SXSW 2014 Reviews: St. Vincent, Chromeo, Against Me!, Wye Oak

A brilliant second day sadly ends in tragedy.

    We were hearing music when the car hit. Two people died and more almost passed as bands played on throughout the city. Festivals of this scale lend a feeling of untouchable safety; you’re far from real life, nothing can hurt you. But if there’s a way to put words to how we love music, maybe it’s this: Every person on earth is fragile, has so little time, and it helps to hear people sing about it.

    The rest of South by Southwest will be an opportunity to heal, to draw upon the way music eases the aftermath. Maybe we’ll feel our urge to party dampened but our urge to hold on to each other strengthened. It’s weird to look back to the “before”, the carefree hours when we had no idea, but this is what we saw.

    Casual Sex – Spin/House of Vans at Mohawk – 1:00 p.m.


    Photo by Sasha Geffen

    Fresh off a 10-hour flight and loopy, Casual Sex nevertheless had a firm grip on an early crowd at Spin’s House of Vans day party. Lit in deep blue on the Mohawk’s indoor stage, these wiry Scottish post-punkers weren’t stingy with banter. “We are Casual Sex and we hail from the planet of Glasgow,” began lead singer Sam Smith (no, not that Sam Smith). Cutting a tone somewhere between the Chameleons and Low-era Bowie, Casual Sex managed to thread UK post-punk with a humor it almost always lacks.


    This foursome reaches about as far from melancholy as you can get while still hitting those dour urban chords, although they did foray into politics with songs like “National Unity” and “The Bastard Beat”—a jab at the British politician George Osborne. But with choruses that went “we’re only here for the sex,” the set never got too heavy. In between songs, Smith would fire off quick one-liners, joking that “my auntie tells me off for singing such dirty songs.”

    With the words “Casual Sex” emblazoned all over their gear, humor probably comes naturally to these four. Smith’s charisma and charm in the heat of each song didn’t hurt matters either. –Sasha Geffen

    Wye Oak – CoSigns III at Hype Hotel – 4:00 p.m.

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    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    This wasn’t the Wye Oak you remember. Maybe they got tired of hearing the word “folk”, or maybe Jenn Wasner just got sick of guitars; either way, there wasn’t a six-stringer to be found at the Baltimore duo’s Hype Hotel set Wednesday afternoon. Wasner wielded a vintage Mustang bass instead of an acoustic guitar as she and percussionist Andy Stack played through a full set of brand new songs off their forthcoming album, Shriek.


    Anything bucolic that the band once clung to has been shed; Wye Oak now makes synth-pop, Madonna-fringed synth-pop, even, and it sounds as natural on them as anything they used to draw up from old wood. Bringing in a couple of synths hasn’t made the band’s job any easier, though. Stack played a small kit while coaxing arpeggios out from an Arturia, and Wasner switched between powering chunky riffs on her bass and pushing tinsel through the keys.

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    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    “It’s a real pleasure to play these songs for you guys, finally,” she said toward the end of her set. It was a pleasure to hear, too. –Sasha Geffen

    Guerilla Toss – Monofonus Press/Cropped Out Day Party at Beerland – 4:15 p.m.

    SXSW Photos by Anna Mazurek, March 12, 2014

    Photo by Anna Mazurek


    Rambunctious, smart noise punks Guerilla Toss are the kind of individuals that will continue the Gay Disco no matter the size of the venue or crowd surrounding them. And there they were at the smallish Beerland stage, vocalist Kassie Carlson and bassist Simon Hanes bouncing and prowling on the floor along with the small, but enthusiastic crowd assembled. The furious, fantastic “Pink Elephant” stole the brief show, Ian Kovac’s bubbles of sawed-off synth fueling the rattling machine, Carlson springing around, holding the mic like a weapon. Peter Negroponte sat at the kit, providing the start-stop heartbeat of the jams, his wild facial strictures and punchy playing frequently stealing the show from his more mobile band mates. While their recorded output features a certain mania, their ability to interlock this precisely and seem this deranged when live is impressive. While the tooth-gritting energy of the music didn’t suffer an iota from the small space, one could only imagine the kind of volatility and fun that could be had in a crowded DIY basement in their native Massachusetts. —Adam Kivel

    Against Me! – CoSigns III at Hype Hotel – 5:00 p.m.


