SXSW Festival Wrap-up: Tunes and Tragedy. Day 2
Sirens and screams. A young woman hunched over on the curb bawling uncontrollably, gasping for air and flanked by her four stunned friends. Police officers shouting at everyone to clear the area. What the hell happened? Specs of blood dotted the streets as my brain tried to shake off the noise and fuzz and make sense of the situation. A horrible tragedy took place, undoubtedly, but no one was quite sure the extent of the damage, nor the cause. But how did I get here, steps away from being involved in the most horrific incident in 28 years at SXSW? Let’s rewind.
I was sporting a renewed sense of confidence as I dove headfirst into Wednesday’s festivities. Unlike opening day, there were an ton of SXSW day parties and official music venues. The Texan sun was high in the sky as I made my way to my second home, Cheer Up Charlie’s. Halfway uptown I was immediately struck by the sight of automatic weapons slung over the shoulders of a gaggle of ‘real Americans.’ Having never seen an assault rifle in person (or a ‘Real American,’ apparently), it was an unsettling sight, and all part of a planned gun rally in an effort to ‘protect freedom’ or some sort of ignorant rhetoric. “More guns, less crime!” they chanted. I wasn’t sure where they came up this concept, considering the fact that states with high gun-ownership rates have consistently high gun related deaths, but I figured it had more to do with society’s threat to their manhood and the growing concern amongst that crowd that black people were still free. Maybe it wasn’t fair to pigeon-hole them all as racists; the confederate flag has a multitude of meanings aside from the allusions to slavery.. but it was the first stark reminder that yes, I was in Texas.
“That’ll be three dollars”
I fiddled with my wallet, searching for singles in a pile of indistinguishable green. Coming from a country where paper money matched the spectrum of a bag of Skittles, I felt like a color-blind kid playing Monopoly, peering at the numbers with uncertainty. Three dollars for a tall boy, however, was a price I could get behind, and I made my way beer-in-hand to the outdoor stage where I watched Emily Wolfe the day prior. Los Encantados, a summer-rock band was jamming out a solid sunshine-soaked set. The gritty Brooklyn sextet seemed more at home at some dirt-swept New Mexican dive bar than SXSW, but with the sun beating down on the back of my neck and a cold beer in my hand the sounds were perfect. At certain points during the set I was blown away by the massive post-psychedelia wall-of-sound reverberating off the rock facade behind Los Encantados, and I made a note to tell my good friend back home who was really into The Verve and Spiritualized to check these Brooklyn boys out.
I stepped outside of the sun and inside the make-shift shack that was part of Cheer Up Charlie’s lot. It was a cozy space, smaller than my apartment, but there was something undeniably charming about the dusty wooden floorboards and the rustic construction. On stage was Cleveland two-piece mr. Gnome, a band I had been haphazardly following since I discovered their music on “that weird part of YouTube.” You’d be surprised how much fantastic music you can find when you float around the 50,000 view mark. Stringing from one obscure band to another, I stumbled upon “The Way” while perusing art blogs in a separate window. The sound was so fresh and poignant I put everything else on hold and devoted a solid few hours swallowing up all their material.
Their sound is deeply routed in the macabre fantasy, it feels like a nightmarish fairy-tale brought to life under the twisted vision of a mad scientist, ruthlessly blending guitar riffs and chunks of pure concrete. mr. Gnome live is an experience that I have a hard time putting into words. It was one of the best live shows I have ever seen. Lead singer Nicole Barille hid behind a wall of hair, wailing like a banshee while her fingers went to work relentlessly dropping chords like bullets. The mastermind Sam Meister beat the living hell out of his drums, hammering away like he was hellbent on punching holes and shattering cymbals. It was raw and visceral, and they took us straight down the rabbit hole for a solid forty minutes practically blowing the lid off the cramped venue.
Nicole made a few whispers about a new album in the works, and they played a brand new song “Blow you Away” which did, quite literally, that. I strongly recommend giving their most recent full length a free stream on Bandcamp, and keeping your radar turned on for their next release.
mr. Gnome – Bit of Tongue
mr. Gnome – House of Circles
People walked out of Cheer Up Charlie’s shaking their heads in disbelief at the sheer power and energy of the Cleveland two-piece, and I took to twitter to express my extreme satisfaction and fortune for witnessing their show. (Later that night I sat outside Javelina on Rainey and watched them through a window, one of only two bands I saw twice over the week) Just two blocks away sat The Hype Machine’s star-studded venue, Hype Hotel, and the afternoon docket hosted the likes of Wye Oak and Against Me! I wasn’t the biggest fan of the latter, but I spent many an evening driving in the pitch black of the Albertan countryside around 3AM, getting lost in the heavy and reflective essence of Wye Oak’s early material. ‘Civilian’ was released three years ago, and my favorite album “The Knot” would practically be in grade school at its age, and since then I’d read many an article about the evolution of Wye Oak’s sound (certainly signified by their synth-heavy contribution ‘Spiral’ to the Adult Swim singles project).
