Last year, I spent the majority of my time at the British Music Embassy at Latitude 30. It was so long ago now, I don’t really remember if it was more because it was a safe place for me because I knew exactly where it was on San Jacinto Boulevard, or if it was the line-ups that drew me there. In any event, at SXSW 2013 I was mildly disappointed by the programme being presented over the week, with a lot of bands that I just didn’t care for. Traditionally, Tuesday is the ‘easiest’ day of the festival, as there aren’t as many showcases put on because that’s the day the festival begins and a lot of the professional folks don’t make it into town until that afternoon. That said, that means every decent showcase will be rammed, which was the case with the Huw Stephens-curated UK Trade and Investment showcase that very night. I got in there early, figuring I wanted to hit the ground running, covering a whole slew of notable UK acts hand-selected by Huw himself.
The first band up was Y Niwl, an alternative surf pop band from Wales. First impression: their bass player was wearing a red knit hat that made me laugh, because the week prior our John Fernandez was trying to win a similarly epic winter hat in a Facebook contest. They don’t talk between songs and Huw even said in his introduction of them, “they told me to tell you ‘thank you’ now”, because they wouldn’t be stopping to chat. So between this statement and the hat, I went into this set chuckling.
I don’t speak Welsh so I can’t read you the titles of their songs or tell you what they mean, but all you need to know is that they’ve got a blend of the Shadows, the Ventures, the Surfaris and the Beach Boys (sans lyrics), with a penchant for both slower burning numbers and widely contrasting speedy ones that will remind you of the themes to Peter Gunn and the James Bond franchise. Y Niwl could definitely could be considered quirky on the basis of their handwritten set list that consisted solely of numbers (a special band code?) and not any recognisable words. Not even ones that looked like Welsh. Mysterious…
Folk pop singer/songwriter Lucy Rose was up next, wearing an Adidas t-shirt, black jeans and some kick-arse–looking trainers. I kept in mind from John’s interview with her at Reading last year that deep down he’s a metal / rock loving girl and that this outfit made more sense in that context. Being so slight, she had brought with her a special stool and all her pedals were placed on top of an equipment case so her feet could reach them. (Bless.)
What became immediately apparent from the first song out of the gate was this was not the same anxious, timid as a mouse girl I saw open for Bombay Bicycle Club in DC just a year ago. If there was a time for her to bring the goods, this was it, her first big American music industry appearance in Austin for her SXSW 2013 close-up. ‘Middle of the Bed’ wowed the folks I was with who had never seen her before. She offered up a brand new song, and in her usual self-deprecating self, she organised her band to play another song that they never play live, saying “this is going to be bad!” But there was no indication of anyone, much less Rose herself, of dropping the ball. Maybe the first time she came to America, she wasn’t confident in her performing abilities, but this night, no one could touch her.
Tall Ships from Falmouth were a jarring yet welcome band to follow the folk of Lucy Rose. John had nothing but compliments for their debut album ‘Everything Touching’ from last year, and generally speaking, our rock tastes differ quite a bit, so I was expecting something loud and frenetic. In that respect, they did our John proud, guitars and hair flying all the place. A little loud for me but the crowd were loving it. I almost didn’t want to leave, but I had a date with another band elsewhere.
This is where things went pear-shaped. I was supposed to be on the guest list for the big Media Temple-sponsored SXSW Interactive closing party at Stubb’s. For a month prior, the internet had been abuzz about the headline set by deadmau5 vs. Richie Hawtin. As you can imagine, it was one of the biggest draws of the entire week and while I do like deadmau5, I was more interested in seeing the band directly before me, our friends the Joy Formidable. With a press wristband, I knew I hadn’t a hope in the world of getting in, and they had arranged for me to get in through the guest list. I arrived a half-hour early, figuring that would be plenty of time to get into the venue and get a good vantage point. Something went wrong though, as when I went up to the guestlist line and the man with the list – all 12 pages of it – flipped through the list with lightning speed, said I wasn’t on it and could I call the people who put me on the list to get in touch with them?