    Photo by Sasha Geffen

    The way Laura Jane Grace smiled between songs gave her away: she was just as thrilled to be playing for Hype Hotel’s crowd as the crowd was to be moshing along. There was so much love in the room as Against Me! headlined our third CoSigns day party. Beginning with “FUCKMYLIFE666”, a new cut off the band’s latest Transgender Dysphoria Blues LP, Grace soon slid into the fan favorites that will never, ever get old. “Pints of Guinness Make You Stronger” sounded as good as I imagined it did the night I showed up to a sold-out Against Me! show in Boston 10 years ago, when I couldn’t get in but I could still hear the shell of that song ringing through the doors. On Wednesday at SXSW, 25-year-old me finally got to see the show 15-year-old me had been waiting up for.

    Wednesday - Kaplan - Against Me - 1It didn’t take long for the audience to rush the stage, breaking up the line of LED lights that shone onto the band. Fists sprouted into the air at every chorus, matching Grace’s powerful vocals and intense gaze. She screamed over the top of her black Rickenbacker and the crowd screamed right back, supplying the occasional backup “ho!” and even the entire refrain of the gut-punching classic “Walking Is Still Honest”. I’ve been to plenty of punk shows, but I don’t know if I’ve seen anything quite as punk as when Grace ripped the line, “you’ve got no cunt in your strut,” and the room ripped it right along with her.

    Photo by Heather Kaplan


    Grace seemed alternately humbled and amused by the pulsing crowd. At one point she leaned away from the mic to ask a fan who’d been headbanging at the lip of the stage if he was having a good time, her eyes all smile. Then, at the middle of the set, Against Me! launched into White Crosses‘ “I Was A Teenage Anarchist”—a rowdy, introspective look back on the pet rebellions we adopt as kids. It showed their growth; Against Me! are that rare subset of punk that only gets punker with time. “We can’t all stay teenage forever,” Grace said. “Everyone has to grow up, Peter Pan.” –Sasha Geffen

    Perfect Pussy – NPR Showcase at Stubb’s – 7:50 p.m.

    –Michael Roffman

    Wrekmeister Harmonies – Strange Victory Touring Showcase – 8:00 p.m.


    Photo by Adam Kivel

    The grey-bearded, steely-eyed, hand-tattooed J.R. Robinson looks like he could star in an AMC drama about a wild west lawman caught in the middle of something darkly supernatural. His music as Wrekmeister Harmonies (aching, powerful blends of black metal, post-rock, and drone) could provide the bone-chilling soundtrack to that show.


    “No more jokes in the gallows about who’s going to be a ghost,” he moaned over a rattling burst of bass-heavy looped guitar. At times he let out pained velociraptor howls, at others darkly beautiful barbs of reality (the phrase “where have you been” rang out like a mystic bell, repeatedly), his pained, painful vocals found their way in the tempest of guitar. But, when it was over, Robinson revealed himself as something more than a mystic gunslinging character, something far more human: “I have merchandise if you’d like to buy something, he said. “I’d like to buy breakfast.” —Adam Kivel

    Sylvan Esso – Floating Fest at Hype Hotel – 8:15 p.m. 


    Photo by Michelle Geslani

    Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath and Megafaun’s Nick Sanborn combine to make the electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso. Opening Wednesday night’s I Guess I’m Floating-curated Hype Hotel showcase, the North Carolina-based pair were an unstoppable force of big beats and hook-heavy howling. From Sanborn’s ape-shit assault on the synths to Meath’s willingness to simply drop it like it’s hot, the energy in the room was not only palpable, it was downright sizzling. Casual audience members immediately joined in on the sweat-fest, many of them dipping and twisting their bodies ever so slowly like snakes slithering and intertwining with one another.

    These dance moves — like Meath, and Sylvan Esso’s music in general — often build up in dramatic fashion, only to give way to splendid, thundering drops. While these moments are mind-scrambling enough, it’s actually all the prior teasing — the “wait for it, wait for it” holding of the breath — that seemed to really rub the crowd the right way. Luckily, these new fans won’t have to wait too long for more Sylvan Esso; in addition to performing their percolating single “Coffee”, they also rattled off new cuts off their debut full-length, which they promised would be out this May. –Michelle Geslani


    Eagulls – NPR Showcase at Stubb’s – 8:40 p.m.

