In the cab on the way to downtown Austin, a certain well-known music critic* told me there’s no real substantial way to cover SXSW. The people that care about it deeply enough to read it about are already here (most likely) and the people out in Missouri who might stumble on this aren’t necessarily going to want to read about what it’s like to see Tune-Yards at the Fader Fort by Fiat. That is probably true.
But screw it. I’m going to try to cover this monster anyway. I’m betting that at least one of you not here wants to know what it’s like to see Braids at a restaurant that looks like a boathouse (awesome) or would like to know if Dom really talks with that weird nasally voice he sings with (yes). I have a job to do here, and I’m going to do it. Expect recaps of all four days as soon as I can get them finished, and expect them to have references to my groin chafing (which is brutal) and my feet hurting (which they already do). In an attempt to make digesting these recaps easier on you, I’m going to start each recap with the bands that were good, followed by the bands that were not, and then the best show I saw each day. So without further ado, and references to my nethers, here’s day one:
The good: I’m not really going to spend my time here in Austin hopping between shows—I don’t feel like walking fourteen blocks every 45 minutes to stand in line for another 15, and then wading through throngs of people to maybe catch a glimpse of Yuck. Not exactly my idea of time well spent. So once I procured my badge and a grilled cheese sandwich, I hit Fader Fort by Fiat yesterday afternoon and stayed there until it was closed a little after 8 p.m.
The first band I saw at SXSW came on literally 30 seconds after I got to the stage area of the Fader Fort by Fiat grounds, and it was the delightful Oh Land, the electro-pop artist from Denmark that is playing Prefix’s Party at ND today (just had to work in another plug). Oh Land is like some mutant midway point between La Roux and Robyn, and visually, her touring bandmates look like they tried out for the xx and didn’t make it. Coming on like an icy cheerleader leading her minions in chant, Oh Land delivered a well-received set that was as energetic as it was enchanting.
For reasons unknown to my literally non-existent journalistic inquiries, Raphael Saadiq didn’t perform in his time slot yesterday. Instead, the Fader Fort by Fiat hosted the outsized mega-anthems from Wales’ Joy Formidable, one of the U.K.’s Biggest New Things, 2010 Edition. Playing tracks exclusively from the out-now The Big Roar, Joy Formidable ripped through a monster set that featured singer Ritzy Bryan’s bug-eyed guitar solos, banshee wails, and enough megaton guitar riffs to decimate most attendees’ aural cavities. Their bassist punched a hole in an auxiliary bass drum for some reason, so that was also pretty awesome.
Confession time: I haven’t spent any time with Twin Shadow, the synthy project of George Lewis Jr., beyond writing up a video here and there. His Forget LP has been in my iPod for about a month, and I still haven’t gotten to it. But I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed his set, a comfort-food-esque trip through the best ‘80s romantic new wave had to offer. “Castles In the Snow” was the real winner, building into a sprawling ballad before it wrapped in three minutes. That’s how the masters do it: Give you enough to get excited about, and yank it out from under you. Twin Shadow isn’t at that point, obviously, but he’s making the right moves.
My night ended with a trip to the Kanine party where Braids were playing, and they killed it as always. It’s the third time I’ve seen them in about six months, and each time has been different: Live sonic experimentation is an important facet of the band’s repertoire, as the blends between “Plath Heart” and “Lemonade” become songs of their own. They seemed nonplussed about being at SXSW, just letting the music do the talking, and taking very few breaks between bringing the highs of Native Speaker to life.
The not: For today, this section might as well be the “disappointing,” because three acts I had high hopes for where less than stellar. Friendly Fires just never seemed to take off at Fader Fort by Fiat, like they were one single away from taking things off the rails into full-on crowd domination mode, but they never quite got there. And that’s a pretty good explanation for their career, too, up to this point. Negative points for not playing “Jump in the Pool.”
Dom at Fader Fort by Fiat were everything you’d expect them to be. Sorta sloppy, shouty, riff-heavy, lo-fi as hell vocals, but it still didn’t completely connect (though shredding takes of “Living in America” and “Bochicha” came close). Dom did his best Cousin It routine during his performance, never really getting the crowd on board. It brought about one of the more prevalent questions of the day: Did the Fader Fort by Fiat’s sound just stink, or did Dom just overwhelm it?
Freddie Gibbs at the XXL party was also pretty much exactly what I expected; he did “The Ghetto,” “National Anthem (Fuck the World)” and he yelled “fuck police” a lot, but the performance didn’t add up to much beyond delivering a reasonable approximation of his studio output. He didn’t play with the live band that has followed him around recently—instead he relied on a serviceable DJ who messed up a few times--and he ceded the stage for a posse cut for a while, which is the ultimate form of rap hubris.
I also saw Young the Giant at Fader Fort by Fiat, and they were the worst I saw all day, by a wide margin. And that’s all I have to say on the matter.
The best: It turns out the performance I was most looking forward to today also turned out to be, by far, the best: It was Yelawolf’s headlining set at Fader Fort by Fiat, where Catfish Billy dominated the crowd like a punk rocker, pacing the stage like a wild cat looking for weaknesses in a circus cage. He did every song you’d want to hear from him—“Pop The Trunk,” “I Just Wanna Party,” “Daddy’s Lambo”—and even had one of the most unlikely crowd sing-alongs I’ve ever heard (the crowd knew every word to the song “Billy Crystal”). “Here’s some crackers for all you crackers out there,” Yela yelled at one point, perfectly dissecting the Fader Fort by Fiat complexion in a chuck of Ritz. It was one of those performances that convinces you that who you just saw is going to be the biggest star in the world soon, if only more people could herar them. Yela’s ready for the next level, folks. Look out.
*- It was Chris Weingarten.