Best of the bands at SXSW – both new and old

SXSW is an insane sprawl of bands and people. A tide of humanity crammed into the centre of Austin checking out hundreds of bands – somewhere in the middle of this high decibel action we caught up with some band.

Mexican Institute Of Sound are enormous in their home country of Mexico and the tiny club is packed with ex pat Mexicans who are freaking with excitement waiting for the band to play. They enter the stage like stadium rock gods and proceed to send the room into meltdown with a big beat flavoured with mariachi and Mexicana sounds. The band have a powerful drummer who obviously learned his chops in a metal band and their songs are built for partying and are infectiously catchy and funtime in a silly, funtime kinda way.

Black Lips popped up a couple of times round town on the same bills as the likes of Bad Brains and Off! The Atlanta, Georgia band have been touring the world in the last couple of years and have their reputation for onstage craziness seem to have now channelled their twitchy energy into their music.
Maybe it was the sobering tour of India where audiences who like their music heavier didn’t take too kindly to the garage band that has seen onstage nudity/snogging/frantic lewdness and craziness as part and parcel of its live meltdown. They certainly don’t need the extras, though, as their songs are great, crackling examples of garage rock crisscrossed with country, punk and blues but amped up to an adrenalin- rush- thrill. I’ve seen them play all over the world and their live show never disappoints and they are on fire at SXSW.

LA legend and former X front woman Exene Cervenka is trapped in the performers worst nightmare – the shite PA. It takes nearly half an hour to get the crackling wreck of a rig to crackle into action and even when the set starts her powerful vocal is crushed by the shoddy mics. Somehow, though she transcends this electrical aggro and her country rock, with a blues punk edge is highly effective.
Her voice conveys powerful, swooning emotions and the songs are crafted examples of modern American rock music – a melange of styles that are pumped by the aggression and clear sightedness of punk but always hark back to the radiogram classics of the recent past.

Where Exene is serene and powerful the Waco Brothers are drunk and loose. Fronted by ex Mekon and Three Johns (yes!) guitarist Jon Langford, the Waco Brothers play a mess of blues and country shovelled through a punk incinerator. Like the Clash after ten pints in the warm Texas sun they are rabble rousers who pepper their set with classic covers like ”˜I Fought The Law’ and their own equally good songs. Songs that utilise sing-along vocals, great playing despite the alcohol and a good time, lust for life bonhomie that is at home here in Austin as it ever was in Langford’s post punk shenanigans with the genius three Johns way back in the eighties.

Last summer in Inverness we stood in a park and watched two twitching noise droogs play a discordant powerful set powered by a generator. >Bronto Skylift pop up again in Texas playing every night and are a highlight of each day. Sounding like the long lost cousins of the Dog Faced Hermans, they have a singularly powerful and skilful drummer whose collapsing drum style is perfectly matched by a both parts grungy and discordant guitarist. You can hear a feint echo of Nirvana in here and a whole host of underground guitar noiseniks, their trump card, though, is that they have the potential for actually crossing over into the grown up charts because there are actual songs in their assault as well.

Sally Crewes plays a clipped tough pop that lies somewhere between the Pretenders and the Cars. She has the vocal prowess and song writing nous of the former and the scratching, tense guitars of the later. At a yard party at the back of a avenue in the afternoon sun her intensity and passion cuts through the lusty heat and the songs’ direct nature and lack of frills harks back to the new wave end of punk rock where tough pop was the order of the day.

Former Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard is also on the bill with his own band Doug Gillard Electric. A busy fucker Gillard is a solo artist, ex guitarist for Guided By Voices, Nada Surf, Richard Buckner, Bambi Kino, film soundtracks, Lifeguards, Gem, Death Of Samantha, My Dad Is Dead, the Oranges Band- some list of alt. rock classic.
Gillard is a great guitar player – playing a curious mixture of stripped down, post punk and class American licks. There is no frills about the music, just a hypnotic understanding of the synchronicity of great guitars entwining like Television did all those years ago but closer to the style of Wire.

It’s not all indie at SXSW there’s a big hip hop contingent in town. Wu-Tang Clan are playing but I skip them despite loving their stuff, having seen them play in Manchester a few months ago.
I do catch the wonderful hip hop duo of God-Des and She who hail from the Midwest. They are rocking a small venue in the downtown – two vociferous woman who have a perfect balance. One of them sings pure gospel- with one of those amazing warbling voices that fills a room – it’s not often you get to see someone who can REALLY sing and it’s pretty stunning. God-Des herself is streetwise rapper whose effervescent personality touches everyone in the room. A black lesbian super chick she oozes total 21st century star quality and she goads the audience into party mode and raps perfectly over the bouncing tracks that all sound like hits.

