SXSW 2013, Day 4: Afghan Whigs and Usher, Foxygen and More
After some deliberation, I have settled on one word to describe the spectacle of Afghan Whigs and Usher onstage together at the Fader Fort Friday night, and that word is "bonkers." It's probably in the top 5 raddest live-music things I've ever seen, and easily the no. 1 most mystifying. I have no idea how this happened. I am overjoyed that it did.
First off: What are these people even doing here? The Fader Fort, as you may have gathered, aims for the youngest, hippest, rap/electronic/indie-rock stuff around, whereas the Afghan Whigs are a cult '90s alt-rock band, self-styled as "grunge soul" but emphasizing the grunge as much as the soul. As a headliner for this thing they're just mystifying. (And I say this as part of the cult: They're one of my all-time favorite bands, as I explain here.) So after Disclosure does their slightly more cerebral EDM thing, Southern rapper Trae the Truth nearly burns down the place by bringing out half a dozen special guests (including T.I. and B.o.B), and fellow Southern rapper/astronaut Future runs through all the smashes on last year's awesome Pluto, suddenly the Whigs are on, Cincinnati-bred gentlemen of a certain age doing "Blame Etc." from 1996 and basically sounding like a slightly funkier [Nirvana]. People are appropriately mystified.
Of course, the band has always shone profound interest in rap, R&B and such – frontman Greg Dulli has covered everyone from Prince to Nina Simone to Frank Ocean, and indeed their killer cover of the latter's "Lovecrimes" perks the crowd up. But then they start Usher's "Climax," a slower and (of course) grungier approximation driven by Dulli's hostile but fascinating relationship with pitch (you get to really like it, honest), and suddenly Usher himself comes out, and everyone goes berserk, and suddenly $10,000 in Apple products are being held aloft to capture every nuance of what turns into an actually well-integrated (and rehearsed) mixture of Usher's theatrical smoothness and the band's even more theatrical coarseness. You can watch it right here. It's unbelievable.
What's even more unbelievable is the next they do is another Afghan Whigs song, the lewd and electrifying "Somethin' Hot," with which there's no way more than 10 percent of the crowd can be familiar, but it allows us to hear Usher sing stuff like, "I dream about the way you smile and the way you make your ass shake." Then they bring out electro-soul dude Sinkane for a song, which is just OK, but then close huge with Usher's own "OMG", the Whigs basically turning it into a Led Zeppelin song, Usher leading the crowd in an escalating series of OH WHOA OH WHOA's. And that's it: The band leaves the stage, everyone cheers for like 10 minutes, roadies start tearing the equipment down, everyone cheers for another five minutes, and finally Usher comes back out to serenade us a capella for a few minutes. Everyone leaves both thrilled and totally confused.
I've never really cared about the huge stars who decreasing descend on Austin for SXSW – your Princes, your Justin Timberlakes, etc. – but this is different: a beloved megastar jumping onstage and doing something entirely unexpected. I have absolutely no idea how this happened -- how Usher was ever even made aware of the Afghan Whigs' existence. There is no reason this ever should have happened. I am eternally grateful that it did anyway. [Rob Harvilla]
The highlights from Rhapsody's splendid party at Club De Ville came from two new bands, both out of L.A. The first, In the Valley Below, play as a full quartet, but they're really the musical baby of vocalist Angela Gail and vocalist/guitarist Jeffrey Jacob. If these two aren't a couple in real life, they sure play it off well, Gail as the sultry, brooding, lovesick girl gazing raptly, with puppy-dog passion, at Jacob, who plays guitar and harmonizes with cool stoicism. Intertwined in their dreamy pop songs are sexy beats to make the crowd satisfyingly sway, especially when Gail brought out a heavy silver chain to provide a tambourine-like shake. Closing track "Peaches" is destined for the next indie rom-com smash.
The other SoCal brood, Foxygen, couldn't have been more opposite. Lead singer Sam France has the confidence of Jagger, and he yelps and snarls like him too, enough to practically lose his voice by show's end. Their January-released debut We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic is chock full of retro exoticism, hints of The Velvet Underground, Bowie and The Stones sparkling throughout its polished psych-pop palette. Their live show, however, is much noisier, much more visceral, and an absolute thrill. And if you don't like it, France doesn't care: "If you hate this show. Just leave and Tweet about it," he nonchalantly proclaimed. No one left. Especially not when a man painted like a red-and-blue stained-glass window came storming on stage to boogie with the band. "Was that Gotye? From that video?" they asked. It wouldn't have mattered. Foxygen were the stars at this party. [Stephanie Benson]
SXSW isn’t just bands playing live shows; it's also about… people sitting around tables talking! There are all sorts of panels, mostly about How to Optimize Your Business, which must be really helpful if you actually have a business to optimize, but there are also some for regular people, too. Thing is, you need an actual badge or green wristband of some sort to ascend the Austin Convention Center escalator to see them, and I didn’t have one and was actually getting extremely grumpy about that situation until I miraculously got a text from Nathan Carson (who runs Nanotear Booking and drums for the occultish Oregon doom-metal band Witch Mountain) that he had somehow landed me a free “day pass” to see all the panels I wanted on Friday, apparently because my presence was requested at his 5 p.m. Women in Metal panel moderated by journalist Kim Kelly and featuring Royal Thunder singer/bassist Mlny Parsonz and What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal author Laina Dawes.
