With the dawn of the disassociating “too cool” culture, all cross-armed and bored-faced, it was difficult to sift through and find truly precious humans, earnest in their heartbreak and in their longing. Luckily Jens Lekman survived the hipocalypse, and is still here to provide us with sweet tunes about awkward lumberjack jackets and the opposite of love. Even though he’s Swedish, Lekman’s music sounds at times like it’s from the Caribbean, and at other times like it’s from Motown. His turns of phrases are unique, clever and often darkly humorous, but even in the darkness he lights the way with bright melodies and poppy flourishes. Lekman will be performing at the Mohawk Tuesday night, so go put a smile on your face. Doors open at 6:30PM. Get tickets here.
There is no such thing as a perfect moment. As much as one might try to will it into existence, it can never be. There is always grit, always a heaping hunk of reality that inserts itself into Hallmark situations to dirty it up a bit. As a self-imposed perfectionist and semi-anal control freak, this is generally very disturbing to me. I have a wild imagination (ask me sometime about my adventures on car trips as a kid with my family, and the various Pegasuses and other flying beasts that followed me on my journey to various grocery stores and friends’ homes), and this can get me into trouble. I’ll picture exactly how I’d love an event to go, get my expectations sky-high, and lose my shit when the tiniest crack peeks through. Now that you all feel very sorry for my boyfriend, I will say that as I have aged, I’ve come to be a little bit more based in reality, but I still do tend to want things to go the way I want them to.
Enter the Arcade Fire gig at the Backyard on Tuesday night. The day was picturesque; a gorgeous Texas day (albeit a bit toasty at around 4 p.m. in the afternoon, when boyfriend Zack and I arrived at the venue – read his review of the show here) that turned into a cool Texas night. Arcade Fire are one of my all-time favorite bands, and I’d been looking forward to this gig since it was announced in the beginning of the year. The Suburbs was my favorite album of 2010 and perfectly captured my childhood in the new-money northeast district of San Antonio, Texas. Funeral was one of the soundtracks to my brief period of unemployment early this year. Neon Bible is a new favorite that channels my frustration with a conservative country, my experience with religion and other more deeply personal aspects of my life. This band has managed to sing about every facet of my being, and they do it with honest-to-goodness passion. To say I had hung high hopes on this night is, as you can imagine, an understatement.
We camped out early, parking near a memorable landmark so we wouldn’t get lost later, and played cards in the dirt, getting covered in dust as we quietly listened in on other people’s conversations. We rationed water carefully, making sure to stay hydrated but not drink enough to have to leave prime spots for bathroom trips (always my biggest fear at shows like this). When the gates finally opened right around 6 p.m., I rushed through, trusting Zack would follow me to the stage and choosing not to look behind me. I managed to save us space in the fourth row from the stage, dead center. Zack caught up, then journeyed to get us some drinks, and we were set. I took just a few sips of cold Lone Star, a very welcome treat after braving the afternoon sun in warm clothes for two hours.
The first wrench in my imagined evening came when there turned out to be a second opener. I was only expecting Explosions in the Sky, my college-years band and hometown instrumental heroes. When five young girls took the stage in coordinated black shorts with different colored tights, I was very skeptical and slightly annoyed. We’d heard the band sound checking and I had reservations. When Schmillion kicked off their first song, though, they put my fears of an unbearable thirty minute set to rest. The girls show potential, and I love that they were put together at Girls’ Rock Camp Austin. The star of the group, far and away, is their lead guitarist (and sometimes-drummer) Frankie Blue. She’s got a fierce stage presence and big personality, and is a very talented musician, usually providing the most interesting parts to each of the bands’ songs. I stayed glued to her for most of the performance, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Strike one against perfection, but it turned out to be a good strike.
Next up was Explosions. The guys opened with “Your Hand In Mine,” the only song I recognized in their 45-minute set and the tune I used to spin during my college radio days. It filled the space in the venue, and allowed me to daydream as I just kept smiling, thinking to myself, “Bring the sunset, boys.” In the middle of their first song, Win Butler and Marika Shaw from Arcade Fire caused a stir when they came out to sit on some equipment off to the side and watch the gig. They headed backstage again after about ten minutes, remaining just long enough to get all of our hearts pumping a little faster. EITS’s set was serene, but ended with a nod to their name: in an explosion of heavy-hitting guitars and flashing stage lights.
The sun was finally setting and the wind was picking up, and my tired body started to doze as stage crew moved the band’s riser closer to the audience. Two giant screens at the top of the stage projected, “COMING SOON: ARCADE FIRE,” and the crowd let out a big whoop. In those moments before the lights dimmed, I hoped quietly that I wouldn’t get squished too badly when Win came close to the edge, and that the band played as long as they could possibly stand to. This was the first show in recent memory where I didn’t wish for “that one song;” there were too many I wanted to hear for me to single out one. Then I stood there with the thousands of others, holding my breath and feeling my heart swell with excitement when everything went black.
On the main projector in the middle of the stage, 70s-era video started to play, forewarning about gangs of the night emerging from bored kids in the suburbs. Then, Vanessa Redgrave sang “Lusty Month of May” over the top of a video of a man wearing a sign proclaiming the end times, “May 21, 2011.” Wicked, Arcade Fire. Wicked.
