At South by Southwest, it is easy to become desensitized to what in other situations would be considered rather remarkable. For example, on Friday I walked down a busy street, and a stage had been erected on a corner lot, and Kool Keith was on the stage, wearing a sequined scarf on his head, rapping crazy words about himself. I didn't even break my stride. Now, granted, I know that Kool Keith shows aren't that kool
these days, but still.
I didn't stop for Kool Keith because I was on my way to Bar 96 to see White Lung. A handful of industry types I've spoken with down here have raved about them, so I wanted to go see if the hype was justified. It turns out that White Lung is a Canadian quartet that plays blasting, visceral punk, and the reason that people are talking about them is obviously because of their mesmerizing frontwoman, Mish Way. "My voice is gone, I'm trying my best," Way told the crowd at the outset, but she sounded pretty great to me. Way has a little Karen O in her, and a little '90s riot grrrl, too. She wore red lipstick and has a commanding, no-nonsense, mechanically authoritative presence. She is in charge, and she is utterly confident in the role. I am sometimes suspicious of bands with hot girls in them, so I try to close my eyes and pretend like the singer looks like Billy Powell from Lynyrd Skynrd. Are they still a good band then? With White Lung, the answer is probably, yeah. I'm probably not the first person to say it, but Way is a star in the making. She's fierce as shit.
- The crowd at Auditorium Shores.
I hiked a mile afterward to see Divine Fits
at Auditorium Shores, a massive park on the other side of the river. Divine Fits is one of those bands that seems to be everywhere this week, which makes sense - one of the members is Britt Daniel, a beloved Austin figure and Spoon frontman. Daniel splits the spotlight in Divine Fits with Dan Boeckner, formerly of Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade. People seemed to sleep on their debut, last year's A Thing Called Divine Fits
, but after this week, I doubt that will be the case. To my ears, Divine Fits sounds a lot like Spoon - pounding, precise, spare post-punk - but with a little more synth in the mix. Daniel mostly played bass during the performance, and most vocal duties fell to Boeckner, whose voice actually sounds a bit like Daniel's, though less ragged. Divine Fits is at Middle of the Map next month, so you can see the group for yourself.
Hotel Vegas, on the east side of the highway, was the next stop. East of I-35 is where people say the spirit of SXSW lives on. Whatever. There are throngs of drunk-ass people crowding the streets over there, too. Hotel Vegas had a doozy of a lineup, though, not to be missed. I walked in as Marnie Stern
was charming the hell out of the crowd. Stern is a known quantity, not exactly an up-and-comer. Her goofy stage banter, hilarious album titles and virtuosic guitar skills (she's a tapper, and she hammers on and pulls off a la Eddie Van Halen) have won her the love of music critics, although she hasn't quite broken out of the world of indie rock. Her songs were spazzy, bluesy, and a little mathy, and her show felt like a laid-back jam session. She smiled throughout. It is hard not to like Marnie Stern.
Bleached (composed of former members of Mika Miko) is an all-girls L.A. band that plays garage-pop with a trashy punk edge. They're OK. One of the girls told the crowd, "I took too much E last night and lost my voice. Then I took a bunch of shots of whiskey today to try to get it back, but it might not have worked." Then somebody in the crowd bought them a round of shots.
It was nice to walk inside and catch Chris Cohen
, who keeps things mellow and melodic - you can take in only so much garage and punk in a day. A few friends recommended Overgrown Path
, his 2012 album, a few months back, but for whatever reason, I never listened to it. I am a fool: Cohen will probably end up being my top takeaway from the fest. He's a singing drummer, and he was joined by a guitarist, a bassist and a keyboard player. In addition to Deerhoof and Cass McCombs, Cohen has played with Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, and there's a little of Pink's warped AM pop to his sound. But he's not quite as far out there. Really what Cohen's songs sound like is something Todd Rundgren would have done in the 1970s. Which is to say: Oh baby, I dug the vibe. He closed the set with a surprise instrumental, a dissonant, crashing acid jazz thing. There wasn't a huge crowd watching him, but the ones at the front were super into it. Next time I will be one of those guys at the front.
Probably the biggest draw at Hotel Vegas on Friday was Mac DeMarco
, a grimy-looking, gap-toothed 22-year-old who makes surprisingly sturdy music. I was a big fan of 2
, the album he released last year, and have been working backward to catch up to his first release, Rock and Roll Night Club
. (DeMarco and Cohen are both on Captured Tracks, which is becoming one of the most reliable indie labels in the past few years - DIIV and Wild Nothing are also on the roster.) DeMarco's band rocked a similarly sleazy look: dirty snap hats, ill-fitting shirts, self-administered haircuts, cigarettes dangling from mouths. I dig their style, and I dig their music, which is a kind of loose glam rock with a little '50s crooner in it. DeMarco opened with "I'm a Man," from Rock and Roll Night Club
, then went into "Cookin' Up Something Good," a 2
highlight. On one song, he and his guitarist cozied up to each other and jammed together, and toward the end DeMarco gave him a gentle peck on the mouth. Later the guitarist and the bassist kissed at length while playing. It was soon revealed that it was the guitarist's birthday. "I am so drunk," he said, and stared at us with some nice comic timing. They closed with "Together," during which DeMarco stage-dived. Then he climbed onto the bars holding up the stage tent and hung upside down, still singing into his microphone. You can't ask for a whole lot more from an act.
Thee Oh Sees, who followed DeMarco, are one of the best live bands in America. They deliver everything you want from a rock show. But I wrote all about them when I was down here last year. So I'll just note that the show Friday at Hotel Vegas was exactly what I expected: A raw, pounding rave-up of garage-rock that shames just about every band (and there are a lot of them) working that sound.
After Thee Oh Sees, a DJ started playing what I suppose was technically dubstep but sounded to my ears like the high-frequency noises that scare dogs. We bolted and ended up at the Yellow Jacket Social Club, a hard-to-find bar on Fifth Street that mercifully offered tables and chairs in which to sit. Somebody ordered a Frito Pie. It felt like Texas again.