With literally thousands of bands to choose from at South by Southwest, even the most casual enthusiast has to become a music critic—just to decide what to see. It can be hard to turn off during shows, as people scan their phones—and their homemade spreadsheets—to gauge whether to bail and hit the next band on the list. In the midst of all this, I somehow managed to see 26 bands from New York and scribble down some thoughts while hiding out at Casino el Camino. (Thanks, Brittany!)
Brooklyn stalwarts Dead Stars, who just dropped a new album (available on cassette!), were a great way to kick off the week. Their own week of nine unofficial shows started on the roof deck of Cheers on Tuesday. Dead Stars delivers the straight-up 4/4 guitar-driven knuckle punch that makes you feel guilty for liking Ellen Allien, and Moore’s solos are reliably tasteful and melodic. The track “Some Days,” with the line, “Some days I want to be alone,” should be a mid-life anthem. A few days later at Longbranch, when I caught Dead Stars playing to an empty room (it was dinner hour), they still brought it all. Here’s hoping that “Calm Punk” becomes the radio hit it deserves to be. (Are “radio hits” still a thing?)
Honduras played outside at Barracuda for a crowd that clearly doesn’t have tinnitus yet. It was a large showing, even if it was of the half-enthused South-by variety (cheering after songs, phone-addled during). The band cranked out their brand of punk: think Blink 182 or Green Day. The vocals are in an English style with heavy reverb, but with a great rhythm section, and a guitarist, Tyson Moore, who played feedback with ferocious skill.
One of the many agonizing rituals of SXSW is sitting through interminable soundchecks, and the band Lushes lightheartedly broke the spell of theirs by asking the audience: “Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg?” Wahlberg eventually won, and the two-piece band (guitar/vocals and drums) broke into a slow, spooky, moody vibe that exploded into something that… wasn’t quite there. There was a power outage in the venue, so we weren’t hearing what the band intended, but the crowd held on as the singer tried out his Gibby Haynes effects box.
Around noonish on a Wednesday, Swan Dive proved an amicable venue for singer/songwriter Margaret Glaspy, self-accompanied on electric guitar. Backed by a gauzy backlight, a honeycomb brand over her head, she intoned warm, intimate lyrics like, “I don’t want to be somebody to anybody, no, I’m good at no one,” “Tonight I’m too turned on to talk about us,” and “I don’t wanna see you cry, but if feels like it’s a matter of time.” Glaspy feels like Lucinda Williams sifted through early Liz Phair. She’ll be coming back to Baby’s All Right in June.
At Maggie Mae’s on Wednesday, I caught Drowners, fronted by Matthew Hitt, a Welshman who wound up in New York and found his backing band, a gang of tall young guys who read like a well-seasoned Long Island cover band. They were tight, and fun if you miss the Strokes, but the crowd didn’t seem enthused, and I was confused when Hitt dedicated a song to a “chatty fellow”—does the band require silence while viewing? Was he joking? Did he realize anyone watching him was missing Iggy Pop?
Caveman, the six-piece who have a new album coming out in June, drew a large crowd outside at the Sidewinder. The backyard vibe and Christmas lights merged well with the dreamy rock that evokes a calmly curving road by a jet-blue lake. The band has a big sound, easily sliceable, that can roll over to become weed-on-a-beach music, with soaring synth lines. Matthew Iwanusa is warmly reminiscent of early Steve Winwood—think Traffic through a gauzy filter—but the band lost me when Iwanusa started blackmailing the audience: “I need excitement or I’m not playing another song!” Dude, it’s South-by: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
There’s something wonderfully surreal about the Radio Day Stage. It’s daytime, everyone is sitting down, it’s a glorified hotel ballroom at the convention center—and yet the sound is fantastic, and one gets a great view. That’s how I caught Sunflower Bean, who delivered a tight set, a motorcycle rumbling over gravel, reminiscent of The Experience—or maybe Band of Gypsys, since Julia Cumming swings more on the bass (more Billy Cox than Noel Redding). She has an almost Dickensian voice, high and calling, and looked austere—even monkish—in a black sheath and frightening ankle boots. Nick Kivlen, the guitarist, also took turns on vocals, and in their more stripped-down songs proved he had serious blues chops. And yet their song “2013” swerved towards Tarantino country, full-on Dick Dale surf style.
Holy shit, Sharkmuffin has a new drummer! We may have heard that one before—but this drummer has kicked the entire band into a higher gear. At barely noon on Thursday, Natalie Kirch played a way-crunchy bass as Tarra Thiessen lorded behind a double-necked guitar. Thiessen’s solos sound almost backwards, her melodies non-intuitive. Midnight-level club lighting washed over them as Kim Deuss (rhymes with “voice”) pummeled the skins behind them, issuing a high-energy wake-up call appropriate for the early hour. Deuss’s thrumming is like giving a lawnmower something to chew on, like you’re hearing Sharkmuffin for the very first time. And yes, this is how Brooklyn does it—their week was one official SXSW showcase and seven other unofficials.
The Dojo Magazine fest, across I-35 at the Longbranch Inn, boasted serious lineups. I managed to catch Lazyeyes early Thursday night, a mostly-rock band with a little Morrissey in the vocals. Some call them dream pop, but I found them pretty thrashy on stage, despite the habitual “oooo” vocal refrain. Lazyeyes also provided the best quote of the week: “Does anyone know where the sound guy is?”