Uhhh, that would be a little difficult to achieve because it was 30 minutes from the Joy Formidable’s set list and us bloggers are all too aware that bands get psyched up for their performances right before and we cannot expect them to be near their phones. A kind request for the man to look over the list one more time, more slowly, was met with a curt shout of “you’re not getting in!” Okay, then. I was also bristling as some women behind me, barking at security that they should be let in immediately because they were from the BBC. Sorry, but no-one was getting in unless you were on the guest list, whether you’re from the Beeb or not. The experience soured me on Stubb’s for the rest of the week and I refused to return. This was really disappointing to me as last year I had a very good night there seeing Kaiser Chiefs and the Temper Trap. While I realise that especially on that night when they were being shouted at by drunk festival-goers desperate to get in to deadmau5 that tempers all around were frayed, but being professional is part of running a venue, SXSW or no SXSW, and I don’t think any punter acting reasonably and civilly to staff deserves to be screamed at. Respect people, whoever they are. I walked back down Red River Street, defeated, hearing the faraway strains of ‘Cholla’ and wishing I was inside Stubb’s instead of kicking dirt down the sidewalk.
Well, what to do now but to return to Latitude 30? Remember that I said earlier in this piece that Tuesday night was light with showcases. I’ve never seen so many people outside Latitude 30, trying to get in. Then again, nearly every band I wanted to see there at SXSW 2012, I had arrived well ahead and managed to get inside with no problem. It became eminently clear that with my press wristband, I wasn’t getting back in for the 1975. Considering how much we’ve written about them on TGTF and the fact that I was probably one of few people who knew several of their songs, let alone heard of them, I was fuming. Those of you who have met me know exactly how short I am. Despite standing on my tippy toes, I couldn’t see a thing. They sounded amazing though, and judging from the screaming after each song, they got in and did what they needed to do: wow the Austin crowd.
The crowd significantly thinned out after the 1975’s set, allowing me to squeeze in to the side for Willy Moon. One of his songs was recently featured on an Apple advert here in America, so I imagined there would be a decent buzz around him. However, it appeared everyone I was in close proximity to was there to wait for Bastille, who I’d read in a press release the day before had hit #1 in the UK albums chart with their debut. In that respect, I thought Moon had an uphill battle ahead of him.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to like him live, as I had always thought on record he was a bit gimmicky and too reliant on ‘50s style. But surprisingly I liked him a lot. As I had imagined in my head, he has a Little Richard / Jerry Lee Lewis frenzied throwback vocal style about him. But what I was not expecting was how animated he’d be on stage, hips swinging like a 21st century Elvis, crooning and preening. With a huge quiff and dressed to the nines in a smart suit, he just oozed cool. He had played a show in DC when I was poorly in February and boy, was I glad to have finally seen live.
I still don’t get the appeal of Bastille. Being Tuesday night, it was the last hurrah for the SXSW Interactive conventioneers, and I met several of them who were ending their last night in Austin with this rousing night with Huw Stephens. A new friend from London said that the Bastille sound is the sound of London right now, and maybe that is why I’m not getting it. Having heard the new Dan Croll single ‘Compliment Your Soul’ on BBC 6music earlier today, I am not so sure it is limited to London.
Since it had been such an arduous task to get back into Latitude 30 after the 1975’s set and after a ridiculously early night the night before not getting into Peace at Viceland, I couldn’t be bothered to leave the venue where I’d managed a cosy spot down the front for the evening’s headliner. Initially when I saw Dan Smith, he reminded me of one of my friends Matt, and I immediately starting missing him. There are synths and lots of percussion that make up the Bastille set-up, and make no mistake, Smith’s music is a lot of fun and it incites wild dancing wherever he goes. Surrounded by folks who were obviously into this kind of music, their arms in the air to the beats, I felt like a wet blanket. I just don’t fully understand why their debut album hit #1 on the UK albums chart. While I am not saying it is entirely soulless, there seems to be something missing there, at least for me, and it’s that block that keeps me from enjoying the music fully.
Overall impression of the evening: most bands very good, but Stubb’s security loses them at least a thousand points.