As the stage darkened again, figures spilled onto it, picking up instruments as screams arose from all areas of the park. The band exploded out of the gate with the appropriate follow-up, “Month of May.” Immediately, I could tell Zack and I were going to be mostly alone in our crazy rocking out, as all of the surrounding fans stood with cameras held high, viewing the show through a manmade lens. It made it all the more delicious when Win stared out at us, smiling right at Zack and I as he sang the line, “The kids are all standing with their arms folded tight.” My entire body felt alive again, and my grin reached from ear-to-ear. I kept frenetically surveying the entire band, blown away that this fantastic group of people won a Grammy this year, and blown away by how they seemed so blown away. Régine Chassagne is one of my biggest heroes; she is a charismatic beacon of light onstage, always dressed in something sparkly and seemingly shimmering from her insides-out. It was a toss-up between staring at her or her husband, my generation’s big brother, Win, who has one of the most infectious wide-eyed grins I’ve ever seen. It fills your heart immediately and makes you feel safe and guided.
At the end of “Month of May,” Win teased us by stepping out on a block in front of the stage that got him closer to my little section of audience. He held his instrument up like a gun, pointing it at fans in the crowd to egg them on and get them moving. Then I heard it — the transition I was hoping for, the song my soul needed. It was “Rebellion (Lies),” and I leapt up and turned to Zack, shrieking the song title giddily. I’d been to a few shows with Zack at this point, and never had I seen him react this way to a song. He was flush with joy, just completely overcome by the moment and his arms wrapped tightly around me as we jumped up and down to the song in unison, the only two people in the front pogo-ing, and loving every second.*
Though there wasn’t as much crowd movement around us as I’d hoped for, “Rebellion (Lies)” kicked off a sing-along that ran straight through the concert. Cries of “Lies! Lies!” lifted to the heavens, and Win approached the crowd, leaning across his block and onto the fence and front row. He sang right to us, and dropped his mic on someone at one point, eyes wide and smiling a surprised and embarrassed apology. My body was twisted in the crowd as people’s ribs locked together, everyone trying to inch just a little closer to Win, hoping to soak up some of his awesome.
“Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” offered me my first moment with Régine. I was shouting the lyrics, hair flying and fist pumping, and I looked over at my lady. She happened to look back at me at that moment, and we shouted lyrics to each other as I jumped up and down and she flashed a big grin at me. I was overcome with love, soaking up the band’s pleasure and performance. And then, Régine was front and center for “Haiti.” And then, everyone was in love with her. Her movements during this personal song seem to speak the words she sings, and her voice almost trembles with emotion, describing her home and the pain that is wrapped up in its history. I looked away from her for only a moment, to watch Win watch his wife, simultaneously in awe and supportive of her, stepping aside to give her space to be free and shine. The whole band seemed lighter as she twirled around the stage.
Win introduced “City With No Children” as a summer song, and the line “Dreamt I drove home to Houston” elicited whoops from a few Texans in the crowd. As the lights darkened for “Rococo,” Win whispered in time to the band’s maracas, “Sugarplum fairy, sugarplum fairy,” and at his command, twinkling green stage lights brightened the space, an eerie fantastical setting that made the twirling clown on the projector all the more unsettling. When Win begged in the song, “Oh my dear God, what is that horrible song they’re singing?” the crowd answered him, nearly zombie-like, with a chorus of “Rococo!” It was a strange dynamic, as if Win was singing the words to his fellow bandmates about all of us in the crowd. It wasn’t divisive or accusatory; merely observational.
Win addressed the crowd again. Describing the next song, he said firmly, “This next one is for anyone who was raised in the church, but wasn’t told the whole truth.” Organs blasted from the speakers, summoning “Intervention,” and my Catholic-raised non-Christian heart burst with joy at the sense of inclusion and understanding I felt in Win’s description and the song’s lyrics.
If anyone felt left out by “Intervention,” we were all a part of “The Suburbs.” It was the song about Texas, the song about modern youth, the song about an uncertain future. My eyes shut tightly for the devastating line, “So can you understand why I want a daughter while I’m still young? I wanna hold her hand and show her some beauty before all this damage is done. But if it’s too much to ask, if it’s too much to ask — then send me a son,” and Zack clasped my hand, sharing in this admission that everything feels up in the air for our generation. As “The Suburbs” melted into “The Suburbs (continued),” the stage got quiet and all that could be heard was a piano, Win’s voice and the chrowd in chorus, admitting with a tear that “If I could have it back, all the time that we wasted — I’d only waste it again.”
One of my favorite tracks on The Suburbs came next. “Suburban War” begins in an understated request, calmly observing the changing state of affairs. The song picks up steam, as the narrator becomes a little more restless, and then steps back again momentarily. At the crest, the words, “The music divides us into tribes. Choose your side, I’ll choose my side,” break into a rush of booming drums and guitars. Win cries, frustrated and near hopelessness, “Oh, my old friends, they don’t know me now!” My head jolted forward involuntarily, as I pictured the faces of people I knew growing up in San Antonio, people I hardly spoke to anymore if at all, with memories flashing in fragments through my brain.
