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By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 1st April 2015 at 2:00 pm
I think everyone comes to SXSW with a list of must-see bands. Come hell or high water, you are so determined to see these acts, no one will get in your way, you will queue for hours in advance, etc. etc. etc. For me, one of my must-sees at SXSW 2015 was French/Cuban sister act Ibeyi, whose self-titled debut album released on XL in February is likely to be on my top albums of 2015 list when it comes time in December to thinking about the year in review. While I was disappointed they would be playing at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary, where I’d had a near religious experience and bawled my eyes out watching Daughter perform there back in 2012, I was happy to see that Ibeyi’s official showcase would be at Central Presbyterian Church, where I’d never been.
Immediately preceding the sisters was a name that been going around my friend circles, Vancouver, Canada’s Tobias Jesso, Jr. At first, sat in my pew, I had no idea where he was as he began to speak to the audience. My pew mates explained he was behind the large grand piano centre stage. Ok. I’d been told he had a Randy Newman-esque, self-deprecatory way about him, which is neither here nor there, but I thought, okay, if it works for Randy Newman, maybe it’ll work for this kid. The week he was in Austin was also the week his debut album ‘Goon’ was released on True Panther, so the timing was ripe for him to pick up some new fans. Judging from the number of people who couldn’t find a seat in one of the pews, the buzz about him must have gotten around town. Initially, I had an open mind. One song made me think, okay, he’s a little like Billy Joel in his storytelling. But then as the song went on, I changed my mind, deciding that such a comparison was insulting to the Piano Man.
If my count was correct, he had to restart a song three different times (twice on the same song) because he couldn’t remember the lyrics. If I am to give him the benefit of the doubt to say he wasn’t used to the pressure of SXSW or to playing to this many people and maybe he got nervous and cracked, I think that’s giving him too much credit. You’re playing on the world’s biggest stage at the world’s biggest festival, a festival than thousands of bands around the world only dream of getting a shout to, and you’re not ready? It’s unprofessional and embarrassing. Even worse, I found his attempts to laugh and wheedle his way out of his shortcomings made things worse. Just get on with it. The title of his last song, ‘How Could You Babe’, pretty much sums up my impression of Jesso, Jr.: numbingly plain and boring. I hope his other shows in Austin went on with less hitches.
So thank goodness for twins Naomi and Lisa-Kainde Diaz to bring some energy to the church next. The sisters may have been overwhelmed by their week in Austin and the reception they got everywhere they went, but in their case, it was entirely deserved. As expected from a sibling act, the harmonies between the sisters were tight, and straight off the bat we were treated to a brief a cappella bit that allowed their vocals to shine. Also included in the set was a never before tried rearrangement of ‘Oya’ that was peerless and of course, the super sultry ‘River’.
The church also erupted in cheers when the pair announced they were about to do a Jay Electronica cover of ‘Better in Tune with the Infinite’. It was soulful and beautiful. In between the songs, the twins were softspoken but that was part of their charm endearing themselves to the audience: these are two young women who are passionate about what they do, about continuing their family’s thread through music, yet it was evident in the almost breathless way they would speak that they are honestly blown away by how everyone has come to regard them as singers and musicians. I felt terrible leaving Ibeyi‘s set early, but I just had this gut feeling I was supposed to be somewhere else.
By Mary Chang
on Wednesday, 1st April 2015 at 12:00 pm
My traditional start to Friday at SXSW every year is to arrive at B.D. Riley’s Irish pub in time for the full Irish breakfast and stay for the related showcase put on by Music from Ireland. The only problem in the SXSW 2015 edition: I wasn’t able to stay for the whole showcase, so you’ll have to read Carrie’s review later of the whole shebang. I was however able to partake in the actual breakfast (and I never turn down a decently cooked egg, even if it should have been sunny-side up and not scrambled, and there was no black or white pudding either ::grumble::) and get another opportunity to see the sunny and sweet pop singer/songwriter Orla Gartland play another set. After doing my part on proselytise and promote her as the sound of young Ireland (something I decided the night before at the Music from Ireland evening showcase at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room), I had to bid my goodbyes and head out.
