Not all hype is unwarranted: Janelle Monae @ SXSW, 3/21

27 03 2009

So Janelle Monae is pretty sick, right? Right. She only played three songs and still, I was completely blown away by her performance Saturday at the Rockville CA (which is actually a half-decent new Web show from the 1.5 episodes I’ve watched) party at the SXSW East Tent. I think it was mostly because I was half-confused by her. Her image is one concept, her music is another completely different concept. Equestrian-inspired outfits with saddle shoes and sizable bouffant, futuristic alt-R&B operas (titled The Chase Suite, which is set in the future world of Metropolis). As a former Outkast collaborator, Diddy associate and Grammy nominee, Monae is pioneering what’s next in the world of musical fusion — over-the-top concepts executed by ultra-stylized characters.

photo by Jillian Mapes

Monae’s stage production is just that — a production. Her look is just so, and when her perfect bubble of hair and cleanly ironed shirt get fussed up from her energetic dance moves (understatement of the century), she goes backstage between songs to collect herself. This sounds tedious and totally annoying, but it’s actually not — it adds anticipation to the set.

While Monae proved her offbeat vision and persona on her opening song, she reigned in the weirdness on her second song – a soulful cover of the Nat King Cole standard “Smile.” The song showed off Monae’s singing chops, proving that as “weird” as Monae can be, she can also compete with singers like Whitney and Mariah (overstatement, perhaps, but the girl can sing). Monae’s guitar player lightly strummed along, which was the perfect accompaniment for her impressive vocals.

photo by Jillian Mapes

Monae delved right back into her futuristic M.O. after “Smile,” but it was a welcome change to see her musical dimensions on a classic track. She ended her set by crowd-surfing, with her stiffened legs sticking straight into the air. Never did I think I’d see someone crowd-surfing while wearing saddle shoes.

Check Monae’s video for “Many Moons” and be confused in the best way possible. — Jillian Mapes

Mess With Texas Party 3 gives SXSW Day Four a run for its money

27 03 2009

What’s that I smell? Is that animosity stinking up the spring freshness of Austin? Animosity doesn’t smell too terrible when mixed with the booze breath and weed/cigarette smoke polluting the air at SXSW, but every once and a while you get a strong whiff that’s enough to knock you on your ass. The Mess With Texas Party 3 was enough to knock me from behind AND make me raise an eyebrow. Talk about blowing the official SXSW shows out of the water (besides P.J. Harvey at Stubb’s, of course, which I didn’t even attempt to get into when I saw the line for badge-holders was halfway down the block).

As a SXSW virgin this year, I had no idea there would be so many good free shows happening all around Austin. I was also oblivious to the fact that some Austin locals aren’t exactly pleased with the thousands of industry big-wigs and crazy journos who infest their city for private shows, but it makes complete sense (sorry guys). From the French Legation Museum and Ms. Beas to the Fader Fort and Paste Magazine parties at Radio Room, Austin residents not wanting to dish out precious bucks for wristbands (seriously, who does that?) had plenty of free options this year. Out of all of them, though, the Mess With Texas Party featured the most impressive line-up.

Sponsored by Austin’s Transmission Entertainment and Los Angeles’ F Yeah Fest, Mess With Texas raged hard from noon ’til ten (supposed to be 9, but they were running behind) on March 21 at Waterloo Park. Headliners included The Black Lips, The Circle Jerks, Akron/Family, Kid Sister, Cursive and The Thermals. This wasn’t some minor D.I.Y. effort at a dive bar — this was a major event with two stages, tons of vendors and thousands of attendees. And it was completely free and open to the public. What a revolution — an event during SXSW without a pushy doorman toting a hierarchal V.I.P. list!

After catching an uber-short, mind-blowing performance from Janelle Monae, I hauled ass across town to Waterloo Park. I was praying Akron/Family would still be performing when I showed up, and it seems as though the spirits were feeling extra generous that day. The Pennsylvanian freak-folk rockers were doing the tribal thang when I joined the rambunctious crowd, like always.

photo by Jillian Mapes

The last time I saw Akron/Family (at the Nelsonville Art and Music Festival), they were joined on stage by intoxicated, maraca-toting members of the grunge-grass band O’Death. This time around the drummer from Atlanta rap up-and-comers B.O.B., named Alien, was busting out some beats on the high-hat while Akron/Family jammed onward in a psychedelic haze. Two female fans sporting marijuana leaf head bands danced in the periphery as well. Not surprised.

