All last week, thousands of bands, journalists, publicists, record label reps and hungry music fans were in Austin, Texas for South By Southwest. Soundcheck producer Michael Katzif was there too. Be sure to check out his daily recaps and more photos over at Soundcheck's Tumblr page.
South By Southwest is a gruelling week, especially for young emerging bands, who sign up for dozens of gigs -- often many in one day -- and are supposed to play in so many different settings and conditions, for so many types of people who expect something special each and every time. Some concert goers are only passing through for a few songs, are tired and grumpy, dehydrated or drunk, and ultimately difficult to please. It’s not a surprise that as the week goes on, bands are simply exhausted. And it's no wonder bands begin to fray or feel a little disillusioned by the whole thing.
On Thursday night, I saw the indie band Foxygen have something of a meltdown following an endless, nearly hour-long soundcheck where both fans and the band got testy. It boiled over when, after a song or two, singer Sam France bantered about his road-ravaged voice and a someone in the audience yelled for him to just play a song, which in turn prompted France to lash out at him and threaten to fight. Later, France bizarrely walked off stage, ended the show, only to return to finish out the set. The band later cancelled the rest of its performances at SXSW, disappointing many fans eager to see this band.
It was an unfortunate moment for a talented young band with a well-liked record getting a lot of attention. But it does call into question just how much pressure is put on these bands by the fans, the record labels and media to deliver and impress all in the hopes that people will fall in love with their music.
Elsewhere, I saw two other bands, also weary from a long week of over ten shows apiece, try something different in their last sets of the week: Merchandise, the punky Florida band told a crowd at Beerland “This is show number ten for us. We’re all out of pretty songs.” They then rocketed into an all-out assault of hard bashers and, no doubt, burned off some tired frustrations.
Then late Saturday night, Denton, Texas folk band Seryn decided to treat its quiet, attentive audience at St. David’s Episcopal Church to a much more intimate set than normal, to calm the nerves with something serene and almost spiritual.
Still with so much attention going to bigger stars, I actually came away thinking about how much amazing new music I heard from young bands. I actually saw about 72 bands -- some full sets, some only a single song -- and cannot wait to see some of these artists again the next time they roll through town.
Here are just ten of my favorites from South By Southwest:
This Louisiana psyche pop band's powerful and almost romantic sound reminded me of both Wilco and Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen, with songs like "Bullet For You" that burst into fantastic noise and gnashing guitar solos.
On record Empress Of's music is a blissful mess of glittery synths, junky electronic drum machines, and echoing vocals. But as she bounced around on stage, her songs like "Champagne" proved far dancier and groovier, perfect for filling a giant club.
In a set that showcased new songs -- such as "Beginnings" from the upcoming album A Quiet Darkness, Houses displayed one of the prettiest and outright earnest sets all week.
With matching yellow and black outfits, Lucius is instantly joy-making before you even hear them. But with songs like "Don't Just Sit There", it's impossible not to get caught up in the band's charming pop songwriting.
The standout of Marnie Stern's guitar-shredding set was "Year Of The Glad," a blast full of looping voices and textures. It's perhaps Stern's catchiest, and best song.
What more can I say? I ended up seeing this thrashy Toronto punk band three times -- the third was an accident, since they were playing before another band I was there to see -- and every set they put on was an impossibly energized stunner.
Much in the same way Nick Cave or Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O showmanship dominated their stellar sets at Stubb's, singer Zac Pennington, of the dramatic art rock band Parenthetical Girls, has a charisma you cannot take your eyes off. Pennington is incredibly theatric on stage, flailing arms around, climbing on speakers, staring directly into audience's eyes. Even on a far smaller stage than Cave played on, Pennington connected with the crowd just like a star.
In the two songs I caught, the mysterious Rhye -- the work of a duo of enigmatic pop songwriter-producers Michael Milosh and Robin Hannibal -- gave a soulful master class in economy thanks to gorgeous and sexy yet sparse arrangements and the warm, almost-female sounding croon of Milosh.
The power pop songs of Telekinesis' Michael Benjamin Lerner brim with catchy singalong-able choruses, memorable guitar hooks, and killer drumming. In two shows I saw, Telekinesis mixed new originals like "Power Lines" and "Ever True" with a few classics like "Tokyo," and with his new band won over new fans with a spot-on cover of INXS.
Katie Crutchfield's music is so deeply personal and confessional that you sometimes feel as if you're intruding. But her songs are also incredibly universal and heartfelt. Playing newer material like "Hollow Bedroom" and the distorted "Coast To Coast" show that Waxahatchee -- now a boisterous three-piece -- has begun to plug in and rock. And it never sounded better.
Five More Bands I Saw Worth Checking Out:
Five Acts I Wanted To See, But Missed: