compiled from photos taken by Shannon Claire and Michael Todd
by Andrew Norman
SXSW Day 1: Tennis, Screaming Females, Andrew W.K., Titus Andronicus
After a 14-hour drive that somehow took a day-and-a-half, I first wrapped my hands around a cold, 24-ounce domestic lager upon arriving in Austin for the SXSW Music Festival. Four other Hear Nebraska contributors and I arrived, found parking, secured credentials and were ready to hit our first night of shows Wednesday around 8 p.m. — during the sweet spot between the free day shows and official SXSW evening concerts.
My wife, Angie, and I headed to see Tennis, an indie four-piece from Denver that had packed Slowdown Jr. in February. I'd missed that Omaha performance, so I wanted to see what was so great about this band. We walked passed the Beauty Bar Backyard — where a secret Death from Above 1979 show last year prompted a mini riot — and into the Red 7 Patio, a space where I'd watched a mohawked gentleman swing from the makeshift canopy while American Steel played there a few years back.
Fronted by husband-and-wife duo Alaina Moore (vocals, keys) and Patrick Riley (guitar), Tennis looks as if they stepped out of a Nintendo commercial or were featured extras on The Goonies. The band's overt '80s aesthetic contributes to its smooth, jazzy indie-rock feeling nostalgic to me. Backed by Riley's surf guitar, a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing bassist/keyboardist and a drummer, the tiny Moore owns the crowd, singing songs like "Origins" and "Petition" off 2012 full-length Young and Old. Draped by curly, natural blond locks, she closes her eyes and projects her wailing, soulful, piercing voice through the mic as she steps away from the keys and to the crowd, swaying her way through set closer "My Better Self."
After the spiciest chicken tikka masala I'd ever consumed — via a food truck — we walked the seven or eight blocks to Bar 96 in a cool little enclave in southeast downtown to catch Screaming Females, Andrew WK and Titus Andronicus. The little residential neighborhood is lined with houses on both sides of the streets, and flanked by two bars facing each other on its corner. During SXSW, taco trucks pull up and cycle rickshaws transport people to and from. The bar is pretty much an open building you walk through in order to get to the stage in the backyard. Standing on an Astro Turf yard, facing the stage sponsored by Brooklyn Vegan, I looked to my right and saw an awesome view of Austin's skyline, one you don't see right in the thick of Sixth Street's bustle.
Up first was Screaming Females, a punk rock trio from New Brunswick, N.J. fronted by Marissa Paternoster. Pint-sized, playing punchy punk, she reminds me of Omaha's Sara Bertuldo from Millions of Boys. Paternoster absolutely shreds her guitar and has an incredibly powerful voice. It's sometimes warbley, but always forceful. It's hard to compare. Listen to it on their song "Wild," from their 2011 album Castle Talk, and tell me what you think.
Chants of "Party!" by a dude-filled crowd welcomed Andrew W.K. to the stage, which was really too small to handle the six-piece band (including a "hype" woman in a leotard). Party is what we got — I believe every song actually said that word. It was pure energy, with at least one member of the band going nuts at all times. W.K. himself hopped between playing keys to playing hardcore frontman, raising fists and spitting lyrics with his face up close to those in the front row. He closed, of course, with his hit, "Party Hard," which may be the most literal song ever written. I figured if I was going to stage dive during this festival (and I hadn't planned on it), this would be the time to do it. So I handed my loose items (including a $5 PBR tallboy) to Angie, ran around from the back of the stage and vaulted myself into the crowd. You know, I partied hard.
Glen Rock, N.J., band Titus Andronicus closed the night, beginning with a cover of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys are Back in Town." I couldn't tell at first if it was cheesy — opening with a cover — or awesome, but it was definitely really fun. I've had one Titus Andronicus song, "A More Perfect Union," on my iTunes for years, but had never really explored the band further. Frontman Patrick Stickles has a voice, and political sensibilities, that harken a young Conor Oberst. He has a Johnny Rotten way of attacking the mic, throwing throaty vocals into it as he's fighting a stutter. Indie enough to be interesting, and punk enough not to bore me, this band was the highlight of my first night in Austin. Check them out in the video below.
