Friday dawned with a frenetic anxiety brought on by the odd sensation that all of the fun I was having was coming to an end. From a pessimistic point of view, my time in Austin was half over. Though I'd not totally squandered the preceding days the list of bands I wanted to see still seemed a mile long. I tried to be positive, reminding myself of the two golden days that remained, and with serious fervor began to check those bands off the list.
First, the RhapsodyRocks party at Club DeVille. The line-up was great, but comprised mostly of bands I'd seen once or twice. However, the internet radio-sponsored showcase was also throwing around free beer, beer coozies, sunglasses, and cowbells, so that increased my desire to stick around.
I'd caught Tanlines most recently at last October's CMJ, where they'd debuted a lot of new material. Again, most of the set list was comprised of songs from the Brooklyn duo's recently released album Mixed Emotions, and not only are Eric Emm and Jesse Cohen growing more comfortable with these tracks, their pride in this latest work is readily apparent.
I hadn't seen Washed Out since the previous summer and, much like Tanlines, know Ernest Greene to reliably deliver a great show. It had been almost two years since I'd seen Zola Jesus, during which time she'd released her most outstanding material, so I was psyched for her contribution to the showcase. BUT I also knew that over at the Mess With Texas warehouse, Purity Ring would be gearing up for a set I couldn't miss. I'd been dying to see them since their release of two amazing singles “Ungirthed” (w/ b-side “Lofticries”) and “Belispeak” but I hadn't been able to to make it to their last NYC performances. I couldn't resist; all I could do was hope that I'd make it back in time for Zola.
Purity Ring's lyrically morbid but insanely catchy pop songs are constructed with two basic building blocks: Megan James' lilting, slightly coquetteish vocals, and the production of Corrin Roddick, who in a live setting mans a table of percussive lights and electronic devices. While I was definitely starting to see this delegation of music making responsibility repeated in band after band, Purity Ring went a few steps further with the addition of a captivating light show that took place before brightly-hued red, orange and teal curtains. The backdrops are illuminated by spotlights, turning James and Roddick into ghostly silhouettes. James is in charge of pounding an elevated bass drum at dramatic intervals, and as she does so, it lights up like a full moon. She also swings a mechanic's utility light around her head, though in a controlled rather than erratic fashion. But most impressive are the tiered lights which respond to taps and tones within the songs, framing Roddick's mixing table. They shift from red to purple to blue to yellow to orange, glowing through the crowd like psychedelic fireflies attempting to attract the trippiest mate.
While all of this was exciting to watch, the songs were the real draw. Purity Ring has kept their material close to the chest, selectively releasing only three songs thus far and not a note more. I had to know if they could keep up the seething momentum those infectious pop gems had created long enough to release an album that wasn't just filler, and I have to say that I was not disappointed. Each offering was carefully constructed, mysterious yet up-tempo enough to dance to, and not just an extension of the sound they'd already built such buzz on, but a perfect showcase for their strongest assets. There's no release date set for the Canadian duo's full-length LP, but if the SXSW performances are any indication we can expect more enigmatic lyrics layered with deceptively joyous melodies and a healthy dose of R&B-influenced bounce.
At this point, Zola Jesus was just beginning her set back at Club DeVille, but again I was faced with a dilemma. Over at the Hotel Vegas compound, BrooklynVegan was hosting a noteworthy showcase of their own, and two bands I had yet to see were slated for the afternoon – Craft Spells and Tennis.
Hotel Vegas is comprised of two small conjoined lounges, one of which is named Cafe Volstead and has some really swanky taxidermy mounted on equally swanky wallpaper. As part of the takeover, BrooklynVegan had also erected an outdoor stage, upon which snappy London-based foursome Django Django were banging out an energetic, joyful set, wearing eccentrically patterned shirts reflective of their generally quirky pop. It might have been the mixing but the live set seemed to be lacking some of the more creative percussion and synth techniques present in the band's popular singles “Waveform” and “Default”. The songs came across as pretty nonchalant, summery pop a la The Beach Boys, whom the band has often drawn comparisons to.
Meanwhile, Inside Hotel Vegas, the dark and pounding rhythms of Trust were a stark contrast to the daylight scorching the earth outside. I'd seen Robert Alfons perform solo under his Trust moniker as opening act for Balam Acab last November, and the set was pretty similar despite having some additional band members this time around. Alfons grips the mic and leans toward the audience as though he is begging an executioner for his life. His vocals sound like they're dripping down the back of his throat, which I mean in a good way; in a higher register that same voice can sound nasal, though even then it's often tempered by the pummeling beats that typify Trust's music. What I find really fascinating about Trust is that while these jams have all the glitz and grunge of 90's club scorchers, Alfons consistently looks as if he's just rolled out of bed without bothering to comb his hair or change his sweatpants. Circa 1995, if you heard these songs on the radio you could pretty much assume they were made by muscular men in tight, shiny clothing and leather, or at least some guy wearing eyeliner. It's not necessarily true that a vocalists' style has any import on the music itself, and let's face it, not everyone can be the dude from Diamond Rings. But I find myself a little worried about Alfons; he looks like he's going to slit his wrists in a bathtub the second he walks off stage, and given the caliber of the songs on debut LP TRST, that would really suck.
