Saturday, March 26, 2016

South by Southwest Music Festival 2016, Day 5

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 5
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 19 March 2016

Much like last year, I started my day at the I Heart Local Music day party connected with the Midcoast Takeover at Shangri-La. This time, it was sunny and pleasantly cool, so the event was set up outside. I arrived in time to see some of the Stiff Middle Fingers, an aggressive hardcore band whose singer featured an anti-Sam Brownback shirt. I appreciated the politics and the energy (the singer jumped off stage and approached every single audience member to sing at each of them individually), but I was turned off cold by their song "Psycho Bitch". It wasn't made better by the claim that it was written "for everyone's significant other".

The next band, Bummer, was a heavier, thrashier affair that wasn't really up my alley either. I went inside for a break (and a free Boulevard beer!) and it turned out that another band had set up on the inside stage: Kasey Rausch's Country Duo featuring pedal steel and lead guitar by Marco Pascolini. Even though it was fairly standard country-flavored fare, I enjoyed the easygoing vibe and the respite from sonic assault.

I eventually wandered back outside for a set from Bruiser Queen, who I had seen at the same showcase last year. They outdid themselves this time around, with a great combination of punchy energy, enthusiastic presence, and positive vibes. They were just a bit punky, but not harsh, and just catchy enough to keep me focused. They manage to make a big impact with just guitar, drums, and two voices. Their high spirits were infectious with lines like, "Have fun before you die / Anything else is a waste of time".

[Bruiser Queen.]

I trekked the length of Sixth Street back to the Firehouse. I caught part of the set from Assuming We Survive, a pop-punk group that did absolutely nothing for me but plenty for the modest crowd they'd assembled. My real purpose was to see a set from Ian Fisher with a full band featuring a few old friends of his (although not the same group of musicians that have been following him around Europe).

Here's the setlist:
1. Nero
2. Constant Vacation
3. Again & Again
4. Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin
5. Candles for Elvis
6. If You Wanna Stay
7. Almost Darlin'
8. Faceless

[Ian Fisher at the Firehouse Lounge.]

Ian again started things off slow and easy with album opener "Nero", with the subtlest lead guitar and bass imaginable from Curtis Brewer and Kit Hamon, respectively. Drummer Ben Majchrzak didn't even play; he just added some backing vocals near the end of the long song. The band joined in full for "Constant Vacation" and turned the song into quite a lively number. Beginning with "Again & Again", Ian switched to electric guitar for most of the rest of the set, which only further increased the energy level. "Ich hab nur einen Koffer in Berlin" was transformed by the band into a solid rocker, quite a bit stronger than the solo take. "Candles for Elvis" and "Faceless" are both older songs; while the former has always be a favorite of mine, the former has only improved with age. Ian and company did it in a clipped, abrupt style culminating in both guitarists jamming out wild solos.

After Ian's performance, I spent some time walking around and hanging out with various friends, enjoying the nice weather and taking a break from the music. Before long, though, I was ready for more, and being simultaneously in need of nourishment, I sought out the Southbites Trailer Park, where I'd heard the Spanish band Hinds would be performing in the midst of the food trucks. Being on foot for the day, I made it there just in time for what I'd thought was their start time, but I saw no sign of a band nor even a stage. Eventually I heard a woman on a PA in a tent announcing that the band on their way. I was ordering my food when they finally showed up, but it turns out that they only appeared to share their guacamole recipe and talk about food. I guess I didn't read the fine print of the announcement, because that was a sore disappointment compared to what I'd been expecting!

Frustrated at my lost opportunity, I wandered back to Sixth Street and caught Lusts at Latitude 30 just as they were starting. They sound like some sort of 80s throwback in deep debt to Echo & the Bunnymen or even New Order (in the vocals, at least). The band only consisted of two members: a drummer and a guitarist/vocalist. Someone must have been operating some serious backing tracks, though, because I also could hear plenty of bass and synth. Furthermore, there were occasional backing vocal parts that I wasn't quite convinced were coming from the drummer. At any rate, I found them pleasurable but a bit derivative.


At a loss where to go next, I ended up at the Velveeta Room seeing The Ripe. They were playing a rather generic pop-rock that was reasonably catchy but not quite compelling enough to convince me to stay. I tried to get in Maggie Mae's Gibson Room to see the Russian bizarro rock group Mumiy Troll, but the venue was at capacity and the line wasn't moving. I eventually gave up waiting and just chatted with a friend while he was in line to see The Roots at Brazos Hall. (He ultimately didn't actually end up getting in).

[The Ripe.]

Eventually, I made my way to Lamberts. Judah & the Lion were on stage when I arrived. They seemed like your average alt/country/pop band, but they were clearly aiming for commercial approval, which seemed to work for some of the audience. There were several people on stage handling a variety of folk and country instruments, ranging from banjo to accordion to mandolin, in additional to the normal rock instruments. The surprise element was a keyboardist that also added some samples and even dropped a hip-hop breakdown at one point. The musicians were skilled, but they'd honed their sound so perfectly for radio consumption that I was left feeling like I couldn't be sure these were real people.

Next up was Ian Fisher again, this time finally appearing for his official SXSW showcase. With his band in tow, they played the same setlist as earlier but added the existential singalong "Nothing" to the end. Whereas the afternoon crowd at the Firehouse needed some convincing, this bunch was on board as soon as Ian's vocal intensity picked up in the second half of "Nero". The more intensity Ian and the band put in, the more the crowd responded. It was a strong set, and they performed even better than they had in the afternoon. Ian's guitar was out-of-control loud for the concluding solo of "Faceless", but the audience didn't mind; indeed, someone in the audience shouted "louder!" in response.

At that point, it was about midnight, but I was ready to be done. I can't imagine a better way to have closed out the festival, anyway.

[Ian Fisher at Lamberts.]

Bruiser Queen: B+
Lusts: B
The Ripe: C
Judah & the Lion: D+

P.S. Again, there were several bands I didn't really see enough of to grade, and I've chosen not to grade Ian due to my overwhelming bias.

P.P.S. I Heart Local Music's write-up of the show at Shangri-La can be found here.

P.P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa, Fally, Susan, Luann, Ian, Ben, Nina, and Jacob for meeting up throughout the day!

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