I am consistently amazed by Akron/Family because they find innovative ways to incorporate what can most clearly be defined as world music into indie rock. Experimental brethren Animal Collective are masters of this style as well, but Akron/Family’s music is certainly less atonal. I’ve never seen a group of young show-goers so interested in African tribal chants and circle dances as those in attendance at the Akron/Family performance at Mess With the Texas 3.

From what I could tell, the band played mostly new songs from their May release, titled Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free. I was praying they’d play “Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead” from their last album Love is Simple, but it didn’t happen while I was there. Akron/Family did, of course, break out their signature tie-dye American flag during the performance.

As I waited for The Black Lips to take the main stage, I caught most of B.O.B.’s performance on the side stage directly following Akron/Family. The rapper Bobby Ray, who was joined on stage by guitar-and-drum-toting cohorts and uses the alias B.O.B., mixed The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” with uh, much more typical beats to create an infectious track that kept my head bobbing. I’m not typically into “crunk-punk,” but I was vibing on the guitar lines framing B.O.B.’s rhymes.

As for The Black Lips, I was completely underwhelmed. I don’t know if I was just completely exhausted or if they were just off on Saturday, but I found myself sitting on the sidewalk dozing off. I was specifically waiting around to see the garage-punk buzz band tear shit up at Mess With Texas because they are known to pull some outrageous live stunts like nudity, pyrotechnics, etc. All I could do was slump over like a sleep-deprived zombie (which I was by day four of SXSW). Even the songs I recognized from their albums just seemed blah to me. I’m thinking it was because I literally had no energy left, so I definitely want to see Black Lips play live again to reassess. The most interesting part of the show was that there was a line of fans crowding the back of the stage for the entirety of the performance. I’m sure the band’s energy was more dynamic from such a view.

photo by Jillian Mapes

As I began to drag my sore, tired body to exit at Waterloo Park, I stopped at the side stage one last time, knowing that once I left Mess With Texas my first SXSW experience would come to a close forever. The performer was none other than Chicago hip-hop home girl Kid Sister, whom I had heard horrendous talk about earlier in the week. I was just waiting for her to make me cringe, make me want to flee the scene, but she didn’t. Sure, she seemed really into her nails and even admitted to having a sore throat and weak voice, but she and her brother J2K from Flosstradamus got me tapping my feet. Which got me dancing in place. Which eventually gave me the energy to make the long trek back home to our crew’s SXSW digs. For that, all I can say is thanks, Kid Sister. — Jillian Mapes

St. Vincent & quirky female cohorts pack ’em in @ Antone’s, 3/20

22 03 2009

I was faced with one of the most difficult choices of the entire trip last night: Should I see DEVO or St. Vincent? Since I couldn’t get in to the showcase I was most excited about (Peter Bjorn & John, Grizzly Bear, Dinosaur Jr. @ Cedar Street) because I’m only twenty, I figured the songstress Annie Clark known as St. Vincent or the new wave nerds known as DEVO were my best bets. After much consideration I chose St. Vincent, whom I saw on tour with John Vanderslice tour two years ago. She was unknown at the time, and as she prepares to release her second album on May 5, she is far from obscure.

(Check out our interview with Annie Clark here)

photo by Jillian Mapes

Performing before the Dallas native at Friday’s showcase by the Billions Corporation were other imaginative female artists, two of whom I had the pleasure of watching. I walked right into Antone’s having now idea that Theresa Andersson was about to captivate me with just two songs. The most striking performance quality of the Swedish singer, who now resides in New Orleans, is the layering in her songs. She’s a one-woman band, incorporating loops of vocal effects to harmonize with herself. While plenty of other artists use looping as a means of giving a song a bit more depth, Andersson constructs her whole sound by deftly maneuvering the layers. And did I mention she has one helluva voice, too? The girl sings quite well in a style that is clearly influenced by soul cuts and 1960s girl groups. Mix in a dash of upbeat indie sensibility and BAM! — brilliance is born. Andersson ended her set with a cover of a classic New Orleans blues song, of which I sadly did not catch the name.

