Last week I spent four days in Austin chasing some of the up-and-coming artists who identified “New York” and “Brooklyn” as their hometown. Or did you think one goes to South by Southwest to check out all those Nashville bands?
My first was The Adventures of the Silver Spaceman, who I undoubtedly would describe as a Brooklyn band, with a “Brooklyn” sound. Loosely put: rock, with some edge. TAOTSS add a kind of electric troubadour sound –definitely a Bushwick band. Leslie Hong of Haybaby, who sat in with them, would later joke that “Greenpoint bands seem smarter.” That joke may not make sense to the people from Palo Alto still hanging around from Interactive.
I caught Tribe Society at the tent at the corner of Red River and 6th. The gorgeous boy lead singer could pass as a Long Island surfer, bathed in blue light belting out a terrific cover of “Rat in a Cage.” The crowd was entirely under 25, and into it — actually dancing, which is something I saw a lot of in Austin and was confused and comforted by (New Yorkers don’t dance). Tribe Society was a kind of emo/electronica/rock, earnest, with a flute in the band — seriously — and a Williamsbeard on keyboards. Hometown, according to Facebook: Washington Heights.
Halsey was playing three showcases in a single day, and I caught the middle one at Maggie Mae’s. The 20-year-old blue-tressed singer thanked the very young, packed crowd for coming, because “my crew can’t get in because we’re not 21.” She was quick to ditch her flannel shirt to show off her leather bra, but more fun was the cartoon Band-Aid on one knee and her over-the-top attitude. The people around me were drawing comparisons to Lana del Rey, and when I mentioned that she claimed to be from Brooklyn — named for the Halsey stop and also an anagram for her name, Ashley — a woman who claimed to be with Fuse said dismissively, “She’s from New Jersey.”
Regardless, Halsey definitely has something. Her serious-looking band — keys and drums — laid a moody background for her to sing over compellingly in a mature voice, even when the lyrics bordered on the inane. (“We are the new Americana/ high on legal marijuana/ raised on Biggie and Nirvana” doesn’t work for me.) Whatever, I’d still buy her record and dance to it. She is at turns dreamy, thuggish, bored, romantic — in short, a teenager.
Over at the Main II, the DJ known as Pictureplane tore it up. He apparently blew up Denver before moving to Brooklyn. He opened loud and made a ballsy shift to a much slower temp, dropped in a backbeat and synth line that was almost ’80s danceable as he slyly cracked a beer, Ableton fingers nimble, grinning in an LA Raiders jersey. Another guest described his sound as “fast electronic Nine Inch Nails,” and I concur. With a different crowd it could go full-on sleazy dance party.
Back at Maggie Mae’s, I was excited to see Kaneholler and was a little disappointed. Their recordings sound great — the track on their SXSW page, “A.S.N.Y.,” kind of reminded me of Cultfever — and a few of their electro-soul songs sound good live, but Jon Foster’s frenetic antics on the breakbeats were completely distracting. Chelsea Tyler has a wonderful voice, and is magnetic when she moves on stage, but was too often trapped at the synths turning dials.
They claim to have formed in Brooklyn before moving to LA. They obviously had a great time on stage, and I questioned my resistance to their act — are they just too LA for a cynical New Yorker? (See for yourself—they’re opening for the Ting Tings and I recommend it. I saw the Ting Tings twice this week, and they’re a top-notch live act. Anyone who can get people dancing at 2pm in a convention center ballroom is doing something right.)
I also managed to catch Paper White, a dreamy Brooklyn act fronted by Katie Marshall, a woman with a golden voice reminiscent of the Sundays’ Harriet Wheeler. The venue, Esther’s Follies, was stadium-style seating, and at the late hour the crowd sat, but not passively. The bass, keys, and drum combo was synthy, and mildly danceable with a bit of grit. Perhaps a cousin to Fleetwood Mac — no, perhaps a cousin to Haim. And gracious, asking the crowd to stick around after because “we want to meet you.” They almost sound way too nice to be Brooklyn.
At the Driskill Hotel, a gorgeous, opulent manse and the best bar to get a Manhattan, I slipped into the Victorian Room to see Kevin Garretta Brooklyn singer-songwriter. He perched at the keyboard backed by synth and drums. The small crowd in the intimate space was completely rapt, bathing in the blue light, in the swank environs, and in the beautiful music. Garrett’s voice is high and clear, ringing with emotion, and he held the room still. He was charming, too, bashfully expressing that Katy Perry had just tweeted about one of his songs, and he was a little gratefully rattled by it.
My surprise hit was Ms Mr who rocked a packed Stubbs. For those unfamiliar with Texas aesthetics, Stubbs is a barbecue joint, and the rock venue is a giant backyard with a bandshell. It’s all Texas, all outdoor, and the gentle slope allows a critical mass of people to still see the distant stage. Ms Mr have a great sound, a bit of Brit-pop and clear ‘80s influences, and a better energy. Lead singer Lizzy Plapinger was a joy to watch and hear, clearly having a good time, her strong voice reminiscent of Ellie Goulding, the front-facing bricks on the wall of sound. This band couldn’t exist without Blondie.
But the most Brooklyn of all New York bands had to be Slothrust.
I missed their midnight show at the Buffalo Billiards — which was probably like a home-town show for them — but caught their act at Brazos Hall, where the three players seemed to be standing miles away from each other, backed by starburst LEDs and blinding bright incandescents. Even their lighter songs seem dark, the drums and bass tight and brooding and destructive. While vocalist Leah Wellbaum often sits on her voice, it soars when she wants it to. Her lyrics are wonderfully absurd, often lurching towards darkness and veering back with an off-hand joke, or swinging back with a punch: “Why wont you let me consume everything?” The band’s calm, almost relaxed exterior, in performance and in tone, hides turmoil. There is almost no talk between songs, and a deliberate commitment to delivering nothing but the fucking music. As Leah sings, “I don’t have anything in common with myself.”