The band kept the energy up with the one-two punch of “Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go,” a pair of Neon Bible favorites. Win explained that he wrote the next song, “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” after moving up to Montreal from Houston ten years ago. “I moved there in the winter, and this is a song inspired by how fucking horrifying and traumatic it was, and then how wonderful it was after that,” he said. “But at first, it was really harsh, ‘cause I don’t think you people know what it’s like, but it’s really cold!” As the band sang the song and the audience clapped along, digital snowflakes fell on the screens behind the group, transporting us to that bitter winter with Win.
We were all waiting for the next song, and Win made us really wait, as the recognizable piano from “We Used To Wait” punctuated the night air and Win stood as still as a statue, staring hard at us and looking spooky with a spotlight hitting his jawline. He finally broke into the song, and immediately lurched toward the crowd again. He jumped on to the fence barrier, reaching out briefly to my middle section before he climbed toward the left and over by the sign language interpreter. He hopped back onstage and directed the crowd as we clapped and sang and, finally, jumped in unison. It was a song that felt like a favorite T-shirt; it just felt good to put on.
Win spoke the most devastating words next, and even seemed to choke up a bit himself as he said them: “All good things must come to an end. ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” the first Arcade Fire song I ever heard, ripped from the speakers, guitars jangling as bodies in the crowd really got moving. When Win sang, “Neighbors all shouting that they found the light,” we replied with a hearty shout of, “We found the light!” and Win gave an impressed, approving smile and nod, which made everyone around me break out in a gleeful smile.
As the dancey tune came to a close, the band waved and blew kisses and generally gave right back the massive affection we supplied them. There was more love in this exchange than I’ve ever felt between a band and its fans. Immediately after watching the last member disappear backstage, chants of “Arcade! Fire!” and “One more song!” sprung up amidst continuous cheering and whistling. The band hardly made us wait three minutes before they reappeared, replaying some of the music video for “The Suburbs”.
“Ready to Start” kept the energy level high, but “Wake Up” was the song that helped everyone reach transcendence. Those punchy guitars and that gut-busting drum insist that every voice chime in to cry, “Oh!” This is a song owned as much by the crowd as it is by the band, and the band hands it over, reveling in the participation. I think the reason it is so hard to review this Arcade Fire show is made most obvious in trying to review this song. I lost myself so deeply in this moment that it is difficult for me to describe. I was in some deep part of myself unknown to my conscious mind (and not even on drugs!), existing there happily for five minutes of my day, just being.
The band could not have ended their show on a more dazzling note than “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains).” My lady Régine was allowed center stage as she sang about the difficulties of being an artist and a dreamer and a lover of nature and freedom, and the stage lights appeased her as she insisted, “I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights!” The second time she sings this line, there is a short instrumental break that erupts in tinkling synth keys, and at that moment, the lights came on and Régine blossomed like some human flower, yielding delicate ribbons that she twirled all around her, delighting the fans. As the song came to a quiet close, Régine and Win gave us heartfelt thanks again, proclaiming their love for Austin as all the band waved and slowly exited. They had created a fabulous world for us to exist in for a little over an hour and a half, and then they left, and the world silently fluttered away, leaving us with a contented afterglow.
Before their very last song, Win spoke bluntly to us, insisting, “You have no idea how good you have it here. Keep it good.” At this statement, my mind was first directed to thoughts of our local music scene and arts culture, and how we all need to stick together and fight to preserve it. Then, I thought about my “perfect plan.” I thought about how badly I wanted to escape Austin after I’d graduated, and run off to my dream job in New York City. I thought about how none of that had happened, and instead I worked a very difficult low-paying job straight out of college, and how that led to me being laid off and unemployed, causing one of the most difficult periods of my life. And then I thought about how, despite not going according to my “perfect plan,” I had somehow managed to make a wonderful and exciting life for myself in Austin, stringing together a group of dear and close friends, finally feeling at home in a city, and becoming a part of its music and writing communities. Finally, I thought about the boy standing next to me, and how we’d met so serendipitously, and how meeting him and forming such a strong bond with him came about because the universe took over and squashed my “perfect plan.” And I thought about just how — not perfect, but exactly right it all turned out to be, and how much more alive I felt. I thought about Win dropping his mic into the crowd, an unplanned mistake that caused his giant, warm and apologetic grin to grace us. I thought about breaking my ankle and missing the 2009 ACL Festival, and how I might have met Zack at the wrong time if I hadn’t gone through that ordeal. And I decided that Win was doling out some of the best big brother advice I’d ever received, and that from now on, instead of chasing perfection, I’d just try to keep it good. Because it is so, so good.
*It’s Zack’s thing (and, really, Zack’s homage to Bill Simmons’ thing) to use footnotes, but I would be remiss if I didn’t add in this personal tidbit here. I have never felt so blissfully happy participating in a hug as I did in this one with this boy at this show. It was like all the warmth on a perfect summer day stretched out on a beautiful beach near the ocean, wrapped tightly around me.
