SXSW Festival Wrap-up: Day 3
Victor was running his ass off. He must’ve had twelve tables, and when you’re doing full service (even at a breakfast buffet), twelve tables can be feel like half of Austin. Back home, I made coin serving and bartending at a theatre restaurant, and I could appreciate hard work when I saw it. The service was poor, but I slipped him an extremely generous tip regardless. Ever since I woke up, my eyes were glued to the twittersphere as details about the tragic events the night prior kept pouring in. The gravity of the situation was difficult to comprehend, but the outpour of support for the victims, their families, and the city of Austin left me misty-eyed. And the beat goes on.
Back at the Hype Hotel, the hot piss stank of the night prior was appropriately sanitized, and the bartenders crossed their arms and exchanged strenuous glances; the storm was about to hit. Some band was playing some indistinguishable chillwave as I sat in a corner and hastily scribbled into my notepad. Chet Faker was the first artist of the afternoon, and I was elated to see the soulful Aussie play some material from his upcoming (and highly anticipated) first full-length. I sat patiently as the electro band behind the nondescript noise nervously flitted with their equipment, apologizing to the modest crowd about ‘sound difficulties’. I checked my phone, they were eating into Chet’s timeslot. Shit. Late shows and cancellations weren’t uncommon throughout the week; it’s hard to blame the festival venues or the organizers considering the sheer size and scope of this year’s SXSW. Although on every corner of the internet, one could listen to early chatter about how this year’s festival ‘sold out’, ‘got too big’, and was akin to some sort of corporate Frankenstein turning on the town. Only a few days in, it was hard to argue that everything had gone to shit, but as the week unfolded and the runaway clusterfuck kept chugging full-stream ahead, the slow chatter certainly evolved into 140-character yelling. We were supposedly entitled to a corporate-free week with all our favorite artists leaving their record labels at home, as if SXSW existed in some sort of anti-American non-capital vacuum. Unfortunately, Doritos was handing out free chips and booking Gaga. It didn’t bother me too much; while thousands of unfortunate souls waited in line for six hours to see a pop superstar perform a rushed set, I managed to slip in and out of smaller performances on a whim. Ever the optimist, I was just happy to be in Austin, despite the sizable hole in my tip jar.
I’d been keeping my eye trained on Chet Faker since he teamed up with fellow kangaroo-jockey Flume on the Lockjaw EP, a small release that garnered millions of listens on soundcloud alone. His discography was modest at best, gaining critical praise in Australia but yet to drop anchor in North America. From the moment he turned his first knob, I knew he’d struck gold.
Chet Faker – Talk is Cheap
Chet was a soulful man, with roots deeply ingrained in R&B and vocal Jazz, he bled his heart into his music. After each song, the ever-humble Aussie would put his palms together and bow slightly to the audience, mouthing a quiet ‘Thank you’ with great appreciation. Behind the scraggly beard, Chet came across as the type of man who deeply cared about his craft; the down-tempo keys and 90′s circa bass lines, there was an unmistakable sensuality in his music. At SXSW, you could find an answer for every genre of music, and Chet Faker represented a revival in the dying art of pop-driven R&B. His music was undeniably good, regardless of which ear was listening, and it certainly wasn’t created for the sole purpose of selling cars with kitschy commercials (catch that grenade already Bruno). Keep an eye out for Built on Glass, set to release April 11.
Chet Faker – Melt (feat Kilo Kish)
Some brutish Texan in a cowboy hat blinked his flashlight at Chet’s feet, signaling the premature end of his set. With one final bow, Chet Faker left the stage and the team of rabid mustacheod tech-hands went to work dismantling the set in preparation of the arrival of the Dum Dum Girls. Three years ago living in a dingy residence building on campus, I stumbled upon the song “He Gets Me High” leading up to the EP release of the same name, and ever since the Dum Dum Girls have enjoyed a healthy rotation on my iPod.
