South by Southwest | Tues. 03.17.15

sxsw catfish_75Catfish and the Bottlemen easily overcame any hiccups with a frenetic and enthusiastic set, playing their first SXSW like they meant it.




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Catfish and the Bottlemen

They call it convergence day—that SXSW moment where the interactive, film, and music festivals align, with often improbable consequences. That it fell on St. Patrick’s Day this year washed everything in as sea of drunken green, to boot. I started the morning on an escalator with Jesse Jackson, closed the evening not long after a band named Venomous Maximus, and caught a Korean doo-wop group in the middle.

And as it was a Tuesday, and both the music showcases and crowds build from here, SXSW 2015 seems to be unfolding nicely.


With interactive still ruling the conference’s convention center, the exhibition spaces remained a thicket of tech entrepreneurialism and other odds and ends. Startups. NASA. Brazil. The City of Tulsa. And a stage area that, at 5 p.m., hosted the U.S. debut of the self-styled “time-traveling girl group” the Barberettes (right) from South Korea. I always seek out international acts performing in retro American styles (German rockabilly! Beijing hardcore! Swedish garage rock!) to hear American cultural history played back at us in new ways. With the Barberettes, who took the stage in traditional Korean dress, I expected enjoyable, well-delivered kitsch along the lines of, say, Japanese bluegrass acts like Petty Booka. This wasn’t exactly that. The Barberettes absolutely belong in the wider K-Pop sisterhood, and, given the obvious range of their talent, it is charming that they have chosen mid-20th century American girl groups as their preferred style. They began with a tribute to a ’50s Korean girl group who had performed American doo-wop, grounding the Barberettes’ concept as something more than novelty, reaching back to young South Korean women who had long played American styles for U.S. servicemen.

SXSW film this year premiered Made in Japan, a new documentary on Tomi Fujiyama, a Japanese country singer who belongs to the same sorority. Bach Yen, a South Vietnamese chanteuse who actually recorded in Austin in the 1960s, fits here, too. The remainder of the set alternated between Korean and English (with brand new songs added for this, their very first American appearance), and ranged from exuberant odes to kim chi to the Andrews Sisters’ “Rum and Coca-Cola,” from “Be My Baby” to the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” refashioned into the Barberettes’ own anthem. A great start, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again in a club setting at Elysium’s K-Pop night Thursday.

I ventured next into what once upon a time had been the storied Austin club Emo’s, one of SXSW’s home bases on Sixth Street for many years. Emo’s has decamped outside downtown where they can brag of ample parking and clean bathrooms. The old Emo’s is now “The Main,” one of those pop-up spaces that open simply to host music during SXSW. It showed, with iPad bartending and sound check issues through much of the evening, beginning with a delay that bounced the opening musician after a single song. Austin’s Riverboat Gamblers erased all that, though, electrifying the air to make Emo’s possess that space once. Originally from Denton, the gamblers belong to that Austin lineage of bands that Daniel Johnston once referred to a “marching guitar army.” They’re a fierce rock assemblage driven by Fadi el-Assad, Ian McDougall, and Rob Marchant. Meanwhile, frontman Mike Wiebe flies through the air, runs into the crowd, and climbs on the stage while singing with an appeal that somehow embraces both the messianic and the slapstick. They don’t let up, or pause for applause, but rocket through a fast-paced catalog with originals like “What’s What” and a striking cover of Austin first-wave punk anthem “The Dicks Hate the Police.”

sxsw venomousKeeping the decibels high, I plowed through the now-surging emerald tide of Sixth Street to a metal showcase housed, appropriately, at the Dirty Dog. Venomous Maximus of Houston held the crowd in thrall as I entered with earnest, sludging, intense sleaze. These guys obviously bled metal. Brooklyn’s African-American teen phenoms Unlocking the Truth followed. What had seemed to be a rare success story for a guitar band in this day and age, Unlocking the Truth inked a major label contract with Sony last year with what seemed like a generous advance. But the devil was in the details, and just this week news broke that they were seeking to sever their relationship with Sony. And here they were, at SXSW, on the other side of that deal and still teens growing into their bodies and voices, back to the world of intimate performance that had launched them in the first place. Guitarist/vocalist Malcolm Brickhouse already seems fully a rock star. Bassist Alec Atkins is all angles, a praying mantis on the stage, bending low, careening back, astride the monitors. Unlocking the Truth, on the one hand, seem to be reclaiming metal’s black roots, its ties to Jimi Hendrix, its recently recovered lineage in Black Merda, Death, and Flying Wedge. On the other hand, their story might seem like it isn’t really about race at all. Hearing them tear through their set, watching hands dance across the guitar and make it scream, what comes through strongest is heavy metal as adolescent soundtrack. Metal makes young men feel powerful. That is the genre’s primary language, and really has been key to rock’s history as a youth culture. Unlocking the Truth made me wonder why there aren’t more teens on these stages, actually, given that guys like Buddy and Elvis were closer in age to these kids than most of the bands or audiences that Austin will see all week.

The Welsh lads of Catfish and the Bottlemen are hardly elder statesmen. For all the buzz of their album The Balcony’s January debut in the U.S., though, they’ve been bubbling up in Britain for some time. “I saw you in Sheffield in 2011!” someone shouted from the crowd at the British Music Embassy last night. “Really? Well, we’re from the past. Since 2008,” frontman Van McCann replied. Nevertheless, the band seemed genuinely, pleasantly surprised that their songs were already sing-along anthems Stateside, with the crowd ecstatic over readymade hits “Kathleen” and “Cocoon.” Now, this may have to do with the club in question being the home base for Brits over the next week, and there were plenty in the house on Tuesday, but there was still a sense that we were getting to see an act soon bound for the arena in a small club on a side street for the last time. McCann apologized throughout for snafus with the sound system, but the band easily overcame any hiccups with a frenetic and enthusiastic set, playing their first SXSW like they meant it.


Those small sound hiccups seemed so small, perhaps, because I was heading back to the Main. Kanye West’s recent collaborator Vic Mensa (right) was to take the stage at 1 a.m. Sound check pushed that back, with the artists visibly flustered. A DJ kept the crowd engaged and in good spirits, but with SXSW sets being a bit on the short side anyway, and pushing up against closing time, Vic Mensa’s performance started with him against the wall a bit. He pushed back, lit up the crowd, and had the Main enraptured and in good spirits. I snuck out, though, not really wanting to be around when the venue tried to cut short his set because of the late start. With time to see one more act for the night, I slipped over to Canada House for Toronto’s Tasha the Amazon. Rapper Tasha answered Vic Mensa’s head-bopping mass with a more intimate group, and his occasionally repetitive braggadocio with stronger lyrical wordplay, two sides of coin, artists at different stage in their careers. I preferred Tasha’s performance, in the end, hungry, fun, and with a bit of Caribbean lilt. That, and she might well have given me my first earworm for the week in her closing number “Where Are You Now?” Now, post-convergence, and with the rest of SXSW week ahead, it’s time to go find some more. | Jason Mellard

Photos of Barbarettes, Vic Mensa, and Catfish and the Bottlemen by Vic Mensa

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