’d do well to make that permanent. The band describes their sound as an “atmospheric, sometimes uneasy sonic palette. Glacial guitar ripples spliced with an eerie synth pulse, yet with the ability to morph into an anthem when you least expect it.” Whilst they have a sound that is comparable in parts to other contemporary synth-driven acts, the atmospheric sensibilities and addition of guitars and real drums help carve a sonic niche that includes a heaping dose of shoegaze and electronica. But it would be more appropriate to side step the clichéd genre descriptions in favour of describing the intense emotive qualities of this live sound, which are often slow burning songs gloom filled lyrics back by pulsating dense sonic layers of pensiveness — and then comes the anthemic blast. Great sound.

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Man Without Country

Next for me was perhaps one of the most anticipated experiences of SX — my very first Savages gig. How else can I say that it did not disappoint. Yes, I’ve watched Jehnny Beth and company on Jools Holland, but it’s just not the same. I arrived early at the Brooklyn Vegan showcase at The Main to meet up with some fans that have been with this post-punk from the beginning. In more artistic terms, if post-punk is an outgrowth of the original punk movement, Savages stands as the “high Cubist” form of it, creating a complex soundscape from more simplistic elements and formations. This four piece’s brilliant raw energy is fueled Ayse Hassan’s and Fay Milton’s bass and drums, and by Gemma Thompson’s noise and surf punk guitar — all channeled through Jehnny Beth’s urgent and frantically staccato delivery. The final product is nothing less than purely orchestrated, attention devouring, and vital to the last. Jehnny is such a joy to watch as she wraps her entire physical presence into her vocals. She doesn’t gyrate on stage like many lead vocalists. Instead her delivery features shoulders pulled up tightly into her neck and measured hand and arm gestures that express the lyrical presentation. Of course, her intensely penetrating gaze and furrowed scowl accompany every song. Her voice does remind me of early Siouxsie Soiux but the comparison abruptly stops there.

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Mike: Someone I always trust was insistent I needed to go and see , the musical alias of Denmark’s Marie Ørsted. I owe him double thanks though. I got a wriggle on and was in the venue, a place othertimes used as a motor repair shop, in time to see Empress Of. She’s someone I’d never heard of, but have now. She’s yet another “the new Grimes” (as is MØ too apparently) and yes, she’s a girl, with a synth, and you might say it’s glitchy. You might also say it’s underground club-heavy, art-house and as wilfully discordant and dissonant as experimental jazz. It was, in one word, great.

Empress Of

Most of my SXSW experience was of wildly dissimilar acts being crammed next to each other to an uncomfortable degree, so being up next was a feat of some magnitude. I’ve said the place was in ordinary times a motor repair shop, but as a venue it was excellent, with six or eight multi-media projectors. Of course, MØ brought her own, and performed lit only by the flickering backdrop of projected footage – found or family heritage it was difficult to discern. Her brand of soulful electro had edgy guitar alongside big synths. The music has massive heart, and the lady herself kicked and bent like a tree in the storm of the hard edged sound.


Peter: Meeting back up with Mike at the Empire Control Room, we’re there to see Alpine. This was one of my early picks from last year’s SX based solely on their brilliant ‘Hands’ video, and one of those bands I went out of my way to catch last year — which Mike and did at the Orbit, some miles away from the din of 6th Street. This year, Alpine owned a piece of 6th Street and with it a greatly expanded following. With the release of the debut album, ‘A Is For Alpine’ some months ago in Australia, word of their darkly coloured and polyrhythmic melodies (and harmonies) has spread to the States. A year later and with a solid year more of touring under their collective belt, Alpine sounds better and tighter than last year. The band’s music is often slow burning until it catches fire at varying junctures and the band let’s loose. Phoebe and Lou tag-team on vocals like dive bombing songbirds and their stage presence parallels that visual, too. They criss-cross between each other and their band mates, briefly engaging and flying away. The free radical in this on-stage equation is bassist Ryan Lamb, whose full body gyrations with his instrument are matched only by his ability to lay down some very funky bass lines. This is a very gifted group of young musicians who will be returning to the States soon to promote their debut album nationwide.
Mike: Don’t take our word for it though. A way through their set came an impassioned cry from someone in the audience “GODAMMIT, YES!!” I’ll agree with that.

SXSW2013IMG_2071Alpine after their set

Mike: My hit list then suggested I should see Sky Ferreira, but it was a long walk away at Fader Fort and my timeline had got lost by actually doing the nice thing and staying to chat with Alpine. Instead, Peter and I headed off to one of the big, corporate and inevitably busy venues, Viceland, to queue up for their evening session. We must have waited 45 minutes. While we were waiting, we got chatting with those around us. Man, there are a lot of lawyers that go to SouthBy. That and US Government policy advisers. This particular lawyer (I won’t say where from) regaled us total strangers with stories about how she used to steal mail at her employers when she was still a student, in order to go through the envelopes and thieve ID’s for her under-age mates to use. I repeat, she’s now an attorney-at-law. Oh well.