Dum Dum Girls – Bedroom Eyes
Stylistically, the Dum Dum Girls are all about cultivating a certain image, and that image can be summed up with ‘not giving a fuck’. Building off the mysterious 60′s-era goth rocker chick motif, the girls stood practically still as they ran through a heavy set ripe with hits from their past few albums. Surely, they were trying very hard to not enjoy themselves. It should also be noted that the Dum Dum Girls weren’t all girls, despite every effort to remain a femme-fatale fourway, a sizable portion of the guitar-work was done by a mysterious man with long hair hidden stage right towards the back. One couldn’t help but feel like they tucked this guy in a corner, and ideally he’d be off-stage all-together if the size of the venue permitted, however if one were to blur their eyes (or simply watch from a distance) his soft features and long hair could be easily mistaken for… well..
One of the girls doing her best attempt at playing in front of a live audience while looking miserable
It was difficult to pinpoint the exact niche the Dum Dum Girls were trying to channel. Were they drawing on the pro-feminist Riot Grrrl movement of the 80′s and 90′s minus the rhetoric? Were the aliases simply supplemental to the rockstar mystique? The message was unclear, but imagery aside, the music was excellently executed and a true testament to lead singer/songwriter Dee Dee Penny’s ability to weave elements of hopeless romance and broken-hearted harmonies with retro-wavey garage rock.
Dum Dum Girls – Lost Boys & Girls Club
Although I was somewhat put-off by their image (the steely looks the girls kept shooting me every few moments were certainly adding to my general discomfort), there was no denying Dee Dee’s talents as a musician and an artist. Once the set was finished, I spotted the girls smiling and joking outside Hype Hotel as they hoofed it to their next show, and I wondered if the whole act was just a melodramatic farce. On a personal level, I’d already established that their music was fantastic without witnessing their live personas, and surely they wouldn’t shed any fans if they took those backstage smiles with them to their next set, but who am I to argue with the way an artist presents themselves? On stage, they looked cool as fuck, tapping into the teenage apathetic in us all, speaking firmly and clearly with only their eyes. We just don’t give a fuck. I wonder if they smoke cigarettes?
The pace of the day was starting to pick up as I “jogged” to the Flamingo Cantina to catch the daytime headliners, We Were Promised Jetpacks. Out of all of the performers I was looking forward to seeing over SXSW, I was only versed on the entire discography of a select few. The Scottish five-piece was one of those bands. Since their debut album “These Four Walls”, I’d been obnoxiously belting out their tunes in the comfort of my four-door for five years. Their most recent release, “In The Pit of the Stomach” was already a toddler at three years old, and I was eager to see if WWPJ had any fresh material.
When I got to the Cantina just a few blocks away from Hype Hotel, the line for entry stretched down the street. Without any priority given to badge/wristband holders, I attempted to charm my way past the doorman. Dropping buzzwords like “Press”, “Coverage”, and “Necessary”, but it was all for naught. The small bar was at capacity, and the Fire Marshalls had already shut down a slew of shows for violating their largely ambiguous rules. With little else on the docket as the day shows wound down, I elected to wait in the line despite the set time starting in only five minutes. I shot the shit with a traveling skateboarder and a couple dudes from a marketing firm, and eventually the four of us found ourselves at the very front of the line. I cringed as I could hear lead singer Adam Thompson playing the first notes of “Sore Thumb”, one of my all-time favorite songs, and the pain of waiting was excruciating. Suddenly, shadows emerged from inside, as four people squeezed out of the Flamingo Cantina. With their exit, the four of us exchanged elated looks like giddy school girls as we half-ran into the venue.
We Were Promised Jetpacks – Sore Thumb
I’d been to a handful of festivals in the past few years, but nothing was quite like SXSW. It was by far the easiest festival to push through to the front, in fact, not much pushing was necessary. I would often hold my camera slightly in front of me, and after a few “Excuse me’s” I’d be center stage. We Were Promised Jetpacks had played nearly half their set; forced to hear some of my favorite songs from the street, I wasted no time ‘excusing’ my way to the front.
The first song I heard had me completely forget I was a journalist of some sort. I shouted and screamed, danced and shook my head violently. WWPJ finished the piece with a wall of sound and reverb, and Adam Thompson thumbed his way through a few indistinguishable chords, effortlessly slowing the pace and setting up for the final song. The crowd roared as they recognized the direction Thompson was taking us, and with his first verse it became apparent that everybody in the building knew the words.
