Rolling up to the clamoring cacophony of 6th St. on a South-by Saturday — where hundreds of bands are playing at once — feels like heading into a free-jazz locust swarm. My first stop was Maggie Mae's, where Gang of Youths took the stage at 1:35 p.m. By the end of the band's opening song, frontman Dave Leaupepe had uncontrollably rocked out so hard he'd accidentally yanked the cable out of his own guitar at least once. Basically the band sounds like a more excited Kings of Leon, handily churning out driving, New Wave-tinged anthems chocked full of heart-on-sleeve sentiment, effects-heavy, Edge-inspired riffs, crescendoing build ups, wide-open choruses and as many wordless "whoa oh oh ohs" and "oohs" to someday fill a stadium. For now, the crowd of hungover hobnobbers dividing their time between those sing-alongs and gratis nachos and sausages on Maggie Mae's rooftop patio will have to do.
Later I rolled up to Cheer Up Charlie's to find another Australian ensemble, zeitgeist-y indie-folkies Boy & Bear, midway through a midday set of swirly guitar jangle, faux-tribal auxiliary percussion cradling pop melodies and propelled by dance beats on the outdoor de facto main stage. Inside the club, twice as many people were trying to fit inside a venue less than half the size to see Brooklyn chill wavers Small Black.
On record, Small Black is so chill that I was cautious in my expectations of how their live show would translate, especially during a daytime show for a bunch of dopamine-depleted, serotonin-bereft festival-goers. I was pleasantly surprised by the performance, but rather miffed to find out this band is bigger than I (or apparently day-party-throwers The Wild Honey Pie and Pretty Much Amazing) thought, judging by the size of the crowd trying to squeeze into the tiny space.
I ended up being able to hear the smooth band's drippy, ambient pop far better than I could see the people performing it. While the oppressive body heat generated by the sardine-packed crowd suited Small Black's sticky tunes (of which the wistful "Free at Dawn" was a particular highlight) left no room to dance.
Back in the balmy outside the vibe was a bit more abrasive, as Brooklyn noise-pop fave Oberhofer (and band) were midway through a super-charged, frenetic set of shrill-voiced, blown-out-rock marked by plucky lead guitar lines and glockenspiel flourishes, courtesy of the band's utility man Matthew Scheiner, whose contributions shined through best on the carefree, sugar-y love song "You + Me."
As night fell, I decided to eschew braving the clusterfuck of club-ready humanity that is 6th. Street St. and Red River (but is mostly 6th St.) and trek out to the east side of sound for Burger Records Burgermania III at the dive-y, lovably antiquated Hotel Vegas. Boasting four stages (two indoor, and two outdoor) and an epic lineup of punk, garage and pure rock 'n' roll, this was a prime place to post up for the rest of the evening, and by extension, the rest of the festival.
Playing outside, and providing the soundtrack to my impatiently waiting in a snail's-pace-moving line to enter was California chillers Gap Dream, a highlight of the night even though I could barely see them through the fence. But every note I heard was divine, sounding like Bossa Nova era Pixies covering the more space-y songs from David Bowie's Berlin period — it's what you'd imagine when you conjure the kind of synth-pop band that Burger Records would sign. And speaking of Bowie, Gap Dream's most resplendent song of the set, "Shine Your Love" (not to be confused with the band's equally exquisite "Shine Your Light") sounded like a bouncy, synth-horns-soaked homage to Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes".
By far my favorite discovery of SXSW 2014, and quite possibly the best thing to hit Austin since breakfast tacos (or so I think in my hyperbolic state), was Orange County, California bass-drums-vocals (and occasional iPhone hip-hop) duo The Garden — the most creepily off-putting, telepathically connected twins I've seen since The Shining, not to mention one helluva tight rhythm section. And if you don't believe, check out what my fearless editor, Matt Wilkinson, said about the band's Thursday night SXSW appearance.
I can't figure out if I love their music (a sort of cross between Lightning Bolt and DEVO, at least most of the time), I'm merely fascinated by them to point of unquenchable curiosity, or I fear them. But I do know this band is dangerous. Onstage, what the Garden gave me and a hundred-or-so other SXers packing one of two tiny inside stages wasn't just a performance, it was a confrontation. Maniacally grinning at audience members, as if challenging them to take a trip into two twisted minds, the brothers jumped into the crowd to quarrel with the unruly, spit at people in the front row after someone through a drink at the stage and — during a couple of their deconstructionist post-punk slammers — inspired fans to flail their bodies violently in the pit.
By comparison, Denton/Austin, Texas locals Bad Sports were tame. Back on the outdoor stage the band unleashed song after song of peppy, harum-scarum speed punk with rapid-fire pacing. To break up that fury, the scrappy band took occasional breathers, peppering the set with the occasional weed-friendly mid-tempo rock song or '70s-style power-pop ballad, like the excellent, infectious "Teenage Girls."
In keeping with that power-punk spirit, New Jersey's party punchers Liquor Store took the adjacent outdoor stage minutes after Bad Sports and opened up with what sounded like a cover of Thin Lizzy's "Cowboy Song," but wasn't. Still, that ain't a bad guitarmonized lick to steal, and Liquor Store kept unkempt revelers hoisting Lone Star tallboys and shouting along to the their gang vocals.
Next up, Nashville classic-rock fetishists Natural Child took the outdoor stage and turned the oversized Hotel Vegas backyard into a sweaty, stoney barroom. As a rock critic who lives in Nashville, I can tell you, Music City has a glut of great bands, and Natural Child is one of the best. And perhaps the most rock 'n' roll (as best evidenced by its band members passing a joint amongst themselves, onstage, while setting up for their late-night slot outside), but they're still a little bit country. Late in the set, the band nodded to both their Music City roots while simultaneously appealing to Lone Star State pride with a fittingly apropos cover of Charley Pride's "Is Anybody Going to) San Antone."
But rocking like an indie-rock Allman Brothers Band and singing shamelessly graceless, Southern-tinged hard-knock-lifestyle jams (like the Stones-y chugger "B$GP$MP$N") in a woozy, drawling gang-vocal is what Natural Child co-frontmen Seth Murray and Wes Traylor do best. As the pair (who play guitar and bass respectively) traded licks while rubbing shoulder blades posed back to back, while an amped up crowd of party ready revelers overflowed around the stage like an invading army.
Showing camaraderie, Together Pangea surprised the giddy members of Natural Child with a blown-out cover of the band's psych-rock stomper "White Man's Burden." And as the sand ran through the hourglass on a heavy SXSW asterisked by a senseless tragedy, it was all good vibes and celebration of life, Lone Stars and rock 'n' roll at Hotel Vegas.