SXSW Music: Friday
The day started with me successfully catching up to a band. I had been chasing Lower Dens since Wednesday, when it was reported that the band's van broke down in Arkansas. The anticipation was killing me, so I was thrilled to be front row for their Friday set at French Legation. If I were a trucker, Twin Hand Movement would be pulsing out of my cab. It's the ideal soundtrack for an open road, with songs that invite abstraction about the vastness of space and time. Hunter's guitar work is so beguiling and the rest of the band accompanied her perfectly. I especially noted its rhythm section. Bassist Geoff Graham and drummer Abe Sanders propelled things forward as Hunter and guitarist Will Adams built layers of spindly guitar lines. My only complaint was that I couldn't hear her cavernous voice over all the reverb and distortion. I attribute this to technical error, and am sad to report that this problem recurred throughout the remainder of the festival. As I made a special effort to see female musicians this year, I couldn't help but refract this issue through a feminist lens.
I wished I could have stayed for the Grass Widow set that followed, but I knew I needed to head over to the Girls Rock Camp Austin/Bitch day party. As someone who is active with both organizations, it was nice to catch up with friends and get some folks to stop by Italo's for a bit. I arrived during the middle of Las Robertas' set. I was anticipating this Costa Rican* three-piece during my prep work for the festival, and they did not disappoint. They sounded a little bit more punk and stripped down from the songs I heard, which took on a spookier aesthetic. However, I was happy to see them and look forward to checking them out in the future.
As a festival attendee, I'm always pleased to be pleasantly surprised by an act. I knew nothing about Tamar-kali, and was moved by how she projected her magnificent voice over her band's metal-inflected rock. She will be soon be on the road with Jean Grae and Invincible as part of their Born In Flames tour, which formed out of an effort to bring female musicians across genres together. They made their official showcase appearance the following night, so we were in for a real treat—especially when Invincible took the stage for a cameo. I can't wait for this act to make it on the road. If it comes to your town, don't miss it.
Thao Nguyen also performed a lovely set with the Get Down Stay Down. This was my second time seeing them, following last year's appearance at Mess With Texas. I find myself recommending her tangy folk pop to just about everyone with ears and it was great seeing her again. As a supporter of both the GRC and Bitch, I also appreciate that she understands the value of providing a space for girl musicians to learn their craft and forge self-empowerment. I wish she could've stayed longer and that I was able to field her some questions. I hoped that Mirah and Merrill Garbus to make an appearance in support of Thao's new album with Mirah. But to borrow from Thao herself, this lovely set on a warm Texas afternoon soothed like a lick of ice cream.
Another pleasant surprise was Go Chic, a Taiwanese act that recalled old favorites Le Tigre and Gravy Train!!!! Leader Ariel Zheng's contributions to the group were especially noteworthy. She's a take-charge frontwoman who demands that you dance. I dutifully complied. I also love groups that use dance music toward political ends. Thus I was especially responsive toward "Culture Supervisor," a track that confronts racist notions about Asian people.
Any time Invincible takes the stage, it's a highlight. While her set was something of a retread from Tuesday's Mamas of Color Rising show, she had her deejay Wajeed with her this time out. Also, I didn't notice much overlap between the audiences, so many attendees caught Invincible's electrifying set with fresh eyes and ears. I was pleased that she had Public Offenders' Yoli and T-Fly from the Cipher introduce the set, as well as several members of Mamas of Color getting into the set with their kids.
Jean Grae headlined the event, which was tremendously exciting. I've seen her a few times before and maintain that she's one of the best emcees in the game. I only wish she were more prolific, but you can't rush jeanius. She debuted material off her forthcoming record, Cake or Death, which I can't wait to hear. She struck superheroine poses, complimented a GRCA student's outfit, apologized in advance for swearing in front of children, launched a full-out dance party, and killed it on the mic.
From here, I hauled it to Elysium to see Zukunasisters, who opened Japan Night. I didn't know much about them going in, but I figured an all-female Japanese funk outfit can't fail. I was right. It was a retro affair in the vein of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Budos Band. It was impossible not to shake a tail feather. The group closed with a cover of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." Cynical minds might make light of this, but I found it moving. Japan is working through a tragedy right now. This directly impacts many of the festival's guests directly. Yet they were in Austin, sharing their music and creating a positive communal experience in the midst of horrible circumstances. I gladly sang along.
I was happy to make Taiwanese pop group Wonfu (who I heard about on 91.7 KOOP's "Chop Suey" program) a Bitch staff favorite. I'm reticent to call an Asian group "cute" because of all the racist baggage that comes with Western assumptions about East Asia's cultural output, but the quartet do make lovely music that would probably appeal to anyone you know who wears cardigans. The guitar melodies brought to mind the Stray Cats and the boy-girl harmonies were irresistible. If you ever need cheering up, this group has the remedy.
As the walk from Elysium to Lambert's was pretty taxing, I sat for a spell at the Hideout and took in Blank Realm's set, a New Zealand psych rock act I like. When my legs were ready to comply, I walked past the Parish on the way to Klub Krucial. I was casing the joint, as Wye Oak and Wild Flag were headlining the Merge showcase, which was where I wanted to end my night. Surprisingly, there was no line. So I headed over Klub Krucial, where there was a shockingly long line for wristbands. I wanted to see Tamaryn play at 11, but decided to waltz over to the Parish and find a place close to the stage.
Wye Oak's set was overwhelming. There are few current groups who use music to convey a sense of longing as artfully as vocalist/guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack. I first saw them at SXSW in 2008 and they've become something of a talisman for me during the festival throughout the years. I love Civilian and am so glad that this talented yet unassuming act have become a fan favorite.
I closed the night with Wild Flag, a supergroup who knows how to put on a show. It should go without saying that the collaboration of talent between members of Sleater-Kinney, Helium, and the Minders would yield outsize results, but walking past Mary Timony gave me chills. Having missed S-K in concert, it was a treat to see Janet Weiss and Carrie Brownstein lay waste to the competition. I also think that Brownstein's classic rock licks work well with Timony's prog inclinations, yielding something that sounds more akin to Deerhoof than anything I've associated with either guitarist. I've yet to be convinced that their vocals work as well together, as it's far more obvious which vocalist owns what song than it was with S-K. However, I also recognize that the band's visibility doesn't give them as much privacy to cultivate their sound. I'm excited to hear how the songs they performed take shape when their first album comes out later this year.
*Correction: This post originally identified Las Robertas as Mexican—they actually from Costa Rica.
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