Right foot, followed by your left foot/Guide you home before your curfew, and into your bed
I tried suppressing a hearty laugh listening to all the fake Scottish accents behind me. I was surrounded by people singing along in their own perverse dialects, some were quite accurate while others clearly had never left the comfort of their owner’s vehicles or showers when they sang to themselves (and maybe shouldn’t have). The tempo picked up and I could feel the ground vibrating beneath me, Thompson was mounting tension, Your body was black and blue/It struck twice there’s nothing new, waiting to explode.
We Were Promised Jetpacks – It’s Thunder And It’s Lightning
Eruption. That feeling of pure bliss swam over me as I completely lost myself in the sound.It was moments like this, I thought, that make everything worth it. All the expenses, the nightmarish flights and bad sleeps, the creeping bronchitis and feelings of intense loneliness and alienation, it suddenly all seemed so necessary, so purposeful. Time stood still. I was awash in a wave of thought and emotion. I was experiencing the strongest form of nostalgia in real time. I wanted to remember this feeling. In my short career writing about music, there are a select few moments that stuck to my soul. If I ever make a career out of this, I never want to take it for granted. Often times it was difficult conversing with other Press outlets, bloggers were anti-social and endlessly tweeting, most photographers were there to simply document. They wore earplugs and watched the crowd with a quiet contempt. But for me, I was following my passion. And even if I grew up and found myself working some desk job for an Oil company back home, at least I lived that dream, I truly tasted the sweet fruit of deep-seeded fulfillment, if only for a short time.
I left the bar in a strange state. Any confidence I was lacking had completely gone the wayside, water-logged under a tsunami of purpose and self-worth. It was only 5:00 o’clock and I’d already witnessed a handful of phenomenal acts. I suddenly felt like I had an advantage over the more experienced writers and photographers. I had a grand epiphany. My decisive moment was now.
It was always a good idea to refuel around 6:00; the day shows had all wrapped up and the evening events were a few hours away from kicking off. I snagged a burrito on Rainey Street and sat in the park to watch the sunset.
“Is there a limit on the amount of tacos I’m allowed to eat?”
“Nope! But you’re definitely winning!”
And winning I was. I finally managed to wrangle some free Doritos Locos Tacos courtesy of The Hype Hotel and Taco Bell, and after scarfing down four in under two minutes I decided to save some stomach space for beer. With my confidence at its peak, I finally shed my apprehension towards alcohol and began to indulge. The doors had just opened, and only about twenty people were in the concrete shoebox as Ejecta began to set up their equipment. After a quick soundcheck, I parked myself dead center in the front row.
The crowd was about fifty people large as Leanne Macomber nodded at musical magician Joel Ford to start the set. It was an intimate performance, and after a few nervous songs it became very apparent to me that Ejecta hadn’t played many live shows. I saw Macomber two years prior as a member of Neon Indian, but she took her emergence into the spotlight with an air of uncertainty. It was somewhat strange to watch her hesitation; considering a simple Google search of her name yields a gratuitous number of nude photoshoots, I assumed her confidence would flesh out into her performance. Ford was a rock of certainty, calmly playing bass and double-checking the laptop as he watched over Leanne like a mentor watching over their student. She made very few mistakes, but her closed-eyed approach only furthered the notion of self-consciousness.
Ejecta – It’s Only Love
After the set was finished I wanted to tell her that she needed to grab her music by the balls and belt it out. I ran through a few sentences in my head, but they all sounded pompous and borderline disrespectful. Macomber did a great job and maybe that’s all she needed to hear, so I extended my hand and introduced myself, offering simple words of encouragement and expressing my gratitude for her performance. After a brief meeting, I ducked out of the Hype Hotel and made my way a few doors down to the Swan Dive.
