South By Southwest 2014: Lost in an Orgy of Music


How does one summarize a week’s worth of music, madness, noise, fans, bands, booze, beers, streets of drunks and drugged and demented youth (and not-so-youthful) lost in an orgy of ideas and commerce and commercialism centered ‘round hopes and dreams made by guitars, bass, drums and vocals (and sometimes keyboards) struggling to get noticed at the largest rock ’n’ roll festival on the planet?

That’s the challenge of reporting on the 2014 South By Southwest Music Festival, held last week in Austin, Texas. Want all the details? Go to thereader.com, where four days are covered moment-by-moment. Want just the highlights? Read on:

Deerpeople at The Buffalo Lounge — The 6-piece band from Stillwater, Oklahoma, are Nebraska favorites having played at a number of Lincoln Calling Festivals over the years. With a flute player, two keyboards and a sometimes violinist, you might classify them as “chamber pop” except their music is too upbeat, too progressive for that moniker. Frontman Brennan Barnes has a rich, flawless voice from behind the keyboard, though he spent time singing from within the crowd and standing near the rooftop railing serenading folks on the street below.

Protomartyr at French Legation Park — The Detroit-based punk band is fronted by a guy who looks like an insurance salesman, complete with a sensible haircut and full-on business attire, but who has a singing style akin to Husker Dü-era Bob Mould or Mark E. Smith of The Fall. Deadpan anger, straight-faced disgust, like an upset father holding tight his controlled rage and a back-up band that is pure Gang of Four post punk.

Coachwhips at French Legation Park — This was a reunion of sorts for frontman John Dwyer’s first band to make a mark, years before he formed Thee Oh Sees. Dwyer barked out songs into a distorted condenser microphone, while banging out chords on a beat-up metal-neck electric guitar. The crowd pushed right up to where he stood and bounced along to the brittle, good-time punk.

Destruction Unit at Beerland Patio — The Arizona punk band’s blistering feedback-laden set proved their knack for finding sinewy melodies amidst the densest noise imaginable. It was impossible to actually see them from the street through the mob that formed outside the patio’s railing. Intense. Loud.

Twinsmith at Bar 512 — A crowd of 50 (with at least a third from Omaha) saw the band pull off a tight set of their best music, including a couple new ones. Call it a testimony to their appeal, at least a dozen fans were getting their groove on in front of the stage (which is to say, they were dancing).

Eagulls at French Legation Park — Their bio says they were influenced by Dinosaur Jr. and PiL, but the only thing I could hear was the ringing/chiming guitar tones of early Cure and Flock of Seagulls, and that wasn’t a bad thing. From Leeds, the band’s 2014 self-titled debut on Knitting Factory Records is one of the hotter indie releases so far this year. If you closed your eyes you could imagine hearing a post-punk band emerge circa 1984.

Future Islands at French Legation Park — The band is riding a wave of popularity after a recent unforgettable performance on Late Night with David Letterman that showcased frontman Samuel T. Herring and his unique dance moves. Herring looks like a young Streetcar Brando combined with Deliverance Burt Reynolds and Kirkian Shatner, but with the intensity of a Rollins or Morrissey. The crowd went nuts not only for Herring but for the music, which recalls early Factory / New Order electronic dance. They rolled out a number of songs off their soon-to-be-released album Singles (out March 25 on 4AD).

Jeremy Messersmith at Swan Dive — No one writes sweet-hearted hooks quite like Messersmith, each sung with a voice that puts Ben Folds to shame. His set was dedicated to songs off his new album, Heart Murmurs, released earlier this year on Glassnote. While the crowd of a hundred or so milled about during the beginning of his set, they were mesmerized by the end. Messersmith was messer-merizing.

Cate Le Bon at Waterloo Records —A Welsh singer/songwriter who now lives is LA, Le Bon and her band played a number of songs off her most recent album Mug Museum (2013, Turnstyle). The uptempo songs combine post-punk and English folk, kind of like Richard and Linda Thompson music sung in a low, flat voice that recalls ‘60s siren Nico. The music can be both loopy and choppy, powered by minimal synths and Le Bon’s own economic electric guitar solos. Very avant-poppy.

EMA at Central Presbyterian Church — a.k.a. Erika M. Anderson is a South Dakota singer/songwriter who had a hit in 2011 with buzz-howl droner Past Life Martyred Saints (Souterrain Transmissions). Her next album, The Future’s Void, comes out April 7 on Matador, and judging by what she played last night, will be more of a straight-forward post-rock album with just as much drama but a lot more rhythm.

Angel Olsen at Central Presbyterian Church — The red-hot indie upstart’s new album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar), was anointed with Pitchfork’s “Best New Music” label. The material came off better live. Olsen has a touch of Tammy Wynette in her voice, though her music is typical indie singer/songwriter fare (with a twang).

Urge Overkill at Maggie Mae’s — The legendary band hasn’t released anything since their self-released Rock and Roll Submarine in 2011. Still, it’s hard to pass up the band behind 1993’s Saturation, and the classic single, “Sister Havana.” The capacity crowd got the hit along with a handful of other UO classics played by two of the original members — Nash Kato looking cool as ever in his wrap-around sunglasses, and a very sweaty Eddie “King” Roeser. Blackie Onassis was MIA.

Eros and the Eschaton at Valhalla — This rendition of the band consisted only of Katey Perdoni on keys and guitar, and former Omahan Adam Hawkins on keys and drums, and that was all they needed. The crowd of 40 or so looked entranced by the duo’s drone, including a handful of Omaha folks come to see the former homeboy.

Mark Kozelek at Central Presbyterian Church — The man behind Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon as well as his own amazing solo output, I’ve been a Kozelek fan for years and figured I’d never get to see him perform live. And now here he was, sitting in the dark up on that alter, accompanied only by a drummer/harmony vocalist hidden somewhere behind him.

It was a gorgeous performance of music from his latest Sun Kil Moon album, Benji (2014, Caldo Verde), which I hadn’t heard prior to this set and have been listening to ever since. Kozelek was in perfect voice, artfully playing his acoustic guitar, creating waves of beauty and despair.

Kozelek played for almost a full hour, and despite not performing any of his classic RHP back catalog, it was one of the best concerts I’ve seen not only at SXSW, but anywhere. Every year at SXSW there’s at least one performance that stands as a “perfect moment.” In 2010 it was the Big Star All Star Concert played just days after the death of Alex Chilton. Two years ago it was Jesus & Mary Chain, and Bob Mould performing Copper Blue. I was beginning to wonder if I would get one of those perfect moments this year. Kozelek came through.


Category: Music

Leave a Reply