Luckily, it wasn’t raining. Yet. You know how you can usually smell and/or sense impending rain? Well, I usually can. The winds were swirling above, yet the heavier drops from the sky held out long enough for Swedish supergroup and super buzzed about band Amason to play their set at the Sweden showcase early at FLOODfest Friday at Cedar Street Courtyard. To be honest, I was relieved for them, thinking about how much equipment could be ruined, not to mention how many band members might be electrocuted, if the sky decided to open up and pour down on them in the middle of the set.
Instead, their songs – driven by determined rhythms, the strong vocals of each member of the band and their excellent musicianship – wowed the crowd at who were also enjoying the complimentary Swedish meatball buffet. You can read more about this set of Amason’s as part of my introduction to the interview I did with Nils Törnqvist (drums and percussion) and Petter Winnberg (bass) in this post from last week.
The rain turned out to be quite a damper for most of the day Friday. Because of the bad weather outside, I reckoned that most people either gave Friday at SXSW a pass, not wanting to venture out in a less than fashionable poncho, or they just stayed where they were as long as possible, which is what Carrie opted to do at B.D. Riley’s and St. David’s church later on in the night. Me? I’m not so easily satisfied and so I braved the weather to stick to my original plan of seeing an afternoon of great Aussie bands at the Aussie BBQ, which I unfortunately missed out on last year. While I think Sounds Australia did a great job being prepared for the rain, passing out free ponchos and a handy guide to the Aussie BBQ’s line-up to any punter coming into Brush Square Park, as well as continue serving their promised free loaded hot dogs that punters were grateful for, I think everyone questioned the wisdom of moving the event away from Maggie Mae’s to two outdoor venues.
Thankfully, as the setup at Brush Square was the same as for Sounds from Spain on Wednesday, with tents keeping most things dry. Despite the rain and the inconvenience of rain gear and errant brollies, the mood was up in the West Tent as I arrived in the middle of SAFIA‘s set. The Canberra trio – Ben Woolner, Michael Bell and Harry Sayers – are of that crowded electropop genre, but Woolner’s voice is soulful, making beat-driven, hand-clappy songs like ‘You Are the One’ and ‘Listen to Soul, Listen to Blues’ stand out. They got the crowd riled up and ready for a full day of their countrymen’s music.
I knew nothing of Clockwise before he played, so I really wasn’t sure what I was going to get. You know how Nick Cave is a beloved, legendary performer from Oz? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m pretty sure Andy Clockwise is jonesing to grab that mantle away from him. And he can do it with his stage presence. His music’s good too; at first I thought, hmm, an Australian Bruce Springsteen, this is going to be interesting… Then the sound morphed from rock into one that was more mainstream pop. Huh! Things are really interesting now!
Then the man jumps off the stage, hands over his guitar to a random member of the audience, faffs maniacally with the knobs of the amp, and tells her to get onstage and wail on it. She does. He then brings the drummer’s high-hat down and hands over a drumstick to another all too eager audience member, who is instructed to bang on the high-hat as hard as he can. Mayhem, I tell you, utter mayhem. Yet it was so quintessentially mental – and fun – as SXSW goes.
Well before her set, I interviewed pop singer/songwriter Lenka, who wore a poncho even inside the tent to prevent the slightest damp or drip from getting on her sundress (it worked) but who was understandably nervous about any of her and her band’s instruments getting wet in a freak accident (it appears everything was spared and in reasonably good working order). Now, I can’t be sure if the rain had anything to do with the terrible feedback that was coming up through her microphone, but during her set, Lenka decided to go unplugged, going out into the crowd to sing a song accompanied by her guitarist. When in Rome, right? It just goes to show what a professional Lenka is, not letting malfunctioning equipment ruffle her feathers one bit.
As promised by her answers to our SXSW 2015-flavoured Quickfire Questions, her stage setup showed off her keen crafting skills, with clouds and rain being represented on artwork hanging from Macbooks and even her own keytar. While recent single ‘Blue Skies’ didn’t manage to bring out their promised nice weather and at times you could hear thundering from above, it was still great watching Lenka do her thing to a crowd of appreciative fans. I’m looking forward to hearing her upcoming album ‘The Bright Side’, due out this summer.
