Out of Step: SXSW 2017 Part Two

by Brian J. Audette

“As I was walking through a life one morning
The sun was out, the air was warm, but oh, I was cold
And though I must have looked a half a person
To tell the tale in my own version, it was only then that I felt whole”
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Me and Mia”

For part one of Brian’s SXSW recap, go here.

I can tell you from my own experience that you have not known pure joy until you have seen a Japanese ska band and a Japanese riot grrl band play back to back live. More on that later. We begin at a Walgreens…

THURSDAY 03/16/2017

Strictly speaking my Thursday lineup for SXSW 2017 does not begin at a Walgreens. The national chain drug store did not host any unofficial showcases that I know of, nor did Garth Brooks, Weezer, or Smash Mouth play any surprise performances there. I did however purchase some Dr. Scholl’s work insoles to hopefully aid my aching feet over the next few days of SXSW music. In addition, I had decided to alter my schedule slightly to pare down on venue hopping a bit, which had the added benefit of filling in a couple of gaps as well.

What had started off as a gray day with rain in the early hours of the morning, made way for clear skies and the same brilliant weather we’d been enjoying for the week so far by the time evening showcases rolled around. As I walk from my parking spot down to 6th, my insoles appear to be doing their job, but the jury will be out until at least the end of the night.

My first stop is Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, part of Maggie Mae’s 6th street complex situated off to the side fron the rest and accessible via Trinity street. I was here a couple of times for showcases last year and for the most part I find it to be a decent space for music. On this particular night however there is a serious dance party going at the venue just downstairs and the bass is bleeding through the ceiling with a vengeance. I suppose it’s merely distracting at worst and once the first band I’m here to see (New Jersey’s The Moms) begin playing, I can mostly ignore it. In all fairness I wasn’t originally planning on seeing The Moms. I’m here for the next act, but in retooling my schedule I did give them a bit of  listen. What at first had sounded a bit like classic New Jersey punk a-la Bouncing Souls or Lifetime, ends up having a bit more of standard rock flair to it live. The Moms play a good set, but I personally don’t find it to be particularly unique or at the very least as interesting as I would have found something with an punkier edge to it.

While I was up front for The Moms my friend Andrew showed up at the Gibson Room. Andrew’s been hitting SXSW on all cylinders for the last several days, having had won a film wristband earlier in the week, in addition to his previously purchased music wristband. He’s been going all day every day and when I find him he’s half asleep, sitting on one of the cowhide chairs toward the back the room. A couple of Red Bull’s later Andrew is back in the game and I grab a seat near him to catch the next act, a UK group by the name of Happyness that I skipped two years prior, but ended up becoming a fan of afterwards.

Happyness play the kind of hazy indie pop that recalls Summerteeth-era Wilco or some of Pavement’s mellower moments, but with a hint of Brit pop background. As a studio act I had their LP Weird Little Birthday on decent rotation during much of 2015, but it’s not the kind of thing that lends itself to a stellar live performance and the bass from downstairs certainly isn’t adding anything to their otherwise chill set. When all’s said and done, it’s a solid block of mellow rock and a reminder that they’ve got a 2016 EP that I still haven’t checked out as well as a new LP on the way in April.

Fueled by Red Bull and beer, Andrew and I head around to the Rooftop portion of Maggie Mae’s for the next two acts of the evening. The first act up is another that I had only just heard hours before as I was trying to find a way to plug a hole in my schedule and limit my walking at the same time. I’m technically here for the following act, but the opportunity to see a Japanese ska band as well is just too enticing. I’m apparently not alone in this feeling as the stage front section of Maggie Mae’s Rooftop is absolutely packed to check out Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, a band that (I later learned) has been representing ska in Japan since the late 80’s.