After eavesdropping for a half hour on two Texans in the line for entry, I decided to join in the conversation and was pleasantly surprised when I realized the dressed-down brocheesemo I was talking to was a criminal defence lawyer. We shot the shit for a few minutes and he handed me a beer cozy with his contact information, urging me to give him a call if I got thrown in the slammer over my stay in Austin. He had one hell of a networking scheme considering his specialty was 24-hour jail release and he was handing out drinking paraphernalia, and for the rest of the week I had his beer cozy tucked in my back pocket ready to slap on a cold one to keep my camera hand warm. I made a note to catch up with them later that night at The Mohawk and made my way inside Hype Hotel.
There’d been a lot of talk surrounding lead singer Jenn Wasner’s decision to drop the majority of her guitar-work for the band’s forthcoming album ‘Shriek’. As a fan of her drifting and sometimes haunting solos, which seemed to stretch out over the vast space of the black countryside on my many drives home, I was a little apprehensive about the change in direction for Andy and Jenn. What was perhaps more off-putting, prior to the beginning of the set, was the gentle wafting of hot flesh and boiled piss that seemed to proliferate the cramped concrete shoebox where the Hype Machine held its venue this year. I suppose that was the result of handing out free liquor and tacos all afternoon long, and I scribbled a note into my Moleskine about the general dinginess of the venue as Wye Oak began to dig into their set.
Wye Oak – Glory
Wasting no time, Wye Oak ran through as much of their upcoming album as they could in the brief set-time they worked with. The sound was distinctly polished and complete, and despite the different direction of the album I couldn’t help but appreciate the fine-tuning of each note and chord. It was a perfectly crafted performance, through and through, mixing elements of pop-rock synthetica and Wasner’s purposeful, strength-infused vocals. Andy Stack was a rock behind the drums (and laptop), effortlessly keeping the beat with mathematical precision. It was an impressive performance, and you can buy/stream ‘Shriek’ everywhere on April 29th.
Wye Oak – The Tower
After a quick recharge and a ten-minute faceplant on my kingsize, I snagged a banana and began the long walk to Haven on the west side of the downtown core. The sun began to set as I frantically tweeted the corporate sponsor in charge of the Cloud Nothings/Kurt Vile showcase later in the evening. Much to my delight I was almost immediately given VIP credentials by a lovely lady named Chantal operating the JanSport twitter page, and with my late night destination set in stone I practically skipped my way across town to catch Glass Animals at Haven.
The crowd was swaying methodically as I pushed through to the front of the performance already in mid-progress. I’d heard several of the Glass Animals singles topping the Hype charts the past year, and was eager to catch a glimpse of the youthful UK quartet.
Whoever coined the term ‘jungle-love’ did so with the Nostradamian knowledge that the Glass Animals would exist and make sweet, sweet love to any ears that would listen. Debuting material off their forthcoming album ‘ZABA’ due on June 9th, the dance floor transformed into a tropic tangle. Visions of low-hanging vines with the moonlight drifting above the canopy, Glass Animals conjure pure dry ice on the forest floor. Sopping wet drum kicks melt against the sultry delivery of Dave Bayley’s lyrics, practically oozing through the microphone. The result is a ‘psychedelic cocktail’ of R&B and UK electro, drawing comparisons to fellow countrymen Alt-J. Although there are some similarities between the two bands, Glass Animals clearly stands out in terms of sex appeal, something that’s palpable even without Bayley thrusting and gyrating only a few feet in front of you. It’s a wonder Haven didn’t erupt into a swarthing, writhing animalistic orgy, we certainly had the soundtrack, only the drugs seemed to be missing from the equation. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that recipe came to fruition sometime during their tour (look out Australia, and Europe).
Glass Animals – Psylla
Glass Animals – Gooey
Confused and questioning my sexuality, I wandered out of Haven in a daze. Perhaps it was the music? Or maybe I really could use a slice of pizza. I elected for the latter, and dove head-first into the budding chaos of East 6th. Nothing cures the sudden urge for homoeroticism like a hot slice of all-meat. It’s hard to accurately describe the atmosphere of 6th on a busy night; there were thousands of people. Everywhere. All dressed in varying attires within the spectrum of sheer lunacy, and all somewhere on the sliding scale of public intoxication. Fat-bottom girls with leather shorts almost completely swallowed into the vacuum of their anus. Hoodies laughing maniacally and passing around a joint. Street musicians playing pots and pans wearing traditional Japanese garb surrounded by droves of onlookers. Laughter. Noise. With live music erupting from every bar and ever corner. Cops stood guard nervously with their arms crossed, gauging the temperature of the celebrations. Suddenly, a 6-foot-something with dreadlocks down to his shoulders in a neon-onesie backed into me with his Air Jordans. For a brief moment I was overcome with fear, only to be taken aback by his proper southern diction “Oh my gosh I’m so sorry!” he reached out at me with a look of genuine concern, and I assume my reaction was a mix of horror and surprise. Above all, despite appearances, the people of SXSW were a well-mannered, welcoming mix of all ethnic backgrounds and classes. Truly we were all there for one purpose, to enjoy ourselves.. and consume copious amounts of alcohol. I ducked into Roppolo’s pizza on 6th and Trinity and observed the organized chaos of a downtown pizza joint on the busiest night of their lives.
