by Brian J. Audette
“I’m not gonna retire ’cause I’m still young at heart
And time will tell in the future who has done their part
And if you don’t agree with me, well then you can sit home until your grave
Because at any age we’ll be on this stage playing fast, smart, strong, and brave.”
– Kid Dynamite, Birthday
Music is my drug. Music is my religion. There is no greater high for me than falling in love with a new band, no greater worship than standing in front of a stage as a band plays their hearts out. SXSW may have its flaws, but it affords me the ability to revel in the decadence of new, live music in the city I love. It’s like nothing else in the world.
Every year I prepare for SXSW by listening to pieces and full tracks from over 1000 bands, hoping to pull a list of potential new favorites from out of it to see during that glorious week of music. It’s a maddening process – go ahead … try it sometime – but in the end I fight through it, cultivate my list, and prepare my schedule. Then I show up and see what happens. Let me tell you what I saw.
MONDAY – 3/14/2016
1 venue, 5 stages, and some of the best of Austin music. That’s how I started my SXSW 2016.
I generally stick to official evening SXSW showcases, but this year I decided to attend part of the All The Friends Ball put on by local symphonic pop rockers Mother Falcon at Spiderhouse. My primary reason for going had a lot to do with scheduling. I had whittled down the 1000+ bands I listened to to about 70 or so in my first pass and then down to 40-45 from there, but with only so much time and energy in the day and with inevitable conflicts in scheduling, I’d never get to see them all. As I looked over the list of bands attending the All The Friends Ball I realized that I could get rid of a few conflicts from my schedule by getting a 1 night head start and seeing them there.
While the ball had been running since noon, I opted to arrive much later in the day. For one thing, most of the bands I planned to see were playing in the evening and for another I had chores to do during the day, not least of which was picking up my SXSW Music wristband downtown. I arrived at Spiderhouse a little before 9pm to check out my first band of the evening, The Deer. The weather that day had been unseasonably warm, even for Austin and the night was simply beautiful, perfect for music outside. This would be only my second time seeing The Deer live (the first was opening for Wild Child this past November) and since then, they’ve probably become my new favorite folk act in Austin. They performed on what Spiderhouse was calling the main stage and if you’ve ever been to the coffee house/bar during normal business you’ll know this particular stage as most of the main patio, with the stage at the western end. When The Deer started playing it was obvious that Grace Park and co. were having a great time and I think I can speak for the rest of the crowd and say that the feeling was mutual. Throughout their set the combined guitars, drums, upright bass, piano, and violin of The Deer wove a jazz folk tapestry that lightly blanketed us on that warm, late winter night. It was a great start to a great week of music for me.
My next scheduled band for the evening was Alex Napping, but they wouldn’t be going on for another hour so I took a detour inside to the Spiderhouse Ballroom and caught the unexpected and delightful Fragile Rock. Like a cross between Avenue Q and something out of Glee, Fragile Rock is a band of puppets (backed by a live, human band) that play original tunes and covers whilst acting out band drama on stage. “Unique” hardly describes Fragile Rock and the room was enthralled by their set, which culminated in a posthumous appearance by David Bowie! Puppet David Bowie, but still.
(The) Alex Napping (Karaoke Experience) was next on the Bar stage next to the ballroom and I suppose that bears some explaining. Alex Napping are a local pop rock band known for jangly guitar tunes and hazily sung lyrics. This however was a one woman performance, consisting of frontwoman Alex Cohen solo, in a unitard, singing along to what sounded like midi/karaoke versions of the full band’s tracks. It was unexpected, but thoroughly entertaining, culminating with a cover of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”, proving once again that there’s never a bad time for Graceland.
I was outside at the Chapel stage (the usually tented area at Spiderhouse) next for Hikes, a local math rock group that I haven’t heard or seen anything from since SXSW last year. Hikes have always struck me as something of an anomaly in Austin, our mathier music usually folding naturally into instrumental and “post rock”, but I’ve been a fan ever since my first listen. Full of technical noodling, twinkly atmospheric lyrics, and occasionally punky jams, Hikes put on a great live performance and during the aforementioned “punky jams” some of the crowd even broken into a good-natured mosh, that I was more than happy to join.
My final act of the evening would be All The Friends Ball’s architects: Mother Falcon. While their continued success means I get to see them less often, it’s always a treat when I do, this instance being no exception. For those unfamiliar, Mother Falcon are a mini rock orchestra, featuring string instruments and horns, alongside the occasional guitar, piano, accordion, and backed by traditional rock drums. The result is a charming and majestic sound that stretches both the boundaries of rock and orchestra to new and exciting heights. The band played mostly recent material from their latest release Good Luck, Have Fun, along with some old favorites, while also auditioning several new tracks. Most memorable among the new material was a song with stunning vocals by the diminutive cellist who I had always thought of (respectfully) as “the littlest Falcon”, but who I now know as Diana Burgess, a vocal force to be reckoned with for sure.
When all was said and done, it was a great night of music that not only freed up my schedule in several places for the coming week, but also started my SXSW off on a high note. This is only the beginning however. Come back tomorrow for my first two days of official showcases, featuring: Japanese mice, blonde whirlwinds, talented youngsters, and the best Rage Against the Machine cover ever featuring a tuba.
Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bjaudette.