Their set pops off strong and I’m instantly transported back to that feel-good dance party vibe from the Hard Proof show at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Tuesday. The crowd is excited. The band is excited. Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra burn the place down. I don’t consider myself a ska fan and I likely won’t be grabbing any TSPO albums in the future, but if I had a chance to see them play live again, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

My friend George meets up with us on the Rooftop just after Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra finish their set. George is a bit of a Japanophile and I’ve hyped up the next band in a big way for him. Otoboke Beaver are about to hit the stage and if the phrase “Japanese riot grrls” doesn’t get you excited then we may never see eye to eye musically. If there’s a new band that I’ve most anticipated seeing at SXSW this year, it’s this one. I love it when other countries adopt more traditionally “American” genres, whether it’s hardcore, country, or in this case riot grrl punk. When I heard Otoboke Beaver during my SXSW auditioning process I immediately put them in the “must see” list.

Had one not heard them beforehand, one would have to be forgiven for assuming that these seemingly demure Japanese women in sundresses are actually some kind of kawaii J-pop band. Once they start playing all such assumptions go out the window. The group has serious chops and serious attitude that even diehard fans of bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater Kinney would be hard pressed to resist. While the crowd composition has changed some between this and the previous act, the house is still packed and the energy is still high; it would be difficult for it not to be given the amount of work being put in on stage. The set ends with Otoboke Beaver’s guitarist jumping off stage to crowd surf and then climbing the speakers a couple minutes later when the band (having finished early) comes back on stage for a rare SXSW encore. In the end, Otoboke Beaver are all I had hoped they’d be and more. This would turn out to be the most “punk” show of my entire SXSW this year.

While the next band up at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop is indeed on my list, I’ve already made plans to see them Friday night instead and we leave for Valhalla on Red River to catch Brooklyn’s Aye Nako. Given what we’ve just experienced with the last two bands, Aye Nako are unknowingly up against a wall with us, but they put on a decent set all the same. Playing a brand of post-hardcore indie rock that reminds me a lot of the kind of music that came out of the DC/MD/VA area in the early 2000’s, the band puts out a solid effort that (given the circumstances) ends up being mostly forgettable. I’m not going to hold it against them however and will probably give them a few more listens online before I pass final judgement. With Aye Nako’s set completed, we call it a night. For the record, the insoles did their job well.

FRIDAY 03/17/2017

Friday night is K-pop night at The Belmont and first up are No Brain a Korean pop punk group that I first caught down on Rainey Street during SXSW 2015. As I’ve mentioned in part one, I’m both trying to catch more out of country acts and especially non-english speaking acts this year at SXSW. Punk is like a universal language for me and regardless of whether it’s more hardcore or more pop, it’s sure to get me to stop and listen for a bit.

Back in 2015 No Brain impressed me with their energy and solid performance and given the chance to see them again this year I decided to jump at it. One of the things I love the most about the Japanese and Korean showcases that I’ve been to in the past and this year included are the crowds. The spaces are always packed and everyone has a great time. There’s just a great positive energy at these shows and No Brain’s showcase is no exception.

Following No Brain – still at The Belmont – are Galaxy Express a band that in my original schedule notes I described as “Korean Green Day?”, but on seeing them I find that they display a bit more nuance and depth. Having spent another day at SXSW film showings, Andrew meets up with me shortly before Galaxy Express go on. The space is still packed and the crowd is still hyped, though the band brings a different type of energy than No Brain. While still punkish in areas, Galaxy Express veer off into meatier avenues of rock, even getting straight up progressive for a stretch in the middle of their set. It not quite what I expected going in, but I enjoy the experience nonetheless.

At this point in the week Andrew and I are practically the walking dead, Andrew more so due to the days of movie screenings, but I’ve got a few years on him so we’ll call it even. I’ve only really got one more thing on my schedule for the night at Valhalla, while Andrew has a couple more to see over at Cheer Up Charlie’s, so we head over in the direction of Red River. It’s Friday night of SXSW and with the the work week over, simply everyone is out on the streets. It would make for interesting people watching if we had time to stop, but we’re men on a mission.

