Live Review

SXSW 2014

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer enormity of it all.

Photo: Cassandra Mullinix
With over two thousand bands to choose from at the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer enormity of it all. Luckily, around 70% of them are generic US emo-metal which becomes as easy to be phased out by the ears as the mass of traffic on the freeway under which the crowd amble to assemble on East 6th Street. It’s easy to spot the Brits abroad - they tend to be slightly beetroot of face with a vaguely shellshocked expression brought on by a mixture of jet lag and Shiner Bock lager.

And a great heft of them (us?!) can be found at Latitude 30 where The British Music Embassy hosts a large raft of DIY favourites over the five days, not least Fat White Family. Now, any band who take to the stage topless with berets need a talking to - or at least some gentle questioning, and Fat White Family definitely come under severe scrutiny due to recent hype. It initial feels a bit (lack of) style over substance, but six songs in, ‘Touch The Leather’ happens and it all makes sense. Like the Butthole Surfers with more planning. Har Mar Superstar, however has far more grace, waiting until his seventh song to achieve ‘tops off’ mode - after six costume changes. Give it ‘The Voice’ test - turning away to avoid distraction, and these could be among the strongest tunes at the event this year. Who can guess his true intent, but he plays the crowd with perfection and makes everyone happy. Wolf Alice have stormed through the DIY ranks, and bound on to the stage, sounding massive, and setting the bar high for the UK presence in Austin.

Moving from Cardiff to LA a year ago has toughened up H. Hawkline’s set - new songs give a heavier riff-driven edge to his gloomy baritone nursery rhymes, and most of the festival seems to be still humming ‘Black Domino Box’ the next morning. He’s followed on stage by his latest EP’s producer Gruff Rhys. With a charming air of elegant confusion, Rhys’ psych-effected metronome resonates around the huge church. He’s then joined by Flaming Lip Kliph on drums to perform the title track to his excellent new ‘American Interior’ film which is also premiering at the festival. Later, Woman’s Hour play minimal, glacial slow motion pop, embracing the American experience with a Statue of Liberty tribute headpiece and ending on a Springsteen cover. It’s hypnotic and well crafted, though sadly a little drowned under the sheer volume of Austin.

Thumpers fill their venue to bursting with efficient and immediate pop, their signature cowbell resonating across most of 6th Street. Eagulls’ efficient violent fury never fades, even after watching three consecutive sets. Smart, sharp, and intense, it’s Mark E Smith versus Ian Curtis. They seem to take the natives by stealth with many in the crowd asking: ‘Who ARE these guys?’ - some out of admiration and others out of disorientated fear. Christopher Owens’ set is complete with gospel singers, fitting for a the church he’s playing but the songs don’t seem tough enough to cut through and connect.

The final band on the British Music Embassy stage couldn’t be more fitting - Drenge’s punk racket pounds through the room, making a fittingly loud end, being the final flagship gig of the UK’s successful invasion of the USA. The morning after the crowds have dispersed, East 6th is once again open to traffic and the Freeway is more audible that it has been for days but listen carefully and you can still hear the thrumming energy of the best bits of SXSW in the air.

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