One of the mainstays of the SXSW festival is the Fader Fort. Held just outside the centre of all the action, the Fort has been home to hundreds of performances over the years, in front of just about anyone who has a computer and can RSVP.
With the walk to the event always seeming a bit too much for me to muster (only an extra 10-15 minutes at most – but believe me this is quite a distance in the scheme of things), this was the first time I’d made tracks to the venue, and with the promise of a performance from recent Dew Process signees White Arrows, worth the journey it was. The band performed a tight, catchy set, proving a find amongst the Australian label’s roster. Rumour has it they’re touring Australia later in the year for Splendour and I dare say they will be worth a viewing – if only for the fantastic track "Get Gone", which will be available on iTunes as a 3 track EP later in the week.
There wasn’t just music at the Fort – much like in their magazine, the folks at Fader filled the pop up venue with plenty of culture and fashion, including one-off converse t-shirt print giveaways, table tennis tables, a graffiti wall and much more. A place to very easily get lost and finding a few new friends along the way... don't delay your visit as long as I did.
After enjoying the Fort we got back into our annual ritual, and returned to the Canadian Blast day party and delicious Texan BBQ. As would become an ongoing problem during the week, my commitments for interviews on site meant I didn’t get to see nearly enough of the music on display. A highlight of the afternoon I did catch, however, were Whitehorse, a promising Canadian band who were a little bit country, a little bit blues and a lot of rock and roll. Singing into telephone shaped microphones gave them something extra to enjoy, but at the end of the day it was the fantastic music on offer that won over the crowd.
Four piece group Jonquil from Oxford were playing across town next, and after being impressed by them at the British Embassy last year (as well as by the lead singer’s side project Chad Valley at CMJ), we thought we’d pop our heads in. Once again, their sixties garage-pop riffs in songs like "Hooded Fang" won us over, and their tight tunes made for a fantastic, enjoyable set in the intimate venue.
As day turned into night, we lined up for a while to ensure we made our way into the anticipated Fiona Apple showcase at Stubb’s, which, given the fact it was her first performance in some five years (and first in seven outside of Los Angeles), was easily one of the hottest shows of the week. With a line sprawling the streets for blocks, we were surprised to make it in just as the respected (though infamously difficult) performer made it to the stage.
It would be fair to say I had no idea what to expect, but when she jumped straight into “Fast As You Can” I was relieved to know I’d be hearing songs I knew. Having been a fan for at least a decade, this has been a show I’d been looking forward to for just as long, and though it didn’t quite live up to the high expectations I’d put on the experience, it certainly wasn’t disappointing, and I couldn’t help but get a bit emotional when she tore her heart out as the set continued.
Having not performed in quite some time, it was clear she was feeling ever lyric – not only in its context but also in the strain it placed on her voice. She was up-and-down in this regard throughout the set, with her first track leaving us all wondering if she’d make it through, looking exhausted and slightly drawn. But when she ripped out the phenomenal “On The Bound” on the piano, with a supporting band in top form, it was clear she still definitely had that magic touch.
She struggled a bit at the end of “Paper Bag”, forgetting a lyric and commenting on how startled she was by performing again (“You’re all imaginary!”). As the band jammed through “A Mistake” she made her exhaustion well known by putting her head down on the piano, though she rised with a smile when she added some percussion at the end. Maybe she was just enjoying the music like the rest of us. It had been a while after all. Of course some new songs were performed, off her long awaited (and titled) fourth record …The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw, And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, due for release in June: "Anything We Wang", a stunningly beautiful, yet macabre track that included the lyrics “That’s where the pain comes in like a skeleton ... and I just made a meal for us both to choke on ... ”. Another new song was “Every Single Night”, which included the lyrics "I just wanna feel everything..." - which, as mentioned before, it did seem she was doing ten fold throughout the whole affair.