Hitting up an A-Trak gig in 2011 is a very different experience from when the DJ was starting out back in 1997. In the late ‘90s, DJing and turntablism made up a huge scene in the music world, but the general public was still familiar with DJs as the friendly morning voices telling them about the weather, and cranking out pop and rock hits between commercials. If you were at a DJ gig, it was in a club and you were on the floor, dancing wildly and lighting up when a piece of your favorite song leapt out at your ears from the mix, or raving with glowsticks under the influence of cosmetics. If you were really into the scene, you were nodding your head as other DJs scratched sick patterns into vinyl grooves. The prevailing venue for DJ gigs, though, was the nightclub, and no matter how technically talented a DJ was, he or she was still mostly considered a background performer.
Flash forward to April 20, 2011, in a new club in downtown Austin called Venue 222. A bouncer collects tickets from fans at the door, who are lined up to see one of their favorite artists perform. There are no drums onstage, though, and no guitars, basses, or even mic stands. When I walk in at 10 p.m., there’s just a folding table set up with two turntables side-by-side on top, and two guys with huge earphones slid around their necks, nodding their heads. This is the modern-day DJ gig: it’s like any other rock concert, which makes for a very diverse crowd.
After warming up with opening sets by the Gaslamp Killer and Kid Sister, the audience was antsy for A-Trak’s arrival. As the stage crew cleared the folding table from the front of the stage, a giant structure covered by a plastic grey sheet became the focus. After setting up behind the sheet, the crew finally pulled it off to reveal a giant, abstract “A” with LED lights inset. It was very 70s and very, very cool. When A-Trak entered the scene, the crowd went crazy and the diversity really revealed itself. During his set, half of the crowd was club dancing (and one guy had LED gloves on, passionately raving by himself as onlookers smiled), while the rest held up their phones and pocket cameras, recording songs and snapping photos of A-Trak, just like you’d see at a rock show.
A-Trak, born Alain Macklovitch, is totally savvy to the changing world of DJing, since he’s grown alongside it through his young adult years. He got into DJing when he realized he had a knack for it.
“I found I had this sort of natural disposition for it, and then that turned into a really serious hobby, where I would come home everyday after school and practice for many hours,” A-Trak says. “It was a lot of dedication — a little obsessive.”
The obsession paid off. At the tender age of 15, A-Trak won the DMCs World Championship, the biggest DJing competition at the time. And no wonder — he was incredible. This win kick-started his career.
“Suddenly I was getting a whole lot of press, all types of magazines, and getting booked internationally from clubs to festivals to really experimental stuff, collaborating with all different musicians — it opened a lot of doors,” A-Trak says.
A-Trak has since expanded his resume; he’s sort of the Jack White of the dance and hip-hop world, producing albums for Kanye West, breaking Kid Cudi on his music label, Fool’s Gold, working with huge fashion labels like Nike and Zoo York, and remixing and DJing with an expanding list of genres. “That’s how my mind needs to work,” he says. “I need to work on many things at the same time.”
Though DJing has become far more widespread over the years, A-Trak says there are definitely still a few misconceptions about it. “Every era has its own misconceptions. I think now, the big catchphrase everybody likes to say is, ‘DJs are like rockstars!’ I don’t even know what that means. I think if anything, it points to the idea that the biggest thing about DJing now might be the cult of personality. Maybe people don’t know so much about the craft, you know what I mean? A lot of people just know, ‘We’re gonna go to a show and watch this guy play songs we like, and he’s gonna throw his hands in the air.’ That’s one aspect of DJing, but there’s definitely a craft.”
A-Trak is a master of the craft. In his later teen years, he began to develop a notation system for scratching. “It looks more like a seismograph than anything, like a lie detector almost. The basic idea is just to draw a graph of the record movement. It’s very scientific.”
Despite his technical proficiency, A-Trak himself admits that one of his biggest hits, “Barbara Streisand,” which he did with his partner Armand Van Helden in his side project Duck Sauce, was far more basic. “The music is deceptively simple. Super simple. It’s more about the emotion and the reaction that it brings out. I think a lot of it even has to do with our personalities and how we gel with our sort of weirdo sense of humor. What we actually do in the studio, is kindergarten.”
Still, he says, there is a craft to the simplicity here, too. “The production is super simple, but I think the big key to the success of Duck Sauce is the fact that we get it to sound really good. For songs to become universal, of the level that ‘Barbara Streisand’ got, they have to be at a level of sonics that just please people at an instinctive level, where you don’t really think about, ‘Oh yeah, that really sounds good!’ It has to work everywhere. If a car’s passing by and the song’s playing on the radio, you wanna be able to recognize it.”
With technical talent and a knack for great production, A-Trak could really consider himself set. But on top of this, he’s a savvy performer who knows how to use modern tools to communicate and brand himself.
“The relationship between the artist and fans is really different,” he says. “It’s a process where you have to be more directly involved with your fan base, ‘cause they have to go buy tickets.” So he’s utilized social media sites like MySpace and Twitter to reach out directly.
“I think in the beginning I was a little hesitant to get on, because on the more personal life level, it’s like I don’t wanna meet people online, that’s weird. You know? But I kinda had to do it because of my career, and once I got on, my impression is — it’s just how things are.”
