Words by: David Schultz
Earlier this week, JamBase contributor David Schultz shared an overview of this year’s SXSW Music festival. Today, he lists the notable sets he caught at SXSW ’18.
Over the five days and nights of SXSW, the mission to see as many singers and bands as humanly possible will prove to be a quixotic journey. Some acts turn out to be wonderful while others make you wonder whether it’s journalistically responsible to call a band a bunch of douchebags that will certainly become a target of the #metoo movement. With a little foresight, the scale of buzzworthy to forgettable can be tipped favorably in your direction. Here are the best (or at least notable) sets that JamBase caught at SXSW 2018.
Billy Strings (18th Over Austin): Unsurprisingly, Mr. Strings did not come to Austin with a horn section. Fronting a quartet that featured banjo, mandolin and stand-up bass, Strings more than lived up to his eponym, transforming a hotel conference room (by far the most bizarre SXSW venue) into a raucous hootenanny. Tearing through songs from Turmoil & Tinfoil, his debut release, he would begin them in straightforward country or bluegrass mode before veering into much more adventurous territory. At one point, he segued into The Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” and at another drifted into a jam that was either the Grateful Dead’s “Slipknot!” or something remarkably close to it. Strings’ set was a revelation and given that he’s only in his mid-20s, there’s a whole future for which to look forward.
Los Coast (The Parish): Fronted by Trey Privott, the nephew of the original Letterman Late Show guitarist Hiram Bullock, Los Coast has all the makings of a vibrant rock band. Closing the Traffic Music showcase, they quickly locked into a groove and had the normally staid SXSW crowd dancing like no one was watching. They also had the capacity to drift into the “no my brother, you have to buy your own” range of classic soul. Despite being lauded in the Austin press, Los Coast still doesn’t feel like a finished project – as if they’re still putting in Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. However, there’s definitely something here and you will be hearing it soon.
Shame (Cheer Up Charlies): Hailing from South London, Shame was easily the most dangerous band in Austin. A modern-day update on the Stooges crunging drone, singer Charlie Steen kinetically parades around the stage, menacingly prowling while encouraging the crowd to engage not only with him but with each other. Antithetical as it may seem, Shame manages to be confrontational and inclusionary at the same time. On “Friction,” Sheen confronts the crowd with queries like “do you ever help the helpless” and “do you ever need the needy” but never tries to physically or intellectually distance himself from those that he’s challenging. Like most of the well-hyped bands from England, this simply may not last. While it does, Shame may be the best band in the world.
Sloppy Jane (Cheer Up Charlies): To start Brooklyn Vegan’s Saturday afternoon day party, the entire band started creepily chanting “if he was a dog he would be dead” as if it were the mantra from a deranged horror movie involving a truly creepy cult. Within five minutes, lead singer Hayley Dahl unleashed a primal scream, ripped off her dress and played lead guitar in the nude for a truly uncomfortable period of time. It was noon. By the time they were through, it remained wholly unclear whether this was performance art, a rock opera about female empowerment or a desperate plea for help.
Super Doppler (Swan Dive): It may be idiotic to compare Super Doppler to the Beatles, maybe not so much to compare them to Badfinger. One of the groups benefitting from Matthew E. White and his Spacebombcollective, their set as part of the Wow! High Five! Day party featured many slices of AM radio heaven.
Ron Gallo (Antone’s): There’s a fine line between challenging your audience and pissing them off and Ron Gallo walked it during his set at the New West Records showcase. Focusing on his recently released Really Nice Guys, Gallo follows the path being blazed by the Parquet Courts, who have moved from more traditional song craft to sound pastiches and often just noise. There’s a humor inherent to the band and at Antone’s, Gallo pushed it to Andy Kaufman levels with his scripted, intentionally stilted welcome comments and insistence on playing trumpet, at one point, directly into the guitar.
Bodega (Sidewinder Patio): Speaking of the Parquet Courts, they may officially be an influence. The connection is most pronounced with Brooklyn-based Bodega, whose upcoming debut was produced by Austin Brown. At the Pianos NYC day party, Bodega showed off a wild side, their set being part B-52s rock party vibe, part Rolling Stones “Sympathy For The Devil” classic rock throwdown. There’s more to the band then wry detached hipster observation. Ben Hozie’s introduction to many of the songs in the set not only placed them in context but served to open him up to the accepting crowd. This will be New York’s next big sensation.