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    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    Nihilistic post-punk never sounded so boring on record, which is why I just couldn’t get into their self-titled effort without an assembly of grey skies, a case of strep throat, and maybe some Rohypnol. On stage, however, the Leeds outfit exude an equally mundane existence, but it works. Mark Goldsworthy and Liam Matthews appear like quiet siblings with loud thoughts as they stab eachother with their guitars. Their towering vocalist George Mitchell shuffled maybe three inches the entire night, allowing his pea soup-colored trenchcoat to flap around in the occasional breeze. Songs like “Possessed” and “Tough Luck” went over well — though, really, every song should have. They’re all part of a canon of songs that fire at the same rate and with an equal, reliable surge. Expect too much and you’ll never cage the band’s true purpose. –Michael Roffman

    Bipolar Sunshine – Floating Fest at Hype Hotel – 9:00 p.m.


    Photo by Michelle Geslani

    Manchester’s own Adio Marchant, a.k.a. Bipolar Sunshine, turned heads following his collaboration with UK electronic outfit Rudimental, but now the R&B-pop artist is looking to earn major accolades in the U.S. based on his own solo merits. Judging by last night’s gracious set, that shouldn’t be too hard a task. He’s not an aggressive performer by any means, yet somehow his smooth and subtle demeanor seemed to be instantly captivating. Airy and effortless, his voice was a guiding light of sorts, a croon that cuts just as easily as it melts. Meanwhile, his body language was that of a man possessed solely by the music, leisurely grooving and moving like no one else was watching.


    “Cheers, yo”, he said coolly after one of his songs, an interesting sendoff considering the song’s emotional heftiness. Many of the tracks he performed were composed of the same sentimental nature and sculpted into sweeping, life-affirming pop numbers. These, such as the volatile “Fire” and painful “Where Did The Love Go”, were tailor-made for epic crowd participation, full of big-sounding yet wholly relatable choruses. He may not seem like much at first glance, but Bipolar Sunshine’s got more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Just dare him to show you. –Michelle Geslani

    New Bums – St. David’s Bethel Hall – 9:30 p.m.


    Photo by Adam Kivel

    The union of Ben Chasny (Six Organs of Admittance) and Donovan Quinn (Skygreen Leopards) as New Bums is a sort of beautiful, haunted folk super-duo, the two bringing together a long history of producing acoustic-driven, emotionally salient, intensely personal yet resonant material. There was something ironic seeing the two standing at the center of a church hall, singing about “Catholic girls” on Halloween and Judas Priest’s possible connections to suicide. But the connection of tunes like the Quinn-penned “Shadow on the Stone” fit the communal setting, Chasny’s electric accents giving added weight to Quinn’s ethereal acoustic. “Jenny had a dream last night, she woke up crying but she wouldn’t say why,” Quinn intoned on that track, the mysterious, unknowable pain of that character hanging in the air with the listener, as well as the pain of the narrator trying to understand that pain. New Bums is a project made for reaching into your heart and testing connections, a successful procedure in the intimate Bethel Hall setting. —Adam Kivel

    Mirah – St. David’s Bethel Hall – 10:30 p.m.


    Photo by Adam Kivel

    Setting up shop in the Bethel Hall of St. David’s Episcopal Church, Mirah and her backing band bit into a good portion of their upcoming self-released album, eager to test out the material in front of an audience as respectful and attentive as if they’d been in, well, church. “It’s so delightful to be able to hear everything,” she explained late in the set, “and to feel like I’m being listened to.” Despite the heavy nature of songs like “Oxen Hope”, Mirah smiled warmly throughout the set, and the tight-woven quartet (multi-instrumentalists all, at different points picking up violin, viola, and marimba) wrung all of the emotion out of her sharply-written songs. Newly released “Radiomind” went over swimmingly, but closer “Mt. St. Helens” (off of 2002’s Advisory Committee) proved to be the fan favorite, ending the performance with more mutual admiration — Mirah glad to be heard, and the audience glad to be hearing. —Adam Kivel


    St. Vincent – NPR Showcase at Stubb’s – 11:00 p.m.

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    Annie Clark is today’s David Byrne. Okay, that’s a stupid and easy comparison given their work together on 2012’s Love This Giant, but now that she’s removed from the Talking Heads mastermind… it’s quite clear she’s taken more than just a handful of notes. If you didn’t read Caitlin White’s exhaustive digestion of St. Vincent’s jaw-dropping Brooklyn show, then you probably should. I don’t really need to break down the songs, how she still leans heavily on her greatest album yet (2011’s Strange Mercy), or how her grey hair is really, really weird.

    Instead, what I took out of her Stubb’s performance is how she’s the first artist, at least from what I can remember, to make the ultra weird ultra accessible. Last night’s wild range of demographics — from grizzled Crazy Heart cowboys to sloppy bro drunks to Brooklyn tourists — offered a positive indication that Clark’s tapped into something rare. She’s made rock ‘n’ roll dangerous and avant garde again. Robotic choreography, theatrical arrangements, and one bloody costume turned heads and then glued them in place for over an hour. This was an event for everyone.