A-Trak has become the king of Twitter, sending short notes to fans directly as he tours around the country. “I like Twitter because I like the immediacy of it. I’m always on the move, and anytime I hop in a cab and for ten minutes I’m just kinda sitting in the back seat, with no one to talk to, but not enough time to really do anything constructive — I just start tweeting. There are a lot of moments like that, with just the way my life is. There’s a lot of movement, a lot of in-between things I have to do, and it’s fun to write my thoughts. I’m a fan of the brain fart, something that pops in your head and you say it.”
Not only does A-Trak utilize social media to connect to fans, but he’s an expert at working off of the crowd in live performances. He knows just when to flash a grin, when to climb up on top of his table, when to step back and survey, and when to talk to his fans to pump them up. There is also still a bit of the brazen 15-year-old DMC Champ in A-Trak, choosing to use his samples to communicate through his music. More than anything, these days he lives up to his promise in the Duck Sauce hit “aNYway:” “I can do it any way that you want it.”
There are some artists in this world who possess voices that speak to you immediately and viscerally; these are the voices that make your ears perk up upon first listen, but then dive deeper into a part of you that is normally quiet, private and clutching. Sarah Jaffe is one of these artists. Not only does her literal voice grab you (it is the textbook definition of honeyed), but also the voice of her words — the raw, honest place her songs are coming from — hit at that tender spot that make you melt. This is why you should be at the Ghost Room Friday evening.
Jaffe is a master of songwriting. The melodies are varied and interesting, her lyrics range from tongue-in-cheek to heart-on-sleeve, and the entire package will roll over you like a freight train, but leave you feeling completely satisfied for it. Live, Jaffe is lovable and skilled. Her on-stage banter is self-deprecating and personal, and her guitar licks are trance-inducing. She had a huge year in 2010, releasing her first full-length album, Suburban Nature, on Kirtland Records, touring with artists like Midlake and Norah Jones, and making all kinds of Best-of lists, including ranking third on Paste’s 10 best new artists of 2010. Most exciting of all, she’s a Texan! Jaffe lives in Denton, and grew up in a tiny town outside of Dallas. Support Texas music and have your mind blown, all for the price of $10. See you there.
Wednesday night at the Mohawk was like riding an emotional roller coaster, with all participants shoved in one tiny box car, spontaneously howling with delight, holding tight to one another for dear life and sweating all over the place while incredible local bands navigated us on our way.
The evening opened up with Dark Water Hymnal, a five-piece that plays orchestral pop music for woodland elves at a dance party. There were definite nods to Frightened Rabbit, and the group peaked at their second-to-last song, “ Wherever We Are.” It was the best blend of their Tolkien folk-meets-modern dance rock, and the lyrics were immediate and affecting. One concert attendee, J.D., approached me with his input: “What a well put-together band. They’re raw and more alive in some songs — just really nice. I’d want to introduce these guys to my friends. I’d take them home to my parents.” They’re sharp on record, and with a little more time, I think their live show has the potential to hit just as hard.
Next up, Little Lo took the stage. The band isn’t even 100% settled on all of their song titles, so I’ll do the best I can here. The tiny inside room at the Mohawk was packed the whole night, and there were a lot of Chatty Cathys up in there (my kind way of saying Austin peoples need to STFU if they’re gonna be hanging out in the room where the music is going on, kthx). Still, when the group broke out with tentatively-titled “SXSW Song,” Sam Houdek’s explosive drum kick-off silenced the room, if only for a few minutes. The group truly sounded like they were at their peak; they filled the room with their songs, and played with so much love and excitement that our little roller coaster boxcar felt like it was imminently on that swooshing downward rush, stuck in the very best moments of the ride. Lead singers Ryan James McGill and Bailey Glover each have completely unique voices; McGill’s is simultaneously achingly honest and quietly smooth, whereas Glover’s soars, with the kind of strong vibrato that is perfectly at home on a stage. It feels like it should be unlikely for these voices to wrap around one another so perfectly, but they are wonderful compliments, and the rest of the group’s backing harmonies are the perfect bed in which they can cozy up. McGill is a masterful wordsmith; phrasing like “Down here I don’t have to lie, I just lay” and “I do look good in green for you” stay with you long after the band has packed up their equipment. They played “Wounded Knee” for our aforementioned pal J.D., who discovered the group at the Oh Snap! Festival. Bassist Josh Mead is delightful to watch during this tune, as he dances around in his own world, and saxophonist/mandolin player Ian Rogers lights up every time he catches his bandmate jamming out. Multi-instrumentalists Stephanie Groudle and George Pappas crowded around a mic with their band members for Little Lo’s interpretation of a William Blake poem, but you could see on Groudle and Houdek’s faces that the crowd was making it impossibly difficult for them to hear their harmonies during the quiet tune. It was the only moment of frustration for the group, and they trudged along, living out the title sentiment during “For Fun.” They closed the night out with “Broken Skin,” which starts slow and bubbles up to an encompassing boil at the end. The main stage lights shut off at the song’s climax, leaving only light from strings of Christmas lights in the background and creating great shadows as the band members tore the roof off. It was a brilliant set, and possibly the best Little Lo performance I’ve seen yet. Bravo.
