SXSW 2014 Thursday | Reviews and Photos

words by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Bridget McQuillan
photos by Bridget McQuillan and Chris Dinan

You wouldn’t say it hung in the air.

A day later, no one in the beehive of Austin’s 6th Street seemed to order one less drink because of Wednesday night’s hit-and-run tragedy. Certainly, very few people appeared to pack their bags and head home at height of the festival.

The accident manifested itself more as a series of eerie post-mortem reminders. A two-prong procession of white news vans, both local and national, lined the curbs of 9th Street, probably preparing to turn out a story about how the spirit of South by Southwest has endured. And yet to do this, they went not to the music venues where the spirit actually did, but arranged an odd soundless landmark right where the collision happened.

For the more than 40,000 SXSW attendees — musicians, press, Austin dwellers, tourists —  it’s the question of how to reckon with an isolated tragedy. With most visitors unable to perform six degrees of separation with victims or bystanders, it seemed personal connection wasn’t on the table. Mentions of the accident during sets on Thursday didn’t appear obligatory. Most artists didn’t bring it up.

Those who did tried myriad approaches. Canadian folk singer Basia Bulat treated it most deftly. When she was cheered into an encore after her Thursday night solo set in St. David’s Episcopal Church, she performed her song “Paris or Amsterdam,” which was written for a lost friend. Released last year, it somehow impossibly contains the lyrics: “Yesterday I thought I saw you crossing at the corner light.”

She dedicated the song to her friend “wherever she is” and then calmly, “to this week.” Other artists made a grander show of it, encouraging people to be safe or giving “all love” to Austin in these times. As Thursday turned to Friday, some venues held a moment of silence at midnight. New York rock musician Jesse Malin simply, and with a kind of misplaced intensity, told the crowd at Cheers Shot Bar on 6th Street to “stay alive.” Nebraska’s Orion Walsh, a noted anti-alcohol songwriter, told his onlookers from the Wahoo’s Fish Tacos stage to drink responsibly.

“Don’t drive into venues,” he said. “A guy tried to give me a beer and I threw it in the trash.”

We observe that when tragedy is acute, but with small enough cultural real estate, that the window for responses opens up. There’s no moral value currency to bringing it up, no national or patriotic script from which to read. And in some ways that probably tells us more about how we consider premature death and accident: when we’re left to consider it on our own terms. We might not like the trends we find in ourselves. Idly complaining about a cancelled show before remembering the obvious. Dark jokes about how many people have texted to check in. Because the point at which you consider the odds of your own causality among thousands of others is both the most human and inhumane psychological moment a person can have. It’s simple and condemning arithmetic.

Culturally, music isn’t something we call off in the vicinity of lost life. Often, as with disaster benefits, we magnify its place in our grief. We dedicate and commemorate. And so in Austin, we watch artists and the surrounding crowds strive for empathy and sensitivity in the wake of tragedy. We watch some people thrive at it and some people come up short and some people pander and some people bury it and some people compensate. Because the meaning of our “thoughts being with” something is only as unpredictable, selfish and loving as our thoughts.

Table of Contents

The Griswolds
Orion Walsh
Jesse Malin
Vancouver Sleep Clinic
The Donkeys
Those Darlins
Typhoon
Saint Pepsi
Basia Bulat
Shy Girls
Jagwar Ma
Twin Shadow

The Griswolds at Red Eyed Fly

photos by Bridget McQuillan

Orion Walsh at Wahoo’s Fish Tacos

review and photo by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

About a mile off the heart of 6th Street, Nebraska troubadour Orion Walsh supported that reputation on a Wahoo’s Fish Tacos stage. Even without any of his normal supporting Nebraska musicians, Thursday night proved that if you play with Orion Walsh, you become a Rambling Heart.

Backed by a full band of players from Robert John & the Wreck who travelled with him down to Austin from Orange County, Walsh and the capable band impressively improvised a full bed for the songwriter’s more balladic tunes.

“We’ll keep it short,” Walsh said with smile. “Because they don’t know the songs.” He supplied the band with the key and the chords and off they went in a set that trended away from the dark, self-contemplative mood of Walsh’s recent work and toward the open-road tunes his early work, like 2008’s Tornado Lullabies and 2010’s The Hitchhiker’s Son. He kept it relatively light through “Cold Shoulder Slip Off” and a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” strumming hard on his Silvertone guitar, an old big-bodied beauty which doesn’t plug in. Anchored, then, in front of an instrument mic and unable to move laterally, Walsh was left to stomp the live into his set. With his tambourine under his boot toe, it willingly shook.

