I had the chance to attend my first South by Southwest this year in a dizzying whirlwind of food, drinks and awesome bands, seeing over 50 groups perform in four days. The problem with seeing so much music in such little time is a lot of it blends together and is forgotten very shortly after. That statement does not apply to the next ten bands, who played the most memorable sets I saw in my (too-short) time in Austin.
Wherever you look on stage during a Deerhoof show, there's something entertaining to watch. Frontwoman Satomi Matsuzaki brought out my favorite dance moves of the week, ridiculously throwing her hands all over the place, never breaking a look of concentration. To her right, Ed Rodriguez, decked in pink from head to toe (including his guitar), ardently tossed his luscious locks left and right while shredding and, to her left, Greg Saunier made some of the most interesting noises I've ever heard come from a guitar. It's almost unfair to include an established act on this list, one who have been making unique, genre-bending noise pop for over twenty years. But, It would be even more unfair to ignore what was undoubtedly one of the best sets of the week.
After last year's powerhouse Plowing into the Field of Love, Iceage was one of my must-
see acts of the week. They solely played cuts from the album during their US tour late last year (which I unfortunately missed), but in Austin they drew equally from all three of their releases. Elias Ronnenfelt is one of the most intriguing frontmen in the business today; he brings to the stage a nerve-racking, stone-faced intensity. He spoke no words to the audience, letting the intense, cathartic music speak for itself. Talking to pumped fans after their set, they stated Iceage sets earlier in the week were not quite up to par, but the set I saw was pitch-perfect.
I may be rather biased due to my intense love for this Swedish five-piece (they clocked in at no. 2 on my list of best albums of last year) but they gave one of my favorite performances of the week Thursday at the Mohawk. Still in the first month of their very first US tour the band – especially vocalist Maja Milner looked visibly nervous starting their too-short set but proved themselves instantly when the music started. Milner's Siouxsie-esque howl soared over the room, the band's dreamy post-punk sounded perfect, and the crowd loved everything they heard. If there's any right in the world, Makthaverskan will be huge in the next few years.
Performing the set most likely to give me nightmares for weeks to come, Margaret Chardiet, aka Pharmakon, unleashed her industrial harsh-noise to a crowded room at the Hotel Vegas on Thursday. Dressed in all black with her long blonde hair covering her face, Chardiet screamed and cried over deafening, live-looped backdrops of screeching and sheet-metal banging. She felt no tie to the stage, instead invading audience members' personal bubbles and yelling into people's faces. It all felt intensely heartfelt and left the audience with their collective jaws on the floor. After a half an hour, Chardiet left the stage without a word and embraced a friend with an enthusiastic hug.
Catching Songhoy Blues on a whim after a forgettable Moon Duo set at SXSW's Levitation showcase was the best accident I made all week. The subject of a documentary also playing at SXSW, They Will Have to Kill Us First, which chronicles band members' exile from Northern Mali after the country's jihadist takeover in 2012, the African group played a splendid set of jammy desert blues rock with a worldly twist that got an unsuspecting crowd dancing their asses off in one song flat. I can't think of a more charming on-stage presence I saw all week. Singer Aliou Toure, a huge smile plastered on his face, was a dancing force to be reckoned with. They're doing a more fleshed-out tour of the US in June. Don't miss them if you know what's good for you.
Perhaps the number-one must-see set for people who spend too much time on the Internet, British DJ SOPHIE brought his rollicking dance tunes to venue after venue during SXSW. Associated with the PC Music label, which brings a K-pop level of cuteness to banging beats, SOPHIE leaned more towards the dance-y side of things during his set, omitting his biggest 'hit' "Bipp" in favor of harder material. It was an out-
and-out dancefest on the floor of the Mohawk. Contemporaries A.G. Cook and Kero Kero Bonito put on super-fun sets elsewhere in the week, but SOPHIE was the best electronic act of the week for me.
Tall Tall Trees
Enjoying some amazing pizza during a Third Man Records showcase at Home Slice Pizza on Congress, I was suddenly struck by the sounds coming from a stage nearby me. A man with a lone banjo was making more noise then most quintets make. Michael Savino, once a member of Kishi Bashi, performs his psychedelic Americana by banging on his banjo head with a drumstick and feeding strums and bashes through a myriad of pedals and modulators creating a full-band sound. The tunes were fun, an all-too-small crowd was having the time of their lives, and I'm still confused how a banjo can make the sounds I heard it make. All I wanted was pizza, but I got a second helping of awesome.
Tanya Tagaq is rather physically unassuming. She's incredibly short - I hardly saw her walk on-stage. But when she opened her mouth, she became the center of attention. Tagaq is an Inuk (indigenous Canadian) throat singer but adds electronic elements and screeching strings to make the most terrifyingly memorable music humanly imaginable. Performing one 30-minute piece accompanied by a violin player and drummer, Tagaq seemed positively inhuman, shrieking, grunting and moaning. Absolutely enthralling and one-of-a-kind, and a contender for the coolest set I saw all week.
Thee Oh Sees
After suffering through part of a truly terrible set by Lust for Youth, I was immediately put in a better mood by the ferocity of John Dwyer and company. Dwyer treats his guitar as a weapon, swinging it around while yelling and squeaking unintelligible phrases into his effects-heavy microphone. The drizzling rain couldn't stop the crowd from showing their appreciation by moshing their hearts out. Still confused why they have two live drummers who play almost the exact same thing the entire set, but it worked well enough.
Calgary four-piece Viet Cong had a lot on their chests coming into SXSW. On top of recent gig cancelations due to their controversial name and a drummer with a recently broken hand, they must have been feeling the pressure. They didn't let anyone down. The unstoppable Mike Wallace drummed the entire set one-handed (and did so six times in three days!!). The rest of the band absolutely destroyed cuts off of their fantastic self-titled album. They played with extreme passion closing with 11-minute whirlwind "Death," and I thought they were going to tear the Mohawk to bits. The buzz is more than deserved here, folks.