SXSW Report 2013: Young Dreams, The Tontons, Family of the Year, J. Thoven, The Livids, Featherface, & More
As it does every year I’ve gone (six times since 2004), SXSW overwhelms me, exhausts me, and most of all makes me glad to be a musician and music fanatic. Anyone who throws the one-liner out there, “there’s no good music anymore!” is just not looking hard enough, as great music — of the past and of the future — is all there in Austin for one week in March…if you know where to look (and that takes a lot of research, but it’s worth it).
As far as I’m concerned, you can forget Prince, Green Day, and whoever else played the big stages. I was there to find bands and artists that need me as much as I need them. I wrote a 10-band preview of who I was looking forward to seeing and was able to see 9 out of the 10 acts (sorry, The Darcys; it just didn’t happen for us this year), so I won’t go into detail on those bands again, even though they were all as good or better than I expected.
I saw The Milk Carton Kids and The Sights three times each, and The Lonely Wild twice. But even though those were my most anticipated artists, I was still able to come up with 10 more acts that I saw at SXSW that made me happy to be a living, breathing human being here in 2013. This time, I’ll do it in chronological order.
Wednesday started with me renting a car. My wife and I manage to live with one car between us, and I do most of the driving, but when it comes to SXSW, she goes only if there’s someone she really wants to see, which was not the case this year.
I arrived in Austin to discover parking, even on Wednesday, to be nearly impossible. I ended up parking close to Good Danny’s each day and walking. That’s nearly a mile from Red River Street so we’re talking about a lot of walking. At the end of each day, I felt like my feet were no longer wanted by the rest of my body. I managed to see quite a few acts (including my favorite act of the last year, The Milk Carton Kids) Wednesday afternoon on the east side before making my way over to the big venue, ACL Live. That was a heck of a walk.
I had read that it was possible to get wristbands on the first two days (Tuesday and Wednesday) of the festival. And sure enough, I was able to get mine for $180. That meant that I’d be going with “PLAN A” all week. “PLAN A” meant running around back and forth between venues, rather than picking one venue each night or going only to unsanctioned venues all week. For $45 a day, I was more than willing to buy a wristband.
FotY are a dynamic West Coast band with a sound that’s hard to pin down. Sometimes they’re country-tinged, sometimes they sound like Local Natives but with both male and female lead vocals. Lord Huron are very comparable to Fleet Foxes with their cinematic harmonies. More metaphorically, they sound like a long horse ride through the rural Southwest.
As sore as my feet were, I woke up ready to rock on Thursday morning. I even arrived at Sixth Street early, driving around the “close areas” looking for any deals on parking. $20 was the lowest I could find, and I didn’t know if $20 would only get me 8 hours or if it would get me until 2AM, which is when I would be heading back to my friend and host’s house.
I need to thank Rob Lewis for hosting me again this year. Rob lives on the south side, about five miles from downtown. Staying with him has made my SXSW experience flow quite a bit easier, though I also love staying with my uncle and aunt out in Round Rock.
So, I skipped the pay parking and went back over to the east side, which I’m sure will find a way to charge for street parking one of these years. I’ll never forget that I parked a block from Emo’s for $5 a day back in 2004 (ah, my “back in my day” routine — yes, I’m old, but the music keeps me young).
Getting to the club early gave me the time to find and say “hi” to a band called J. Thoven. I had caught about four songs of their set when I was running around Wednesday afternoon and enjoyed them so much I wanted to hear more of them. At this point, seeing them loading into the club (the old Emo’s, of all places), I decided to go into full fan-boy mode. I think the band appreciated that, as well. I got a photo with them and decided I would try to get photos with other bands I really liked. I rarely do this, but after seeing the photos and how happy I look in them, I realize I should do it more often.
After the photo, I asked a few of the members of J. Thoven (from Mission Viejo, CA) who their favorite Los Angeles area band is and they told me Local Natives. Once they said that, it clicked to me that they sound a lot like Local Natives, but hopefully not so much that people will think of them as a rip-off, because I think they have their own brilliance.
I spent about half of Thursday afternoon with The Milk Carton Kids at the Americana Showcase, including having a nice conversation with them (and another photo-op). I hope they’ll come to Houston soon, so my reader(s?) can also experience their live show.
At around 5PM, I walked by The Cedar Street Courtyard to see if I could catch Local Natives and discovered so many fans you couldn’t even see the stage from the street. So I made my way toward the first evening performance of the night, Calgary, Canada’s Braids.
Before the evening showcases started, there was a band on the patio behind the club getting ready to play. After a few early ’80s punk-style songs, they mentioned they were The Livids from New York. With their confrontational singer and punk style, they entertained a group of people who were back there mostly for the free barbecue that was being served. The Livids quickly became one of the most memorable bands of the week, thanks to their singer/screamer, Eric Davidson (later online research shows he used to be in The New Bomb Turks), and their Joan-Jett-gorgeous left-handed bassist, Joi Liquor, who plays basslines as hot as her looks.
Up next was Braids inside. Their music felt like the future, with its ethereal guitars, pulsing synths, and angelic vocals, and it made a great contrast to the early ’80s punk of The Livids. After Braids, I spent some time hanging out and watching Derby, England’s LostAlone, who were featured in my SXSW preview. It quickly became apparent that I was one of their greatest American fans, as their showcase was criminally under-attended. I will shout their names from the rooftops, and maybe next time they come to Texas, their crowds will match the large fanbase they have in England.
