Floating around this noisy heaven
Most of the words get stuck in my mouth
But I mean all the ones that punch their way out”
– Beach Slang, “Noisy Heaven”
This was an odd SXSW for me. On the one hand, after listening to nearly 1000 acts, there weren’t many out of those that I had set aside to check out that I was super excited about. On the other hand, I had plans to be out of town for the last two days of the music festival and thus knew I’d be missing stuff anyway. In the end however, I still saw some great stuff both old and new and as usual, I’m here to tell you all about it.
While I had toyed with the idea of checking out some unofficial Sunday or Monday showcases to buffer what I knew was going to be a shorter than average week for me, I opted for laziness and the known quantities (after vetting nearly every showcasing act) of the official showcases instead. My first show of SXSW 2018 was at the 720 Club patio on Red River. Some of you will remember 720 Club as the former Headhunters and (post Bar Rescue appearance) Metal and Lace location. For the past few years it’s been a SX-only venue though and this was actually my first time seeing any shows there in this configuration. Prior to selecting the show at 720 I had a bit of a scheduling conflict to clear up and a decision to make. Did I want to start my SX with something lighter and folkier or go heavy? I opted for heavy and decided to take in Hans Gruber and the Die Hards.
I’ve checked in with this band a couple of times in the last year or so via their EP’s, but never really got hooked and never saw them live. I hadn’t realized that they’d released a full length until checking them out for the showcase. After some listens I decided that even if they hadn’t managed to hook me before, I knew that it would at least be a high energy way to start my week. As it turned out I didn’t know how right I was.
I’ll be frank: if you have the chance to see Hans Gruber live, do it! Singer TJ Robinson’s stage presence and audience work is nothing short of legendary. Hans Gruber and the Die Hards don’t just put on a show, it’s an interactive performance complete with audience involvement, a cardboard cut out of the eponymous Die Hard villain and in this instance, a couple packages of rubber snakes. If you’re down for some first-wave style hardcore punk and crazy antics, check them out.
With the next block of time clear on my schedule I decided to stick around 720 for Ceramic Animal. Dressed in matching maroon suits the band played a dreamy brand of indie rock with a pre-Beatles, early rock vibe. I’d definitely give them a few more listens, but nothing immediately grabbed me during their performance … except the Maroon suits of course.
After Ceramic Animal I left 720 and headed to 18th Over Austin at the Hilton Garden Inn for my must see band of the night The Accidentals. You may recall this band from my SXSW reports from last year and 2016– in fact it was at this very venue in 2016 that I first caught these multi-instrumental indie-folk-pop youngsters and immediately became a fan. With the band having signed to Sony Masterworks and garnering some decent press since last I saw them, I wasn’t sure whether I would have trouble getting into the showcase or not so I planned to arrive a little early. Luckily I was able to get right in.
With a more relaxed atmosphere than much of SX, 18th Over Austin is one of the few places during the event where I’ll order a cocktail, so I sidled up to the bar and ordered my signature drink: an Old Fashioned. It was nothing to write home about, but it wasn’t awful and I finished in time to get a seat up front for the show.
I won’t bore you with more gushing praise for The Accidentals. If you want that you can read my reports from previous years. Needless to say they captured my rapt attention once again and despite not playing either of my two favorite songs (a couple of sad bastard numbers, one of which really requires a piano player who was not in attendance) tore through an amazing set that left me pleased as punch. If you dig acts like The Decemberists, Andrew Bird, and the like, check them out and definitely see them live if you can. They put on a great show.
After the Accidentals I had a choice to catch most of a set by Mal Blum and the Blums at Sidewinder or head to Cheer Up Charlie’s for Austin’s own The Octopus Project. As I headed down Red River there was already a line outside of Sidewinder, meaning that either Mal Blum were a hotter commodity than I realized or someone on the outside stage was. Either way, I wasn’t about to stand in line for a show that had started several minutes before I arrived and decided instead to opt for The Octopus Project.
Despite being a longtime fan of their studio work, I’ve gone on record in the past as having been somewhat bored by The Octopus Project live. Given the catchy nature of their 2017 release and it’s status as one of my favorites both of the year and from them in general, I figured I’d give them another chance. I’m glad that I did. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better set from this band. Heavy on new stuff, but featuring some old favorites, The Octopus Project staged a digital/analog dance party at Cheer Up Charlie’s that culminated in Yvonne Lambert lifting her Theremin over the audience, resulting in an improvisational sci-fi serenade to close out the performance. That seemed like a pretty good place to end the night to me.
