SXSW is a shambolic beast that lurches forward only if its moving parts work together in something approaching precision.
At least one night every SXSW tends to be a victim of weather, and Friday was that night. By the end of the evening, the temperature was half what it had been earlier in the week. More to the point, a brief bout of lightning and moderate rain canceled many of the nine and 10 o’clock outdoor shows, putting a damper on the festivities as venues scrambled to rearrange schedules. Bands with indoor and outdoor stages doubled up inside, halving set times (I missed the Death Valley Girls because their set was actually moved up a half hour). Top acts exited stages early to obvious crowd displeasure (Crystal Castles at Stubb’s). I don’t envy the folks who had to make these decisions, each of them prudently risk-averse. SXSW is a shambolic beast that lurches forward only if its moving parts work together in something approaching precision, but many of us—staff, industry, fans, and artists—we’re in scurry mode for much of the night.
It didn’t start out that way. Or, it started out with that more pleasant frenzied scurry of the day party world. Austin rock heroes the Riverboat Gamblers helmed a great afternoon of acts at the Jackalope. Early on the bill, Drakulas, the new project of Gamblers singer Mike Wiebe and Rise Against guitarist Zach Blair, thrilled with a high-energy set that was part 60s rock-cult, part 80s straight-to-video sleaze in numbers like “Betmax.” Wiebe, as always, used the whole room as a stage, dancing frantically in and out of the crowd.
The path from Jackalope to the convention center’s day stages passes again through the historical O. Henry Museum, where Kevin Russell of the Gourds and Shinyribs played funky solo ukulele on the front porch. Russell is one of those Americana chameleons who can bend the world’s sounds into his own particular style, an Austin-accented swamp pop that here managed to fit in his own work from the Gourds alongside Beatles numbers and Gene Watson’s “Farewell Party.” Characteristically, he downplays his own versatility. After finishing “A Little Help from My Friends,” he joked that it was indeed all you need, “both kinds of music, Lennon and McCartney.”
Friday’s radio showcase inside the convention center was especially strong. Bombino from Niger crafted serpentine, hypnotic guitar grooves in a mold similar to his Tuareg countrymen Tinariwen. The group captivated a rapt audience with a set that combined a roots sensibility—the story of rock’s origins in African string instrumentation—with a global modernity that has, in turn, influenced the contemporary evolution of Tuareg music. And this is not a sound that comes from a disembodied, imagined Niger of the past but from a corner of the continent racked by strife and poverty, its own artists displaced, in Bombino’s case, to Brussels and New York. The sound here, though, is an affirmation, a possibility. “In Africa, we have troubles, war,” the bassist intoned, “but we also have joy. These songs are about joy.”
Seattle’s Lucius followed Bombino on the stage and continued the sense of music as uplift. Singers Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig mirror each other’s performance in an almost uncanny manner, their voices blended almost as one, with a band that weaves a tight pop net that impresses live. I feel other acts at the festival interested in these same sonic textures and pop sensibilities have migrated to working from a laptop, but this is live indie rock done right. Their stage presence is striking, too, with bright orange coifs and Bowie capes (trend alert!). Lucius played soaring and lovely work from the new album Good Grief, as well as classic crowd pleasers, closing on the inescapably catchy “Born Again Teen.”
And that radio stage lineup just didn’t back down. Next came the Spanish band Hinds, perhaps the festival’s buzziest artists. I had caught them earlier in the week on their second of seventeen performances for SXSW. This was now their twelfth, and I wanted to check in to make sure they were still ok. A little loopy from all the action and attention, perhaps, but they’re still on their feet, and their lovely, jangly girl-group-surf-garage is still pleasantly in our ears.
Manitoba’s Mariachi Ghost played the convention center’s international stage as Hinds wound down (or continued to wind up—Hinds had two more shows Friday). Mariachi Ghost had entranced the night before at the bar Friends and, on the strength of that performance and the attention it received from NPR, your own Playback:stl, and others, drew in quite the crowd for this daytime show. They repeated, and even exceeded, the brilliance of last night, peaking at the right time with “El Cascabel” and “Susana” (new video out now) in a room full of badges. Frontman Jorge Requena took advantage of the fact to hint that the band was here without a tour manager or label. SXSW, work your magic for these young artists, please.
The shift from day parties to night showcases was ominous. At Hotel Vegas’s patio, young sister act Stonefield kicked things off with Australian desert doom-psych. I swear that the first bolts of lightning exploded with the band’s initial chords. And this is the moment the storm broke. SXSW issued a blast through its app urging everyone to seek shelter immediately. I’m not sure the ramshackle structures of Hotel Vegas would hold up to whatever maelstrom the organizers anticipated, but it would have to do. Young Rival set up at the stage inside. There’s something pleasantly Lynchian about the Canadian trio, in sparkly golden dinner jackets and wizard robes, fake bouquets attached to the mics. It had the retro-through-a-twisted-nostalgic-reverie that attends the musical performances at the Road House in Twin Peaks. Young Rival sang of young love, creepy hometown characters, and more, sometimes slow and dreamy, but also picking up the pace with the terrific “Elevator.”
Eerie Wanda kept a bit of the vibe but lost the fake flowers and golden spangles. The group is a collaboration of Croatian-Dutch singer Marina Tadic and members of the psych-influenced band Jacco Gardner. Eerie Wanda pushed back at the storm with a tropicalia-inflected set that was all sunshine, the sound a 70s lens flare might make. With Hotel Vegas’s vintage desert mural behind them, you could almost forget the buckets of rain dropping outside. Tadic’s cool vocals and thousand yard stare transported those paying attention, and Tadic responded with warm gratitude between numbers. “Happy Hard Times” from this year’s debut Hum was the standout here.