Friday was an interesting day for me at SXSW. I saw some good performances, some mediocre ones, a truly devastating one, and a legendary one. I also got denied admittance to a couple of important shows, including The Shins and Jack White. But let’s not dwell on those things I missed out on, and talk about the ones I actually saw. Once again, as a reminder, I’ll have photo sets of most of what I’m writing about next week, when I get home and can get the pictures off my camera.
My first live show of the day was a little later than Thursday, in part because there wasn’t much I wanted to see early in the afternoon. Also I had trouble making a decision. I chose to explore Austin a little more, and venture out to one of the more “off the grid” venues, away from the hustle and bustle that is 6th Street. There was a house party going on for the Comedy Central show Workaholics that I considered attending for a brief period, but there was a huge line to get in. Just down the block was Clive Bar, and they had a pretty decent afternoon showcase going on. I arrived there moments before Class Actress took the stage. Honestly, seeing Elizabeth Harper perform has been on my musical bucket list for awhile now, and I always seem to have something big happening the days she’s playing shows in Chicago. Now in Austin, this was my chance. Her set was surprisingly short, perhaps in part due to a late start after some sound issues, and she mostly stuck to material off her latest album Rapprocher. She was warm, funny, engaging and all-around a delight. I don’t think enough people realize what a talent she really is, and hopefully some important heads were turned watching her during SXSW. I was also quite fascinated by her choice of outfit for the 80 degree and sunny day – a loose-fitting, over the shoulder sweater, a sport coat, a pair of gold necklaces, and high heels. She truly does put the “class” in Class Actress.
Next on the bill were Friends, a band from Bushwick, NY that has been making serious waves in the last year. In addition to some healthy blog buzz, Friends caught the attention of Sir Elton John a few months back, and they attended his holiday party. Really it’s still the tip of the iceberg, as they don’t even have a debut full length out yet. Before the end of the year they will though. In the meantime, they’re going out on tour with Neon Indian and doing other fun stuff like SXSW performances. Friends make a very percussion-heavy tropical pop, if you want to call it that. They’ve been compared to Lykke Li and that’s only one facet of their multi-layered sound. Their set at Clive Bar was one to behold though, and I’m glad I stuck around for it. While the rest of the band pretty much plays it straight and light, singer Samantha Urbani is the live wire keeping the crowd in a fit of wild bliss. She jumps around, makes faces, and directly interacts with audience members in the middle of songs. During the song “Friend Crush”, she hopped off the stage and began hugging and touching the faces of people in the crowd. When the band launched into their cover of the Ghost Town DJs classic “My Boo”, she pulled a few audience members up to dance. It made for a fun little party in the late afternoon. I’d like to think the members of Friends became my friend after a set like that. You’d be wise to see them yourself, before they get huge.
Once Friends had finished, I was all set to skip over to see Fanfarlo, but on the way I stumbled onto a show I wasn’t aware existed until that very moment. Vivian Girls were playing a set in a parking lot. There were no listings for any Vivian Girls shows, only Katy Goodman’s La Sera solo project and drummer Fiona Campbell’s other band Coasting. But that’s one of the great things about SXSW: sometimes a last minute surprise show happens, and kudos to you if you can discover it. I only got to see them play a few songs, but any songs from Vivian Girls are kind of a treat. I don’t expect them to be around forever, given the strong side project work they’re all up to, but just having them around and playing a show together is all anyone can ask for. Here’s the thing though: they’re a very good, but not quite great live band. Their music translates exceptionally well from the record to the stage, but they don’t do a whole lot while they’re up there. In some ways it’s like they’re on autopilot. Those songs are such a delight too, which gives them more live show slack. So to sum up, it was nice seeing Vivian Girls live for the first time, even if it was a shortened set in a parking lot.
By the time I’d caught up with Fanfarlo, they were about halfway through their set. Playing at the same time as a surprise Vivian Girls show will do that to one’s arrival time. I was pleased to see a moderately large crowd watching them in a shaded courtyard. They stuck with mostly material off their new record Rooms Filled With Light as expected, though they ended with the classic “Harold T. Wilkins” that the crowd was quite pleased with. Also pleasing were a pair of strong saxophone solos courtesy of singer Simon Balthazar. Yet the band’s performance was a lot like Vivian Girls’ in that they didn’t so much breathe new life into decent material but instead performed it almost verbatim with the record. Once you see so many live shows, playing it straight simply doesn’t cut it anymore. In other words, Fanfarlo was good but a touch short of great.
