SXSW Music 2016 From D∆WN and Xander Harris to Seth Graham and Downtown Boys

Photo: Jesse DeFlorio/Hype Machine's Hype Hotel

We sent three of our writers to cover SXSW Music 2016. First up is long-time TMTer Willcoma, followed by SXSW veteran Liz Louche, and finally ending with the chocolate-grindin’ Weaver.

Right off the bat: SXSW is too gargantuan an affair to try and capture without coming off like anything but a snobby, ungrateful, nitpicking twit. It’s true that it’s teaming with an infinite array of vibes and its so swimming with bodies that you start to feel like you’re in a light-hearted dystopia of sorts. Even when with a friend or two, during a one-week citywide music fest you’re cycling through self-consciousness, harmony, and obliviousness at a delirious rate. You feel overwhelmed and alive. Like a St. Patrick’s day parade with infinitely more options for sensory soaking. I am the sort that generally appreciates what sinks in with a full set over flitting about, so I missed A TON. Things I was dying to see, things that I’d promised my editor I’d see and the ever elusive NEXT BIG THING.

So bear in mind, the following is (mostly) the best of what I managed to experience start to finish, and far from a fair representation of ALL that SX has to offer.

Nardwuar’s Video Vault (Austin Convention Center)

Photo: James Goulden Photography

My only convention center gig (admittedly felt inclined to avoid the slick atmosphere of the place, but the staff were all really helpful and nice) and one I feel beyond privileged to have attended. I was a little rickety that Saturday afternoon, but Nardwuar’s (John Ruskin) enthusiasm and positivity were an amazing boost. Even though it was mostly a Nardwuar The Human Serviette clip show (with some rarities thrown in), there was a fair share of riffing on mic, and he used every bit of the room to enliven his stories and advice. He often thrust the mic toward us to finish his sentences and did the sign off to provide the virtual interviewee experience, then answered people’s questions in an equally generous fashion. He’s an interesting guy in that he, like Pee Wee Herman, doesn’t make being a children’s show host-style caricature outside of that context a bad or creepy thing. There is a contagious passion and engagement with his subjects, even if he mostly just tees up obscure ephemera from their past. He’s tending that artist output continuum in a way that is important for those of us that care to acknowledge there’s more value to bygone product than mere nostalgia. Nardwuar is a personality that brings real joy and you could feel it in the room. The man is a study in tenacity: at one point a giant four-post banner collapsed off the stage into the wall behind him and he showed no awareness that I could see.

Fear of Men (Cheer-Up Charlies)

I loved (the outdoor part of) this venue! With it’s rock wall backdrop, it’s almost like a concert in a cave. I managed to catch this band’s last set of the fest and I’m glad I did. New song, “Island” was a particular highlight (especially since they didn’t play “Seer” or “Born”), wafting over the audience in cool, slightly biting waves. My friend pointed out that he thought the drums were too prominent, so perhaps I noticed that more than than I would’ve. When lead singer Jessica Weiss finally put on her guitar the sound notably filled out, but it was a hypnotic and lovely set. People even chilled out with the flying orange balls, so that was nice.

Waxahatchee (Central Presbyterian Church)

Speaking of lovely, Katie Crutchfield singing her eloquent sad songs in a chapel was the sort of preciousness that could inspire tears and laughter, and I heard both during her solo set (the second Waxahatchee show of the fest for me). I’d call blashphemy on the laughing, but what Crutchfield does is so rote (and I mean that in the best possible way) and unassuming that one could’ve been anywhere. Though happy for the laughing people having had their little moment, I can’t help but wish they’d have had it outside. Cause I was pretty damn choked up and totally OK with it till then (it was dark). She played “Summer of Love” again and its sicky sweet refrain has now taken up permanent residence in my brain. I’ve learned to just give in to these songs, even if the part of me that would’ve reached for them is kind of gone now. And I don’t give in out of yearning for grief-massaging teenage emotions, but a healthy, ever so slightly foreboding respect for what never goes away of them.

Sun Kil Moon (Clive Bar)

I had trouble finding this bar, as it was masked by a giant promo wall, but I got there well early based on warnings of low capacity. Gotta thank Showtime and Roadies for presenting me with the perfect storm of fetid emotion, mixed emotion, snorty laughs, and actual storm that I knew only you could at SXSW. So I was all about getting in there to see Kozelek. Partly cause of all the controversy and partly because Benji was a moving experience for me (and Red House Painters before that). So I got there (6:30, doors-at-8:00 ) dressed light cause I sweat like a flaccid sprinkler system and hate carrying things around. After the usual business of where do I go and what do I need I park myself in line and patiently wait. Around 7:30 or so it starts to spit. Then it picks up in earnest and we are provided with garbage bags for parkas. Another half hour and the door people are taking down the tent and huddling inside with VIPs. Since there’s plenty lightning and a call for hail, it is decreed that the show must be post-poned till a half hour after everything stops, if/when it stops. I look around me and see that I am not the only one digging my heels in. I text some friends in my trash bag and hope for the best. Mercifully, we are finally let in. I throw out my trash bag and get beer only to realize I should’ve kept my thrifty poncho and ordered a hot toddy or something cause it was now cold and I was still soaked with rain and sweat. I plug in my phone at the Showtime charging station and make may down into the small floor area for singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus. Judging from the Billie Holiday-by-way-of-Starbucks material available online, one would never guess just how indelibly lived-in her stage presence is. Her and her band smashed out some feverish alt-country jams that soothed my weary soul.