If Little Lo was the number one highlight of my night at the Mohawk, Danny Malone was a very close second. Malone had more tattoos and more hair than the last time I saw him, but seemed otherwise to be the same incredibly talented oddball troubadour Austin knows, loves and claims. He opened with the devastating “Close Enough,” and since he was performing acoustically, he didn’t have drums to silence the room and opted for a powerful harmonica part instead. A bulk of the audience seemed to be there to support Malone, as calls of “Danny!” echoed around the place. He picked up the pace on his second song, “My Affection.” On the verse, “Maybe you should think of leaving town,” Malone growled the lyrics, emphasizing how much emotion he plays with. He’s the kind of artist who seems to be reliving whatever experiences his songs are about every time he plays them, which has to be a painful thing if it is indeed true — many of Malone’s songs are about broken hearts and dissatisfaction. He addressed the audience after this, quipping, “We’re celebrating poverty! Woo!” The Free Week joke did not go over very well, so Malone mumbled, “…go Wildbats!” and, after a beat, followed up with, “Or ice cats, or whatever,” and then with a chuckle, continued his set with the sweet tune, “Sailing.” Up next was a new track, which Malone described as his “new hit song.” Possibly titled “Sugar Water,” the opening line was, “Face down in the sink/I found you there puking in your sleep.” Malone is a master of cynicism, witty sarcasm and musical and lyrical dichotomies; he coupled the biting verses with a “Bop-shoo-op” breakdown, which was the perfect counter. On a personal note, the next song, “Wait On Me,” definitely got to me, causing some pools to gather in my eyes. It’s a gentle plea with melancholy self-awareness, and Malone hit all the notes just right. To shake things up, he put his signature dance routine into the next setlist slot, and tonight he released balloons into the audience as his own set of lamps flickered in time with his Michael Jackson-esque moves. People seemed fairly unfazed by the display, further indicating a majority were likely fans there to support Malone. Indeed, a sing-along emerged on “Secrets You Know,” and some head banging accompanied Malone’s cries of “Like I was born with it/I’m so bored with it.” Though there were calls for his hit “Baby Bleu” to close out the set, Malone opted to go with a new tune, saying, “Let’s just end this calmly.” Judging by the wild applause that followed the song, I doubt anyone was disappointed.
Marmalakes ended the night at the Mohawk with pretty, catchy pop songs. Drummer Josh Halpern’s parents attended the event, which (let’s be honest) was basically the most awesome and adorable thing ever. Mr. Halpern asked the group of folks I was standing near if his wife could scoot in to get a good look at her son, but Mrs. Halpern insisted we stay near the stage. “I’ve seen them a million times — plus, look how cute he is! And he’s nice, too!” Your mom: the best wingman you could ask for. The band shot through their set, performing old favorites and new tunes to a still-packed and loving room. The bit hit, “Vittoria,” was once again a joyous sing-along, and the room half-accurately clapped along during the second verse. The crowd begged for an encore, but the band waved goodbye and people scattered into the street. It was a wonderful cap to a fabulous Free Week lineup.
This was only my second year to attend Fun Fun Fun Fest, but it lived up to its name and then some. I was able to see performers I’d never heard of before, relax in the grass (and dust!) with friends, and wander around backstage as Andrew VanWyngarden from MGMT stalked me (I swear, every time I turned around – there he was!) Here’s a little recap for those of you who went to relive it, and those of you who missed it to join the action. Massive amounts of photos are forthcoming, so look back later for a gallery.Read More...
The dudes over at Festival Crashers were kind enough to let me sit in (/giggle in) on their latest podcrash. If you’d like to hear me nerd out about my favorite performers playing the fest this weekend, or listen to me babble about the epic Phoenix gig (which will hopefully then help you to understand why writing is my field of choice), you can check it out here.
While the Ke$has, Biebers and Owl Cities of the world flash in and out of the public conscious, there are some really awesome, hard-working bands that continue to get by and produce exciting music in the long term. We Are Scientists proved to be one of those bands when they hit Emo’s last Thursday, Oct. 28. The trio (comprised of mainstays Keith Murray and Chris Cain, plus a rotating drummer) first formed in 1997, and hit it big with 2005’s With Love and Squalor. They’ve since put out two more full-length records, so with all that material and history behind them, I expected a packed venue when I arrived at about 11:30 p.m. Instead, I was met with a fairly empty Emo’s, with maybe 35 people crowded around the stage, checking out openers Twin Tigers. By midnight, the room had filled out a little, but it was still far from a full house. Of course, this show was competing with Interpol at Stubb’s, Bad Brains at the Mohawk, Ghostland Observatory in Cedar Park and the myriad local gigs that crop up every night. None of this seemed to matter one bit to the band – they played with the same energy I imagine they give off at every single show.
The same sort of big-little band dichotomy I’ve seen at Yeasayer shows permeated the We Are Scientists gig, too – for example, Murray came out to set up his own equipment, and though a number of camera flashes could be seen, the crowd remained pretty calm.
I was only familiar with Squalor (I know, for shame!!), so I wasn’t sure what the names of the newer tunes were. But I could tell the Scientists opened with a crowd-pleaser, as the youngins in the front waved their arms wildly and sang every word.
