Here we go again! The music portion of SXSW is off and running, which means the city of Austin is overrun with stages and parties featuring non-stop bands loading in, playing sets, loading out – all on repeat. Truthfully, this has already been happening for about five days now because of the Interactive and Film portions of the festival. But we all know tech bros don’t know how to rock and roll. The music part of SXSW – now in its 30th year – is when things really get crazy.
This year I decided to start early with a party on Monday night at the venerable hipster playground that is Hotel Vegas. Full disclosure: two of the bands mentioned here were caught there before SXSW “officially” began, but who cares? So, in the first day or two of this annual marathon of bands, booze and debauchery, here are some of my favorites:
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires at Hotel Vegas
This quartet from Alabama have been a SXSW favorite of mine for the last couple of years, and to be honest they are just one of my favorite bands in general. Catching the Glory Fires this time around wasn’t exactly discovery. Yet, it was fun to discover the effect they have on the uninitiated. Fronted by Lee Bains, the group cranked out their brand of brash, take-no-prisoners Southern rock and roll. These guys play loud every time – easily louder than any band on the bill this night – and their fiery songs are driven by a desire to call out the social, economical and political injustices that run rampant across their beloved home state of Alabama and the whole South. At Hotel Vegas they hit the crowd like a bag of bricks, running through songs about dirt tracks and dirty politicians, and keeping the audience thoroughly awestruck with the kind of rock and roll that’s increasingly hard to find these days. Those that weren’t paying attention were forced to when Lee Bains jumped off the stage and leaned into the audience – sweaty t-shirt and all – while he ripped into a guitar solo.
Yuck at Hotel Vegas
Don’t let the lousy band name fool you, as Yuck are anything but. The UK group just released their new album Stranger Things and they are hitting SXSW with a handful of gigs, the first of which was this one. While their set certainly lacked the punch of Lee Bains earlier in the night, Yuck won over the crowd with their mellow, melodic indie rock. The group more or less played Stranger Things right through, and each song resulted in heads bouncing along with approval. Their sound was fuzzy yet controlled, bringing to mind the intelligent, laid back sounds of the college rock and indie pop of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Yuck’s performance made for easy listening, but in a festival that is defined by loud noise and sensory overload, they were just what we needed to chill out.
Iggy Pop at ACL Live (Taping for Austin City Limits)
This was the first of two (that I know of) SXSW appearances Iggy Pop is making in support of his new project and resulting album Post-Pop Depression, which finds him teaming up with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Dean Fertita and Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders. In other words, this is a supergroup in every sense of the word, and a damn good one at that. Fronted by Mr. Homme, the band had a powerful presence, but never did they overwhelm the brooding vocals of Pop. Even with the clear rock star aura of Homme and his bandmates – decked out in shiny red suits with perfect rocker hairdos – there was no chance of taking the spotlight from the shirtless Iggy, who gyrated against speakers, walked through the crowd, grabbed the cameras, and was every bit the crazed, beautiful performer he has been for decades – and at the age of 68 no less!
The group’s new album harkens back to Iggy’s work in the late 70’s with David Bowie on his two albums The Idiot and Lust For Life, both of which were something of a reinvention for Pop after his work with the Stooges. Luckily for fans of that era, Pop treated them to a handful of songs off of both albums, including opening the set with “Lust For Life” and soon playing “Sixteen”. For much of the set – and probably for any tour dates to come – Pop and his band jumped back and forth between old and new songs. This was a thoughtful way to juxtapose the old and the new, and also allow the audience to draw connections between Post-Pop Depression and those classic albums. Whereas the material on Lust and The Idiot was more lively and perhaps even more naïve, the new songs find Iggy Pop reflecting on a life lived in the trenches of rock and roll while also conveying a bleaker, darker outlook of a world in turmoil whose rock stars are dying each day.
Homme and co. brought old and new songs to life with thick, electrifying grooves that locked both the audience and Iggy into a trance-like state. The band and singer seemed to be truly locked into the same wavelength during a haunting, sweeping “China Girl”. By the end of the 22-song set, it was clear that – despite the talent of this band – Iggy Pop can still dominate a stage and enchant an audience regardless of who is playing behind him.
Adult Books at Nomad Bar
Adult Books are from California, and that’s immediately clear the second you hear them play. The group took the tiny stage in front of a lively crowd at Nomad Bar, a neighborhood haunt in North Austin. Songs off their recently released album Running From The Blows made up the setlist. Lead singer and guitarist Nick Winfrey – whose long blondish hair gives him a Ty Segall-like presence – took the band through quick, jangly garage pop tunes that had the bar patrons dancing along. At this point Adult Books are still a little rough around the edges but in all of the right ways, and their set at Nomad brought to mind the sun-washed pop rock of 90’s California bands like Weezer but with hints of New Wave that come across in the synthesizer and guitar playing. These kids are definitely ones to watch this year.
Cover photo of Iggy Pop by Scott Newton via ACLTV
Neil Ferguson will be hitting the pavement all week at SXSW. For live updates, drunk tweets, and snarky commentary of the madness, make sure you follow him on Twitter: @musicjournzo
Stay tuned to Glide Magazine for more coverage of SXSW 2016!