Thursday at South by Southwest is the real deal. Everyone’s still getting their sea legs on Tuesday, the first day. Wednesday is like the first day of school, when it seems so overwhelming that you have an entire year to barrel through, but you’re still excited to see who’s in your classes. But Thursday! Thursday is when we reach Peak Vibes. All the bands are here, and they’ve settled into a groove — interview here, quick set there, see a friend’s band after that, do another set, party all night, repeat.
On Thursday, the diet of pork, cheese and beer and the lack of sleep have yet to corrode the endurance, both mental and physical, of the music nerds and party animals in Austin. The sun has yet to dry up that enthusiasm for being in the sun. On Thursday, the thirst, it is still strong.
I began my music worship that day (March 14) by going to Chvrches, for a daytime dose of their crystalline synth-pop melodies at The Fader Fort presented by Converse (check out the pics up top). The band is only a few months old, but their songs exhibit a confidence in craft and vision, an impeccable cohesiveness that suggests years of group chemistry. And while their newness was sometimes apparent in the mechanics of their live show — at times there was no flair to shroud the fact that you were watching three people on a stage making music with myriad knobs and buttons — the songs are so well-crafted that that didn’t matter. In fact, it was refreshing to see a band of, well, mere normals, creating such high-drama pop.
The band at one point mentioned that their debut album is scheduled for a September release. And while they were glad to do that little bit of self-promotion, lead singer Lauren Mayberry made a jab at the omnipresent Converse sponsorship at the venue, joking by telling the crowd, “If you leave here and find yourself wanting a pair of Converse…Wait 30 minutes and see if you still want them.”
I’m a Vans guy, myself, which is why I then headed to the House of Vans/IAMSOUND Showcase at Mohawk Lounge. (That’s not why, but pretty great segue, right?) I arrived just in time to catch Charli XCX bopping around for a short set of tunes both new and old, all to be found on her forthcoming debut True Romance. In a lime green Nike sports bra and plaid pants, she looked like a cross between Gwen Stefani and that eminently ’90s chick from 4 Non-Blondes.
Dealing in the same raw elements as Chvrches, Charli goes in the opposite direction: rambunctiousness over stoicism, romance over tension. The Brit has such a unique voice, so my only complaint is that it was drowned out by her own backing track. See what I mean, regarding both the spectacle and the vocals, in this video from her Hype Hotel set on Wednesday night.
After a break to interview Kitten (more on that tomorrow!) and to eat more bread-based pork vessels, I headed over to the Pitchfork Showcase to see another one of our most-anticipated South By-ers, Sky Ferreira. So, the word “vamping” gets thrown around a lot when talking about female singers. But with Ferreira, it’s warranted. She vamps the fuck out of her songs. She quivers out jittery, nervous stage banter, but once the music starts she transforms into some mystery siren, writhing and grabbing at her clothes and whipping her hair around, eyes steely and focused.
Unfortunately, Sky had lost her voice earlier in the day. But that only made her more intense during the songs, and more squirrelly between songs, talking about how she’s “freaking out” about her voice. Luckily, after three hard-charging songs, including “Lost in My Bedroom,” she gave us “Everything is Embarrassing” (which is just as perfect live).
Sky thanked the night’s host, Pitchfork, saying that had they not posted “Embarrassing,” she’d still be at home screwing around with GarageBand and watching Law & Order. Shit just got real, as they say. Emotions were high. And then her set was cut off! Ferreira pleaded to keep it going, even demanding that her band start the next song, but the mics were cut. Seems the bon vivants of the indie elite must stay on schedule, too. Sky’s was the shortest performance I’ve seen here, but it was also one of the most captivating.
And then 15 minutes later, Zebra Katz emerged in a gimp mask and I forgot all about Sky Ferrwhatever her name is. Austin’s slogan is “Keep Austin Weird,” and the Brooklyn rapper and his partner in crime Njena Reddd Foxxx were the first performers to obey that order this week. This is not a surprise if you’ve seen Zebra’s supremely bizarre music videos. Zebra performed the first song while wearing the mask and spent much of the set wearing leather S&M straps around his chest (think a gun holster, but for sexing).
Zebra’s back-and-forth with Njena was electric, and I think they should officially join forces as a bizarro-rap duo to fight Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for the title of Ampersand Rap Leaders. It’s astounding, quite frankly, how he’s able to turn minimalist beats and minimalist (i.e. repetitive) rhymes into such maximal entertainment. In the case of Peak Weird, less is more.
As for Peak Vibes, it’s still vibing, as I’m off to the SPIN Party for Solange and Kendrick Lamar.
Tomorrow: Peak Scurvy. Abandon all fruit ye who enter here.