We're just back from a week in Austin for the 2013 South By Southwest conference-festival-endless feast of Lone Star pounders and twice-a-day tacos. Not quite enough time has passed for a proper reflection on everything that transpired. But let's give it a try.
Cool Things Seen
Fact: Three quarters of the performers at SXSW this year were either Canadian electro-pop acts or sorta-pissed garage-punk acts. Those are OK things to be, but fatigue sets in quickly. So it was nice to wander inside Hotel Vegas on Friday and catch a short, mellow, melodic set by Chris Cohen. Friends had recommended Overgrown Path, his 2012 album, a few months back, but for whatever reason, I never listened to it. I am a fool; Cohen is my best discovery from the fest. (Last year, it was Haim, and now that group is touring with Mumford and Sons.)
A singing drummer, Cohen was joined by a guitarist, a bassist and a keyboard player. In addition to Deerhoof and Cass McCombs, Cohen has played with Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, and there's a little of Pink's warped AM pop to his sound. But he's not quite as far out there. What Cohen's songs sound like is something Todd Rundgren would have done in the 1970s. Which is to say, Oh baby, I dug the vibe. He closed the set with a surprise instrumental, a dissonant, crashing acid-jazz thing. There wasn't a huge crowd watching him, but the ones at the front were super into it. Next time, I will be one of those guys at the front.
The My Morning Jacket frontman recently released his debut solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God, and he smartly used SXSW as a tool to spread its gospel. I saw James three times during my stay: once from backstage at Auditorium Shores, an outdoor park where he performed in front of thousands; once in a conference room, where he gave a fascinating, life-affirming, hourlong interview to MTV's Bill Flanagan (see my post at Wayward Blog for details of that); and once at the Hype Hotel, which is basically a parking garage that had been converted into a music venue for the festival.
At the latter, James bounced onto the stage at 1 a.m., and as an eerie synth line rose in the darkness, he stood with his back to the audience for about a minute, like a monk. Then came the opening piano notes of "State of the Art (AEIOU)," the first track on Regions. It's a beautiful song: hopeful, soulful, confused.
Soul sounds have been creeping their way into the past few My Morning Jacket albums, but the influence is most pronounced on Regions. There are soul-revival acts going that replicate the sounds of the past — Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. James borrows ideas from soul music borrows, but he puts his weird, modern artistic stamp on it. The result is something totally brave and fresh and new.
I could write all day about James. The man is a powerhouse, one of America's great musical treasures. As far as the performance: His five-piece band is all pro and tight as hell, and when the drums finally kicked in and he sang, I use the state of the art, it was glorious. They ran through a good chunk of the songs on Regions. And if 2 a.m. is closing time in Austin, they definitely broke the curfew.
A few industry types I spoke with in Austin were raving about White Lung, a Canadian quartet that plays blasting, visceral punk. So I went to Bar 96 to see what all the fuss was about. The reason that people are talking about them is obviously because of their magnetic frontwoman, Mish Way. "My voice is gone. I'm trying my best," Way told the crowd at the outset, but she sounded pretty great to me.
Way has a little Karen O in her, and a little '90s riot grrrl, too. She wore red lipstick and had a commanding, no-nonsense, mechanically authoritative presence. She is in charge, and she is utterly confident in the role. I am sometimes suspicious of bands with hot women in them, so I close my eyes and pretend that the singer looks like Billy Powell from Lynyrd Skynrd. Are they still a good band then? With White Lung, the answer is, probably, yeah. I'm not the first person to say it, but Way is a star in the making. She's fierce as shit.
Probably the biggest draw at Hotel Vegas on Friday was Mac DeMarco, a grimy-looking, gaptoothed 22-year-old who writes surprisingly sturdy songs. I was a big fan of 2, the album he released last year, and I've been working backward to catch up to his first release, Rock and Roll Night Club. (DeMarco and Cohen are both on Captured Tracks, which is one of the most reliably good indie labels — DIIV and Wild Nothing are also on the roster.)
