[EDITOR'S NOTE: The Reader is teaming up with Hear Nebraska to cover SXSW this year. HN editor-in-chief Andrew Norman's stories will run right here at TheReader.com. And you can find more Hear Nebraska coverage reviews, photos and videos at hearnebraska.org.]
Last year at SXSW, we created a quick event on Facebook for a Nebraska meetup and attracted a little more than dozen people — but nine of them were in Satchel Grande. This year, we tried it again and found ourselves having beers with about 25 other Nebraskans in Austin, including touring musicians (Eli Mardock, Orion Walsh, The Bolzen Beer Band), expats (including Josh James from Kill County and Basil McJagger from The Derailers) and fellow journalists (OWH's Kevin Coffey and LJS' L. Kent Wolgamott). Still, there are at least as many Nebraskans who are down here this week who couldn't make the meeting. That's a pretty impressive contingency, and we plan to take advantage of it by throwing a Hear Nebraska SXSW show next year. If you're interested in getting involved, let me know.
Most of us at the meetup trekked the 15 minute walk to the Saddle Creek showcase featuring Icky Blossoms, Big Harp and The Mynabirds at Lambert's, a BBQ joint in the trendy southeast part of downtown across the street from Urban Outfitters. Saddle Creek's newest signee, Icky Blossoms was setting up when we arrived. Since I last heard the band,its fronting trio of Derek Pressnall, Nik Fackler and Sarah Bohling had recorded their debut album in L.A. with TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek. And they've replaced two prodigious backing musicians — bassist J.J. Idt (Conduits) and drummer Craig Dee (Tilly and the Wall) — with bassist Saber Blazek (The Machete Archive) and drummer Clark Baechle (The Faint, Depressed Buttons). If you thought their energy level was high before, these musicians help kick it up several notches. Spider-legged Blazek is one of the state's most compelling frontmen in The Machete Archive, and he doesn't even sing. So it's saying something when he doesn't even stand out among this lineup. Instead, he fits perfectly in his supporting role, playing much more restrained bass lines than he's used to, while squirming his ass off opposite dance-rock veteran Pressnall, and Fackler — a constantly moving, calculated spaz. Meanwhile, Bohling wanders the stage holding and singing down into her mic, letting her eye flashes do most of her dancing.
All of this feels more tight and comfortable than it did last time I saw them at the Waiting Room in October. And while the band's front four are really fun to watch, I couldn't take my eyes off Baechle's tight, precise drumming, the element that to me pushes Icky past just being a really good local band into watch-the-fuck-out territory. He pushes, pushes, pushes the tempo and the rest of the band is right there, too. Though they didn't have any music or merch to offer the packed room, they left quite an impression. If this was Icky's coming out party, they did it in style — like cramming all five of themselves into a closet with SXSW for seven minutes in heaven.
Next up was the band whose debut Saddle Creek record was one of my favorites from 2011. Having never seen Big Harp live, this wasn't the same band I recognized from that down-tempo, often-acoustic folk album. Backed by drums, husband-and-wife duo Chris Senseney and Stefanie Drootin-Senseney played almost entirely new material, and it rocked hard. In frontman Chris Senseney, "Saddle Creek may have found their guitar hero," said Omahan Ian Aeillo, who was in town playing bass for Eli Mardock. It's true, Senseney shreds that six-string. I'm excited to hear the new record so I can get to know these songs.
The room was still packed for The Mynabirds, who played a bunch of songs off their album that will be released in June. This was also my first time seeing Laura Burhenn's band, whose 2010 debut, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, melded indie rock and R&B beautifully. Standing front and center with her long blonde hair befitted with a fox hat, Burhenn brought her new dancey, soulful, rhythm-heavy songs to life. It's gorgeous, foot-stomping stuff that makes you want to join in, and gives you the feeling that if you did, it would be welcomed.
After the 'Birds, we headed to catch Grimes and Yacht at Clives, one of the backyard venues planted amid a residential neighborhood on the southeast corner of downtown. I don't know why the doorman was letting peopl in to this place, which was way over capacity. It was a hot sweaty booze fest, made more uncomfortable by the unusually long sound check required for Grimes, a DJ who only requires one mic. Whether it was the system or the sound guy, something was screwed up during this set (and during Yacht's). The sound was terrible, full of feedback and a constant buzz, and vocals I couldn't hear. A young Canadian woman singing and looping ethereal melodies while DJing dance tracks, Grimes has gained a huge following largely through kick-ass videos and catchy-as-hell melodies. Maybe it was the sound problems — including an extended point where the p.a. shut off completely, leaving Grimes looking bewildered for a couple minutes as crowd members became increasingly inpatient — or the sweaty cologne guy pushed up against me, but I couldn't get into this performance. The rhythm just doesn't always get you.
Yacht, however, grabbed me by the shirt collar and head-butted me like Wesley Willis. The Portland/L.A./Marfa, Texas, band is high-energy, smart and punk as hell in the vein of David Byrne and The Clash. I saw them on Valentine's Day at The Bourbon in Lincoln, where they seemed like an arena band. But under a tent in this Texas back yard, they just felt like an incredible indie band playing a house show. The venue's sound problems persisted for Yacht, leaving frontwoman Jona Bechtolt to improvise by conducting a hilarious, deadpan, smart-ass Q&A with the crowd that included these gems:
Q: If you could go anywhere in town, where would you go?
A: I'd go to L.A. in 1975 and hang out with the Germs
Q: Where'd you get your attitude?
A: Weed and my mother, pop culture … Elaine Benes, not giving a shit.
Andrew Norman is Hear Nebraska's editor-in-chief. His dogs are barking. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.