After saying goodbye to my new friends, I headed back to Swan Dive, where Braids had played, to catch another Canadian band, Suuns (also in my preview), but it was still an hour before Suuns would play. I got on Facebook and found out from Craig Wilkins (of The Wheel Workers) that Houston’s Featherface was playing a couple of blocks away, at The Russian House. So I made a quick run over to see one of my favorite Houston bands.
For those who don’t know, Featherface’s sound walks the line between the slacker-pop of bands like Pavement and the New York City power-pop sound of bands like The Strokes. Add to this a heavy emphasis on two-part vocal harmonies between its multi-tasking singer/guitarist/keyboardists Kenny Hopkins and Steve Wells. What made this performance even more special was that a bunch of Houstonians were there; for an hour it felt like we had taken over one little Austin club. Instead of The Russian House, it should have been Houston House! I made it back to see Suuns perform an absolutely transcendent set at 1am before calling it a night.
Friday began with an amazing vegan breakfast at Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse and then several bands at Red Eyed Fly. This party included Vancouver’s excellent electro-pop band, Bear Mountain (also in my preview), so I was able to finally meet my boss’s nephew. They played to a full house everywhere they went at SXSW. You’ll be hearing from them again soon.
After seeing Bear Mountain, I made my way to see Ron Sexsmith and The Zombies at Stages on Sixth. I had my photo taken with Ron Sexsmith and told him my favorite song of his is “Lebanon, Tennessee,” and then he played it for me. The whole week was full of surreal moments like this, and it’s another big reason I love SXSW.
Next up was Sheffield, England’s The Crookes, who had proven to be a tough act to find. I don’t think they played very much over the course of the week, so I made a point of catching them, even though it meant I had to skip out a little early on The Zombies to do it. They definitely had that ’90s Brit-pop sound I was hoping to hear. Their singer reminds me so much of the band Gene’s Martin Rossiter, but after they played, I asked him if he’d ever heard of Gene, and he said he hadn’t.
It became a common theme of the week that when I asked a band about another band, they usually had never heard of them. It seems like many young people who make music do it with little sense of history, whereas I devour every kind of music I can get my ears on in order to make my own music better. But I guess not everyone operates that way.
After The Crookes, I got to see The Lonely Wild, who were amazing (in my preview), and then pedi-cabbed it to Auditorium Shores to see Jim James and The Flaming Lips, which was the only time I spent with a band that would be considered relatively famous. And it was also the biggest disappointment of the week. Jim James bored me, and The Flaming Lips bored me even more, despite the fact I’ve enjoyed seeing them at festivals three times in the past.
I knew I could salvage the evening, though, if I went early enough to get in at The Joy Formidable (again, in my preview) showcase at Lustre Pearl, and sure enough, that’s what I ended up doing.
By Saturday morning, I had the routine down. Get to the east side of Downtown at about 11:30 and walk in. This walk proved to be quite a bit longer Saturday, as I was walking to see Young Dreams at The Cedar Street Courtyard. It was also getting warmer as the week flew by.
Young Dreams are from Norway. I had only listened to enough of their music to make a note to try to see them if I had time. Once they started playing, they became, for me, the band to beat for 2013. With harmonies that would make Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys proud, a danceable backbeat that could definitely bring in a younger audience, and excellent songwriting skills that threw curves into their songs, they came across as an improvement on Friendly Fires, a band which I have all kinds of respect for. Once again, this is what SXSW is all about. I’m so glad I saw Young Dreams.
After a quick stop to see The Sights again, I headed to the Good Danny’s Studio party at The Parish. Local recording engineer and producer Danny Reisch (Shearwater, Bright Light Social Hour, White Denim, etc.) picks many of his favorite Austin bands to play this show, and a few of his favorites are also my favorites, including the wonderful piano-pop band Tacks, the Boy Disaster. Tacks is putting out a new album soon. I “Kickstartered” $25 for the vinyl, so naturally I can’t wait to hear it when it comes out in May.
In the meantime, I enjoyed a rare live set by the band. Fans of Midlake and Of Montreal (without the disco beat) should enjoy Tacks the Boy Disaster.
Houston’s favorite band of late, and for good reason, The Tontons made the most of SXSW this year. They must have played a dozen shows, including their official showcase. They’d had their schedule change several times through the week, but I saw a show pop up on their docket that made sense for me to run to. And the best thing about it was that it was on a rooftop.
I only take my point-and-shoot camera to SXSW, partly because I don’t want to deal with the heavy DSLR but mainly because I can’t get the DSLR camera into official events. So I’d have to find a place to put it. If they have lockers on 6th Street for cameras, that would probably be a great service, but until then I’ll stick with the handy Coolpix. It’s a hit-or-miss camera in clubs, I must admit, but outside it’s fantastic. And that was good, because I love to photograph The Tontons.
The final evening of SXSW steered me toward The Milk Carton Kids showcase at Central Presbyterian. They were the third act of five, and the headliner was Iron and Wine (aka Sam Beam). I’ve had very little exposure to Iron and Wine, but when I found out the show was wristband- and badge-only, I decided I would stay to the end, especially when I had gotten there so early and secured a fourth row seat near the center aisle.
Naturally, The Milk Carton Kids held their own with all the groups, receiving a standing ovation from many in the crowd, but it was clear that most of the audience was there to see Iron and Wine. I was glad I stayed, though it meant I wouldn’t get home to Houston until 4AM. But that’s SXSW; you lose all track of time for the love of music. END
(All photos by Jason Smith.)