There was a four foot gap between the crowd and the stage, and one man in a leather jacket watched nervously with crossed arms. Vancouver Sleep Clinic was still setting up, some ten minutes into their set time, which was having a very noticeable effect on the man. Two beers in, I slapped him in the shoulder and went with my gut. “Are you the manager?” he looked somewhat startled, but after I introduced myself as a member of the press and as a fan, his demeanor quickly changed. I learned that he started his own company somewhat recently, despite his thick Aussie accent he identified himself as “From L.A”, and I started to piece together the internetal reasoning behind his intense apprehension. Vancouver Sleep Clinic was a band comprised of three 17 year-olds from Australia, it was painfully obvious that he had a lot riding on their first tour of the U.S. He bit his nails nervously, barking at the youngsters to speed things up as he tapped his watch with fervor. As soon as the set started, he disappeared, presumably to continue worrying over a half-pack of cigarettes.
The girls behind me we’re swooning. “He’s so cute!” “Ohhh my goshhh!”, at one point I attempted to cool their loins “He’s seventeen ladies, calm down”, but they hardly seemed to care. Tim Bettinson had a distinct aura of charm and sensitivity. His down-tempo instrumentals were smooth and poignant when paired with his Justin Vernon-esque breathy vocals. It was bedroom music, wrought with intense emotions of loneliness and insignificance. Bettinson’s falsetto’s float in the clouds, accentuated by delicate synth compositions and the gentle kicks of David Lucha.
Vancouver Sleep Clinic – Collapse
Tim was a multi-instrumental prodigy, and I had no qualms telling his manager prior to the show that he’d struck gold. “This is our first time in the U.S” Bettinson blushed as the crowd roared “It’s just weird to play in front of actual people”. The trio were very humble, and I could only imagine the thrill of being so young and going from composing music in your bedroom to being center stage at the biggest music conglomeration of the year.
Vancouver Sleep Clinic – Flaws
It was a brilliant set, and I decided to introduce myself and leave with a few parting shots of wisdom. He leaned in, eyes wide, and nodded attentively as I spoke. “.. you’re an incredible talent and you’ve got huge potential” I assured him, “just try not to let that manager of your stress you out too much and have fun”. We thanked eachother and I shook his hand one last time, my mind already wandering to the next big act of the night.
Walking around SXSW was akin to listening to The Hype Machine’s Top 50, only live. At any given moment, a buzzband was playing a set in front of a modest crowd, and it took only a flash of the ID to gain entry and witness any number of rising stars. I peeked at my schedule and noted Roadkill Kill Ghost choir was set to play in under an hour back on Rainey Street. Already weary from the hot sun of a long day, I flagged down a pedicab driver and left him with a ten dollar tip before approaching the Blackheart.
The Blackheart was one of many house bars on Rainey Street, and was undoubtedly one of the most charming venues in Austin. All down Rainey, eclectic inner-city homes were converted to bars, with large backyards serving as the stage. The atmosphere at these venues was akin to something from the O.C, intimate gatherings of the young and beautiful, all cracking jokes and drinking from red Solo cups. Desperate to get lubricated, I asked the bartendress if they had any strong beer worthy of a Canadian, and two haggard Mexican bikers at the end of the bar blurted out “STONE IPA”. It was an investment to say the least, a 12 OZ cup of beer-on-tap for $8.50 hardly seemed worth it when tall-boys of Lonestar ran for three bucks, but at 5.4% and kicking like a mule, I knew I found my flavor.
I sat on a bench outside, hastily scribbling notes and wiping the foam from my upper lip with my free hand. Halfway through my beer and Roadkill Ghost Choir set to take the stage, the feeling started to take hold. People are hammered, is it my turn? I wrote ominously. My notes slowly began to deteriorate into nonsensical gibberish, bullet points precluded phrases like “THIS IS MY ANALOG SMART PHONE” and “No matter how many selfies you take you bitches are still ugly“. The booze was starting to take hold, right on time for one of the best shows I’d see all week long.
Roadkill Ghost Choir – Devout
Andrew Shephard sang like a damned banshee, quietly lulling the crowd into a false sense of serenity before hitting the boiling point and yelling with precision and control. The combination of lonesome steel guitar solos and heavy folk-rock Americana played beautifully into the gritty and dirty backyard scene of the Blackheart. I sat in the shale beside the main speaker and snapped shot-after-shot of Shephard looking positively ghastly behind a curtain of long, wiry hair. Having only previously heard one song by the band, I was completely blown away by the harmonic brilliance of their instruments and the passive-aggressive tension reverberating off every chord. I grew up listening to my dad’s country music, and Roadkill Ghost Choir seemed like the logical extension of my passion for music and my backwoods roots.