My second night of SXSW again took me to 720 Club’s patio, this time for one of my unknown picks, Trophy Dad. It’s tough for me to describe a band like Trophy Dad except to say that when I think of “indie rock” they’re what it sounds like in my head: one part Pavement, one part My Bloody Valentine, one part Stereolab, and the rest is all post-Nirvana ’90s alt rock. Results may vary, but Trophy Dad at least had a sound that resonated with me. Unfortunately they weren’t much in the performance area. I guess that’s the curse of anything that conjures my 90’s nostalgia though.
After Trophy Dad my Wednesday at SXSW was packed with known acts, the first of which was my all-time favorite: Frank Turner. I knew as I headed to Latitude 30 (which was once again masquerading as the British Music Embassy for SXSW) that there was a chance that I wouldn’t get in to see Frank. The venue tends to be a beacon and a refuge for those visiting from the UK and Ireland during the event and as such tends to have long lines of both wristband wearers and badge holders. As the venue has large open windows facing the street however, I was willing to hear Frank from outside if need be, though I made sure to arrive about an hour early just in case.
My precognition about the venue proved true as there were already large lines when I showed up, but I was hopeful and took my place with the other wristband wearers. Jade Bird was on before Frank and as her set finished a number of people left the club and our lines started moving. This was a little weird. Typically the way SXSW is supposed to work is that badges get in before wristbands. At a place like this however, the badge line never fully disappears and a badge holder that just showed up can get in before a wristband that’s been waiting for hours. The person running the door was trying to be a bit more sympathetic however and was letting in a few wristbands after every bunch of badges. This action had brought me right to the head of the line, next to go in, when a badge holder who had just gotten in and also happened to be a SXSW staffer started making a fuss. The line protocol was restored and I was stuck outside as Frank began. From my place in line I couldn’t really see so, accepting that I wasn’t going to get in anyway, I got out of line and stood in the street looking through the windows.
Frank played a solid solo set of old favorites mixed with new tunes from his forthcoming seventh album out this May. The crowd outside must have been at least half the size of the one inside and there were plenty of Frank fans singing along with me though, so while it wasn’t ideal, it was still what I go to a Frank Turner show to experience. I’d get another chance to see Frank the next night anyway, so I wasn’t too bummed.
Next up was Quiet Slang (James Alex of Beach Slang covering his own tunes at a slower tempo and with a string quartet backing) at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary. I’ve seen Beach Slang a couple of times now and while they’re not a band that I’m ever saying “you have to hear this song” about, I do enjoy listening to them and even more so live. Frontperson James Alex is honestly one of the most humble and sincere individuals in music if not the world and it comes through both in his songwriting (much of which seems to be about how awesome music is) and his demeanor during performances. This was apparently the first official performance for Quiet Slang in this configuration, which consisted of Alex, two backup singers, a piano player, and a string quartet who they had only just met with earlier that day. Alex seemed nervous, but as song after song went off wonderfully his confidence grew, causing him to gush with praise both for his backing vocalists and the quartet who played off of the Quiet Slang sheet music without prior practice like pros. As with most SXSW shows I’ve seen at St. David’s it was both delightful and surreal, and Beach Slang’s punk-tinged rock translated beautifully to the more mellow format.
I had originally planned to check out perennial favorite Mother Falcon at The Hideaway Theater next, but time was short and I’ve seen Hideaway fill up for them quickly before. Rather than head over to 6th street only to be turned away, I decided to try and get in early for my final act of the evening: Hop Along at Barracuda’s Backyard.
For the unfamiliar, Hop Along are like a mix of Cayetana and Ted Leo; punky, but folky, and with unique vocals. I can’t recommend them enough. While I had initially heard Hop Along a few years ago with their first album Get Disowned it wasn’t until 2015’s Painted Shut that I became a fan. I didn’t really pick up the album until 2016, but it dominated my plays for most of that year and is still in heavy rotation. With a new album coming at the beginning of April, I was interested to get a chance to see the band play. I arrived at Barracuda Backyard to find yet another line (this time being properly managed), but much smaller than the one I had encountered earlier in the evening. With over an hour until Hop Along was to go on, I felt pretty good about my chances and settled into the wristband line.