Bones UK (Side Bar): Howard Stern gave Bones, a London-based female guitar and bass duo, their biggest break in America by slotting them on his Bowie tribute. Although their brief set at the 12th annual Athens In Austin day party didn’t leave them time to cover “I’m Afraid Of Americans,” they were able to ratchet up the girl power with “Beautiful Is Boring” and the sarcastic “Girls Can’t Play Guitar.” Wearing matching commando jumpsuits, Rosie and Carmen had the Trey and Mike trampoline bit down cold. Only without the trampolines.
The Texas Gentlemen (Antone’s): Hours after serving as the house band for the Jerry Garcia tribute at the Brooklyn Bowl Family Reunion, the modern-day version of Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band concluded the New West Records showcase with covers of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In,” their own “Habby Dooby” and a marvelous mash up of Link Wray’s “Rumble” and “Shaking All Over.” Although the Gentleman seem destined to follow in the footsteps of great and adaptable bands like The Wrecking Crew, Funk Brothers and Booker T & The MGs, when they want to, they can just be an old-fashioned bar band rock and roll.
Starcrawler (The Main II): With the band launching into a screeching crescendo, Starcrawler’s lead singer Arrow de Wildebum rushed the stage, literally body checking your humble narrator out of her way in a mad dash towards the stage. Channeling the theatricality of Alice Cooper and goth-horror bands from the past generation, Starcrawler gives you an idea as to what it would be like to see Aubrey Plaza on meth fronting a hard rock band. de Wilde finished the set by bursting back into the crowd and going on a small frenetic rampage.
RVG (Barracuda): The Romy Vager Group – not Ruth Vader Ginsburg, which would be fantastic were it true – aren’t your stereotypical SXSW outfit. The Aussies’ set at the Part Time Punks & Felte showcase centered exclusively on simple straightforward rock with lyrics like “I used to love you but now I don’t.” Vager’s voice, a scratchy growl, isn’t wonderful but it’s unavoidably gripping, conveying emotion with blunt directness, not dissimilar to Lou Reed’s often-affectless delivery. Lacking any pretension or stage presence, RVG might simply be called BAND, which should not be taken as an insult as they are exactly what you would want from your rock and roll band.
Deva Mahal (Antone’s): The daughter of blues musician Taj Mahal nearly broke the hearts of the Miles Davis House day party with her smoky, cabaret-style rendering of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” Breaking down twice herself, Mahal pulled off what every contestant on American Idol or The Voice tries to do: revel in the majesty of a song. Mahal doesn’t follow in the blues-funk footsteps of her father. Even with the Dap Kings’ Binky Griptite sharing the stage, she primarily kept her repertoire to torch songs with simple keyboard accompaniment. Like the rest of the audience, Griptite simply stood mesmerized by the young singer’s voice.
Golden Dawn Arkestra (Native Hostel): The trippy funk collective that travels under the name of the Golden Dawn Arkestra, transformed the warehouse environs into a bacchanalian festival. The intergalactic progeny of Parliament/Funkadelic and Sly &The Family Stone grabbed the sprawling crowd’s attention by simply parading through them as if it was Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street before amassing on the stage. The GDA do seem like something that Bill Hader’s Stefon would make up because it had everything: costumes, makeup, Roman J. Israel, Esq., dancing, a woman with half a shaved head, flamenco dancing, interpretive art and an old guy with a wizened beard just sitting there. (Hey, if I could make this funnier, I’d be John Mulaney).
Dawg Yawp (Swan Dive): In the world of guitar and sitar duos, I’ve got to imagine that Dawg Yawp is its Simon & Garfunkel. Given that Ravi Shankar wasn’t exactly unknown, it seems bizarre that no one has put these two instruments together; Dawg Yawp may very well be the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of folk music. Oh yes, Tyler Randall and Rob Keenan can also sing and their harmonies, along with the beautiful drone of the instruments, makes for a truly heady jam.