SXSW Day 2: A Percussive Suitcase, American Pinup, Eli Mardock, Two Gallants, Cheap Girls
Things don't always work as you plan at SXSW. The festival has a lot of moving parts, and they're not always in sync. Bands play short sets that are at all times competing with dozens of others. So a venue that's running behind can easily throw off your schedule. But it's not always the venue, band or the sound guy's fault.
Thursday night was one of misses and barely catches for me. We started the day at a day party in a big warehouse in east Austin. I couldn't tell you the bands that were playing inside, because I spent the entire show sitting on the grass drinking a big beer in the sun. While back home, Nebraskans are still bracing for that inevitable March snowstorm, it's full-on spring here. And I soaked it up for as long as I could.
Eventually, we made our way back to Sixth Street where we stumbled upon a street musician singing blues songs and beating the forks, cans, Zippo and other metal objects on his "percussion suitcase" with chop sticks. The brother of a former member of Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mike Gray's based in Asheville, N.C., where he plays in the Firecracker Jazz Band. He takes his one-man show on the road to busk at festivals like SXSW. With a large crowd gathered around and a suitcase full of dollars on the ground in front of him, he looked liked he was doing pretty well. Check out one of his songs in the video I shot below.
Driving bass and drums caught my attention as I was crossing the intersection of Sixth and Trinity. Loud enough to be heard over every other band playing around that corner of the block, it sounded worth exploring, so I walked into the Aquarium where American Pinup —a four-piece punk band fronted by a pretty young woman in a yellow dress — was playing to about a dozen afternoon drinkers. This band from Westchester County, N.Y., was a nice surprise. Backed by a dancing bass line, pounding drums and sharp punk guitar riffs, frontwoman Lauren West sings like Gwen Stefani (the awesome Stefani, before No Doubt blew up) playing in a Hellcat Records band. It reminded me of The Distillers — catchy, hooky pop-punk-rock.
After dinner, I headed to Uncorked for the Paper Garden Records/My Old Kentucky Blog showcase to see Eli Mardock's new band, featuring his wife Carrie on keys, Joey Manthey (The Guapatones) on guitar, Ian Aeillo (The Golden Age) on bass, and for the first time, Ian Francis (The Machete Archive) on drums. This show at a wine bar a little off the beaten path quickly turned into a meetup for Nebraskans at SXSW, including all of Icky Blossoms (with new bassist Saber Blazek, who with Francis makes up two-thirds of Machete), Justin Lamoureux and Ben Arunski from Midwest Dilemma (who were headed to play a show that night in San Antonio), Neal Duffy (in Austin doing sound for Neon Trees, but handling sound for Eli for this show) as well as a handful of Nebraska journalists. It was fun seeing so many familiar faces so far from home. And the band seemed to appreciate the support as well. I'd never seen the former Eagle Seagull frontman with his new band, and I only recognized a couple of the songs. But I liked what I heard. I'm excited to hear the songs recorded.
After Mardock's set, we raced to The Parish to catch the band I was most excited to see this year, Two Gallants. The Saddle Creek band from San Francisco reunited recently after a couple-year hiatus, and is preparing to put out a new record. There's no word yet on whether the Omaha label will put it out again. I hope they do. We made it inside the venue just in time to see the duo play two new songs that I didn't recognize but loved. For the closer, "Broken Eyes," mustachioed drummer Tyson Vogel stepped away from his set to share the mic and sing harmonies with guitarist Adam Stephens. It was a wonderful moment. I just wish I would have seen more of the set.
