"That about ends the angry section," announces Killer Mike, halfway through his indeed to that point profoundly angry set at Bar 96 very late Thursday night. "Now we move on to the drugs and strippers." There was also a Ric Flair sample or two in store, but he left that as a surprise.
The hulking, ferocious, almost violently charismatic Atlanta rapper -- nobody sounds more cheerful saying "I don't give a f-ck" -- had climaxed the angry section with "Reagan," an enraged black-helicopter diss-track dissertation on our 40th president. Final line: "I leave you with four words / I'm glad Reagan dead." It was one of several propulsive highlights from a set heavy on last year's phenomenal R.A.P. Music (try the rumbling, menacing exuberance of "Untitled"), though Mike's stage banter was just as engrossing: dissertations on cops (thumbs down), his beloved late grandparents (RIP), his wife (who apparently also enjoys both drugs and strippers), and how, though he doesn't himself believe in a "mystery god," there is nonetheless "a superior being living in every human being," and "any time we're together, god is truly in the building." He also called us "mother-ckers" a lot and was clearly 85 percent of the way toward totally losing his voice. It was great.
Mike was the undeniable highlight of my Day 3, though fiery indie-rock belter Katie Crutchfield, a/k/a Waxahatchee, howled her way through Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" with fuzz-pop aplomb over at Pitchfork's big fete across the street from the Fader Fort, which'd be closed out roughly seven hours later by burgeoning R&B sensation Solange doing her devastating but still weirdly rousing semi-hit "Losing You" and leading her full band through choreographed dances a la Terence Trent D'Arby or Purple Rain. As for the lowlight, on my walk over to Killer Mike I passed by the Doritos Stage – a stage designed to look like a giant Doritos-packed vending machine – where Ice Cube was holding forth, and I heard him say, and I swear this is true, "Doritos took us back to the old school." This is the world the meek will inherit. [Rob Harvilla]
One of the secrets of SXSW is how much of it, at least unofficially, happens off the beaten path -- which is to say, more and more every year it seems, far east and/or north of Downtown. If you happen to live here and get around by car and know what a blister-inducing nightmare parking within walking distance of Downtown can be, that's a plus – and when you find out that Como Mamas, an a cappela gospel trio from Delta-bordering Como, Mississippi, who just put out a startlingly good debut album on Daptone called Get an Understanding, are doing a free afternoon gig at Breakaway Records, the coolest store in an extremely cool island of a 'hood 47-some blocks north of 6th Street, it feels like you hit the jackpot. So much so that my wife and I pulled out four-year-old daughter out of preschool during naptime so she could see them, too.
They lived up, and then some, to the promise of Understanding, which we'd been playing some in the car for the past couple months, and which I actually took a little while to connect with since the lack of instrumentation in the songs, and what I first also took to be the lack of shape, was so far removed from the stomping gospel I'm used to: The Relatives' The Electric Word – by a likewise middle-aged but male Dallas quintet whose music verges on psychedelic soul and funk, and who are also playing SXSW this week -- is more my speed.
But my wife heard the Como Mamas' music as stark in the sense of Gregorian chants, almost, and live that comparison actually rang true. When the unbelievably powerful Esther Mae Smith or the almost bass-low Angela Taylor took the lead, and evolved songs that Smith said they'd known from childhood into rapturous improvisations, the other two (also including the higher register Della Daniels, like Smith dressed in her black Sunday-go-to-meeting best) would repeat a short phrase like "I got Jesus!" or "Yes he did!" into a circular rhythmic drone. "Ninety Nine And A Half Won't Do," in large part about counting to 100 since you're in this life for the long run, picked up an absolutely locomotive momentum.
Add double-beat handclaps, a bit of foot-tapping, and hefty hints of Wilson Pickett (not just his own "Ninety Nine and a Half," but "In The Midnight Hour"), and there's was no question these three large, grandmotherly, African-American women had earned the right both to sing in a room below Charley Patton and Bar-Kays LP covers on the walls but to be quite possibly the SXSW act with the least equipment to haul around. Forget instruments -- they didn't even need microphones. Too bad only about 25 adults -- plus five children -- were there to hear them project their voices.
From Breakaway, we headed to Spider House, probably our favorite bar in the city, off Guadalupe between 29th and 30th -- still well to the north of the main SXSW action. But though it took us a while to navigate through the maze of alternate stages and figure out where the bands were playing (partly because the "TX Rock n Roll Massacre" event that I thought was Thursday turned out to have actually been on Wednesday, duh), eventually we stumbled onto something called "KVRXPLOSION" in the dark indoor "ballroom" (so-called because a mirror ball shines onto the larger of the two stage areas and causes four-year-old daughters to run around in circles chasing dots of light). A little disappointing that you never actually seem to be able to see bands in the amazing outdoor patio section of Spider House where it's most fun to sit and drink Stash IPAs, but the music was fun to watch regardless, at least if you're lazy and cynical like me and figure completely random indie-rock bands you never heard of before can't be any worse than buzz bands everybody won't stop talking about, and it's a lot more comfortable to be in a room with 40 people watching than in a claustrophobic sardine can.