Jesse Malin at Cheers

photos by Bridget McQuillan

Vancouver Sleep Clinic at Swan Dive

review and photos by Bridget McQuillan

It’s hard to believe that Tim Bettinson, the voice behind Australian band, Vancouver Sleep Clinic, is only 18 years old, based on voice alone, but watching him perform on stage will make you wonder if he’s even graduated high school. Bettinson, backed by a keyboardist and drummer at the Swan Dive on Thursday, had an impeccable performance when it comes to vocals. However, the members of the three-piece clearly lacked experience. No surprise there. Brisbane wrote the songs to his 6-song EP Winter, which was released four days ago, when he was just 17. This was the band’s first time out of Australia, first time in the United States, and they were performing at a bar they couldn’t even drink at to a full house, which was surprising to them, “we’re just happy there are people here,” he said to the crowd after multiple nervous thank-you’s.

The band’s inexperience on stage certainly doesn’t translate to their sound. Brisbane’s voice is just as flawless on a shitty sound system as it is on the band’s EP. The band’s swelling instrumental portions immediately lead to comparisons to bands like Sigur Ros, and Brisbane’s voice could easily be mistaken for Justin Vernon’s. Their clumsiness in setting up between songs was absolutely made up with their music and a set that will, without a doubt, put the band on the American map.

The Donkeys at Cheers

photos by Bridget McQuillan

Those Darlins at Cheers

photos by Bridget McQuillan

Typhoon at Central Presbyterian Church

review and photos by Bridget McQuillan

Walking into Central Presbyterian Church at 11:23 p.m., after a day of sunburns, beers, crowds and shows, is a strange experience. It’s quiet, which is a stark contrast to the experience of getting to the church, which is a walk down 6th Street through a loud, overwhelming, mass of drunken people trying to find the next show or bar. Central Presbyterian is a quiet breath of fresh air, and Typhoon, the 11-piece Portland band that played there, couldn’t have fit into the space any better.

The pews were filled, and there was a somber quiet, as people whispered to each other and watched the band set up. The quietness, of course, came from respect for the venue everyone was in, but there was also a feeling of sadness over the events of the night before. The members of Typhoon, particularly, seemed to carry all the anger and sadness the entire SXSW community was feeling as they began the set with “The Sickness Unto Death,” and frontman Kyle Morton belted, “but if you are dying, why aren’t you scared?” and “I read somewhere that when you face eternity / you face it alone.”

The show started on a heavy note, but became more upbeat (musically, not lyrically) with songs “Common Sentiments” and “Young Fathers” from the band’s latest album White Lighter. A half hour into the set, at midnight, the band called for a break, and the church’s pastor came to the microphone to dedicate two minutes of silence to the two people who died Wednesday night, which was happening at venues across the city at the request of SXSW. This was happening at bars and venues everywhere, but we happened to be in a church, and those two minutes were really, really silent. Typhoon quickly finished their set after, filling the entire church with beautiful, swelling music that was met with a standing ovation when the set was finished.

Saint Pepsi at The Parish

photo by Chris Dinan

Basia Bulat at St. David’s Episcopal Church

review and photo by Chance Solem-Pfeifer

Basia Bulat covered the entire wall, a towering shade over her music.

The physical representation of her 2013 album Tall Tall Shadow, a shadow produced by her lighting equipment, instructed on the place of darkness in the Toronto folk singer’s music.

Armed with autoharp and charango, Bulat exuded grace under pressure inside a chapel of St. David’s Church for a Secret City showcase. As she tinkered with loops and effects on her obscure stringed instruments and keyboards, she cracked that she’s available to play weddings and that her looping efforts are prone to becoming failed experiments.

In front of a silent and reverent crowd, Bulat rolled out songs from her second and third albums, including “Heart of My Own,” “City With No Rivers” and “Wires.” She won herself a rare in-festival encore with an acoustic vocal performance of “It Can’t Be You,” a song which showcases Bulat’s propensity for gospel-inflected folk vocals — capable of soaring, but given to intense vocal runs and vulnerability.

Her vocals reflected back off the chapel’s wood paneling at the crowd seated in pitch dark, revealing a kind of uneasiness in her music that is not an act, an artifice or an artifact of intention. When Bulat’s devotional voice ascends as joyful noise, it must always comes down. The strength of her music reflects a constant tonal fear of how far it has to fall.

Shy Girls at The Belmont

photos by Chris Dinan

Jagwar Ma at The Belmont

photos by Chris Dinan

Twin Shadow at The Belmont

photos by Chris Dinan

 

Bridge McQuillan and Chris Dinan are Hear Nebraska contributors. Chance Solem-Pfeifer is Hear Nebraska’s managing editor. Reach them all through Chance at chancesp@hearnebraska.org.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer (@chance_s_p) is a contributing writer at Hear Nebraska, and its former managing editor. Reach him at chancesp@hearnebraska.org.