After catching a little 2Gs, we hustled down southeast to try and see Yacht playing at Lustre Pearl in SXSW's residential venue area (which I wrote about yesterday). Even wielding badges, we were stuck behind a line that clearly was not moving, so we ditched out to walk about 15 city blocks to see Lansing's Cheap Girls at TenOak. Again, we caught just a few songs — including favorites "Something That I Need" and "Ruby" — from one of my favorite bands at SXSW. Supporting a new record produced by Against Me!'s Tom Gabel, the three-piece plays Replacements-style rock 'n' roll. There are no gimmicks or forced aesthetics. It's simply great songwriting led by frontman Ian Graham's strong, distinct voice.
Cheap Girls play two shows in Nebraska next week, including a Slow Burn Productions show Wednesday at Slowdown, and a HN Presents concert Thursday at The Bourbon. You should catch them at one or both.
SXSW Day 3: Icky Blossoms, Big Harp, The Mynabirds, Grimes, Yacht
Last year at SXSW, we created a quick event on Facebook for a Nebraska meetup and attracted a little more than dozen people — but nine of them were in Satchel Grande. This year, we tried it again and found ourselves having beers with about 25 other Nebraskans in Austin, including touring musicians (Eli Mardock, Orion Walsh, The Bolzen Beer Band), expats (including Josh James from Kill County and Basil McJagger from The Derailers) and fellow journalists (OWH's Kevin Coffey and LJS' L. Kent Wolgamott). Still, there are at least as many Nebraskans who are down here this week who couldn't make the meeting. That's a pretty impressive contingency, and we plan to take advantage of it by throwing a Hear Nebraska SXSW show next year. If you're interested in getting involved, let me know.
Most of us at the meetup trekked the 15 minute walk to the Saddle Creek showcase featuring Icky Blossoms, Big Harp and The Mynabirds at Lambert's, a BBQ joint in the trendy southeast part of downtown across the street from Urban Outfitters. Saddle Creek's newest signee, Icky Blossoms was setting up when we arrived. Since I last heard the band,its fronting trio of Derek Pressnall, Nik Fackler and Sarah Bohling had recorded their debut album in L.A. with TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek. And they've replaced two prodigious backing musicians — bassist J.J. Idt (Conduits) and drummer Craig Dee (Tilly and the Wall) — with bassist Saber Blazek (The Machete Archive) and drummer Clark Baechle (The Faint, Depressed Buttons). If you thought their energy level was high before, these musicians help kick it up several notches. Spider-legged Blazek is one of the state's most compelling frontmen in The Machete Archive, and he doesn't even sing. So it's saying something when he doesn't even stand out among this lineup. Instead, he fits perfectly in his supporting role, playing much more restrained bass lines than he's used to, while squirming his ass off opposite dance-rock veteran Pressnall, and Fackler — a constantly moving, calculated spaz. Meanwhile, Bohling wanders the stage holding and singing down into her mic, letting her eye flashes do most of her dancing.
All of this feels more tight and comfortable than it did last time I saw them at the Waiting Room in October. And while the band's front four are really fun to watch, I couldn't take my eyes off Baechle's tight, precise drumming, the element that to me pushes Icky past just being a really good local band into watch-the-fuck-out territory. He pushes, pushes, pushes the tempo and the rest of the band is right there, too. Though they didn't have any music or merch to offer the packed room, they left quite an impression. If this was Icky's coming out party, they did it in style — like cramming all five of themselves into a closet with SXSW for seven minutes in heaven.
Next up was the band whose debut Saddle Creek record was one of my favorites from 2011. Having never seen Big Harp live, this wasn't the same band I recognized from that down-tempo, often-acoustic folk album. Backed by drums, husband-and-wife duo Chris Senseney and Stefanie Drootin-Senseney played almost entirely new material, and it rocked hard. In frontman Chris Senseney, "Saddle Creek may have found their guitar hero," said Omahan Ian Aeillo, who was in town playing bass for Eli Mardock. It's true, Senseney shreds that six-string. I'm excited to hear the new record so I can get to know these songs.
