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KCSU at SXSW 2015: South-By Superlatives

KCSU at SXSW 2015: South-By Superlatives

By Zach Johnson | March 30, 2015

Last week, Austin was overtaken by countless music and film fans for South by Southwest, the annual festival that brings over 2,300 bands to play over 100 different venues over the course of a few days. I had the fortune (mostly luck, if we’re being honest) to attend SXSW with a Music Badge, which allowed me to see over 50 acts in four days. It was a lot of shows; some were great, others not so much. In celebration of such an awesome week, I decided to award some superlatives to ten acts that stood out among the others, for better or worse.

“The Unexpected”: Songhoy Blues
Or: the best band from a country you couldn’t point out on a map. I caught the Mali four-piece on accident after a ho-hum set from Moon Duo at the Hotel Vegas, and it turned out to be the best decision I made all night. They played some jammy blues rock with a northern African twist that transformed an unsuspecting crowd into believers before they knew what hit them. They looked so happy to be there, singer Allou Toure was a dancing force to be reckoned with, and nobody (including the band) left without a smile on their face. Start listening to them right now.

Lust for Youth

Lust for Youth live at the Mohawk.

“The Underachiever”: Lust for Youth
Swedish/Dutch group Lust for Youth specialize in coldwave-y minimal synth, a genre I love with all my heart but haven’t explored much in a live setting. LFY made me think I should continue avoiding it. I’ve never seen a band look more bored on-stage; singer Hannes Norrvide had the guff to even sing the first song sitting down, facing away from the audience, and the rest of the band didn’t show much more oomph. I know it’s all an act of “hip detachment,” but it bored me to tears and made me physically angry. Live performances should never be this apathetic.

“The Entertainer”: Only Real
Only Real, aka Niall Galvin, is kind of weird. The Londoner’s music exists somewhere between Wavves-y surf pop and hip-hop, creating a rather one-of-a-kind mixture. Galvin, with a capable backing band, proved to be a great entertainer, showing off his faux-Elvis dance moves and dropping silly stage banter in a very thick British accent. I was laughing throughout. His tunes aren’t quite there (other than the infectious “Cadillac Girl”), but there’s a lot of potential here, and if the music thing doesn’t work out, he could be a comedian.

“The Handicap”: Viet Cong
When Matt Flegel, frontman of the post-punk foursome, introduced his band as “Viet Leppard,” I thought it was perhaps a response to the recent controversy behind the group’s name. But it turns out drummer Mike Wallace had broken his hand a week earlier and was going to play the entire set one-handed. He did so almost perfectly (so much respect!), and the rest of the band tore through cuts off their fantastic self-titled album, almost tearing the Mohawk to shreds. Hannibal Buress guest-drumming for Speedy Ortiz was pretty great, but for my money, this was the most memorable handicap of the week.

“The Throw in the Towel”: Gang of Four
Post-punk legends Gang of Four have been going since 1977, with only one original member (guitarist Andy Gill) remaining. I was excited to check out one of the all-time greats in a live setting, but their set at the Hotel Vegas was absolutely embarrassing. Gill attempted to move around like a rock star half his age, but looked ridiculous and continually bumped into his band members, knocking them off their game and obviously keeping spirits low. Punchy post-punk jam “Damaged Goods” sounded flat and dull, and the new backing band (all of which are half the age of Gill) looked bored and unhappy to be there. It’s time to give it up, Gill.

“The Nightmare”: Pharmakon
Harsh noise artist Margaret Chardiet, aka Pharmakon, unleashed the set that will haunt my dreams for another week or so at the Hotel Vegas on Thursday. Chardiet looped deafening backdrops of sheet-metal smacking, then invaded audience members’ personal bubbles, screaming and crying into their faces. She spent just as much time on the stage as she did off it, crawling around the Vegas floor surrounded by a sea of cell phones. I saw a lot of sets during SXSW and I’ll probably forget a lot of them within a year, but the Pharmakon set will not be one of them.

Diarrhea Planet

Diarrhea Planet live at The Side Bar.

“The Rock Star”: Diarrhea Planet
Despite having the worst band name in the history of band names, Diarrhea Planet make some pretty great upbeat punk rock. Stacked with five members of the band playing a guitar, this left each member of the band free to participate in as many energetic rock-star maneuvers as they wanted. Jordan Smith was the best, perpetually in a squatting position and climbing on top of anything he could find. At one point, Smith was rocking out on a picnic table, almost spilling over people’s beers, another guitarist was riding on an audience member’s shoulders around the crowd, and everyone in the crowd was headbanging along. ‘Twas a good time, indeed.

“The Underappreciated”: Sales
I was very charmed by Florida two-piece Sales’ eponymous debut EP that was released late last year, so they were one band I really needed to catch at SXSW. Problem is, they played out-of-the-way venues at inconvenient time slots, with larger parties apparently not giving them the time of the day. I finally caught them at a dive bar, The Dirty Dog, at noon on the last day of the festival, and they played their downbeat, catchy indie pop to a small crowd of about 15-20 people. Lauren Morgan and Jordan Shih both have great stage presence, Morgan sounds perfect, and I wasn’t even bothered that much by their use of a drum machine. Here’s hoping they play to more people next SXSW.

“The Bizarro”: Tanya Tagaq
You may have heard cuts from Tanya Tagaq’s bizarre Animism here on KCSU; I adamantly added it to our rotation even though it makes for terrifying, alienating radio. Tagaq is an Inuk (indigenous Canadian) throat singer and specializes in making the most inhuman noises you’ve ever heard come out of a person’s mouth. She shrieked and moaned through a single 30-minute piece, accompanied by a violin player and a drummer, and put on the most peculiar, enthralling set I saw all week. If you ever get a chance to see her live (she doesn’t seem to do much touring), I’d never forgive you for missing her.

“The Kawaii”: Kero Kero Bonito
“Who the hell are Kero Kero Bonito?” I asked my friend as we entered the Hype Hotel stage. The long answer: they’re a Japanese/British trio (one of which is also known as Kane West, part of the PC Music crew) that makes head-scratching, cutesy electropop sang half in Japanese and half in English. The short answer: they’re positively kawaii (Japanese for cute). This was their first time in America, and they definitely had me converted by the end of their set. Every time I looked away for a second, frontwoman Sarah Bonito had pulled a different prop out of nowhere, whether it be a stuffed crocodile or a graduation gown. It felt like I had somehow transported inside of the Internet, and it was a great feeling indeed.