The story of the night, apart from expert playing and really fun songs, was unquestionably the band’s charisma. Murray has a lady-killer smile and hair that flips just so, and Cain is hilarious, poking fun at his bandmate, himself, the band, and anything else that he comes across. After the one-two punch of Squalor tunes “This Scene Is Dead” and “Inaction,” Cain introduced the band, and Murray said, “Nonono, they know who we are, c’mon. They know who we are by now!” This was a running joke for the evening, where Cain would continue to re-introduce the group to Murray’s greater (feigned) frustration. At another point, when the duo were bantering, someone from the crowd yelled to Murray, “You’ve got great teeth!” Murray gave a huge grin, then subtly moved through various strongman poses, while Cain explained the audience member had just made a huge mistake, because Murray would now be insufferable for the rest of the tour.
At another point, one of the Twin Tigers came out to (jokingly) ask the band to turn their sound down, because her friend’s band was performing in the other room. Thus, the Scientists challenged the other group to a knife fight post-show that saw Cain ripping his shirt open, ready for battle. Later, the other group sent shots of Patron over to the trio. Cain mused, “Well, this is very nice! A gentlemen’s way to end this battle.” Murray was not so easily won over: “No, this is not good enough. I do not accept this.” Cain: “You don’t accept it?” Murray: “Well, I mean, I’ll drink it, but I don’t accept it. I accept it into my body.”
In all of their hilarious interactions, the band didn’t forget about their fans. During “Textbook,” Murray leapt into the audience with his guitar and mic stand, and sang right to lucky listeners as people danced around him and sang along. They also played a ton of their big hits, including “Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt” and “Great Escape,” and even gave a Murray-heckler the mic in between songs.
To end their set, Murray hopped up on the drum kit, and then instead of jumping off of it back onto the stage, he leapt into the drummer’s lap, and the two toppled down to the ground together, coming back up for air inexplicably holding a painting of Martin Luther King, Jr. Cain then forced the longest outro of all time, which eventually turned into one last encore song (though only the drummer ever left the stage). All of these antics make We Are Scientists gigs some of the most fun you could attend. What grounds their shows, though, is the upbeat, dancey, energetic and often dark-but-relatable songs that Murray and Cain have crafted.
Now that I’ve attended two of the nation’s (and maybe world’s?) premiere music conventions, I have seen the pitfalls and high-points, and know what works at these events for me, and what doesn’t. Below, you’ll find my comparison of CMJ and SXSW; there are critiques and kudos where appropriate, with my overall insight at the end.
Guest edited by Zack Teibloom
Venues, Pt. 1
SXSW: Austin venues tend to work in unison with the convention to host SXSW-official showcases all week. So at SXSW, if you’ve got a badge, you get priority entrance into shows, you don’t have to pay any kind of cover, and it allows you to easily venue-hop and catch as much music as possible. Wristband holders are next in line, and also (theoretically) can jump around and avoid paying cover. Finally, people who decide to wing it can buy tickets to specific shows at the door. (Or, if you’re Festival Crashers, you find other ways.)
CMJ: Some of the venues worked with the festival, but others branched off and followed their own rules. Badges stand in line with regular ticket holders, and some venues don’t allow you in at all without a ticket. While city locals probably love this because it allows them to get in to see their favorite act, it’s difficult if you’re a member of the press trying to cover specific shows for a publication. There’s nothing wrong with a fan-focused festival, but since it seems like CMJ is trying to be somewhat press-focused a la South By, I can envision a lot of aggravated folks who bought their badges (which are $495 at full price) and then got turned away from shows they really wanted to see or were supposed to cover. Luckily, I only ran into this problem once – I wasn’t able to get in to the Two Door Cinema Club show, because it was tickets-only. Still, I think people just need to be aware of these policies before they drop mad money for a badge.
Venues, Pt. 2
CMJ: Way more spread out in New York than Austin. There are a handful of places squished together in and around Ludlow, but if you’ve got a must-see act at the Mercury Lounge at 8pm and another can’t-miss at 10pm somewhere in Brooklyn, good luck. I felt like a good portion of my time at CMJ was acclimating myself to my surroundings, getting lost trying to find that one little bar in Chinatown, or on a subway headed to a different area.
SXSW: One of the great things about Austin being a little smaller is that every venue is pretty much within walking distance from every other venue. There isn’t much to be done about this, of course; it’s just a perk of having SXSW in a big-little city. I’m able to catch quite a few more shows, because everything is close by. Of course, it might help if I were a native New Yorker and didn’t spend so much time getting lost and finding my way again.
SXSW: I love Austin. It’s my beautiful home, the weather is almost always gorgeous, and it’s a hot spot for awesome music, awesome people and general all-around awesomeness. SXSW occurs at the perfect time of year, when things are beginning to bloom but it remains cool because of lovely afternoon showers. On a personal note, I also love SxSW week because it always lands on my birthday – what better way can a music fan celebrate than with tons and tons of live music??