It was quite an interesting talk -- lots frequently head-slapping stories about how hard it is for women to be taken seriously as musicians, writers and tastemakers in metal’s often defiantly ugly-guy subculture – but I feel conflicted talking about it in too much detail here since one of the other panelists used to play drums in the same band as my wife and wound up crashing out on our Austin futon for two nights. (Seriously: I gave her the keys to our back door before the panel started.) Still, you should’ve been there.
One of the more interesting tangents of that panel, though, involved Dawes and Kelly talking about being confronted with incredulous metalhead nerds who never believe a woman might actually be an expert on such-and-such horrible band and hence testing them about stuff like who played guitar on which album and what the first demo was called to prove they’re not just groupies or somebody’s girlfriend (facts those two panelists seemed proud to master since “somebody’s gonna quiz you and ask what right do you have to be here,” Kelly said), while Zeena Koda of SiriusXM Radio countered that “people get too wrapped in the minutiae.” That topic, coupled with Carson’s suggestion that underground metal has become notably more open to women than more mainstream metal (upon which Koda suggested that more commercial female-led bands like Evanescence and Grammy winners Halestorm could at least be a positive “gateway” for metal-curious girls), might somehow connect, though, to a panel I’d sat through a few hours earlier, branded “Guiltless Pleasures: Imagining a Post-Snob World.”
Well, okay, mostly I sat through it. I’d admittedly had too much caffeine (forgot when I ordered my morning coffee that I drink half-caf at home these days, oops), and got a bit incensed at one point by repeated unquestioned assumptions by moderator David Greenwald (of Rawkblog, Billboard, MTV, etc.) and Rolling Stone’s Simon Vozick-Levinson that late-20s-aged critics like them – a category they said also included Lindsay Zoladz of Pitchfork, pitching in via remote camera – are more open to once-“guilty” pop pleasures than critics used to be back before the Internet allegedly made “all music available to everyone” (yep, that’s from the panel description) and hence saved the universe or whatever. (Greenwald Tweeted at some point, “Chuck Eddy interrupted our SXSW panel so today is already legendary.” Ha! Dude, I had my hand up.) Anyway, when the Q&A portion finally came up and I pressed them on the issue of what Greenwald had suggested was a major generational shift from grunge and punk-elitist critics of the long-gone past, and I pointed out that in fact good critics all the way back to the early ‘70s had always defended supposedly trashy pop hits they loved, the panelists basically conceded my point but suggested that bad critics didn’t (still not real clear on how that’s changed), and Greenwald said they were mainly talking about fans not critics anyway: pretty much a dodge, but what the heck.
On the other hand, they had been talking about fans, some. Vozick-Levinson discussed how it’s harder to hide your Backstreet Boys fetish these days when music streamed on line might show up in your Facebook feed, and suggested that angry Justin Bieber fanatics responding to less-than-positive news about their idol in web comment sections or putting down Black Keys or battling Selena Gomez and One Direction partisans in the streets (okay, I made up the “in the streets” part) are “essentially a form of snobbery” to match record store clerks in High Fidelity. Sorta think that’s stretching the “snob” definition to encompass anybody who prefers one thing over another thing, and not sure I follow why (or if) it’s more the case with Bieber lovers today than with, say, Beatlemaniacs or mods vs. rockers or Poison fans fighting Metallica fans in ‘80s metal magazine letters sections. But it was an intriguing point.
Other artists/controversies that came up included Nicki Minaj letting non-keeping-it-real pop hooks into her weirdness when people like Funkmaster Flex don’t approve even though, as Zoladz suggested, “pop fans don’t mind her doing something out-there and experimental”; the “false god of authenticity” (in Greenwald’s words) as it relates to Lana Del Rey and Mumford & Sons and Dave Grohl (the latter two of whom Vozick-Levinson insisted don’t really think they’re realer than anybody else); alleged “post-snob” artistes like Kanye West and Grimes who have no problem simultaneously courting mass culture and underground audiences; and indie-centric outlets opening ears to K-Pop and Taylor Swift and Paramore, unless they don’t. “We’re constantly re-evaluating what needs to be covered,” Zoladz said of Pitchfork. “Everything has the potential to be good.” She suggested the goal now was to “open up a critical conversation” in a world where “people don’t see the distinctions they once did.” Golly -- If only old codgers like me were as open-minded as a Pitchfork year-end list! [Chuck Eddy]
Though you wouldn't know it from our coverage thus far, it is possible for a band to bomb at SXSW, which is what happened at Rhye's showcase on Friday night. It's hard to blame them: vocalist Mike Milosh informed us that the group had just flown in from Berlin and its members were all battling illness. Alongside that, the sound at Buffalo Billiards was just atrocious, which stands to reason: a cavernous converted poolhall, with its Sixth Street revelers playing drunken games of 8 ball a floor below, is a terrible setting for Rhye's delicately nuanced indie R&B. The band did its best: amidst the din, you could still make out the natural wonder that is Milosh's voice, a fluttering, ethereal contralto, and the addition of a cellist and violinist filled out the songs' clever arrangements. But constant feedback wreaked havoc on both the songs and Milosh's nerves, and album highlights like "The Fall" and "Open" fell short of expectations. No doubt the band is more than capable of exceeding them, but tonight they caught bad break. [Garrett Kamps]