Sydney’s Mansionair were up next on the West Tent bill. Prior to coming out to Austin, I’d heard several of their songs on YouTube, notably the title track to their 2014 EP ‘Hold Me Down’, and enjoyed what I heard. The combination of haunting, yet minimalist synth notes, guitar and percussion, effective production, and a warbling vocal is one that is not soon forgotten, and the same could be said for their whole set Friday afternoon.
Even before seeing them live, I had a feeling of complete validation mid-week in Austin when I’d seen on my Twitter feed that during their time here, they’d been signed to Glassnote Records, aka the NYC indie but not really indie record label that launched the mega careers of Two Door Cinema Club and Mumford and Sons in the States. Hold tight, Mansionair, your lives are about to get very crazy very soon.
I had an interview date in a little while with Public Service Broadcasting, so I thought I’d duck into their set closing out the Friday afternoon programming at the British Music Embassy. Heh. What I expected: a well-attended but not packed out affair full of Anglophiles like myself. What it was like, actually: a totally rammed venue where the audience was even more enthusiastic for the quirky history boffin duo than the night before, which was to my utter surprise, especially for an afternoon showcase. The amount of cheering for ‘Spitfire’, wow! Perhaps we Americans don’t know how to do tea properly, but at least we recognise – and appreciate, often loudly when it’s warranted – our British cousins and their talent.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 31st March 2015 at 4:00 pm
My Thursday evening review was getting too long, so I broke it up into two parts. To read part 1 of my Thursday evening, go here.
Then it was on to underground DJ / musician haven on Red River, Plush. It is the electronic music fan’s dream: an unpretentious room where you can be as close and practically personal near the guy (or gal) on the decks in the back if you want, but it’s small enough that the thudding beats and the smooth grooves ooze into every nook and cranny of the place, there’s no bad spot in the house. You couldn’t have asked for a better place for my first time to see Rival Consoles (Ryan L. West) perform. Dressed appropriately in a Moog t-shirt, West was ready to knock some socks off and blow some minds.
I would be hard pressed to adequately describe West’s set. Through bleeps, blips, thuds and buzzes (bleeps, blips and/or thuds stretched), Rival Consoles an immersive experience and one you have to be there to experience, and it changes every night because West wants it to be a dynamic experience and not one that is limited by what you hear on his records. I also want to point out that his music, at least what I witnessed at his two shows in Austin at Plush and at the British Music Embassy the next night, weren’t solely about building crescendos and big drops.
Certainly there were those moments. But the overall feeling I got was like being before a master craftsman making his art for us, fresh. This isn’t in your face electronica ala deadmau5 or Tiesto, nor is it electronica that is so smooth, you can pretty much guess what is coming next, or just be lulled into a sense of tedium. That’s what I liked about seeing Rival Consoles the most: I was excited about the unpredictable. (Listen to my great conversation with Ryan in Austin here.)
So it was with great disappointment I had to leave early to make my way to the Parish ahead of Pennsylvania lo-fi rockers The Districts‘ set at the Paradigm Agency showcase. I wasn’t taking any chances, knowing this place was going to be completely rammed later for them and the Vaccines who followed. Perth, Australia’s San Cisco, already a household name here in America, had no trouble assembling a packed room, with plenty of punters either going wild for the young indie pop band’s music or at least bopping their heads approvingly from side to side. ‘Fred Astaire’, whose video was nominated for a 2013 ARIA (the Aussie equivalent to a BRIT award), ended their set on a schmaltzy note.
Most American bands I know of dress exactly like this – t-shirts, denim jeans, trainers – regardless of the style of their music, but in the case of the Districts, they’re the kind of band where the dress actually makes sense, because with the growly, fuzzy rock they make, you expect they must have just rolled out of a parent’s garage earlier in the day. While ‘Suburban Smell’ is a stripped back, not completely fond ode to the cookie cutter town from where they grew up, it still bears the scuzz of their sound that’s as unkempt as frontman Rob Grote’s hair. This is the appeal of their album released last month on Fat Possum Records, ‘A Flourish and a Spoil’: unpretentious, rough around the edges rock ‘n’ roll.
The irreverence of ‘Peaches’ “in the Vatican / and oh I don’t want to hear about the bird on the hill” with its droney guitars, the oozy, woozy rhythm of ‘Young Blood’ the “need for a little romance”; the desperation of Grote’s yelps in ‘Chlorine’, with its punishing drums and oddly comforting, homey guitar bridge: it was all better than I ever could have expected. They came to DC a week later but I dared not see them again, since I’ll have this snapshot in my mind of seeing them in Austin, down the front at the Parish, as they bashed away at their kit with reckless abandon. I’ll always remember this night.