DeMarco's band rocked a sleazy look: dirty snap-back hats, ill-fitting shirts, self-administered haircuts, cigarettes dangling from mouths. I dig their style, and I dig their music, which is a kind of loose glam rock with a little '50s crooner in it. DeMarco opened with "I'm a Man," from Rock and Roll Night Club, then went into "Cookin' Up Something Good," a 2 highlight. On one song, he and his guitarist cozied up to each other and jammed together, and toward the end of it, DeMarco gave him a gentle peck on the mouth. Later, the guitarist and the bassist kissed at length while playing. It was the guitarist's birthday. "I am so drunk," he said, and stared at us with some nice comic timing.
They closed with "Together," during which DeMarco stage-dived. Then he climbed onto the bars holding up the stage tent and hung upside down, still singing into his microphone. You can't ask for a whole lot more from an act.
One of the unfortunate things about SXSW, and festivals in general, is that a lot of acts don't fully translate under the harsh light of the sun. Morose synth pop is one genre that requires the cover of darkness. I caught Montreal duo Majical Cloudz at a day party thrown by Spin, and band's intense sadness — Morrissey meets James Blake — didn't work. But Saturday night at Mohawk, in a packed room with low lights, it was easier to appreciate its virtues.
SXSW purists gripe that the fest used to be about discovering talent, but now it's all industry types jostling to see Prince, Justin Timberlake and other established big-name acts. They are not wrong. Nick Cave is not exactly an up-and-comer, and his set at Stubb's on Wednesday was highly anticipated. But I had never seen Cave before or really understood his appeal. So the fact that his set pretty much blew me away qualifies as something of a discovery.
I was probably 300 feet from the stage but still totally mesmerized by many of the songs, particularly the opener, "Higgs Boson Blues," from this year's Push the Sky Away. He slithered around the stage, pounded the piano, growled the names Robert Johnson, Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana. He is one sexy motherfucker of a performer, and the brooding theatricality of his music really comes through in a live setting.
Matthew Houck, frontman of Phosphorescent, was wearing orange-tinted sunglasses and spent more than a half-hour on a sound check at Hype Hotel on Wednesday night. "Is this dude kind of a prima donna?" I asked my companions. But then he took the stage and redeemed himself. He gave a shout-out to the sound guys for working under such stressful conditions. And he apologized for wearing sunglasses indoors at night. "I feel like an asshole, but I have a medical condition," he said. All was forgiven. Phosphorescent played mostly soaring, electric alt-country tunes from its excellent, just-released new album, Muchacho. It reminds me of some of the best work of the recently deceased Jason Molina, aka Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co.
Trapper Schoepp & the Shades
By Sunday afternoon, SXSW had officially ended. I drank champagne and grapefruit juice outside a bar called Yellow Jacket Social Club, then headed to Freedmen's, a fancy cocktails-and-BBQ joint near the University of Texas. There, I tasted better brisket than I've ever had in Kansas City (so thick and fatty and succulent) and caught Trapper Schoepp & the Shades, a country-rock band (think Lucero or Gram Parsons) from Milwaukee. At the end of the set, they brought up a special guest: Jakob Dylan. Dylan's band, the Wallflowers, had opened for Eric Clapton at the Frank Erwin Center earlier in the day. Together, they performed the Band's "The Weight" and Dylan's "One Headlight." It was very casual, very loose. The place wasn't crowded at all. It felt like a good cap to the week: friendly musicians — some more famous than others — having fun, jamming out, eating barbecue.
• Adrian Grenier, at Mohawk Saturday night. He had his hair done up like Tom Cruise in Magnolia. A beautiful man.
• Daryl Hannah, at Freedmen's Sunday night. She has had quite a bit of work done, and the guy who appeared to be her boyfriend had (possibly fake) tattoos on his face.
• Eugene Mirman, at Stubb's for Nick Cave, and later at Mohawk for Local Natives, Wednesday night. Pretty regular-looking dude.
• Jared Leto, on the street near the Austin Convention Center, Thursday night. Technically I didn't see him, but my friend said he walked right past us.
Radkey's pop-punk won the attention of The New York Times, which covered the St. Joseph group on its ArtsBeat blog. Local singer-songwriter David George is currently a touring guitarist for John Fogerty, who performed at ACL Live at the Moody Theater Saturday evening. John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons were part of Alejandro Escovedo's closing party at the Continental Club, which also featured Peter Buck and Rosie Flores. And dozens of KC and Lawrence bands set up at Shangri-La, on the east side of town, and played the MidCoast Takeover showcase. On Saturday, there was a line out the door, down the street.