After getting stuck in long lines for The Shins and the Third Man showcase only to not get in, I ventured back to Clive Bar for an evening showcase that was well up my alley. Tycho was first on the bill, but from the start there were problems. Apparently the speakers weren’t working, or at least not properly. A 30 minute delay later, and the 3-piece just decided to start even though there wouldn’t be any bass pumping through the speakers. The crowd was told to imagine there was some phat bass to the songs played and that hopefully they’d fix the problem during the set. Of course then other sound issues began to appear, like monitor trouble and the like, so it became a game of small adjustments throughout the set. Still, Tycho was good enough to impress me and make me wonder why I don’t listen to/own more of his music. Gonna have to get on that one. Sprawling instrumental electro post-rock that’s as gorgeous as it is fun.
MNDR was next on the bill, and unlike when I tried to see her Wednesday night, she actually showed up this time. Actually, after a brief Twitter exchange with her, she showed up on Wednesday night when I was there, but was bumped off the bill as they were running late. So consider that a correction. Anyways, she wasn’t bumped this time, and her show was fascinating to say the least. Yet again they were having sound issues, which would become a recurring theme throughout the night. For those that don’t know, MNDR makes pop music, but in a little more independent fashion than most other music stars these days. I had always assumed there were producers and writing teams responsible for her music, as is the case with your pop stars of today. But no, it’s only MNDR (Amanda Warner), completely producing, writing and singing these songs herself. That’s a very DIY attitude and I admire it significantly. That said, I’m not the biggest fan of her music. She’s lovely and hilarious, but her songs failed to get me going. She’s got a new record coming out this summer, so I wish her the best of luck with that.
Next up was New Build, a band from the UK that has ties to Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem. Ironic then that New Build sounds just like what would happen if you took those two bands and combined them. They’re a whole lot of fun, and have 3 percussionists, among other things. There were sound issues galore during their set, including a defective monitor, but the band did their best to make it through their set with minimal disruption. They only got to play a handful of songs, but the ones they did were great and got the crowd seriously moving. Their debut album Yesterday Was Lived and Lost is out now and worth checking out if you like a good organic dance sound. I predict much bigger things for them in the coming years.
SXSW can be hard on the artists sometimes, especially if they’re booked for multiple shows multiple days in a row. Such is the case with Grimes, who has been working harder than anyone the last few days. She’s also in the middle of her first really big tour, which naturally is putting her resolve to the test. All that came to a head Friday night with her Clive Bar set. The sound issues that hurt the bands before her continued, not aided whatsoever by the MC between sets, coming out to “introduce” Grimes but not being aware she hadn’t even soundchecked yet. Claire Boucher just kind of stood there with a puzzled look on her face wondering when she was going to test some microphone levels and such. The crowd was itching to hear her start, and kept yelling for her to forget the soundcheck and just go, but every performer wants to get those sorts of things right to ensure a quality show. Once things were finally in a satisfactory state, Boucher introduced herself and mentioned she had a sore throat from not sleeping, so her high notes might sound shitty. Ah, the perils of too many performances. Things started off okay, but quickly descended into a hell of more sound problems and a vocal blowout. Certain equipment stopped working, the speakers went out, and she was visibly clawing at her throat like it was on fire. Truly everything that could have gone wrong during that set, did go wrong. Yet she pressed onward as best she could, and the crowd was very forgiving. She got through “Oblivion” well enough, and a light bit of dancing while also multitasking between keyboards and her effects table made it all the more charming. It may have been the worst Grimes performance to date, but none of it was really her fault. The whole thing was a sharp contrast with the night before at Central Presbyterian Church, where I walked away in awe of what she’d accomplished. This time I just felt sorry for her. I’ve got a great feeling she’ll bounce back though, better than ever.
Headlining the night was YACHT, who I was excited to see because I’d never seen them before. I’ve admired their last couple albums but wouldn’t say I was in love with them, and was intrigued to hear how the colorful characters of Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans would bring the songs to life. Turns out, a YACHT show is one of the biggest and best parties you can ever go to. Both Bechtolt and Evans are super entertaining people that dance around and interact with crowds and get everyone riled up in the best sort of way. When they too were plagued with a little bit of sound problems, they either ignored them or took Q&A with the crowd while they waited for the issues to be sorted out. Their songs, while ordinarily very beat-heavy and fun, only got heavier and more fun when performed live. Both Bechtolt and Evans came into the dance pit fun zone near the front of the stage at one point or another, and Evans even got in some serious crowd surfing. She also climbed up on speakers and threw microphone stands. It was by far the most entertaining show I’ve seen so far at SXSW and I could not recommend it more highly. That turned into the party of all parties, and a crowd that came to dance but was often left disappointed due to sound issues, finally got their chance to let all inhibitions go. My feet are in terrible, terrible shape from standing all day the last couple days, but even I couldn’t help busting a move or two. When a band pushes you beyond the limits even you thought you’d go, there’s something special there. How are YACHT not huge right now?