CMJ: That being said, there’s no place like New York City. Between run-ins with all kinds of musicians, actors and directors to a constant barrage of cool, creative and fun stuff to do, see, eat and drink, it’s just a magical place with a stunning skyline that tugs at your heart strings every time you cross one of the myriad bridges from Brooklyn to Manhattan. To host CMJ at the perfect fall moment, when it’s cold but not too cold (and actually looks like autumn), and to have participating venues in both Brooklyn and Manhattan – it’s an out-of-towner’s NYC dream.
CMJ: All of the people I met at CMJ were friendly, excited and interested in what was going on around them. However, most of the people I met at CMJ were not native New Yorkers. I’m not going to uphold the stereotype that the people of New York are unfriendly; I honestly don’t believe that’s true. However, the population of perfectly-coiffed hipsters that lined Ludlow every evening to literally stand around fashionably, stare at you as you walked by and judge you was something I’d not experienced to that level of intensity in Austin.
SXSW: Between that and the self-conscious arms crossing that occurred at 90% of the shows I attended, I’ve gotta say that Austin crowds win. Music fans in Austin can be a little hipstery at times, but for the most part, if a band gets people going, they’ll hoot, holler, dance, whistle and applaud with reckless abandon. The two exceptions to this NYC generalization came at the Phoenix show (because, I mean, really, you’d have to have been dead to be still) and at Dan Mangan’s performance, when he managed to get the whole room singing with him on a song.
Underprepared for Underage?
Another issue I have with both festivals is the lack of under-21 showcases. Although I am well past the point of having to worry about that, my friend Pooneh (who’ll be 21 in January, woo!) ran into problems at every corner. I don’t run a venue, so I don’t really understand much about liquor licenses and how difficult it is to be the kind of venue to just put a giant “x” on someone’s hand vs. not allow them in at all. But I also feel like CMJ, being the College Music Journal, after all, should have a few more under-21 gigs. People generally don’t reach the golden age of 21 until their junior year of college, so to have a festival focused on college music that only has a smattering of shows for the underaged seems a little off balance.
Overall, I absolutely adored CMJ. The fabulousness of so many more bands I’d never heard of coupled with the excitement of being in New York made it a total win, and press bonuses like the PureVolume House, getting into most of the shows I wanted for free, and even getting the chance to get Phoenix tickets, had I not already bought mine, was awesome. The check-in process was easy, and even though the judginess of the hipsters could be intimidating at times, that crowd made for some of the best people watching ever. I would totally recommend CMJ to any music lover; you get to discover new music, meet great people, make important connections and lasting memories, and all in one of the greatest cities on the planet.
Back from the dead, and what a month in which to resurrect! Austin’s major music festival, the Austin City Limits Festival, is headed for our town this weekend, and with so much amazing talent on the bill, it can be overwhelming choosing who to check out. Below, you’ll find our guide to the festival; we’re doin’ it the same way we did our South By Southwest guide, which is to post the name of the band, the time, day and place they’re performing, and a video that best encapsulates what they’re about musically. Check it out!
Friday, 11:20 a.m. – Noon, Austin Ventures
Friday, 12:40-1:20 p.m., BMI
Friday, 1:20- 2:00 p.m., Austin Ventures
Friday, 3:00-4:00 p.m., Honda
The Black Keys
Friday, 4:00-5:00 p.m., AMD
Friday, 4:40-5:20 p.m., BMI
Friday, 7:00-8:00 p.m., ZYNC Card
Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses
Friday, 7:15-8:00 p.m., Austin Ventures
Saturday, 12:15-1:00p.m., ZYNC Card
The Very Best
Saturday, 12:30-1:30 p.m., Budweiser
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Saturday, 12:30-1:30 p.m., AMD
Two Door Cinema Club
Saturday, 2:20-3:00 p.m., Austin Ventures
The Gaslight Anthem
Saturday, 2:30-3:30 p.m., Budweiser
Saturday, 4:30-5:30 p.m., Budweiser
Saturday, 4:45-5:30 p.m., Austin Ventures
The Temper Trap
Saturday, 5:30-6:30 p.m., Honda
Monsters of Folk
Saturday, 6:00-8:00 p.m., Austin Ventures
Saturday, 6:30-7:30 p.m., AMD
Saturday, 6:30-7:30 p.m., Budweiser
Saturday, 7:30-8:30 p.m., ZYNC Card
Matt & Kim
Saturday, 7:30-8:30 p.m., Honda
Saturday, 8:30-9:30 p.m., AMD
Saturday, 8:30-10:00 p.m., Budweiser
Sunday, 12:30-1:15 p.m., AMD
Sunday, 1:20-2:00 p.m., Austin Ventures
Devendra Banhart and the Grogs
Sunday, 2:00-3:00 p.m., AMD
Sunday, 2:40-3:20 p.m., BMI
The Morning Benders
Sunday, 3:00-4:00 p.m., Honda
Sunday, 4:00-5:00 p.m., AMD
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros
Sunday, 5:00-6:00 p.m., ZYNC Card
Sunday, 5:30-6:30 p.m., Clear 4G
The Flaming Lips
Sunday, 6:00-7:00 p.m., AMD
Sunday, 7:00-8:00 p.m., Clear4G
Sunday, 7:00-8:00 p.m., Honda