South By Southwest


Written by Lauren Down
Photos and illustrations by Lauren Down, Sebastien Dehesdin, Anika Mottershaw, Graeme Flegenheimer
04 Monday 04th April 2011

Main image: Still Corners by Sebastien Dehesdin

Austra by Sebastien Dehesdin

The first evening of listed shows brought the classically trained, Canadian born Katie Stelmanis to the stage. Stelmanis has adopted many guises over the years; from riot grrrl guitarist and little-known guest vocalist, to solo artist and lead Austra chanteuse, but it is only the latter we need concern ourselves with this evening. In a densely crowded room, under a dimly lit stage the Lightman sisters of Tasseomancy (formerly Ghost Bees) fame flank the enchanting Stelmanis as backing singers and dancers.

A far cry from the soft, folk infused oeuvre of their work as a duo, Austra’s output is a heady mix of dark brooding disco and dense electro pop that is not a far cry from the slick harmonies of Oh Land or the haunting melodies of Zola Jesus. Pulsating synthesisers and soaring, stentorian vocals pay homage to the classical obsessions of Stelmanis’ childhood as well as the more contemporary fascinations of her adolescence. Playing on top of a backing track that cut out in the last song, Stelmanis later admitted to me that keeping the layered, textured feel of their recorded sound is “very difficult, and something that we struggle with and that we have been working on for a long time. We’re just now starting to figure out the balance.” For a band still figuring things out, Austra’s unique brand of pop, for the most part, sounded remarkably accomplished.

Twin Shadow by Sebastien Dehesdin

Then came Wednesday, a more insurmountable day than the last, as pedestrianised roads filled with revellers falling in and out of bars. Perching on the second level balcony of Mohawk my cohort and I stumble across Twin Shadows George Lewis Jr looking typically stylish as he takes to the stage. Working their way through numbers taken from last years’ delicate synth driven debut, Lewis and co push tempos and up guitar presence. Even with an average of three shows a day lined up for the next few days Twin Shadow show no signs of pacing themselves as every poetic hook and infectious melody is intensified.

Spending the rest of the day meandering in and out of beautiful sets from the likes of Porcelain Raft, Tennis and the stunning Marques Toliver (pictured above by Anika Mottershaw), the evening finds me in Stubbs for Yuck’s largest show to date. Having experienced somewhat of a backlash since releasing their eponymous album, the quartet’s blistering set proves they are still a fantastic live band. Catching up with the four-piece later in the week they revealed this was the highlight of the festival for them, having often played more intimate venues, guitarist Max Bloom admitted that it was “really nice being on a big stage, where you can hear everything perfectly. You can’t attempt to keep a gig like that intimate but it’s way more nerve racking to play a gig where you can see peoples eyes and facial expressions rather than it just turning into a sea of people.”

Alisa Xayalith of The Naked And Famous by Lauren Down

Thursday brings the infectious pop of The Naked and Famous and later on the angular, jittery noise punk of Secretly Canadian band Suuns. A swirling blend of furious, choppy guitars and abstract electronica the four-piece create compelling, rhythmically obscure melodies that are oddly infectious. As droning vocals howl over wispy cymbals I duck out of the dancing crowd and hot foot it through the bustling streets to catch The Kills on the other side of town.

The air is thick with anticipation as Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart can be seen psyching themselves up in the wings. Well versed in all things rock ‘n’ roll, the pair’s rapport with the fans wins them instant adulation as the dirty bass of classic ‘No Wow’ swells against sultry, angry vocals. This being SXSW, the duo primarily focuses on showcasing new material while the crowd becomes increasingly despondent. Despite waning interest, typically reverb drenched, art-rock numbers taken from newly released Blood Pressures set the speaker stacks rumbling.

Merrill Garbus by Sebastien Dehesdin

A day later and I find myself back at Emo’s mainroom watching Esben and The Witch before heading to the beautifully tranquil surroundings of the French Legation Museum, for an outdoor set from the beautifully eccentric Merrill Garbus, aka Tune-Yards. As the crowd lounges on the grass in the afternoon sun someone yells “Why are you so funky?” to the delight of the talented singer before she breaks into her absolutely stunning set that included ‘Gangsta’ and ‘Bizness’ taken from forthcoming album w h o k i l l, due out on April 18 via 4AD. 

Death from Above 1979

Her performance that afternoon is a definite contender for my favourite show of the entire festival, but it does have to compete with catching Death From Above 1979’s sweat drenched, “riot” inducing reunion in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Once the much reported situation outside has settled Jesse F Keeler and Sebastien Grainger finished their set in style with ‘Romantic Rights’ crazed blend of rave, metal and punk.

As fans, musicians and industry-types alike stagger home side-by-side, bleary eyed and buzzing from SXSW’s 25th anniversary I think its safe to say that while the music industry is changing, it’s still very much alive - in Austin, Texas at least.

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