by Brian J. Audette
“Well, I’m here and you’re here and it’s true
There’s a whole lot of walking to do
And you’re cool and I’m cool and it’s true
There’s a whole lot of walking to do”
– Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Walking to Do”
It’s hot and sweaty in the stifling confines of Cheer Up Charlie’s indoor space. Horns are blaring. People are dancing. The mood is electric and the music is tight. This is SXSW. This is why I’m here and this is only the first of five nights. It’s going to be a good week.
My yearly SXSW journey begins months earlier when the first showcasing acts are announced and I start making my way through tracks. Not content to take someone else’s word on what bands to see or relegate my showcases to just known bands or verified up-and-comers, the somewhat arduous process I’ve cultivated of listening to over a thousand tracks does end up giving me a unique list of mostly unknown (to me at least) bands to check out during the SX week, even if it drives me somewhat crazy along the way. In general I try to stick to out of town bands, but I do allow myself to check out some favorite local acts, especially if I’ve never actually caught them live before or if I don’t get to see them often or haven’t in awhile. This is how my SXSW begins.
I’m at the first official showcase of the night at Cheer Up Charlie’s indoor space, a room that regardless of capacity or time of year always seems to have the temperature and atmospheric profile set to “it’s getting hot in here”. Quiet Company hit the stage moments after I arrive. Frontman Taylor Muse approaches the mic the way he approaches his songwriting: an exposed nerve, laid bare for all to see and prod. “We’re Quiet Company and these are the lives we’ve chosen” he says as the band launches into the opening salvo of a set of emotionally raw pop rock that’s heavy on songs from 2015’s Trangressor LP, along with a few newer and upcoming tracks and one from 2011’s We Are All Where We Belong thrown in for good measure. Taylor seems stiff at first, likely adjusting for the duality of being in familiar environs, but playing to an unfamiliar crowd, but loosens up by the end of the set and in typical Quiet Company fashion, wins the room over in a big way.
Immediately following the set I’m out the door as quickly as I entered. I’ll be back at Cheer Up’s before the evening is over, but right now I’ve got some stuff over at Sidewinder to see, so I hit the pavement and make my way down the block. I’m here for Alex Napping on the outside stage, but Sidewinder’s showcases are staggered compared to most of the rest of the SX schedule and they’re not going on for another 30 minutes when I arrive. I decide to kill some time inside.
On the inside stage a fresh-faced group of kids from San Francisco is playing under the name Plush. While their dream-pop meets shoegaze-grunge isn’t offensive, I’m not impressed enough to skip Alex and step outside after a few songs. Grabbing my first ritualistic shitty beer for the week, I settle in to catch the set. This is the first time I’m seeing Alex Napping as a full band (having seen Alex alone in a bizarre, but endearing solo set last year) and while they put on a good show, they’re definitely more interesting in the studio. To that end they did play mostly new songs that I have to assume will be on their upcoming LP. While the band is still producing dreamy jangle pop, there’s a greater maturity and sincerity to these songs that adds a new and welcome dimension to their already catchy riffs. Given what I’ve heard so far, I’m definitely looking forward to the album’s release this May.
With Alex Napping’s set concluded and my shitty beer long gone I head back inside Sidewinder to kill some time before heading out to my next venue for the night. I end up catching another out of town band: Chicago’s Ratboys. On the surface they’re just another indie rock guitar band, but there’s something in the subtle midwestern charm of their delivery and the loose technicality of their noodling that grabs me. That several of the songs blow up into full on jangle jams before their completion doesn’t hurt matters either. While I’m only able to catch a scant few songs, Ratboys impress me and provide an excellent companion to Alex Napping’s set. This is a band I’m going to be checking out in the future.
As Ratboys leave the stage I’m on my way out to Red River again, this time making my way toward ScratcHouse to catch a couple UK acts. As I arrive a band called SuperGlu is about halfway through their set, playing to an almost packed house that seems very into the proceedings. This is the kind of band that always gets me thinking “the Brits are so much better at pop music than we are here in the States”. SuperGlu play a super upbeat set of bouncy guitar pop that feels something like a cross between The B-52’s and Blur and the crowd eats it up. While I’d be remiss not to mention that there does seem to be a contingent from the UK among the crowd that’s already familiar with the band, it doesn’t stop the rest of us from bouncing along as well.
Next up at ScratcHouse is a somewhat gloomier band, but one that (unlike Plush, Ratboys, and SuperGlu) had actually made its way onto my SXSW list beforehand. On originally listening to them online, Mantra struck me as a semi progressive dark pop band, melodic, and with subtle menace. Playing live they leave something to be desired however. Whether it’s a fullness to their sound that could be fixed by a second guitar or just a livelier performance, I can’t tell. It’s not a let down, but neither is it anything particularly noteworthy. I have one more stop on my list of showcases for the night, so I step out after Mantra’s set and head back to Cheer Up Charlie’s.
At Cheer Up’s the local love-in continues and I’m once again at the inside stage, this time for jazz/funk ensemble Hard Proof. I have to admit to a) having been unaware of Hard Proof before adding them to my SXSW list and b) ignoring these types of acts during SXSW in the past. After having caught the end of an incendiary set by another ensemble by the name of Andy Frasco & The U.N. at SXSW last year however, I decided that I needed more of this kind of thing on my schedule and Hard Proof easily fit the bill. In the end Hard Proof turn out to be a perfect end to my first night of SXSW. The blare of trumpets and saxophones over funky drums, seductive bass lines, and soulful guitar riffs, gets the crowd moving instantly. Cheer Up Charlie’s becomes host to an impromptu dance party and everyone is feeling fine. It’s so upbeat that I don’t even mind the portions of several people’s drinks that end up spilled on me during the proceedings. High on solid jams and smelling subtly of mixed drinks and beer, I head out of Cheer Up Charlie’s with a good feeling about the rest of the week to come.