While Andrew heads over to Cheer Up’s for LVL Up, I check into Valhalla for L.A. Salami, a UK singer-songwriter act and not a Hollywood deli. Somehow my 11pm slot ended up butting several similar singer-songwriter and folk acts up against each other, but on repeated listens, L.A. Salami stood out to me as the one I should see. As is SX custom, their set starts off with some technical difficulties as a bass stack doesn’t seem to want to cooperate and produce sound. After some cajoling by the band and the sound tech on duty, it all sorts itself out and the show goes on. Stylistically the band remind me of a bluesier Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. On the one hand they play up front, electric folk, but with the soulful slant of old time delta blues on the other. It’s a solid mashup that’s both alluring and impactful and actually aided by the ramshackle ambiance of Valhalla’s environs. I had a hunch going in that this would be a group I want to hear more from in the future and L.A. Salami’s set only solidifies that assumption.

After the set at Valhalla I’m back out on Red River with my next stop just a bit up the street where I’m meeting up with Andrew again for Priests at Cheer Up Charlie’s. I feel like I have a bit of a weird relationship with Priests. They’ve been on my radar for awhile for being a DC area band (a scene that I’ve always been fond of and still keep tabs on) but I’ve never really been able to get into them. Priests keep coming up though as they’ve gotten more exposure, so I keep thinking that there’s something I’m missing. I figure this showcase is a chance to find out live whether that’s the case or not.

I may be reading too much into this, but given the crowd reaction to the band I’d like to think that I’m not too far off on my own judgment. Priests starts out their set to with a fairly full crowd that only dwindles over time. I can imagine people thinking what I’ve thought about the band before which is “I’ve heard they’re really good” or “different” or “fresh” only to either be turned away entirely or like me, just not that impressed. It’s not that Priests are bad, it’s just that I’ve heard stuff like it before that I like better. I chalk up their hype to what I think of as the Jack White issue, where an artist who isn’t great, but isn’t bad, but who comes along at the right time and in the right way, convinces music critics and tastemakers who’ve spent too much time listening to shitty pop music, that they’ve struck gold. Or maybe it’s just me and I’m still not that into Priests. Either way their set puts an end to the penultimate night of my SXSW.

I make a miscalculation on our way to Cooper’s, forgetting that you can’t cut across 3rd from Red River due to the convention center being in the way and we take the long way around to get to the venue. Smelling BBQ, George decides to grab himself a plate while Andrew and I head upstairs. In the end George rates the BBQ as decent, but not as good as a Stubb’s BBQ sandwich, which has become a SXSW tradition for him whenever we’re there. Despite my unfortunate detour, we managed to arrive at the venue just as The Accidentals are wrapping their sound check. This band was easily my favorite discovery from last year and I’ve kept tabs on them since, during which time they’ve released an EP and signed with Sony Masterworks to release a new LP this summer. Not bad for a group of 21 year-olds.

If The Accidentals impressed the hell out of me last year (and they did) then they somehow manage to do so threefold this time around. Playing the kind of orchestra dork folk pop that’s at times reminiscent of the Decemberists (though without the 19th century whaling references) The Accidentals two female leads are a powerhouse of multi-instrumental prowess. Guitar, cello, violin, if it’s got strings, I’m pretty sure they play it and play it well. Their lyrics are sincere and heartfelt with gorgeous harmonic vocals and a stage presence that’s both captivating and invigorating.

I’m both glad that this band has had such success in the last year and glad that I made this showcase a priority as well. With nothing else on my list and Andrew’s fatigue winning him over more than the desire to try and see Diet Cig later in the evening, we decide to call it a night after The Accidentals. Given that I do like ending SXSW on a high note, I think it’s the right call. With a bit of a hunger (for those of us who didn’t grab BBQ) and some time yet to kill in the night, we decide to leave downtown behind and grab some Kerbey Lane before calling it. Any SXSW that ends with The Accidentals and Kerbey queso is a good one in my book.

Out of Step SXSW 2017 Playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/audeez/playlist/7hUpxBZ4m59c6CUTwyYUF7

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 brian@ovrld.com or on Twitter at @bjaudette.