The band on before Hop Along was apparently the heavily hyped act Porches and both the wristband line and the badge line began to fill up in anticipation of their performance. The venue was already just over capacity at that point and waiting for people to come out before even getting to a “one in, one out” status making tensions high. I bided my time however and after the mass exodus of Porches revellers, I was able to get in before Hop Along went on.
What followed could only be described as a confluence of a band being too high maintenance about their sound check and a series of equipment glitches that led to Hop Along not playing a single song until almost half an hour after their set was supposed to begin. This ultimately meant that they played about four songs, most of them new. The upshot is that the new stuff is great and even though the set was abbreviated, I’ll get to see them on tour here in June.
Surprise! Surprise! I began my third and final day of SXSW this year at … you guessed it: the 720 Club patio. This time I was out to see Jean Caffeine, who we’ve featured on the site before and if you want to know more, you should really go read that article. It was a fun set and great way to start the night. Really, any time I get to see veteran punks play music, it just fills me with joy.
I’d had a choice that night of catching some hip hop or some math and indie rock and while I wanted to catch DopeKnife, it just worked out better for my schedule to head over to Cheer Up Charlie’s for Gulfer. This was another of my previously unknown picks this year and one that I’ll be checking out some more tunes from. To call Gulfer a somewhat mathier Braid would not be incorrect, though in practice they’re not quite as tight as either those emo boys from Illinois or most math rock bands. Still, it was a set that made me want to hear more and that’s not something to balk at.
Next I headed outside, still at Cheer Up Charlie’s for Anna Burch, a not quite unknown to me singer-songwriter from Detroit. Again (much like Gulfer) there were no surprises here, I basically got a performance that matched what I had heard online and have since decided to check out some more. Not bad is better than not good any day.
Heading away from Red River, I checked in at a cocktail bar off of 7th and Brazos called CU29 where I was to see a folkster named John Craigie. Again, with a more relaxed atmosphere at this venue and with seating, I took it upon myself to order an Old Fashioned. This one was much better than the one at 18th Over Austin and the bartender even did the squeeze the orange peel and light the oil on fire trick at the end so I was more than satisfied.
Every SXSW there are one or two acts that surprise me and this year along with Hans Gruber and The Die Hards, it’s John Craigie who takes the prize. I was expecting some mellow singer-songwriter folk and what I got was that plus some seriously entertaining storytelling as well. Some artists like to set up a song or two with a little story, John Craigie did this for just about every song and his stories were just as good as his music and bolstered by an almost deadpan, Mitch Hedberg-like delivery. The audience ate it up, including me, who was lured out of my introvert cave when he mentioned being from California and asking if there were any other Californians in the crowd. There was a round of woots and applause after which I did my Austinite duty and playfully yelled “don’t move here”, prompting Craigie to reply with “settle down Austin” before diving into the excellent “I am California” near the end of his set.
As I mentioned earlier, I would have one more chance to see Frank Turner during SXSW and following John Craigie’s set was that chance. Frank was going to be at the Palm Door on 6th at 1am and while I had other bands I could have seen (only one of which I didn’t already know) I needed to at least see if I could get in. I headed down 6th from CU29, toward Palm Door and on arriving found there to be no line. I was in. The next step was to see how close I could get.
As luck would have it, the act on just before Frank was Billie Eilish a hip hop, alt-pop, teen girl act that couldn’t have been anymore different than Frank’s folk punk. When she finished, the crowd thinned dramatically and I was easily able to make my way not just to the front of the stage, but directly in front of Frank’s mic. This was the polar opposite of the previous night for me at Latitude 30 and while I’ve been close to Frank at shows before, this was the closest I’ve ever been.
Much like the previous night’s show, Frank played a mixed set of crowd pleasers and new stuff. Some of it was the same as the previous evening, but some of it wasn’t and regardless … I was up front for it this time so it could have been exactly the same set for all I cared. I joined along with the other gathered Frank Turner fans in singing along to songs both old and new and bid farewell to SXSW 2018 in the best way possible.
While it was a shorter than average week for me, it was a great one nonetheless and even if I wasn’t able to catch everything on my list for having had to miss a couple of days, I can still check them out later. SXSW is a complicated event for many reasons, but at the heart of it, it’s about music and I make the most of it every chance I get. If you don’t or can’t get out to SX, I hope my blatherings may at least steer you toward some new bands to check out and I’ll be back next year with another helping as I roam the streets of Austin, worshiping at the altar of sound.
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 email@example.com or on Twitter at @bjaudette.