After frantically fumbling with my American money and hunkering down with a fresh slice, I nearly spat out my newly acquired eats at the sight before me. A man behind the counter, presumably a manager, looked almost identical to a late 90’s era Mel Gibson. His long, untameable hair was pinned back with a headband drawing the focus onto his steely blue eyes and chiseled jawline. Now spotting a celebrity look-a-like certainly wasn’t uncommon at South By, and it absolutely wasn’t worth wasting a good bite of meat pizza, but in this particular context I had to contain myself from bursting out laughing. Playing on the large flatscreen, directly beside him as he worked, was Braveheart. I contemplated sneaking a picture, but my greasy fingers weren’t well-received by my iPhone, and instead I elected to enjoy the moment. As I finished my pizza, makeshift-Mel reached for the remote and began searching for something more appropriate for the inebriated audience, I couldn’t resist any longer…
“What’s wrong with Braveheart?” I quipped, desperately containing my ear-to-ear smirk with a quiver of the lip
“Oh, I was just trying to find some music-..”
“YEAH, WE WERE ENJOYING BRAVEHEART” boomed a man behind me, wife in tow and clearly upset about the possibility of a programming change. At this point I lost it, burst into laughter, and after a quick wink and a nod to the couple behind me I ducked out of Roppolo’s giggling in the street.
Over at the Jansport Jam Sessions, the line outside stretched up the block. This was often the case when word got out that an event would have free alcohol of any sort, and after walking past the few hundred unlucky souls waiting for general admission I found my way to the man in charge of VIP admissions and was quickly ushered to the beer line. Or did I usher myself to the beer line? At any rate, without a second thought I had Zac the lawyer’s beer cozy in-fist within seconds and meandered my way through the crowd at the outdoor stage.
“Dude brought a bag of flutes..”
And indeed he did, lead singer of Gardens & Villa Chris Lynch had a bag of woodwinds at his feet as the band emphatically pumped out their first few tracks. Having never heard the Santa Barbarian five-piece before, I was immediately struck by the very obvious 80’s-pop influence of their sound. The synth lines pulsed and bubbled (Adam Rasmussen was a master on the keys), while Lynch bounced and vibrated with all the energy and enthusiasm of a man who brings a bag of flutes to a party. Well maybe that wasn’t a good analogy, but Lynch was an absolute madman on stage.
I perched myself on a hay bale directly in front of stage right and soaked in the sounds. Admittedly I was mostly writhing with anticipation of the acts to follow, but Gardens & Villa put on one hell of a live show. Towards the end of the set, Lynch attempted the fabled ‘high jump kick,’ the crashing of the cymbals and the beat were perfectly in-tune as Lynch went completely ass over backwards. The crowd roared with appreciation, and as Lynch sheepishly admitted how he actually injured himself on the fall, I shouted
“DO A FLIP!”
“I’m gonna do a flip..” Lynch spoke derisively, “for this guy.” Still blushing and flush with embarrassment, Gardens & Villa finished their set to raucous applause from the crowd.
Gardens & Villa – Star Fire Power
Gardens & Villa – Orange Blossom
Up next the crunchy, fast-paced hard-rock of Cleveland trio the Cloud Nothings. Within moments they whipped the crowd into a frenzy, with Jayson Gerycz absolutely losing his shit behind a modest set of drums. It was the human equivalent of watching Animal from the Muppets completely demolish the stage. Shedding layers of clothes between each song under a river of sweat, Gerycz was arguably the best drummer at the entire festival (and considering Travis Barker was floating around, that’s quite the statement). He completely stole the show, and in between songs band-mates Dylan Baldi and TJ Duke would turn around and wait for the nod from Jayson that meant yes, he caught his breath enough to let loose for the next song yet again.
It was exactly the kind of noise-rock you’d expect exploding from a neighbourhood garage, setting off sirens and driving the neighborhood dogs nuts. For rock traditionalists, they were a throwback to post-punk bands like the Wire, and they brought back a lot of memories of long-hair, scraped knees and skateboards that made up my Saturday nights as a teenager.