The room was still packed for The Mynabirds, who played a bunch of songs off their album that will be released in June. This was also my first time seeing Laura Burhenn's band, whose 2010 debut, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, melded indie rock and R&B beautifully. Standing front and center with her long blonde hair befitted with a fox hat, Burhenn brought her new dancey, soulful, rhythm-heavy songs to life. It's gorgeous, foot-stomping stuff that makes you want to join in, and gives you the feeling that if you did, it would be welcomed.
After the 'Birds, we headed to catch Grimes and Yacht at Clives, one of the backyard venues planted amid a residential neighborhood on the southeast corner of downtown. I don't know why the doorman was letting peopl in to this place, which was way over capacity. It was a hot sweaty booze fest, made more uncomfortable by the unusually long sound check required for Grimes, a DJ who only requires one mic. Whether it was the system or the sound guy, something was screwed up during this set (and during Yacht's). The sound was terrible, full of feedback and a constant buzz, and vocals I couldn't hear. A young Canadian woman singing and looping ethereal melodies while DJing dance tracks, Grimes has gained a huge following largely through kick-ass videos and catchy-as-hell melodies. Maybe it was the sound problems — including an extended point where the p.a. shut off completely, leaving Grimes looking bewildered for a couple minutes as crowd members became increasingly inpatient — or the sweaty cologne guy pushed up against me, but I couldn't get into this performance. The rhythm just doesn't always get you.
Yacht, however, grabbed me by the shirt collar and head-butted me like Wesley Willis. The Portland/L.A./Marfa, Texas, band is high-energy, smart and punk as hell in the vein of David Byrne and The Clash. I saw them on Valentine's Day at The Bourbon in Lincoln, where they seemed like an arena band. But under a tent in this Texas back yard, they just felt like an incredible indie band playing a house show. The venue's sound problems persisted for Yacht, leaving frontwoman Jona Bechtolt to improvise by conducting a hilarious, deadpan, smart-ass Q&A with the crowd that included these gems:
Q: If you could go anywhere in town, where would you go?
A: I'd go to L.A. in 1975 and hang out with the Germs
Q: Where'd you get your attitude?
A: Weed and my mother, pop culture … Elaine Benes, not giving a shit.
SXSW Day 4: Bolzen Beer Band, Harouki Zombi, William Elliott Whitmore, Chuck Ragan, Lucero
I felt as if I'd been dead-legged by a gang of fifth-graders as I followed the lederhosen-clad Bolzen Beer Band through a sea of drunk people on Austin's Sixth Street during the height of its sloppiness on Saturday, the final and most sloppy night of SXSW. Rollie Fingers'-stached Brian Brazier lugged his tuba alongside Dave Socha, who was stalking the perfect busking location. Ciara Searight — mostly obscured by the olive-green military-style bag carrying her hi-hat — struggled to keep up behind them. After walking a couple blocks, the Lincoln polka-rock band chose a spot in front of the bar Last Stand at the Alamo near Colorado Street, where Searight set up her stool, snare and cymbals as Brazier and Socha began bouncing around, yelling at folks to get their attention. A curious crowd instantly formed in a circle around them.
— Hear Nebraska (@hearnebraska) March 18, 2012
"We're the Bolzen Beer Band from Lincoln, Neb.," Socha yelled, though his strained voice was barely audible above the intoxicated festival goers. Searight pounded on her snare a few times indicating her readiness and they launched into a traditional polka song more about the beat than the words (which you couldn't hear). Socha bounced around, kicking his feet into the air and getting up in people's faces while Brazier playfully interacted with onlookers that included three 50-something men wearing yellow, blue and green paper birthday hats. Blitzed college kids stumbled, skunked and prowled through the makeshift stage to become part of the show, and a young woman tickled the shirtless Brazier, a favor he returned while blowing big breathes into his horn and spinning in a circle.
Chaos is precisely The Bolzen Beer Band's element, and that's where I left them.