    “Hello ladies and gentlemen, and hello to you others,” the Tin Woman Clark said. “I think we have something in common.” More than you know, Annie. More than you know. –Michael Roffman

    Photo by Heather Kaplan


    Nothing – Dirty Dog Bar – 11:15 p.m.


    Photo by Michelle Geslani

    Philly four-piece Nothing were sandwiched between two heavy metal acts as part of Relapse Records’ showcase. It was a peculiar slot to have, considering the band don’t have a metal bone in their body (and a thinned out audience would agree). Sure they can throw down the riffs at breakneck speeds, but Nothing seem to have more in common with their My Bloody Valentine brethren, dousing their tracks in thick, woolly blankets of noise and nearly fuzzed out vocals. Though they might’ve been out of place on that bill (and maybe the roster?), they themselves sounded rawly good, pleasantly bleary, aggressive enough without sacrificing any of their underlying melodies and emotional leanings.

    The bassist could not keep still, always darting across the stage on his toes, while the two guitarists mostly stood their stoic ground like pieces of unaffected stone. Even so, there were powerful, punishing moments, where all three seemed to thrash on stage in unison, like a glorious explosion of feeling. Most of their set consisted of their recently released debut album, Guilty of Everything, but for whatever reason, the vocals seemed far more drowned out live than on the record. Whether or not that was on purpose, Nothing still managed to conjure an atmosphere of beautiful rage. –Michelle Geslani

    X – House of Vans at Mohawk – 11:45 p.m.


    Photo by Adam Kivel

    I couldn’t write about this performance without it being heavily colored by the nightmare that occurred just outside the venue’s doors. I tried. A few different ways. But I couldn’t, so I won’t. As legendary L.A. punk band X wrapped up their set, a Mohawk employee took the stage to inform everyone that they’d be leaving via a different route than they’d come in, and not to take a right turn out of this second exit. On the way out, a fellow attendee and I stopped to ask another employee what was happening, and all that I could hear in that moment were the words “a car hit some people.”


    Of course, many did take a right, to see what they shouldn’t be seeing, and even a glance to the right revealed barricades, and a steadily growing crowd of emergency vehicles and personnel. The story is yet unfolding, and needs to be discussed intensively on its own right, but it’s hard, now, to keep it separate from the otherwise joyful performance that took place simultaneously, not 50 yards away.

    X2But: music is important because it unites people. It can help heal emotional pains. It can make the world’s chaos and So, with zero intentions of being disrespectful or dismissive, a discussion of X’s performance feels in some way appropriate in this time of trauma and pain, especially because it brought a lot of individuals together into a mass of happy people, even for a short while.

    “This one’s for Ray Manzarek and what’s left of the Whiskey A Go Go,” Exene explained before the band ripped into “The Unheard”. “Does everybody down in the center have some friends causing trouble,” John Doe smirked at the growing mosh pit. Billy Zoom stood for a spine-tingling guitar solo, smiling and waggling his eyebrows, while D.J. Bonebrake enthusiastically sweated through a Pearl Jam t-shirt behind the kit.


    Fans getting to see the legends for the first time shared beers with long-time X aficionados, and there, in the moment for those experiencing it, the world was a happy place. The reality so nearby was unfathomable (and still is, despite the way its harsh reality aches in every bone of my body, just from having seen some of the aftermath on the way out the door).

    But, if there’s any solace, it can come from the fact that the music will continue, that moments like X’s performance will bring joy, peace, passion, life, and love to each of us, one day or another, when we most need it. That moment maybe won’t be now, or even can’t be now. Until then, though, our thoughts, love, and prayers are with anyone affected by this tragedy. —Adam Kivel

    Chromeo – Floating Fest at Hype Hotel – 1:00 a.m.

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    Photo by Heather Kaplan

    Choose Life. Choose a pair of shoes. Choose some Wayfarers. Choose a suit. Choose a fucking big drink, choose a Hot Mess, choose a Sexy Socialite. Choose good vibes, low cholesterol, and health insurance. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Thursday morning. Choose What You Want. Choose a Tenderoni, stuffing fucking junk food tacos into your mouth. Don’t Turn the Lights On. Stay 100%. Grow Up. Come Alive. Why would you want to do anything but that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. I chose dance. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got Chromeo? –Michael Roffman