Cloud Nothings – I’m Not a Part of Me
Cloud Nothings – Psychic Trauma
The crowd was abuzz after the Cloud Nothings, but a mellow vibe was about to wash over the stage. Kurt Vile, the perennial godfather of singer-songwriter stoner-folk modestly slumped onto a stool center stage and accepted one of his guitars from groupie stagehand slash brother Paul. “HI PAUL” a pair of bashful fangirls waved, Paul grinned as he receded back to his post stage left. And under a curtain of hair, Kurt began his set.
Back in August I had the great pleasure of catching Kurt Vile and his Violators in my hometown at the Calgary Folk Fest. At the time it was the peak of my budding blogging career; I’d never had the opportunity to meet one of my heroes, and to see Kurt from only a few feet away as I sat in the lush grass was an experience I’ll never forget. Although the tone was somewhat different for SXSW (Kurt left his Violators back at home), the feeling was the same. If I stretched, I could reach out and touch his shoes, but even the most jacked-up drunkard was lulled into a trance the moment Kurt’s fingers began to fly over his guitar.
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo
Kurt Vile – Ghost Town
Playing without any backing band, Kurt finger-plucked his way through his earlier material from albums ‘Childish Prodigy’ and ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’. It was a surreal set, as the once raucous crowd who only moments prior had thrown a beer can on stage was hypnotized, like a bunch of kids watching the coolest camp counselor rattle off some Tom Petty instrumentals by fireside at the end of a long night. Kurt was his usual humble self, giggling between songs about the excessive amounts of reverb in his microphone and poking fun at his voice cracking as he said “Thanks”. Paul sat on the sidelines, bumming cigarettes off the bashful fangirls and chatting with the soundtechs as Kurt tuned his guitar. I was overcome with peaceful serenity, often drifting off into my own thoughts much in the same way Kurt wandered and rambled through his lyrics. They were free-verse poems for the loner inside us, dipping into themes of apprehension and anxiety, and fleshing out into full-blown certainty. Everything was gonna work out fine. That was the general message behind his dulcet harmonies. Kurt was a solid stone troubadour, a folk-poet nomad and rock revivalist crooning out lullaby after lullaby.
Kurt Vile – Goldtone
As the set ended, the head sound engineer boomed over the crowd with a muffled voice “Kurt.. ah, don’t go out that way some shit went down.” The crowd was mostly in a daze, still chugging back the free Lonestar piss-waters that were handed out all night. I stood up on the hay bale and peered over the venue. Lights and sirens surrounded Cheer Up Charlie’s, and Paul came rushing to the stage to divulge his account of the madness.
“… looks like four (more) people got shot” Kurt wobbled on the spot, peeking over the heads of the confused audience. I leaned in,
“Did you say four people or more people?”
“Four.” Kurt whispered out of the corner of his mouth while simultaneously brushing off a fan who wanted to take a selfie with him.
“Jesus Christ..” I spoke in disbelief.
“Does this kind of stuff happen often around here?” Kurt asked quizzically.
“Couldn’t say, I’m not from Austin” I replied, as the eager fan shook his head vehemently.
“I’m from Philadelphia, stuff like this happens all the time..” Kurt spoke with a solemn tone, frowning and peering down at his shoes.
Was this the real America I was warned about? Violence wasn’t common-place back home, even coming from a much larger city with a far higher population, annual murders were usually counted on a couple hands. It was quarter to one in the morning when I ducked out of the showcase and into the streets. The scene was unbearable. People gathered in tight-knit circles hysterically gasping for air, and the team of police officers ushering the crowd away from the area looked wide-eyed and concerned. I saw blood on the street, along with the remnants of what appeared to be a broken taillight and other miscellaneous debris. It was very unclear what happened, and I certainly wasn’t willing to interrogate the witnesses who were eyeballs-deep in disrepair. The crime scene stretched up the street towards the Mohawk, where a crowd of police officers were setting up barriers to stop the confused and concerned bystanders from disturbing the evidence. I immediately took to twitter, and after a firestorm of misinformation flooded the SXSW hashtag, the true story began to materialize. A driver, presumably drunk, smashed through the barricades and mowed down two-dozen people in front of Cheer Up Charlie’s and the Mohawk, claiming the lives of three.
It was a horrific end to the evening, and the tone of the crowds had changed from celebration to eerie silence in only a few heartbeats. The gravity of the situation had not yet set in, and many were experiencing a chemical cocktail of serious shock and adrenaline. I began the walk home in complete disarray, people were frantically calling friends and loved ones, desperate to hear word. As I reached for my phone once more, I felt the foam of my beer cozy and was immediately struck by a conversation I had earlier today. Zac Morris, the lawyer, said he might be at the Mohawk that night. I fired him a text
“Were you at the Mohawk tonight?? I think some crazy asshole is gonna need one serious criminal defense attorney”
STAY TUNED for parts III, IV and V. Coming soon.