Trust's set was dank and sludgy in all the right ways, so I almost forgot it was mid-afternoon; I emerged from the dark revery to see Denver-based husband-and-wife duo Tennis setting up. Joined by two additional musicians on drums and synths, Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley were picture-perfect; Alaina's tiny frame exploded in a poof of feathery hair and her tall, hunky husband looked like he would put down his guitar any second and hoist her in his beefy arms. It's not hard to imagine these two as Prom King & Queen. Their sophomore album Young and Old, out now on Fat Possum Records, shows quite a growth spurt from 2011's Cape Dory, an album mainly concerned with breezy, beachy anthems (it was inspired by a sailing trip the couple took). Both thematically and lyrically, Tennis have shored things up without losing their pop sensibilities. Their set was shortened by a late set-up but toothache sweet, mostly drawing on songs from the new record and closing with a lively rendition of lead single “Origins”.
Craft Spells played amidst the glassy-eyed mounted animals of Cafe Volstead, and I was beyond excited to see them play. I've followed the band since they began releasing singles in 2009 and was thoroughly pleased with last year's Idle Labor, which included updates of those early demos and drew upon them to create a cohesive 80's-inspired synth-pop gem. Craft Spells nimbly translated the buoyant feel of favorites like “You Should Close The Door” and “Party Talk”; heavy-lidded crooner Justin Vallesteros seemed less the sensitive, socially awkward recluse implied by some of his more heartsick lyrics, fearlessly surveying the crowd and blissfully bopping to his own hooky melodies. The boyish good looks of all four bandmates had at least one lady (me) swooning in the audience, wanting to somehow smuggle them out of the venue in my pockets.
I was right down the street from Cheer Up Charlie's, a brightly painted heap of cinder blocks hunched in a dusty lot on E 6th where electronic mastermind Dan Deacon would soon be unpacking his gadgetry. First, I stopped at an adjacent food truck trailer park and ate what I deemed “Best SXSW Sandwich” - The Gonzo Juice truck's pulled pork roast with carrot slaw, gobs of schiracha cream sauce, and spicy mustard piled on (what else?) Texas Toast. This obviously isn't a food blog, but as I sat at the crowded picnic table I had a definite SXSW moment; across from me some guys were talking about shows they'd played earlier and shows they were playing later in the week. I sat there reveling in deliciousness and simultaneously trying to figure out what band they were in based on venues and time slots. While for most part everyone SXSW is in nonstop party mode, many of the musicians play two and sometimes three sets a day, and then find time to go to their friends' shows. And despite all of the gear they have to haul and strained vocal chords and hangover headaches, these guys talked excitedly about contributing to that experience. Not that I didn't before, but I really found myself appreciating that energy and enthusiasm; the passion and drive of the musicians who come to Austin this particular week in March is the biggest factor as to why SXSW is so exhilarating.
I was pretty excited about the awesome acts lined up for The Hype Machine's crazy “Hype Hotel” endeavor. I'm not sure what the space is normally used for, but they seemed to have a good thing going in the mid-sized building; there was often a line to get inside that stretched around the block. I'd RSVP'd and was particularly excited for that evening's show – Neon Indian opening for Star Slinger, guaranteed to result in an insane dance party. Unfortunately, RSVPing didn't matter since by the time I went to pick up my gimmicky little “key card” and wristband, they'd run out, and I was therefore shit out of luck. Since trying and failing to get into the Jesus & Mary Chain show the night before had taught me a valuable lesson about not wasting time at SXSW, I shrugged my shoulders about it (it helped that I'd already seen both acts prior to SXSW) and decided to choose from one of the 2,015,945,864,738 other bands playing.
I wandered far down Red River into the woodsy area between downtown proper and the river, filled with leafy, down-home bars. As I meandered about, looking for some friends I was meeting up with, I heard Gardens & Villa performing “Orange Blossom” at one of the bars. This song gives me shivers of springtime joy; Gardens & Villa is one of those bands I kind of ignored for a while, not for any reason other than I simply can't hear everything, but at this point I'm super excited for their debut record to drop and was really hoping to catch one of their sets while in Austin. My timing was perfect in that regard but I honestly couldn't figure out which bar they were playing or how to get in to see them. I had a decent-ish view from the street, even if my short stature made seeing over the fence difficult. I could hear the band just fine and their sound was spot on. However, since this set up made me feel like a weirdo stalker and I had promised to meet up with my posse, I moved on.
Clive Bar had a sprawling multilevel patio that is probably very nice when there aren't bands squished awkwardly into a tiny area making it impossible to view the stage and impossible to move through the cramped crowd. Because Annie is the shit and had a raw hookup we hung out in this “Green Room” area that was really more of a log cabin bungalow to the side of the stage. A really gnarly painting of a nude lady with a rabbit's head was mounted on the ceiling; all around her were bunnies in various stages of Boschian copulations but rendered in a comic-book style. We slugged beers in this secret, magical little den while New Build played their poppy indie jams. Everything New Build does sounds like it could be soundtracking some cheesy movie – whether it's funky 70's espionage flicks or 80's roadtrip rom coms. I don't know if that's really a bad thing, especially since they tackle that task with flair and aplomb. But I also have to admit that I wasn't paying a lot of attention, mesmerized as I was by all the bunny sex going on in the painting above my head, and the two semi-obnoxious girls arm-wrestling because (I guess) they thought it would impress whatever dudes were around. Plus, New Build are some pretty unassuming dudes; they all wore nondescript tees in neutral colors, sported prerequisite beards (not that you'll ever hear me complain about a beard), and gave the impression that they were there solely to play some songs in as understated a fashion as possible. Which they did.
Since I was working on my own death cough it was time to call it a night. My final day in Austin was upon me, and I'd finally redeemed myself, in the nick of time.