SXSW 2011 featured riots, injuries and Taylor Momsen. People came to Austin with their poor driving habits and took over every conceivable Downtown block. Pizza all of a sudden cost four dollars a slice, every favorite neighborhood bar was too populated to navigate and free shows became tests of will and, in some cases, braun to attend.
Meanwhile, there were copious amounts of bands playing.
This is a list of those bands that weren’t awful –
Menomena seems to be a band in crisis. Brent Knopf, prominent member, keyboardist, professional haircut, quit the band to focus on his solo project Ramona Falls. This left drummer Danny Seim and bassist, saxophonist, recorder extraordinaire Justin Harris as the group’s sole members. During their Friday afternoon show at Swan Dive, Harris and Seim played like they had something to prove. Harris (dressed and built like Popeye) belted out songs from their last two records as Seim pounded on his drum kit with well timed force and not so reckless abandon. The group’s new auxiliary members proved themselves showmen as well (both in on stage antics and hairwise). With nary a sound problem and a game crowd not only screaming out lyrics but snapping and nodding their heads like they were witnessing a godly heavy metal show for the neck-snapping ages (Menomena’s slightly melancholic but original take on indie rock is anything but) made this the best show of the week.
Marisa Paternoster is about 4’10 and her shaggy black mop of hair all but covers her face. Yet she has the stage presence of a bonafide rock God… as corny as that sounds. Her guitar fireworks (as if this couldn’t get any cornier) are second to none and her guttural yelps shock and awe (okay this is getting ridiculous). Somehow Paternoster and the Screaming Females have toiled in relative obscurity for far too long. They have the discography of an established band and even after seeing them three times, not once was there a similar setlist. If there was one band this SXSW that needs to blow up, it’s the Screaming Females. If only so people can continue to write corny, fanboyish blurbs about them.
Possibly the most experienced band seen at SXSW, Wild Flag‘s members have spent years playing in seminal rock bands (Sleater Kinney in the house!) and their extreme amounts of chemistry were on full display. There were dualing guitar solos (Mary Timony even played over her head, which seems at least kind of difficult, right?) and Carrie Brownstein karate kicked thin air and flailed about like her guitar was electrocuting her (what with her patented Pete Townshend-esque windmill strumming, she was a duck walk away from covering all her rock star bases). Janet Weiss’ explosive drumming lended a strong backbeat to Wild Flag’s (as of yet unreleased and unrecorded) brand of girl group punk rock. Few bands had more charisma than Wild Flag this year. They managed to impress with showmanship when nearly everyone in attendance had not heard more than one of their songs. Now that’s a feat, friends.
Playing at what had to be the smallest stage at SXSW (the drummer was literally crammed in a corner), Cloud Nothings‘ fast paced punk comes across quite well in the live setting, showcasing a sound more intricate and complicated than what meets the ear on record. Guitars intertwine and cascade over the top and around each other while 19 year-old lead singer Dylan Baldi (who not only just started the band but was drinking at the bar after the show TSK TSK) sings in his whiny voice (think that dude from SR-71… yeah that’s an SR-71 mention, what of it?). These songs are catchier then they should be and leave a lasting impression, certainly when you take into account their two minute run times.
Word is The Joy Formidable are the break-out band of SXSW. Their loud, catchy arena rock is even louder and catchier in a live setting. With just three members, the amount of sound coming from pixie-like lead singer Ritzy Bryan’s guitar is enough to knock you on your rumpus. She and Rhydian Dafydd, the group’s bassist, have a weird chemistry on stage, a sort of “are they or aren’t they?” relationship consisting of blown kisses and Robert Plant/Jimmy Paige like staring contests. But most important of all, these tunes aren’t carbon copies of their compact disc counterparts. They’re more urgent and longer live, played to a point where guitars and drums are in danger of exploding.
Twin Shadow were easily the best dressed band all week. This makes sense considering George Lewis Jr.’s music, on record, is a cool, slick and sexy melange of synthetic dance pop seemingly made to be played in the coolest and slickest of hipster dance clubs. In the best clothes thrift stores can offer, Twin Shadow, like the Joy Formidable, sound different live. Tracks like “Castle in the Snow” and “When We’re Dancing” are played at a faster clip, becoming more rocking than anything else. But don’t worry, they still retain their coolness. Or maybe the bassist’s open buttoned flamingo shirt swayed me.
Bass Drum of Death are a simple band. Guitar. Drums. Two dudes. T-Shirt and jean rock. Like a grungier White Stripes (but with two people) they combine simple, hooky guitar riffs with drum smackdowns. Sure you can barely understand the vocals but sometimes that doesn’t matter. Bass Drum of Death is one of those times.
Before Merrill Garbus’ set at NPR’s day show, she lauded opener Colin Stetson for “doing the impossible” something she herself does “on the reg” with her band Tune-Yards. Garbus loops her own vocals and plays a standing drum kit which she also loops. Thus with a backing track of both, Garbus sings and bellows often times while playing her ukulele. No other performer today shoves herself down your ears like Garbus. But thankfully Tune-Yards is a pleasant, unique and even danceable live experience (and on record) thanks to two saxophonists and a multi instrumentalist/bassist who help her fully realize complicated tracks like “Bizness”. And we thought it was impossible.
After dawdling for a few years in different side projects (some successful – Maximum Balloon, some not so much – Rain Machine), TV on the Radio are back with a new album and if their truncated set at Spin’s day party is any indication, they are still really, pardon for this momentary lapse in journalistic integrity, SUPER AWESOME. They’ve found new ways to perform old old songs (“Young Liars” is basically a totally new song live) and faster ways to perform old tracks (“Dancing Choose” and “Wolf Like Me” felt like they each lasted a couple minutes… this is meant in the best possible way). Besides these blistering hits and raucous dirges, the group debuted two new songs. Tunde apologized if they weren’t up to snuff and if they weren’t, you definitely couldn’t tell from the crowd’s reaction.
NEXT UP: Sout By South Meh