Portland songstress-guitarist Mirah followed Andersson, and I wasn’t immediately awed. After a few songs, Mirah seemed a bit more dynamic than she initially did with her teeny, tiny voice and casual strumming. Her last song, titled “Cold Cold Water,” rose with a warmth until it erupted with powerful snare drum cadences and creeping guitar. As the song swelled to its full potential, Mirah took to her tip-toes, which were perched bare atop a small square of carpet upon the stage. The crowd was right there with her.

St. Vincent took to the stage around midnight, with extended band in tow. A recognizable face — former John Vanderslice violinist Daniel Hart — jumped out at me from my days as a professional JV lover. Clark and her band ripped into a new song immediately, making it oh-so apparent that her upcoming album will be a colorful effort complete with flutes, clarinets and violin. The song was pleasantly sophisticated until Clark went spastic on guitar, channeling the Talking Heads — a common trend on new St. Vincent tracks, from what I can tell.

As Clark mentioned in her interview with our crew, she enjoys the juxtaposition of hard and soft elements within music. Her poignantly delicate vocal style will always sway her more toward beauty than fury, but new tracks like “Out of Work Actor” come dangerously close to showcasing rawness like never before seen in St. Vincent’s music. I am tremendously excited to hear Actor upon its release.

St. Vincent fans got what they were looking for with one of the last tracks she played during her 45-minute set, “Marry Me.” The song is arguably the most well-known track off her first solo album of the same name, which is a thinly-veiled “Arrested Development” reference. The crowd erupted as she plays the opening chords, and marriage proposals were screamed from the audience. Never missing a beat, Clark responded by saying, “I think we know the punchline to that joke.”

We surely do, St. Vincent, and we’re laughing more than ever.

-Jillian Mapes

Wavves’ Nathan Williams drunkenly beats a piñata @ SXSW, 3/20

21 03 2009

So everyone on the planet has heard of Wavves by now, right? *Insert eye roll* Nathan Williams, alias WAVVES, has been a buzz child within the blogosphere for the past several months. He’s an overnight superstar in the underground indie world, having only played his first show on Halloween 2008, according to Spin Magazine.

photo by Jillian Mapes

I should not have been surprised by Wavves’ behavior because of his instant fame, but somehow I was. The San Diego lo-fi surf rocker, who seems to have a Kurt Cobain complex, took the stage at the French Legation Museum on Thursday afternoon two and a half hours late, demanded that his posse bring him more whiskey and fumbled with the chord progressions in his own songs. Wavves delved into his biggest track, “So Bored,” second, and I realized how appropriate a song title it is, given my mood at the time. Seriously, it was snooze-ville, mostly because it was Wavves sans-drummer, which is typically Williams’ live style. Wavves sounds much better on his full-length, titled Wavvvess, which he told me in a post-show interview was recorded on Garage Band by himself because he’s a “musical control freak.”

After playing three tracks, Williams looked up and drunkenly asked if he had time for one more. He had played three two-minute songs and asked if he had time for one more. Are you serious?, I thought. He begrudgingly made his way through a new track. Seriously, why is the indie rock community embracing such pretentious figures?

photo by Jillian Mapes

As surprising as his performance was, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Following the show, Wavves made his way down to the valley at the French Legation Museum where a hand-made piñata was waiting. A clearly intoxicated Wavves, who was chasing his whiskey with a can of Sprite, was blindfolded (much to his dismay) and started whacking away. He beat that thing to death and threw down the murder weapon — an orange stick. Bad things happen when people give drunk hipsters wooden objects for violent purposes, and that’s all I can say about that.

So then Palestra Music Department producer Nick Jones and I waited…and waited for Wavves to ready himself for our interview. We eventually sat down with him in an ice cream truck, during which the drunken 22-year-old blew cigarette smoke into the camera and commented on his favorite “Seinfeld” episode. We were ecstatic with the outrageous results, to say the least. Keep an eye out for our on-camera with Wavves coming soon — you will not be disappointed by the hijinks. — Jillian Mapes

Pretty & Nice spazz @ Sub Pop showcase, 3/19

21 03 2009

It’s common knowledge that every media outlet is in hot pursuit of “the next big band” at SXSW, and this journo thinks she’s found hers (whoa @ that loaded statement!). I’ve been hyping Boston dance-punks Pretty & Nice for months now, since I randomly stumbled across their second release Get Young last October. SPIN agrees with me, apparently, as the mag placed the band on its list of top nine unknown bands to watch at SXSW ’09.

photo by Jillian Mapes

I headed to the band’s 12:30 a.m. performance at the Sub Pop showcase at Radio Room on Wednesday, where the band’s nu new wave ways came across even more dynamically live. A bit of well-intentioned, light-hearted snark can works wonders in a room full of show-dwellers who are probably sick of the ill-willed, pretentious snark running rampant among unknown bands at an outlet like SXSW, which elevates relatively obscure bands to superstar “buzz” levels. Pretty & Nice proved this by having one helluva time on stage and infecting the audiences with their unstoppable fun vibes.