I hurried to Elysium to catch the second half of Harouki Zombi's set at the club Elesyium. Featuring Orenda Fink (Azure Ray, Art In Manila, O+S) and Nina Barnes (Of Montreal), this dance/performance art project aims and fires at all senses, with spinning dance beats providing the soundtrack to a cast of characters that included five geisha girls (who'd were at times danced with, felt up and grinded on by a Green Man). Feathers, fake blood, sex, smoke, and glitter bombs that ended up painting Hear Nebraska photographer Shannon Claire played prominent roles, as well. I won't pretend to know what the hell was going on, but it was awesome. HN's Hilary S-K will have more about this show Tuesday at hearnebraska.org.
— Hear Nebraska (@hearnebraska) March 18, 2012
Harouki Zombi drives me a few miles out of my comfort zone, removes my shoes and makes me walk home. But I ended my SXSW wrapped up cozy in a warm blanket of folk music played by punks who've slowed down some at Cedar Street Courtyard. William Elliott Whitmore, Chuck Ragan and Lucero represented my favorite three-act bill at the entire festival. The venue consisted of two wings of identical wine bars flanking a center courtyard whose brick walls were covered in dark-green ivy. Toward the back end of the courtyard sat a stage that I could see — and hear — perfectly through a window in one of the eastern bar space. It was like watching bands playing in an aquarium. Though the view allowed my legs some much-need rest, a place that sells PBR tallboys for $6 seemed like the wrong venue for three bands whose SOPs and songs stress substance over style. But it was a minor quibble. I was just happy to be catching these three great, grizzled songwriters.
Whitmore was up first. I first heard about this acoustic blues-folk musician from Lee County, Iowa, when he was featured on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" for his record, Field Songs, an ode to family farmers. A sucker for music that actually says something, I quickly downloaded his three Daytrotter sessions, which you should do, as well. Wearing a black fedora and with tattooed knuckles, he sat on a chair strumming an acoustic guitar and keeping beat with a kick drum. He played a set of slow rabble-rousers and social reconstructors including the Bad Religion song "Don't Pray On Me," and "Old Devils," pounding the final eight strums of which before standing up on his chair and yelling, "Chuck fuckin' Ragan is up next." Without saying another word, he hopped down and walked off the stage.
— Hear Nebraska (@hearnebraska) March 18, 2012
Ragan toured through Lincoln in December while supporting his new solo record, Covering Ground, and he'll be coming to Omaha's Slowdown April 1 with the Revival Tour, which includes Against Me!'s Tommy Gabel and Alkaline Trio's Dan Andriano. His legendary punk band, Hot Water Music, has a new record coming out this year, as well. Hopefully, Nebraska will be part of that tour. Backed by his outstanding standup bassist Joe Ginsberg and violinist Jon Gaunt, Ragan played a similar set to the one I saw at Duffy's, including my favorite song of his, "Broken Ears."
— Hear Nebraska (@hearnebraska) March 18, 2012
Lucero's new album, Women and Work, features a more mature band than I fell in love with on the band's self-titled LP a decade ago. With silver in his hair, frontman Ben Nichols still has that weathered voice that sounds like a 35-year-old faking a sore throat to stay home from school. But the songs have evolved from desperate, lonesome, barroom dirges that threatened to fall off their stool ("My Best Girl"), to desperate, lonesome barroom rockers that are well-produced enough to drive themselves safely home, like the catchy new one "On My Way Downtown." With Nichols backed by a pedal steel, keys, trumpet, saxophone, bass and drums, it's a more full, fleshed-out sound that will only grow Lucero's already huge audience.
— Hear Nebraska (@hearnebraska) March 18, 2012
The band played all the songs I wanted to hear, including Jawbreaker's "Kiss the Bottle," and "Nights Like These" — now with subtle horns. And Nichols managed to capture so much of SXSW in one sentence after being handed a shot of tequila. Holding the glass out to the crowd, he said, "This is probably a bad idea. But you know, hell, fuck it y'all."
Andrew Norman is Hear Nebraska's editor-in-chief. When it's time to party, he'll party hard. Reach him at email@example.com.