Sons of an Illustrious Father was playing their electrifying track “Extraordinary Rendition” as a line down the block inched into Maggie Mae’s in Austin. The song set the tone: a thumping bass line played on a keyboard by Josh Aubin (bearded, wearing a speedsuit), alternating with a deliberate hiss on the hi-hat. The back and forth rhythm was intensified by the chords from guitarist Lilah Larson, fierce in black jeans, black T-shirt, Joan Jett cool. Over the top were the plaintive lyrics from the drummer, who wore what I believe was a solid-tone green dashiki but read from the floor like a boxer’s slick robe. The band treated these outfits as uniform, and wore them at every show at SXSW.
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!)
At the 30th year of the SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals, Alia Shawkat told a crowd that she went to Sarah Lawrence for two days before bouncing, because she was told she had to go to a mandatory pizza party. “There can’t be a mandatory pizza party,” she said. She moved to New York and basically took a year off, which answered a few questions as to why she seemed to vanish after the end of Arrested Development.
When I first hit play on A Smurf at Land’s End, the new album from Howardian, for a fraction of a second I thought I was listening to some early Flaming Lips—then there was a Talking Heads sample before it spun off into low-fi raggedy rock. I managed to catch the latest band from artist and rabble-rouser Ian Vanek at their official SXSW showcase late Saturday night in Austin.
New Myths, made up of Rosie Slater on drums, Marina Ross on bass, and Brit Boras on guitar, claim to blend electronic elements with “fuzzy guitars and haunting vocal melodies,” and pull it off. They released their first album, Give Me Noise, in 2014, and got some nice CMJ write-ups that year from both The New York Times and The Guardian.
Brooklyn’s paperwhite is a “dream pop” brother and sister duo, Katie and Ben Marshall, about to drop their second EP, Escape, well-teased by the catchy and airy “Unstoppable.” More of-the-moment than some of their previous work, it makes one wonder where they might go from here—more EDM, more Ting Tings, or more Julee Cruise? While Ben’s other band, Savoir Adore, played several shows at SXSW this year, paperwhite had a single showcase at the Hilton Garden Inn on the eighteenth floor, which boasts the best view in Austin.
Baby Shakes released their second full-length record, Starry Eyes, last August. With Mary on lead vocals and guitar, Judy on lead guitar and vocals, Claudia on bass and vocals, and Ryan on drums (they eschew last names) they’ve toured the US and Europe, and just toured Japan in February.
ASTR got started a little late at the Speakeasy Cabaret in Austin, but were determined to bring the straggling individuals together into a crowd—not always easy after midnight at South By Southwest. The Cabaret is a funky venue—way Brooklyn, with a couple of actual bowling lanes upstairs, plus foosball, natch—and the bands play on a small stage wedged behind one end of the bar, visible from right-up-front or the overlooking balcony.
They started strong, with vocalist Zoe ASTR (nee Zoe Silverman) coming on heavy and emotive. They certainly brought a few fans of their spage-age R&B (their megafan had flown in) and early into the set the crowd was trying to move; by the fourth song there was definite swaying and sashaying, and when Zoe offered to buy the whole crowd tequila shots, none of the front line moved. She was just busting chops anyway.
Kevin Garrett is having a good year. He released his debut EP, Mellow Drama, last April, toured with X Ambassadors last fall, and with Alessia Cara this past January and February. Based in Brooklyn (previously of Philly), the singer-songwriter is clearly stretching out and finding his rhythm. I caught him at the Sidewinder in August on Thursday and found him to be considerably more self-assured than when I saw him last year at South By.
It sounds like a perfect meet cute for a teen Rom-Com: Tucker Halpern was all set to make it as a basketball player but health issues forced him to drop out, and while he was mostly hiding in his bedroom learning how to make beats, he met Sophie Hawley-Weld, a worldly, spiritual whirlwind, singing bossa nova in a warehouse. And Sofi Tukker was born.
Lauren Denitzio, singer/guitarist of Worriers, was easy to spot on the porch of the Eden House in Austin. She and her bandmates stood out, looking more relaxed, more confident, more—well, older—than the majority of other bands and music heads rolling in and out of the house on Rio Grande. Yes, a house—a full-on “DIY venue,” what we used to call “underground” and virtually identical to the scenes I remember playing in the early ‘90s: BYOB, kids with zits, slamming bands. Cassette tapes for sale. You enter through the kitchen, and can only get into the bathroom by crossing the “stage” in the living room between acts—stepping over the pedals and cords. And not a sponsor or logo in sight.
The brass band Lucky Chops was started by some kids at LaGuardia High (the “Fame” school) who cut their teeth playing in the subway. When a South American tourist shot a video of them that went viral, they started getting real gigs.