Peter: Upon our arrival, we made fast tracks and camped at the rail only to learn that in addition to the bands we wanted to see, we’d have to endure bands we’d already seen and those we had no intention of watching.

The evening started to slide from there, beginning with another set with Io Echo, which might have been fine had we not already heard their set twice the previous day. The second act, a local Austin band, had no business being in the program, but we surmised that the SXSW officials had gone to great lengths to ensure their local garage bands played some top events. It’s a fine/noble idea but perhaps one that doesn’t work when better acts are waiting their turn to take the stage. To be honest, it’s an idea that failed miserably that evening as this particular band seemed to given the green light to play an extended set, well beyond the typical 40 minutes allotted. 

Mike: That’s what I thought too. It turns out that ‘local’ band was Florida’s Merchandise  and NME have just given their album ‘Totale Night’ massive praise and 9/10. They are a pretty big deal in some quarters. I’ll stick to what I wrote in my notes at the time. An averagely good band, with an average singer (in the form of Carson Cox) but one AMAZING guitar player in the form of David Vassalotti. He started off so far into over-drive that I was convinced he’d fizzle and die. Far, far from it, he just kept getting more and more frenetic. There are people that play the guitar, and those that simply bend it to their every whim.

Peter: Perhaps I was a bit harsh in my judgement. He was quite the shred master but I’ll still wager he’ll find himself another band that’s far more suitable to his talent. That would include some new material that varies a bit more in composition, too.


David Vassalotti of Merchandise

Peter: Austra were plagued with sound check technical difficulties that pushed the cumulative start times ever later for the rest of the acts. It was a shame, too, considering Austra (led by the brilliant Katie Stelmanis) was perhaps midway into one of the most eclectic and stimulating performances we’d seen that week. I’d describe them as the type of band that operatic performers wish they could play in after their regular gigs. The music is fun, theatrical, and worlds better than what was coming next, but after approximately 20 minutes the crew ended their set abruptly. I think they played four songs total. Really, a terrible waste of time for the band and us.
Mike: We’ve all got bands that we love beyond reason, and mine is Austra. The video of them performing ‘The Beat And The Pulse’ at SXSW2011 was one of the things that got me to SXSW2012. By ‘eck but I was keen. So why was it so frustrating? Was it the fact that I didn’t know any of the songs? I know ALL of their released songs but only recognised one tonight. This was clarified when I found out they were playing out material from their upcoming album. It was more than that though, the whole set had a strange air, no fault of the band, and not helped by a security guy in the pit who spent the whole set standing directly in front of me, staring into my face. I asked him in the interval if I’d done something to offend. My sarcasm was lost on him.


Peter: Next came Icona Pop. Mike and I had heard the name mentioned frequently that week, and whilst neither of us knew exactly what to expect, the droves of twenty something girls pushing in on us at the rail should have been fair warning. I have only horrific flashing memories of what happened next. Icona Pop is politely what I’d call a suicide overdose of saccharine and estrogen, as the duo incites their audience into a participation-based riot. This isn’t a music act by any stretch. It’s a ponderous dubstep performance in which the pretty Swedish duo come ever closer, posing and reaching out to gobs of over-reactive young women who would have no compunction about trampling Mike and I underfoot if it meant they could be another inch closer the act. If that weren’t enough trauma for one set, Aino Jawo next climbed the barrier onto us and we dutifully, stupidly helped steady her. My hair was pulled back and clothing grabbed. Mike was holding her and for the third time in two years, the two of us have endured what I now refer to as “artist assault.” Meanwhile, in the pit in front of us, it was a full-on paparazzi circus. God blind me, what a load of shite.

Mike: I’m half there with you. I’ve never felt quite so out of place in the front row as tonight, with all this business of making heart shapes with your hands.

Icona Pop

Peter: The evening ended with The Joy Formidable who endured a sound set that was engineered for Icona Pop, not them, and were forced to ram through their 40 minutes set in one of the most up tempo performances I’ve seen from them. There was no audience banter, just a workman’s performance to it. We had a feeling Ritz was none to pleased with the situation and our suspicions were rewarded at the end as she trashed her beautiful new red chrome Strat, literally jamming the new axe neck down at Mike and I. Mike grabbed it and for a fleeting minute considered it a keeper before it returned to the stage. C’est la vie in the pursuit of better music.


The Joy Formidable

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