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SXSW Live Music Recap: Courtney Barnett Is A Rock Star; Run The Jewels Are Life

SXSW Live Music Recap: Courtney Barnett Is A Rock Star; Run The Jewels Are Life

On this final day of SXSW 2015, we must give thanks to the music gods for bestowing unto us this bounty of fresh, wavy, turnt, sexy, and rad new music that will tide us over until next year, or at the very least, until we get to scout the small-print-bands at Coachella this April. During the final three days of the festival, Dan, Malik, and I split up to cover as much ground as possible, seeing as many different kinds of acts as we could.

The one thing that was imminently clear in trying to accomplish this–aside form it being an an utterly Sisyphean task–was that the city felt like a colony of living, breathing organisms–each building buzzing, each venue its own micro-culture for 30 minutes at a time. SXSW was its most exciting when you were traveling from one performance to another and could hear several events happening simultaneously, observing throngs of people moving in ripples in every direction. It was unlike any music festival I have ever been to before and it was galvanizing, strange, and exhausting all at once. Anyway, it was fun, and here were our favorite live acts:

Courtney Barnett is the rising indie star you need to hear right at this moment. Seriously, stop whatever you are doing and listen to her debut EP, A Sea Of Split Peas to hear bitingly funny witticisms about seemingly mundane activities. Her bizarre takes on everyday trivialities are disarming and catchy, as the title of her debut LP clearly indicates: Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Even though I was only able to catch Barnett’s final performance of the festival in the unsexy concert auditorium of the Austin Convention Center, her presence completely overrode her surroundings as she writhed during brief guitar solos and sing-shouted lyrics that will be oft-quoted once her debut album releases this Tuesday.

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PC Music, the eccentric, synthetically sweetened, online collective of DJs from the UK made their US debut at SXSW and had us dancing for hours straight. On Thursday night, the group–which made a name for itself over the past year and half by jarringly blurring boundaries between visual art, performance art, music, and advertising–showcased their biggest names including label founder A.G. Cook, Hannah Diamond, QT, Sophie,and GFOTY. You could tell it was a momentous event by virtue of the musicians and journalists that showed up to behold the various performances which covered everything from saccharine pop to extraterrestrial dance music. If that sounds weird and unlike any description you’ve heard before, it is likely because you’ve never heard music like this. Check out an example below.

Photo via Stereogum.

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On Wednesday, Laura Marling took the stage in a quiet audience hall on the fourth floor of the Austin Convention Center. Presented by LA-based NPR affiliate KCRW, the British songwriter gave the sleepy audience exactly what it needed: a concentrated dose of thundering guitar riffs anchored by a tremendous backing band and powerhouse vocals. Given Marling’s slight frame, one might expect a quieter, intimate set, but she generates a towering sound. With intense technical precision, Marling seamlessly switched from ethereal, almost Durutti Column-esque guitar melodies on her electric guitar to a folksier, more rollicking vibe on her acoustic guitar. It’s a testament to both her versatility and showmanship that the people in the mostly seated audience kept standing up and flocking ever closer to the stage as her set progressed. If you haven’t yet availed yourself of her sound, do yourself a favor and fix it post-haste.

Photo via Diffuser.fm

Meg Mac made us swoon the moment she opened her mouth. The soulful Australian crooner, though demure in the moments between songs, sounded confident while belting to an intimate, rapt audience at Licha’s Cantina on 6th Street. Highlights from her set included a cover of fellow Oceanic act Broods’ “Bridges” and her wholly catchy original tune, “Roll Up Your Sleeves”. Cue the Adele comparisons, and watch out for her during next year’s Grammy season.

BØRNS performed a perfectly polished set of indie-leaning pop at Clive Bar on Thursday night, making us grateful we were able to catch the group before their imminent, Taylor Swift-propelled stardom. Donning Joseph’s technicolor dream-coat and white mesh belly shirt, Garrett Borns, with his biblical locks, didn’t just look unreal, he sounded unbelievably good. Like, I pretty quickly thought of Freddie Mercury (Fighting words. What up purists?) as a reference point for his register and vocal nimbleness. The band started the set off with their best song, “10,000 Emerald Pools”, and though this would be a HUGE mistake for any other band performing at SXSW, BØRNS kept their energy up as they deftly weaved their way through their brand of ear-worm pop that will soon be many music supervisors’ go-to. (Right after writing this blurb, I saw that their track “Electric Love” is already in a Hulu ad, so they’re becoming irrevocably famous literally as I type this.)

If you dig BØRNS, make sure to check out The Radical’s interview with the group’s talented frontman.

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T-Pain is about to make a comeback in a big way. The seminal pop figure, who unfairly became a punchline to a joke about the quality of music in the mid-2000s proved recently that he can in fact sing super well without his instrument of choice, the auto-tuner. I was chilling at the Fader Fort, on Friday night hoping to unwind and catch the surprise guests the company had pre-billed on their set. After sets from Big Sean and Migos, who had as many people in their on-stage posse as there were people in the audience, I had theorized that maybe Snoop Dogg would be the headlining act, given his keynote speech earlier that morning. It was the only act that made sense that was bigger than Big Sean. And then I started to catch wind of the T-Pain rumor. Of course. He was already supposed to perform that night, and music writers (myself included) are transfixed by the narrative of a T-Pain comeback to clear his name in the popular eye/ear. His set was incredible, as he worked his way through mega-hit after mega-hit (“Buy You A Drank”, “Good Life”, “Up Down”), without any assistance from an auto-tuner. Though he shouldn’t have to prove anything, T-Pain is a man on a mission, and it was a rare treat to see this performance. Fuck that boat song; T-Pain is an artist.

Photo via The Fader

Though it was forecasted to rain today in Austin, Texas, the only cloud over the Fader Fort was a concentrated mass of marijuana smoke when Shlohmo took the stage. The electronic music producer known as Henry Laufer made a name for himself from a young age, churning out thoughtful, spaced-out beat music the likes of which evoked contemporaries like Daedelus, Tokimonsta, and members of the Brainfeeder collective. As the years have gone on, Shlohmo’s sound has evolved from the original mixes he made from the isolation of his bedroom to more sophisticated, layered tracks. With his Fader Fort performance, Shlohmo heralded a new shift in his sound as he took the stage with both a drummer and a keyboardist in tow. Though he admitted this was the first time he had tried it, the result was decidedly different than what fans have come to expect, resulting in a more sinister-sounding, darker aesthetic. With thundering bass, ghostly synths, and a driving beat, Shlohmo is continuing to push beat music beyond its boundaries, carving out a new space for himself.

Run The Jewels was easily our favorite show that we all saw together. For the duration of their 45-minute set, El-P and Killer Mike made us lose our minds, heave our bodies up and down, and shout along to all the lyrics we knew. Their latest album Run The Jewels 2, was one of our favorites of 2014, but that doesn’t necessarily always translate to a good live experience. Live Run The Jewels was untouchable. The two emcees were deities whose lyrical sharpness and poised demeanors had the crowd in a state of momentary rapture–the rainfall that was ever-present during their set seemed to have been summoned by the artists for a planned baptismal experience. This was the perfect show to punctuate our 10-day sojourn down to our now-second home of Austin. Also the Kickstarter-potato salad guy was in the front row at this show because he is evidently a giant fan and an upstanding citizen with impeccable taste.

Additional reporting from Dan Casey and Malik Forté.

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