Comparisons to The Futureheads have been made, but I feel as though that comparison falls slightly flat for Pretty & Nice. The band seems to embrace the lo-fi surf-pop feeling behind a band like Vivian Girls, such as on the song “Wandering Eye.” The track, among others on Get Young, certainly add new dimensions uncommon in current indie dance-rock, classic new wave and ’60s pop. Spastic as spitfire and ready to use those falsettos, Pretty & Nice are next on the list for buzz machine famedom. Just trust me on this one — I’m prone to overarching statements but I’m feeling dead-on in regards to Pretty & Nice.

Sub Pop synth stalwarts Handsome Furs played next at the Radio Room patio on Thursday night. I unfortunately only caught the last several songs of the husband-wife duo’s late-night set…and Alexei Perry’s unbelievable dance moves twitches and facial contortions. All I can say is holy crap, which I believe were the exact thoughts of my fellow show-goers, too. — Jillian Mapes

A whimsical overload with Andrew Bird @ Stubb’s, 3/19

21 03 2009

Is it just me, or was the Wednesday line-up at Stubb’s a brow-furrowing mish-mash of well-known acts within slightly unrelated genres (uh, Meat Puppets and Andrew Bird on the same bill)? Although the show had the potential to polarize show-goers for its lack of cohesion, Stubb’s was packed regardless. My M.O. for the night was to experience Andrew Bird in all his splendor, and I ended up catching English indie rockers Gomez, who played in the 10 p.m. slot before Bird, in the process.

photo by Jillian Mapes

I had only heard of Gomez in peripheral contexts  before coming to SXSW, and suddenly the buzz of parties and fliers pushed the band into my line of vision. At first I was not exactly sure of how to capture the band’s rock sound because Gomez seemed to mix many genres (electronic elements, blues, even alt-country and slightly jam-y), and fans seemed to enjoy their song-to-song variation and positive energy at Wednesday’s show.

photo Jillian Mapes

Next up was Bird himself, for which I pushed my way through the photo pit to get a few decent shots. Bird and his full band (yes, you heard me) appeared clearly flustered by technical difficulties as they began the set. Fans’ fears of a problematic set melted away after he eased his way into the first several songs until the track “Skin Is,” when technical complications arose yet again. But Bird chugged onward, eventually conducting an audience singalong with drum mallet in hand (please note: Andrew Bird does not play drums).

Jillian Mapes

As a barefoot Bird delved into old favorites, such as “Imitosis” and “Tables and Chairs,” he seemed less careful and perfectly plucky. Bird took his damn sweet time making his way around these tracks, equipped with hints of fuzzy feedback and slower tempos as his tools. These changes allowed Bird’s well-known tunes to take on a refreshed demeanor (much like myself, after I sleep more than five hours a night post-SXSW). Overall, the performance moved beyond “intimate,” a word many use to describe Andrew Bird gigs. I’d say this one was a bit fired up as well. — Jillian Mapes

Cursive @ the French Legation Museum, 3/19

20 03 2009

I’ve seen some pretty rabid Cursive fans in my day. Luckily none of them were at the Other Music day party on Thursday at the French Legation Museum. After having my camera almost crushed by rabid fans at The Hold Steady show, I was not in the mood for more crazies. Very laidback set from the Cursive crew, which is what I’d expect at an outdoor sanctuary like the French Legation Museum.

photo by Jillian Mapes

Cursive’s latest, Mama, I’m Swollen, has been getting mixed reviews since its March 10 release, but the band maintained their brooding punk sensibilities, indie influences and of course, drunken tendencies in their set of new material yesterday. Frontman Tim Kasher ended the short set abruptly and walked off stage without even the slightest consideration for the fans screaming “encore!” What a badass.

Keep your eyes peeled for our interview with Cursive later this weekend. — Jillian Mapes