From that high, I suppose there was nowhere to go but down. Already excited about having seen the Districts, I was keen to get an equally awesome dose of the Vaccines. The Districts finished roughly at 11:40 PM, which should have given the Vaccines an ample 20 minutes to set up their gear, which included what seemed like overly lengthy guitar and drum kit soundchecks. As I waited, real estate down the front became more precious, as I felt the air being squeezed out of my lungs. For a small girl as myself, it’s not a comfortable situation to be wedged in between two larger, taller people, even if they are girls.
I gave the Vaccines another 11 minutes to sort themselves out before I was over them, extricating myself from the Parish crowd before sprinting down 6th and rounding the corner back to Latitude 30. If I wasn’t going to get my fill of ‘Handsome’ tonight, I was going to get the next best thing, seeing one of my guitar gods Carl Barat with his band The Jackals, who I assumed I’d miss entirely in Austin and this year, as it had been announced the previous week that their American tour had been cancelled. That was probably one of the best split-second decisions I made all week.
I got down the front of Latitude 30 right in the midst of the band playing a song whose words floated down my tongue with ease (“monkey asked the mouse before / if she could love anybody more than he…”); it wasn’t until I came to the next morning talking to Carrie, who had seen them Wednesday afternoon at the Floodfest showcase at Cedar Street Courtyard, that I realised it was the Libertines’ classic ‘Death on the Stairs’. It was such a long time ago…yet it’s still so great.
Though I must have arrived after they played most recent single ‘A Storm is Coming’, Carl and co. treated us to several songs from their debut album on Cooking Vinyl, ‘Let It Reign’, such as ‘War of the Roses’, the jaunty ‘Glory Days’ (to which the whole crowd seemed to be snarling the words back at Barat) and more melancholy LP closer ‘Let It Rain’. Ben Sherman and UKTI, you did good booking this band and the next.
So then it was left to the next band to end my night on a high note. Although I’ve caught them live in Newcastle (May 2013), DC (March 2014), and the night previous in Austin, this would be the first time for me to see Public Service Broadcasting at the British Music Embassy and in their wide screen, multimedia splendour. For anyone who hasn’t been to SXSW before, I really must explain that seeing a band at Latitude 30 is a treat: the sound system is usually (99%) on point and the lighting is usually fantastic too(read: you can see everyone on stage!), which means you have pretty much the optimal environment to see your favourite British band.
And you can’t get anymore British than Public Service Broadcasting, can you? After witnessing cuts from the new ‘The Race for Space’ album the night before, tonight I could take a couple of snaps, then just get into their music for the fun of it. With its doom and gloom sounds of air raid sirens and Churchill samples, ‘London Can Take It’ shouldn’t be such a joyous occasion, should it? It probably sounds strange coming from a Yank, but I think given the emotional context, understanding that Britain is still standing how many decades after the Blitz, we (meaning the human race, not just Britons) can look back on those times with respect and admiration because we’re still here generations later.
It’s not that PSB is necessarily glorifying war; they’re giving praise where praise is due, to the people who came before who allow us to be who we are today or, in the case of ‘Everest’ for one, showed us that we as humans could go beyond what we had thought were our mortal limitations. In that regard, ‘The Race for Space’ is similar. This is music for the thinking person. And if we can funk out to ‘Gagarin’ while celebrating the first man in space too, why not? Oh SXSW 2015, you were wonderful. Absolutely wonderful.
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 31st March 2015 at 2:00 pm
The first must-see act on Thursday night of my dogeared and beaten up paper schedule for SXSW 2015 didn’t go on until 9:30 PM, which let Carrie and me have an actual sit-down dinner at one of our favourites, Crave, before going back out to see bands again. In a span of an hour, I had tasters (some good, some so-so) from Canada, Brazil, America and France before going forward with my previous plan. Something else funny: on my way to my first band of the night, I spied a famous quiff-cum-mohawk that couldn’t belong to anyone but Daniel Heptinstall of Skinny Lister. “Skinny Lister!”, I shouted. That’s the sort of thing that happens at SXSW: you’ll be walking down the street, minding your own business, and then you’ll run smack dab into someone (or several someones) famous. But I had to run. I’ll have to drink from their flagon of rum another time.