As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, I don’t sit still for SXSW. I take charge of how I experience the event in an effort to milk as much out of every moment as is humanly possible. My ultimate goal is to come away with some new favorite bands that I otherwise would have never heard of or at the very least enjoy this city and some good music. Enjoying the city is where the walking comes in. Having spent my college years and several more after that living in the eminently walkable Boston, I gained an affinity for walking urban spaces. It’s tough to explain if you’ve never experienced it, but I find a sort of zen walking through cities, especially at night. That I can do this in Austin, with the sound of dozens of bands pouring out of venue doorways only makes it better in my mind.
Wednesday is looking to be my biggest night of walking during SX, with a schedule that takes me from near Congress, over to Red River, back toward Congress, then further west, and ending on Congress yet again. I’m 38 years old. I sit at a desk all day. I’m in reasonable shape, but stil … this will be some exercise.
I get started at Karma Lounge on 5th where I plan to check out 4×4, a post hardcore/pop punk band hailing from Columbia. In the past I’ve been bad about including non-English language bands on my SXSW list, which is odd because (especially punk) music tends to transcend language for me. My favorite song of all time (Envy’s “Go Mad and Mark”) is sung entirely in Japanese after all. This year, given both the political climate and SXSW’s own debacle involving non-US bands, I wanted to make an effort to see more international acts. 4×4 is my first non-english speaking band of the week and they do not disappoint in the slightest. Playing loud, fast, tight punk rock reminiscent of bands like Banner Pilot and The Hollowpoints, 4×4 tear through an electrifying set to an audience that grows exponentially as time goes on. I’ve already spoken about some bands being better recorded than live, but 4×4 give me exactly what I expect and more on stage, at one point even leading the audience in classic punk rock communal chanting of “oh’s” and “yeah’s”. It’s a high energy start to what is going to otherwise be a low energy lineup of bands for my evening and as they finish up I slip out quickly to make my way to The Main II on Red River.
My objective at The Main II is GoGo Penguin, a pseudo jazz/post-rock band with a heavy piano focus. The little I had listened to them prior reminded me of the quieter moments on recordings by canadian post rockers Do Make Say Think and I was interested in hearing more live. Those who know the landscape of Austin and of SX, will know that The Main II is a small room, formerly belonging to Emo’s inside stage, back when that venue still resided on Red River. As I arrive the previous act is just finishing up and the venue is already at capacity. The SXSW “staff” running the door are managing the headcount by letting in only as many people as are coming out and they’ve split the line into priorities, starting with music badges, then wristbands/other badges, and finally everyone else. When I get into the wristband line there are several people ahead of me and several more in the badge line. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, the badge line only gets bigger, even as people are being let in at a somewhat decent pace. When I hear GoGo Penguin begin playing inside and consider the 30-deep and still growing badge line I decide that my best bet is to give up and make my way over to the Tap Room at The Market for my next show. I will be checking out more GoGo Penguin online at some point however.
Skate shoes are not made for walking and by the time I arrive at Tap Room at the Market my feet are killing me. As fate would have it, the room is sparsely populated, with stools off to the side and I get a chance to sit for a spell while waiting for the next act on my list to go on: another UK band, this one called She Drew the Gun. Hampered at first by minor technical difficulties, She Drew the Gun put on a solid set of singer-songwriter British alt-folk that most prominently calls to mind the post-Rilo Kiley work of Jenny Lewis. I enjoy the set, but I’m nothing if not picky and nothing really jumps out at me as they play. When they wrap up I take my tired feet outside on the way to yet another folky group, this time hailing from Minneapolis and requiring me to head west to Lamberts BBQ.
It feels weird to say that one’s only experience with a barbeque joint in Austin is during SXSW and yet, that’s the only time I’ve ever been to Lamberts. It’s a decent enough place for music, but maybe I’ll try eating there sometime. I arrive at Lamberts and head upstairs to the bar/stage where Communist Daughter are about to play. The band playfully describe themselves as “post-folk grunge” in their introduction, though my own description goes something more like “Fleetwood Mac meets Doves”. Their affinity for Neutral Milk Hotel shows in more than just their name however, but less quirky and with a bit more of a psychedelic folk leaning similar to that of our own The Deer. I may check them out more thoroughly the next time I’m in that kind of a mood.
Leaving Lamberts behind, I wearily make my way toward my final venue for the night, one where I am assured some foot rest: The Hideaway Theater. I’m here to see Mother Falcon in what would now be considered a rare live performance given the band’s reported dissolution as a recording and touring entity after several members moved on to follow other opportunities late last year. It would seem that this pronouncement was premature however as the band I see is a fully armed and operational battle station of symphonic delights. Mother Falcon play a set of almost entirely new material, some from “Petra and the Wolf” (their dramatic puppet collaboration with Glass Half Full Theatre) and some wholly new compositions. It’s a much less poppier set than I’ve come to expect from the group, but what it lacks in radio hits, it makes up for in charm, whimsy, and magic. I’m almost taken aback by how fresh and invigorating Mother Falcon sound. It would seem that they’ve risen from their own ashes like the Phoenix and have chosen to soldier on as something both familiar and new. As a way to end my second night of SXSW, I couldn’t ask for more.
Out of Step SXSW 2017 Playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/
Next: J-Pop, K-Pop, Dr. Scholl’s, and another failed attempt to get into Priests