Then I got wearier. Kozelek came out looking liked he’d just woke up and drowsily introduced himself. Not sure what happened, but it was just Mark, his keyboardist and the drummer from the previous set. The singer informed us that Dacus’ drummer knew none of the material, so a trainwreck seemed imminent. Once the first track stumbled into action, one could sense the absurdity in repeating lyrics that came off so brazenly straight-forward that they became obscure again. Especially in the drowsy, possibly inebriated fashion that he performed them. Though shivering and miserable, I found myself wanting to feel this beatdown presentation out. The cold simplicity of the music’s presentation was unfortunately youtube comment-style undermined by the self-satisfied play-by-play of the people next to me. I found myself laughing.

Then there was his cover of “Win” from Young Americans. I think this rendition is worse than anything this guy has said or done. With his graspy range and sparse accompaniment, all that got distilled was just how ill-suited he was for a song (and artist) that is next to impossible for anyone to do justice to. I remember just wanting it to stop, and it blessedly did. The man made up for things most when he let the crowd sing the refrain to “Exodus” (“For all bereaved parents, I send you my love”), rendering that cloying practice a sort of melodic release. I don’t sing, clap along, raise my hands in the air or any of that stuff. No disrespect to those who do, but audience participation feels like kindergarten or (even worse) a pep rally to me. Nonetheless, on this soggy soggy night, the crowd sung it better. For a sleepy surly slog, it was mildly transcendent.

Iggy Pop (Moody Theater)

I may’ve felt ashamed and embarrassed to hold to my anti-crowd participation practices for this guy, but I had a brick shithouse of a dude standing motionless in front of me like a bouncer for most of the set anyway. I was squeezed in front and center, just to soak up all that punk-rock royalty. I don’t wanna watch some dingleberry from Vinyl doing his Madame Toussaud’s bit when I can witness the real deal. And I’m happy to report Iggy was a writhing, punching, howling beacon of whatever’s lasting of rock’s lasting vitality. As relics go, I’ve never seen anyone so relentless. It’s like he’s fighting for his life up there and would be more than forgiving for scaling it back a bit. Much credit needs to be given to Queens of the Stoneage for bouying the 68 year-old legend for what seemed like two hours. The new material has its ups and downs, but it mostly fit in perfectly with rousing staples like “Funtime,” “Passenger” and (now this is a Bowie cover) “Tonight.” At one point he perched like a gargoyle and stared straight into the crowd. I may not have disintegrated, but looking into those feverish eyes certainly set my guts buckling. Aside from still being ridiculously on point as a performer, the great news about Pop is that despite acquiring the good-humored humility of old age, he is still a fearsome entity to behold. After one song ended with a long string of bile soaked vitriolic epithets at a generalized “you,” he congenially, cheekily reassured the crowd that it wasn’t about us (might’ve been). There is nothing remotely setttled about this man, even now. And if this set was any indication, one would do well to go out and see a living master at work.

Sheer Mag, Peaches (outside venue)

I was sort of en route to other things, but both of these acts put on a strong enough impression to make me stop and listen. Sheer Mag smoked their insistently tight, Joan Jett-flavored garage punk thru the afternoon. Christina Halliday has one of the best rock n roll voices going this side of Jennifer Herrema and she really sounded sweet ringing out in the breezy, buzzing afternoon. Unlike with Sheer Mag, Peaches was visible from the street. She just had backing tracks, but she radiated so much easy charisma and fun (replete with a choreographed sex doll puppet dance) that I almost didn’t mind when some dude came up to me and said:

“It’s so dumb you gotta love it, Right!?”

I mean, seriously? Is it my face?

“I guess, Idunno…”

Guy walks away all to hell with this feeb.

Anyway, Peaches is alright with me. Only as dumb or ingenious as the next thing. She rocked “Talk To Me,” a real thumper I’ve always found to be an excellent workout jam.

Thee Oh Sees (Hotel Vegas)

Due to other commitments (and the fact that they weren’t at an official fest venue), I only got to attend one of their sets at Hotel Vegas, but Thee Oh Sees were colossal enough that I should’ve made each of their shows priorities in the first place. Having watched mind-meltingly intense performance clips of this band and Coachwhips on You Tube for years, it was a real dream come true to see them rip off some heads and body surf on all that blood in person. I’ve never seen a better use of the double drummer set-up and the crowd was well hyped. Only thing close to this transfixiating was WOLF EYES, who glopped Beerland in putrid, doomy fondant (their cantina/mellow blues side was particularly in evidence).

D∆WN, Mumdance, Leon Vynehall (Hype Hotel)

Photo: Jesse DeFlorio/Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel

Performing at our showcase with ISO50 and Hype Machine for the latter’s Hype Hotel event, New Orleans’ own D∆WN (f.k.a. Dawn Richard) was professional to an extent that seemed wildly out of place and supremely refreshing. Here it was, middle of the day with many of us in full-on short attention span mode and she snapped us out of it (almost — there wasn’t much dancing going on) with a pitch-perfect set of aspirational R&B-inflected techno anthems. Flanked with a DJ on one side, a drummer on the other, and two synchronized back-up dancers, D∆WN was an arresting portrait of space command. That choreography, which noticeably enlivened her stage presence, was met on equal footing with soaring vocals and pulverizing crescendos (wish I could say the same for Lower Dens the day before in the same space, where Jana Hunter’s new confidence as a front person was met with distractedly off sound mixing). I was sorry to miss JLIN before her, but D∆WN was a proper shot in the arm, no matter what the time of day was. Same goes for Mumdance, whose DJ set may’ve been mistaken for in-between music by some but embraced and imbibed gratefully by those of us still led by our ears more than anything else. His disorienting, jagged spillover progressions made it impossible not to move a little, even if you were beginning to feel that midweek fatigue creep in. Leon Vynehall did a set of lounge-y house music that, while not bad at all, provided more of a backdrop after the gripping controlled chaos of Mumdance. It was a good chance to meet and greet with fellow TMT writer Mike McHugh, wherein we had an ever-so-irrelevant conversation about this.

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