Anyway, just a few of the acts we caught: lo-fi-ish L.A.-based singer-songwriter-guitarist Colleen Green, whose "pretty melodies contrapuntal to the guitar rhythms" impressed my wife, who is also a singer-songwriter-guitarist and hence knows way more about such stuff than I do; Vancouver feedback-noisepunk trio Nü Sensae, who demonstrated once again that whatever Sonic Youth or Live Skull or somebody invented way back in the '80s will never die; Leeds, U.K. "melodic punk" (sez Pitchfork) fivesome Eagulls, whose name sounds like a cross between The Eagles and A Flock of Seagulls but who seemed to be going for a sort of Black Lips-style garbage-slop thing instead, or maybe I just thought that because the singer wobbled and blabbered like he was half drunk and had a beer and a Cramps T-shirt (plus also they definitely had the highest glasses-wearers-per-capita in their audience of any band I've seen in ages); Dustin Wong, who played instrumental guitar on top of tape-delayed repeats of what he'd just played several seconds ago on top of tape-delayed repeats of what he'd just played several seconds before that, and so on and so forth. We couldn't figure out why so many more people were watching him than had watched Colleen Green, but then somebody explained that he used to be in Ponytail.
Our favorites, though, were easily Roomrunner, four slackerish guys from Baltimore, including a drummer in a Metz shirt and a singer-guitarist in a Hum shirt, which I thought was interesting because it never occurred to me that anybody would love those two not-bad bands enough to wear shirts of them, but for some reason I was glad somebody did. Anyway, Roomrunner had real tunes and real bash-it-out energy and got loud then quiet then loud again a lot, and first I was thinking "Dinosaur Jr." or "Sonic Youth" (again) and wondering when this kind of once-chaotic clatter had suddenly started feeling so cuddly and comfort-food-like. Then the singer did something with his voice that made me think, "Oh yeah, Nirvana. I always forget that band for some reason." Which led us to wonder how old the guys in Roomrunner were when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came out. I hope young enough to chase balls of light. [Chuck Eddy]
For over a decade, Bonobo, aka England's Simon Green, has been releasing some of the best downtempo music around: heady and clever, full of a delectable array of jazz, world music and other samples, all chopped up and chilled to ensure maximum mellow. What he's not known for are the kinds of playful, throbbing techno beats artists like Daphni and Four Tet have been dazzling crowds with of late. But judging by his DJ set at the Ninja Tune showcase Thursday night, featuring songs off upcoming album The North Borders, that's about to change. These days focused more on exciting dance floors than soundtracking chillout rooms, Green's new array of jams and the ones he mixed them with were bold, cheeky, playful, and best of all heavy – the capacity crowd throbbed and cheered from track to track. What a welcome new direction. [Garrett Kamps]
I kept confusing IO Echo and [Icona Pop], if only because of the similar vowels in their names. So when the former took the stage at the Mohawk for the Vans/IAMSOUND party, I was expecting the latter's syrupy Swedish electro-pop. Instead I was facing a four-piece band led by the willowy Ioanna Gika -- the only sugary thing about them was the cotton-candy pink kimono and sweatshirt patterned with smiley faces that she donned.
Instead, I was immediately blasted with overblown guitars, the two axemen gazing at their shoes and flanking the lithe Gika, whose flowy presence felt a bit like Florence + The Machine. But IO Echo are much darker and industrial-tinged at times: They were handpicked by Trent Reznor to open for Nine Inch Nails' last tour, after all. A highlight was '"Doorway": "This is a nightmare / I want to date you/ You get right under my skin," she seethed, over a slightly funky beat, eventually leaning on her guitarist to take on all that emotional weight. She then collapsed to her knees for next song "I'm on Fire," moaning like an unhinged PJ Harvey, "Quiet / Steady / Trigger / Finger." She closed with a headbang-to-backbend maneuver as if to say, "Take that, boys: I rock and I'm sexy as hell."
DIIV had some living up to do after that, and I can't say the sweatpants getup on one of the guitarists helped their cause. The Brooklyn quartet's surfy shoegazing is pleasant enough on record and maybe good for zoning out to whatever weird cocktail they were serving at the venue, but, frankly, I was bored. They didn't even play "Air Conditioning," the lead vocalist's self-proclaimed favorite song and probably most of the fans' too: "You can just listen to it at home," he said. Thanks for the tip, man.
Highlight of the day, though, was a band that I can't say were great, but in a sea of pretty good to great bands, sometimes you just want to find something a little freaky. Leave it to the Canadians to provide such fodder. At the Pop Montreal show at Swan Dive, a band of misfits seemed to be taking way too long to set up their gear, starting their set a good 30 minutes past schedule. Finally Karneef -- a sinewy beanstalk flashing with nervous energy, and the leader of Karneef + The Life -- seemed anxiously hesitant but just-enough satisfied to start. From there, I couldn't figure out what was happening: One song was all funk, another soul, another Black Crowes-leaning rock. One even had the band's drum-pad lord victoriously rapping, his bright red, backwards-tilted baseball cap giving him a slight Vanilla Ice touch. Karneef ended the set demanding a drink and proclaiming, "F-ck that." A semi-delusional, self-assured attitude: Now that's rock 'n' roll. [Stephanie Benson]