The J Mascis acoustic set is a wonderful thing. Mascis, looks like a wizard and is sat down and coaxes all kind of filthy sound from his half acoustic – half cranked through a pedal guitar. He also coaxes all kinds of frail emotions from his deceptively beautiful voice. It’s a wonderful set.

Fever Fever are a Norwich three piece whose scratchy, angular guitar backdrop is perfect for their twin girl vocal attack. Worthy of more investigation.

Playing a pure punk rock collage of styles and idea for trust fund kids Japanther are quite stunning. Mixing tapes and loops and a vociferous, thrilling energy – Japanther get everyone onto the stage into a squirming, human jellyfish of flailing limbs and joyous sweat. They end with a sudden switch in pace to a country and western waltz that momentarily throws everyone before the mad dancing resumes.

Das Racist tread the fine line between humour and comedy with a hip hop connection that is scuzzy, sweatshod party action. They grab scraps of pop and stick them back together in the wrong order with a hardcore sensibility and a high IQ disdain and somehow create a great racket.

Altaar are our dose of Norwegian black metal just to remind us all of the great By:Larm music conference in freezing Oslo last month. The band deal in the sludgely slow end of the black metal and it’s a great antidote to the endless bar bands on the main drag.

The Jim Jones Review are in town and they totally destroy. Their gig at Emos is pure rock n roll thrills with fantastically, enthralling theatricals. Dressed sharp and with sharper tunes the band are at the top of their game. This is unashamedly old school rock n roll, back from the days when this stuff really mattered and the band’s charismatic swagger and self-confidence is utterly infectious. A brilliant, brilliant set that leaves you shaking – a Hives style breakthrough is inevitable for the band because they also have the songs to back up their panache.

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, or Odd Future is a complex and contradictory hip-hop beast. They perform at the Billboard showcase and take the piss out of the magazine that has just put them on the cover. They deal in controversial lyrics and have twisted hip hop into a new groundbreaking shape. There is much debate about their pros and cons but the best music is never made by the nice guys and there is something quite fascinating going on here.

And They Know us By The Trail Of The Dead are kicking out the jams at a hometown show in what looks like a large wooden hut at the dge of downtown. They are showcasing some new stuff which sounds even more amplified and thrilling as where they left off.

Bands we wish we had seen at SXSW

With 200 venues and lots of mental overlapping bills and a SXSW iphone app that wouldn’t behave itself it’s inevitable that some stuff gets missed.

On my list were the following.

With his fluffy beard and dark take on blues and country Josh T Pearson, who has released one of the best album this year, is celebrating the hallowed ground occupied by Nick Cave. Arabrot‘s skewed noise filth is like Jesus Lizard on more drugs and was another great moment in Oslo last moth. Zoroaster, named after the Parsi prophet are heavy and imaginative,
From Barcelona Zu! Play some kind of freeform skronk, I really wanted to see these and will catch up with them at some point.
I bump into Dum Dum Girls coming out of the J Mascis show and learn that I have just missed them. I could have done with a dose of their great Ramona buzzsaw power pop.
But you just can’t cram everything in which is the wonder of this amazing sprawl of music that makes up SXSW.


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2 comments on “Best of the bands at SXSW – both new and old”

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  1. John hits the nail on the head here – complete and utter mentalness at SxSW. I got pissed off at queuing and missing bands in particular Immortal Technique who I was desperate to see…ho hum!


    Sampology: Australian audio/visual dj who smashed up theMalaia with cut up funk, soul and hip hop matched brilliantly to visuals from numerous films that I can’t name. This wasn’t just matching song to visual but actually scratching and synching music to film and vice versa. Great to watch and great to dance to. A difficult skill to pull off but one that Sampology did easily. I haven’t enjoyed a dj set like this for ages.

    Thoa with the Get Down Stay Down: I came across this band by chance (I had to ask the guy next to me who they were) but they delivered a barn storming outdoor set. I suppose the only way I can describe the music is as a mix of indie, rockabilly, bluegrassy americana. Thoa the singer is a bundle of energy, with a beautiful and strong voice and an infectious personality. The Get Down Stay Down were a tight, inventive band who complimented Thoa. A great combination. I loved this band, one of two ace discoveries of the week. The other being….

    Telegraph Canyon: were the other find. Just brilliantly done Alt/Americana. Seven piece band from Fort Worth, Texas they are close to Band of Horses, Broken Social Scene, Neil Young et al but are distinctive. With a great singer backed by harmonias, fiddles and banjos amongst other instruments, their songs are intense but lovingly crafted. The sort of group that quietly goes about its business, evolving and building its fan base and then exploding into the mainstream. Fantastic.

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