Roadkill Ghost Choir – Down And Out
I had to book it uptown to catch the last two acts of the evening, BANKS followed by UK royalty, London Grammar. Having access to the VIP entrance at Hype Hotel was a distinct advantage, and I stood inline for a mere two minutes before B-lining it for the free beer. Now a veteran at crowd control, I weaved my way through the largely drunken crowd and struck up a conversation with a young girl who was an Austin local. Only a few moments later, Jillian Banks to the stage to raucous applause.
BANKS – This Is What It Feels Like
BANKS was sultry and seductive, confidently flowing back-and-forth onstage like a model on the catwalk as her voice erupted over the crowd. She shot diamond-hard glances at everyone in the front row, and after only a few moments I became acutely aware of her 90′s R&B influences. BANKS drew inspiration from industry heavyweights Mya and the late Aaliyah, and you could easily see the influence in her stage presence alone. Not much was known about the young starlet, she came on the scene just over a year ago after her soundcloud account spread her hits like wildfire, and her social media persona was practically non-existent. But the mystery shrouding her meteoric rise seemed frivolous when witnessing her incredible talents live. She was a superstar in the making, and eventually made a direct allusion to her influences by performing a spirited rendition of Aaliyah’s “Are you That Somebody”
BANKS – Are You That Somebody
Gorilla vs. Bear had really outdone themselves with their set of performers at the Hype Hotel, and even the heavily intoxicated frequenters in line for more poison were in a frozen state of raised eyebrows. Everyone was talking about the BANKS performance, it was pretty clear that she seemed destined for a wide audience. I pondered the hipster-satisfaction of being able to say “I saw her BEFORE she was super famous” as I was handed my final beer of the evening. My notes had taken a severe nose-dive in quality and had turned the corner to illegible chicken scratch, and room was coated in a thick fuzz.
London Grammar was next as time seemed to lurch forward awkwardly. I talked politics loudly with two emphatic gentlemen in the front row while my vision began to blur. I’m a journalist God damnit, pull yourself together man. Somewhere, buried underneath my inebriated delirium, I was screaming internally.
London Grammar – Hey Now
Admittedly, there’s very little I remember from London Grammar’s performance outside of being wholly impressed by her modest, yet powerful voice. She was a phenomenon overseas, and even in my drunken stupor it was obvious how talented songstress Hannah Reid was at captivating a crowd of hopeless drunkards. She seemed the natural successor to powerhouse icon Florence Welch. Somehow in the midst of her set I managed to fabricate a seething hatred from another photographer, and fueled by disdain I climbed over the barricade and perched myself on an empty space on the left-side of the stage in between wires and speakers. In retrospect it was completely asinine and more than likely a violation of someone’s insurance policy, but I wasn’t the type of belligerent drunk that would knock anything over and compromise the performance. I summoned every ounce of spatial awareness and respect, and silently snapped photo after photo as no one took notice. I kept complete composure, but it was a gutsy move nonetheless.
London Grammar – Strong
I stumbled out of the Hype Hotel sometime after 1 AM with the widest grin I could muster. These were my people, I mused, laughing to myself and using each passing building as an opportunity to shift my weight onto something other than my gelatin legs. The events of the day swam through my head vividly, I could hardly believe the incredible acts I got to witness in a span of twelve hours. Perhaps it was the beer talking, but I truly felt at one with the festival for the first time, and I would carry that unwavering confidence into the weekend for the final two days of performances. JESUS, I stumbled nearly falling. Suddenly the lyrics from an afternoon set started ringing in my ears..
Right foot, followed by your left foot….
STAY TUNED for the final two episodes of my SXSW adventure, including an absolutely John Hughes-ian set, and yours truly being trapped in a group of screaming fangirls as they wet themselves in sexual anticipation.