Canada: friends during our time in Austin and on Facebook had recommended a Montreal girl duo named Milk & Bone, which I decided to give a shot at the M for Montreal show at Sledge Hammer. They were running terribly behind schedule and it was unclear if it was an issue with the sound system, the duo’s own equipment or even a delay from the first band having trouble getting started, but a famous friend with me that night said this sort of thing never happens at Reading and Leeds because the stage manager makes sure bands start on time.
Finally, the ladies were ready to roll. I think when you’re doing pop, especially with the ever ubiquitious synth, you need to set yourself apart from everyone else, and that’s especially true in female vocal-led dream pop, an already crowded field with fellow Canadians Purity Ring, The Hundred and the Hands, Beach House and acts of similar ilk. My impression? Milk & Bone are a downbeat CHVRCHES in monochrome. Not my thing, thank you. Next!
Brazil: The Autoramas from Rio de Janeiro have been going since 1997, so we’re talking nearly 2 decades in the business with no signs of slowing down. The way they were working the crowd at B.D. Riley’s, punters stood up and cheering, I’d say they make a good living from their keep. They blend no nonsense punk and garage rock into a winning formula. In the moment, I kind of wished I knew Portuguese. One wonders though how much bigger they might be if they had a couple of songs in English?
America: When in doubt in Austin (well, if you like electronic music like me), follow the big beats into a grimy basement, and you can’t go wrong. If I didn’t have a full evening lined up already, I might have been quite happy staying at Barcelona all night, giving myself to the beats and scratches of the DJs for the evening. I only stayed long enough to hear San Francisco DJ Landau do his thing. (I can’t find anything on this guy, and at the moment I’m assuming he’s one of the head honchos of Surefire Agency, who put on this night. ) I noticed nothing exemplary about his style but there were plenty of punters cutting a rug, drink in hand, having a good time and being good to one another, and we need more of that in Austin. Good stuff.
France: Opening your SXSW 2015 band pocket guide and choosing a showcase to visit without any sort of idea of what you want to see is pretty much like throwing a dart on a map. So I went with the most ridiculous sounding venue on the list: the Vulcan Gas Company. According to Wikipedia, it was once the place to see psychedelic bands in Austin back in the ’60s, which is pretty cool to begin with. But as I walked through its doors, you could immediately tell the place had gotten a major facelift, as it’s now a handsome dance club, complete with a sign welcoming you in that’s literally in flames. What a different vibe than Barcelona. You’re beautiful, Vulcan Gas Company. Live long and prosper.
I stopped in just in time for Dream Koala, French teenager Yndi Ferreira and his dreads, who was playing the Kitsune party there. Up to that point, despite my support of many Kitsune compilation albums and Kitsune-related artists (Delphic, Is Tropical, Juveniles, Owlle, Two Door Cinema Club) who have gone on to bigger things, I’d never been to an actual Maison Kitsune-sponsored show, so it was nice to have things come round full circle. As you might expect from his act name, Dream Koala’s music is sleepy, atmospheric pop, yet with some interesting things on guitar and dreamy falsetto vocals to give an overall feeling of cool. This isn’t normally the kind of thing I like, but even to a small crowd, it was evident Ferreira was killing it, consumed by the music and letting it take him where he needed to go. I’ve read he showcased at last year’s CMJ but I’m wondering why we hadn’t heard of him! You’d think this is exactly the kind of man fans of the xx would be eating up.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 30th March 2015 at 4:00 pm
Liverpool’s Stealing Sheep have revealed a new live video, filmed in their hometown’s Vessel studio. It’s of them performing ‘Not Real’, the title track to their next album out the 13th of April on Heavenly Recordings. We Liverpool Sound City 2015 at the end of May. Watch the performance below.
Past coverage of Stealing Sheep on TGTF is this way.