Following them was B+B favorite Haybaby. Singer/guitarish Leslie Hong said, “Hey, Brooklyn,” and I realized that everyone in the joint probably was from Brooklyn. Whatever. They laid into it, Sam Yield’s bass heavy with a crunchy pulse, like Concrete Blonde. Hong was almost whispering, making you lean in—and then, whammo. Of all the bands trying to do the Pixies’ patented quiet-LOUD-quiet, Haybaby is actually pulling it off. On another track, she came out of the gate screaming at Jesus Lizard intensity, at one point pulled the guitar behind her back to wreak feedback without pulling her face away from the mic. The drummer appeared to be playing a double bass pedal (or is just that fast), and Hong ripped out a guitar solo that sounded like squealing brakes. Their sound is so sparse, everything is clear, which is intentional.
Somehow I missed B+B’s interview with Joe Galarraga and wasn’t really up on Big Ups until I saw them at Swan Dive. These guys are fucking awesome, playing fast and furious head-slamming rock. They look like the chess club and rock it like Hell’s Angels on PCP. Galarraga, the four-piece’s frontman, announced they’d just played their 300th show, “because I keep track of that,” and added, “Clap for us,” but assured he was just kidding. Seriously no-nonsense, their track “Contain Myself” had knuckle-heavy picked bass and a talking refrain, “I can’t contain myself,” repeated over and over until the entire band basically set itself on fire.
It’s mostly rock at SXSW, so I went out of my way to catch the 15-minute set by rapper Jimi Tents at the Skratch House, and it was well worth it. Tents has a quick flow and is active onstage, grabbing the crowd straight-off with a hook about how he was going to “self-destruct,” and he had a front line of fans waving and shaking (and yeah, the whole backyard reeked of weed, natch). He got us going with a call-and-response, and never stopped moving, slipping in and out of a one-legged bounce while his DJ played underwater beats, R&B with what sounded like an upside down hi-hat. An encouraging show—Tents is super young, but has a humble affability that makes one pine for more. “I ain’t got shit,” he rapped, to end a song, and turned out his pockets to show us.
I caught Mitski outside at Barracuda on Thursday (playing just before Frankie Cosmos, aka Greta Kline, the daughter of NYC luminaries Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates). With a big bearded man as her drummer and a female brunette on guitar, Mitski herself rounded out her three-piece on bass and vocals—and the music was surprisingly prog-rock, like Rush in a bounce house. There was a Ramones-styled track, surfy and simple, but the guitar cuts were largely synthy, and the slower tracks leaned almost country. Bottom line, you have to love Mitski’s high, trilly vocal style, or this just isn’t for you.
Over at the Sidewinder, Sarah Hartman was the perfect opener for Kevin Garrett. At only 20 years old she’s commanding, shifting between electric and acoustic guitars and handling the leads, backed by a drummer and a keyboardist who contributes backing vocals. Her delivery is simple, and she sings wonderfully, her throat prone to catching with emotion—rainy day listening, in the best way. A Sag Harbor native, Hartman bounced to Berlin and discovered her sound and her band: she’s not a New York artist anymore, and her narrative is tied to the idea of finding her own way in a new city—which is how most “New York artists” got here. With a modern sound but old-school emo, she covered the Jamie XX song “Stranger in a Room,” and on her synth-backed, finger-picking mover “Satellite,” she showed off her control, backing away from mic to profound effect: “I can love you if you let me.”
One of the bands people kept telling me I had to see was Acid Dad— luckily, they were playing every day. I caught them Saturday in Swan Dive’s backyard. They opened with a slow, droning guitar line, joined by spacey second guitar, then dropped on by the bass and the drums—definitely psychedelic, but heavy, and the high call you were waiting for led naturally to a sudden crescendo that was controlled, not explosive.
Friday afternoon I caught Slothrust at the Midgetman showcase in the backyard at Sidebar—one of their many unofficials of the week—and rounded out my Saturday by seeing them again at Cheer Up Charlie’s. At the Sidebar (back deck, gravel, picnic tables) was a packed, enthusiastic crowd that predictably knew all the key “yeah yeah”s to “Crockpot.” One of their new songs started quiet before breaking into a heavily distorted lick that fell into a blues solo, and came complete with Leah Wellbaum’s signature strange underwater lyrics: “My lungs are filling with plankton.”
Since we saw her last year at Brazos Hall, Wellbaum has gotten chatty, and it’s fun. When a dude yelled “Burn it down!” on Friday, she fired back, “You want me to burn it down? Can you imagine if I took out a match and—” she gestured burning down the stage. At Cheer Up Charlie’s she reminded us of what a week they—and we—had had. She said how when you’re up and going hard for so many days, you enter another state of consciousness, until you’re almost outside yourself, looking at yourself, and saying, “That doesn’t look good.”
I’ll stop bragging on Slothrust when they stop being so consistently badass. Slothrust is like if you took all the good ol’ sweaty, dingy bits of Brooklyn, brewed it, bottled it, and smashed it against the wall of the Trash Bar.
Correction: The original version of this post was changed to correct the formatting of Haybaby, which is one word rather than two.