[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.]
After a 14-hour drive that somehow took a day-and-a-half, I first wrapped my hands around a cold, 24-ounce domestic lager upon arriving in Austin for the SXSW Music Festival. Four other Hear Nebraska contributors and I arrived, found parking, secured credentials and were ready to hit our first night of shows Wednesday around 8 p.m. — during the sweet spot between the free day shows and official SXSW evening concerts.
My wife, Angie, and I headed to see Tennis, an indie four-piece from Denver that had packed Slowdown Jr. in February. I’d missed that Omaha performance, so I wanted to see what was so great about this band. We walked passed the Beauty Bar Backyard — where a secret Death from Above 1979 show last year prompted a mini riot — and into the Red 7 Patio, a space where I’d watched a mohawked gentleman swing from the makeshift canopy while American Steel played there a few years back.
Fronted by husband-and-wife duo Alaina Moore (vocals, keys) and Patrick Riley (guitar), Tennis looks as if they stepped out of a Nintendo commercial or were featured extras on The Goonies. The band’s overt ’80s aesthetic contributes to its smooth, jazzy indie-rock feeling nostalgic to me. Backed by Riley’s surf guitar, a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing bassist/keyboardist and a drummer, the tiny Moore owns the crowd, singing songs like “Origins” and “Petition” off 2012 full-length Young and Old. Draped by curly, natural blond locks, she closes her eyes and projects her wailing, soulful, piercing voice through the mic as she steps away from the keys and to the crowd, swaying her way through set closer “My Better Self.”
After the spiciest chicken tikka masala I’d ever consumed — via a food truck — we walked the seven or eight blocks to Bar 96 in a cool little enclave in southeast downtown to catch Screaming Females, Andrew WK and Titus Andronicus. The little residential neighborhood is lined with houses on both sides of the streets, and flanked by two bars facing each other on its corner. During SXSW, taco trucks pull up and cycle rickshaws transport people to and from. The bar is pretty much an open building you walk through in order to get to the stage in the backyard. Standing on an Astro Turf yard, facing the stage sponsored by Brooklyn Vegan, I looked to my right and saw an awesome view of Austin’s skyline, one you don’t see right in the thick of Sixth Street’s bustle.
Up first was Screaming Females, a punk rock trio from New Brunswick, N.J. fronted by Marissa Paternoster. Pint-sized, playing punchy punk, she reminds me of Omaha’s Sara Bertuldo from Millions of Boys. Paternoster absolutely shreds her guitar and has an incredibly powerful voice. It’s sometimes warbley, but always forceful. It’s hard to compare. Listen to it on their song “Wild,” from their 2011 album Castle Talk, and tell me what you think.
Chants of “Party!” by a dude-filled crowd welcomed Andrew W.K. to the stage, which was really too small to handle the six-piece band (including a “hype” woman in a leotard). Party is what we got — I believe every song actually said that word. It was pure energy, with at least one member of the band going nuts at all times. W.K. himself hopped between playing keys to playing hardcore frontman, raising fists and spitting lyrics with his face up close to those in the front row. He closed, of course, with his hit, “Party Hard,” which may be the most literal song ever written. I figured if I was going to stage dive during this festival (and I hadn’t planned on it), this would be the time to do it. So I handed my loose items (including a $5 PBR tallboy) to Angie, ran around from the back of the stage and vaulted myself into the crowd. You know, I partied hard.
Glen Rock, N.J., band Titus Andronicus closed the night, beginning with a cover of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town.” I couldn’t tell at first if it was cheesy — opening with a cover — or awesome, but it was definitely really fun. I’ve had one Titus Andronicus song, “A More Perfect Union,” on my iTunes for years, but had never really explored the band further. Frontman Patrick Stickles has a voice, and political sensibilities, that harken a young Conor Oberst. He has a Johnny Rotten way of attacking the mic, throwing throaty vocals into it as he’s fighting a stutter. Indie enough to be interesting, and punk enough not to bore me, this band was the highlight of my first night in Austin. Check them out in the video below.
Andrew Norman is Hear Nebraska’s editor-in-chief. When it’s time to party, he’ll party hard. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.