Also making the cut were "Carrion", “Sleep To Dream”, “Extraordinary Machine” (which brought the loudest crowd reaction of the set) and “Criminal”, which closed the set and had the crowd singing along, reliving the 90s (as some would be doing a lot of during the week, with bands like Jesus & Mary Chain and even Eve 6 making appearances). By the time she finished the set, through which she jumped from looking like a deer in headlights to feeling every lyric in a heartbeat, it was clear Fiona had given it her all. Her voice literally didn’t have any more to give, and clearly wanting to cut the set short, she seemed pretty happy when it was over. Fiona Apple. Beautiful in her imperfection, few would left disappointed by the rare performance. I certainly wasn’t.
Fiona’s performance was the first of the NPR showcase, broadcast live nationally on NPR in the USA, and so it would be fair to say that the night had barely begun by the time Fiona left the stage. Sharon Van Etten hit the stage next, fresh from releasing her new (and well hyped) record Tramp. Introduced by Mike Birbiglia – an admitted fan – Sharon opened her set with “All I Can” and a three piece backing band: a vocalist on keys, drummer and bass guitarist, with Sharon on lead vocals and guitar. Along with songs from the new record, oldie "Give Out" was thrown in, and all in all she showed herself off a performer with an impreccable voice and an ability to string together some stunning melodies. Though unfamiliar with her music, I was thoroughly impressed.
In between acts on the indoor Stubb’s stage were South London four piece FiN (pictured below), who launched their brief set with an epic instrumental number; the members bouncing around the stage as though they were playing Wembley Arena. Their riffs reminded me of early day Kasabian or Muse, back when they were still working out their sound and stage personas. “Eve” featured a guest female vocalist and was one of the highlights of the set. Their music is nothing you haven’t heard before, but there’s no shame in that when it’s done well and with conviction, and they certainly tick all the boxes there. Will be very interested to see where they go from here.
The surprise highlight of the night followed, Dan Deacon, a man who is no stranger to Australian shores - though I had yet to experience him. So when I say he’s incredible live, you’re probably going to reply – yes, we already knew that. Clearly a cool dude, Dan sports an inspired DIY stage set up with two live drummers/percussionists, a glow-in-the-dark skull and fantastic projections. A Dan Deacon show is an experience to say the least.
There were moments where he would ingest his microphone and continue to sing into distortion as he toggled one of his many buttons. This sounds like some kind of sick musical sex fantasy? So why not let’s make it a group thing. I like that. And so he did. Enter the dance competition in the crowd. Rule number three: No cowards. The result? The most energetic crowd I’d see all week at SXSW.
As lights were suspended through luniscent plastic, distorting our view of this one man rave, we were walked through a dance routine until 'the moment' kicked in and we all lost our minds. Screw Skrillex, this shit is where it’s at. Tracks included “Of The Mountains” and a song which may or may not have been called “Prison Cat” – which, apparently, is what would happen if the Little Rascals put on a play, in a punk rock kind of way. Fair enough, though I think you had to be there for any of what I just said to make sense.
Alabama Shakes (pictured below), who recently released a seven inch of Jack White’s Third Man Records label, followed, and showed us all how Gospel and Blues inspired music should be played in a modern setting. The result was truly phenomenal. With a Jack White vocal style (e.g. high pitched, but still rockin’), this was definitely a find of the festival for many.
Though the night at Stubb’s ended with Andrew Bird, I made tracks to see Alberta Cross, who I had kicked myself for missing at CMJ last year, at Red 7’s Sony Club. With the exception of closer “ATX”, the short set featured an exclusive taste of their upcoming record. Though the guitars were pulled back a bit too far into the mix, making it difficult to fully appreciate what was going on, the new songs felt like a perfect extension of what we’ve come to expect from the Los Angeles based five piece, last seen in Australia for the 2010 Splendour in the Grass festival. At the same time, little stood out, but I’ll await the new record to see how that translates. They’re a band to be appreciated on the whole, rather than on individual tracks.
And so, late night quesadilla in hand, this brought to an end a mammoth day of music at SXSW. Already the exhaustion was kicking in, but the next day would bring with it the true highlight of the week - a special intimate performance from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, plus a string of special guests... which you can read more about now in our news section.
Fiona Apple, FiL and Alabama Shakes photos by Johnny Au. Other photos by Larry Heath.