By Mary Chang
on Monday, 30th March 2015 at 2:00 pm
One thing everyone learns at SXSW – and hopefully sooner than later – is to not sweat it when plan A doesn’t work out and you have to go to plan B, or even plan C or D. It is an inevitable fact of a city festival and the size of their smaller hole in the wall type venues (whether you’re in Austin or Brighton for the Great Escape) that if where you want to go is one of the hottest tickets in town, you’ll likely be disappointed. But during SXSW, there is always tonnes more things to do and bands to see, and the beauty of such a large event is that you might just happen upon something brilliant you’d otherwise never have crossed your mind.
The announcement that Danish band Mew were going to play only three shows in Austin seemed to be broadcast on all the music Web sites and blogs ahead of SXSW 2015, and I can’t say that I really was bothered about seeing them. However, as a music editor, it’s sometimes your duty to seek out what the people want to read about, so I had them scribbled down on my Thursday afternoon schedule as part of the Under the Radar magazine showcase at Flamingo Cantina. Wednesday afternoon I chatted with Will Doyle (East India Youth) about the Under the Radar show, as he was playing directly before Mew and headliner Of Montreal; he was quite pleased to be playing the showcase, as it meant he had an automatic in to the event. Curious, we looked up the capacity of the place on my phone, staring at the number with a mixture of marvel and horror: 299. Eep.
Considering how massively hyped the elusive Mew had been even before anyone made it out to Austin, I figured I’d probably be queueing outside all afternoon with no joy, so I decided to give it a pass. Later that night, I ran into a close Glaswegian industry friend (a much bigger, taller person who can hold his own more than I can, I might add) who said he’d made it into the showcase but stayed only for 5 minutes because there were too many people inside the club and he had struggled to breathe. I understand event organisers want to hype things up and purposely cause queues to form via FOMO, but it sounds like this particular event may have been violating safety codes and I count my lucky stars I didn’t even try to get into it Our friend Larry Heath, Editor-in-Chief of The AU Review, got into Mew’s third show on Saturday afternoon as part of the Brooklyn Vegan day party, and you can read his thoughts on them here.
But no tears were shed by this editor. I’d been blessed with an invite to the BBC barbecue that afternoon at Old School Bar and Grill, which had some lovely surprise live and acoustic special guests. Due to a mishap with the #17 bus, I arrived too late to catch first act James Vincent McMorrow, who appeared Wednesday night at the Music from Ireland showcase at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room (I reviewed that showcase here). Apparently Catfish and the Bottlemen were also due to appear on the afternoon’s bill, but they were nowhere to be seen. Another surprise for me was the sense James ‘Chaos and the Calm’ Bay was following me around, as the man and his now famous hat were seen going back and forth across the floor. I think he liked the food?
Between dining on the complimentary barbecue from venerated Texas meat institution the Salt Lick (which was delicious, thank you BBC and Salt Lick!), I watched amazing sets from now hugely popular singer/songwriter Frank Turner and the soft-spoken young Derry talent SOAK (Bridie Monds-Watson). Turner, who was bouncing from venue to venue all week and seemed to be in his element in this town, explained he was road-testing new material at SXSW and was playing different sets at every show in Austin; I’m sure this revelation delighted fans I met who were following him around all week. From the new song that he introduced with “this is about losing at tennis…again” (‘Love Forty Down’) to his raucous, yet loving tribute to his nan (‘Peggy Sang the Blues’), Turner proved why he’s become such a popular live draw both here in America and in Europe. Carrie interviewed Frank Friday morning in Austin, and her interview will be posted soon here on TGTF.
SOAK, the surprise guest at Monday night’s Creative Belfast showcase at Latitude 30, also captivated punters this afternoon with her gentle yet emotional voice, framed by her acoustic guitar playing. You wouldn’t expect something as placid coming from someone dressed like a skater, but somehow…it works. She now has a deal with Rough Trade, so I know Beggars will certainly help spread her music far and wide.
I met the lovely Bridie briefly late one night at the British Music Embassy, just as she was thanking Steve Lamacq for all his and BBC Introducing’s support. It was a sweet yet important reminder of how vital these mutualistic relationships and respect are key to our promoting deserving young artists and giving them the help and attention they deserve. Later on, I also helped facilitate the recording of a live BBC 6music session by my friends the Lost Brothers, who appeared on Steve’s radio programme. I take great personal pride in my part of the process, and I think everyone who is anyone in the industry who comes out to a massive event like this at SXSW with the purpose to help support bands should pat themselves on the back!