I went to my first SXSW this year. The worst part: walking what felt like a half-marathon every day. The best part: seeing all these shows for free! (I paid $0 to see all the bands below).
Tuesday was pretty slow, so I went to the Topshelf Records showcase. I didn’t know how to feel when the free food advertised was pickle slices. Anyways, I finally got my first chance to hear A Great Big Pile of Leaves live after reading a lot about them here. They were very sharp – their drummer was especially talented (he doubled as MANSIONS’ drummer later as well) and their bassist provides some great harmonies. My only criticism would be that the singer could stand to develop some charisma/stage presence. Young Statues was next, and I have to say I was disappointed. Having never listened to them but having heard a bit of hype on here, they were pretty forgettable pop-rock.
I caught various bands throughout the rest of the night, although the bar showing Live Freaky Die Freaky on repeat made it difficult to concentrate (it's essentially claymation porn). Finally, it was time for the reason I came – MANSIONS. Dig Up The Dead had some of my favorite heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics of last year, and it was fun to finally put a face to the band (they have a chick on bass, who provided some nice harmonies that gave the songs a new layer). He played a new song, which I liked until the last minute or so – I was talking with the keyboardist’s roommate in line earlier, who said their new demos reminded him of a more shoegazy Devil and God, so color me excited. I ended catching them twice during the week, and Chris really delivers the songs more angstily than on the record. hellogoodbye closed out the night with a setlist of mostly songs off Would It Kill You? Forrest took off his shirt before the last song, ordering everyone to get naked as well, before ending with “Here (In Your Arms)”, at which point the room erupted. They must be a pretty popular band in the gay community because there were multiple guys with their shirts off giving each other a rub down. Who knew?
My day started seeing Youth Lagoon. Their ability to replicate the sound of their songs from The Year of Hibernation was impressive and the singer was really strong live. Next up was Shiny Toy Guns, one of my most anticipated bands in coming to SXSW. The details about their third album have been sparse, despite having released a single (“The Sun”) over a year ago. It was also my first time seeing them with Carah on female vocals, and the difference from the previous time I saw them with the Pussycat Dolls reject was remarkable. Carah, besides being loads more attractive, prowled the stage with an intimidating presence and tore through the songs with a hungry ferocity. They played three new songs – “Somewhere to Hide” and “Speaking Japanese” with Carah on vocals, the latter of which was super synthy and my favorite, and “Mercy” with Chad. It was a rare instance where I was more stoked to hear new songs than old material. Afterwards, I caught some of fun.’s outdoor acoustic set, which was packed. It’s amazing how one song can change a band, and when they played “We Are Young”, I couldn’t help but notice a 50ish mom singing along and embarrassing her teenage son. Their set definitely drew a diverse crowd, with dads in collared shirts in front of me. I personally prefer The Format + Steel Train > fun., but Nate sounded great and it’s nice to see that huge voice find a bigger audience.
After reading Andy's review about how good The Xcerts were, I figured it would be a disservice not to check them out. I wasn't disappointed - they play edgy, intense pop and are clearly worthy of opening for Brand New. Later that night, my attempt to see River City Extension was thwarted by my lack of wristband/badge (they were really the only band who I wanted to see who I didn’t get to, so I can’t complain). The Dangerous Summer were my backup plan, and they didn’t disappoint. I always enjoy their concerts because both times I’ve seen them it has been a small but passionate crowd – seeing people moved by AJ’s lyrics never gets old for me. They played a War Paint-only set, and might have played something older but were DJ’ed off the stage by the bar music to the boos of the fans.
My night closed with Motion City Soundtrack, and it ended up being one of my favorite sets the whole week. They played in a small tent outside, and being ten feet from the band gave it an intimate feeling, which South By does really well, especially with bigger bands like MCS where you’re used to a spacious venue. Jesse especially came alive in the setting, challenging us to sing louder and just being an awesome pump-up guy in general. The crowd was a bit lackluster at the start, but then a random crowdsurfer led to the eruption of a mosh pit. It was pretty hot in there, and Justin had to wipe his fogged glasses multiple times. Because it was outdoor, people were smoking, including two guys on the front row. At the end of a song, Justin asked for their cigarettes and the pack and threw them away, saying you shouldn’t smoke to the cheers of the crowd. They closed with “The Future Freaks Me Out” and as he sang “we waste away the days with nicotine and television samples” he humorously shook his finger at them. The set was definitely one of the highlights of my trip, and Justin describing the new album as “really good” has me excited for the future.
The day began at The Warner Sound showcase with Lost in the Trees, whose first song I really dug but whose subsequent songs didn’t live up to that high standard. After, I checked out Girls, who sounded good, especially with their three black backup singers adding an extra wrinkle. Next was Cults, whose debut last year I adored. The frontwoman has great pipes, and her passion as she sings really brings the songs to life. I then ended up catching the last half of Neon Trees’ set – I dug one of the new songs they played, the other not so much. Tyler’s mohawk is no more, and it was weird seeing him with hair. I very much enjoyed his high leg kicks.
In the evening, I headed to this gorgeous outdoor venue overlooking the Austin skyline to see The Shins. I tried my first alligator, on a stick no less (verdict: tastes fishy) while catching the end of M. Ward’s set. The Shins was definitely the biggest show I saw all week – there had to be at least 5,000 people watching. Admittedly, I’m not the hugest fan, but I dug “Simple Song” and “Caring Is Creepy”. Back in the city, I caught some of Jonquil’s set. I’d never heard of them, but there a Two Door-ish sound to them and I will definitely be checking out more of their stuff. Next up was Twin Atlantic, whose debut I loved and follow-up not so much. They only played one song off Vivarium, with the rest off Free, and it further cemented my disappointment in that record. Foxy Shazam closed out the night – unfortunately, I couldn’t get in, but the venue they played at had huge windowless windows so you could stand and watch in from the street. I had heard Foxy was insane live, but even with that in mind they still were crazier than I’d anticipated. Whether it was what he said before starting songs (“If Foxy Shazam were to be an animal in a zoo, we would be one that would bite your head off!”), how he ended the set (“Sometimes I wish I had a mirror on stage so I could see myself sing” whereupon he dropped the mic and exited), or lighting a whole pack of cigarettes and smoking them, they definitely put on a show.
My last day started off with Say Anything in the parking lot of a local record shop. It was noon, which is early by South By standards, so the crowd was a little dead, but it was great to see them tear through some new songs and close with “Spidersong”. Max was not only bearded but had noticeable holes below his armpits in his shirt – anarchy!
I then stumbled upon Howler, who sounded very Strokes-y and who I will definitely be checking out. Next up was Walk The Moon, who were very cohesive – the fact that all band members sing harmonies was especially impressive. Unfortunately, most of their stuff is pretty forgettable, or maybe just in comparison to “Anna Sun”, their closer. It should definitely blow up and really rocks live – I’ve included a live version because listening to the recorded version doesn’t really do it justice. Penguin Prison followed them, and they were super catchy but a little lacking in substance (reminded me of Hockey in that way). The last band I saw was Tribes, who reminded me of a British Dashboard.
I tried to get into the absolutepunk show, but the line was blocks long and it didn’t work out. Nevertheless, it was an amazing experience to see so many of the bands I love and find more who I will fall in love with.