If you’re familiar with chaos theory, which in its basic form is the attempt to find patterns in this planet’s many happenings, then you may understand the difficulty that comes with describing a full day at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. To break down the chaos, a few of Village Voice Media’s music editors have selected their favorite moments from SXSW’s first day. Find ’em below.
Fiona Apple, “Every Single Night”
Fiona Apple – Stubb’s BBQ
I got goosebumps at least three times during Fiona Apple’s set at Stubb’s, mainly because I have the clearest memories of every aspect of Tidal, her 1996 debut: The cover, the lyrics, the time. 1997 was a bad year for me, and that album somehow steadied, since it was ostensibly about a breakup/heartbreak. Seeing her play “Criminal,” “Sleep to Dream” and “Carrion” 15 years later made me look back at 18-year-old me with wonder. Was I really ever that morose? Yes, but 2012 Fiona Apple doesn’t seem to be, though she looked like she still might cut a bitch. She played a few new songs from her upcoming album, The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, and even though she didn’t play piano that much, “I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up” from “Paper Bag” still hit as hard now as it did then. Following her set was the wonderful Sharon Van Etten, whose songs of heartbreak might be thought of with the same fondness by this generation.
Fiona Apple, “Anything We Want”
Fiona Apple – Stubb’s BBQ
Fiona Apple’s set at Stubb’s last night was the first hot ticket of this young SXSW, with lines wrapping around the venue. Opening with “Fast As You Can,” Apple’s first show outside Los Angeles in quite a while was rickety in places, and her voice was a gravelly wonder (it now evokes that of Tom Waits). But Apple has never been a smooth and silky act, nor is she a pop singer; she’s a poet in the vein of Leonard Cohen or Laura Nyro. The years have been kind to her older material, while cuts from her upcoming album were raw—much more raw than her debut.
It’s been fifteen years since 1996’s Tidal and its wave of adulation, and half a decade since Extraordinary Machine, but she’s still compelling onstage, minus the technical difficulties. Closing with her now-eternal “Criminal,” Apple proved that she’s “back,” although how long her return will last remains to be seen.
You know those hungover early SXSW afternoons, when you’d rather kill yourself than go into some loud, cornball Sixth Street bar? This time I ignored that impulse and allowed a rockabilly-mod-looking foursome to suck me into a place called The Thirsty Nickel. Their trick? Sheer playing-their-asses-off-for-a-record-deal energy. Turns out they were Los Angeles garage rock outfit Toy Bombs, in the midst of 15 minutes of pure bouncing off the walls inspiration, before a crowd smaller than the Rolling Stones’ craft service squad. It was incredibly melodic in an acoustically challenged room, and the players emerged fully soaked in sweat, imploring the small crowd to come see their next show, even though they had no idea where it was. It was the performance of their lives. Or, even more likely, they play like that every time.
The Toy Bombs – The Thirsty Nickel
Christopher Cross – Austin Music Hall
Yacht Rock was so 2007, but Christopher Cross is one cool customer. His 20 or so minutes during Wednesday’s Austin Music Awards at the Austin Music Hall was set on maximum smooth, but with teeth. The Austin music scene has always been associated with hippies and then indie-rockers, but Cross has more Grammys than anyone else in town outside Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson. The four players the fedora-clad Cross had with him had Steely Dan-level chops, too. He gritted out “Ride Like the Wind” with quiet anger and yearning for freedom, then brought out local string ensemble Mother Falcon and Austin Symphony Orchestra conductor Peter Bay to cruise through “Sailing.”
Trash Talk – Lustre Pearl
At first it was impossible to even tell who was supposed to be singing, and who was just grabbing the mic out of the storm of flailing limbs to scream an unintelligible line or two. Under the backyard tent at Lustre Pearl, the scene was a revolving human riot of sweat and dust, with a group of angry-looking dudes onstage appearing to exercise control over the mess only occasionally. After about half a song, though—”song” here meaning a brief period in which the band members used every noise-making tool in their possession like a jackhammer—it became clear that the throat-scrapings belonging to one particular fellow roused the moshers with a singular ferocity. That man was Lee Spielman, the band for which he was screaming is called Trash Talk, and it seemed very likely that it played the scariest official SXSW showcase happening on Wednesday night.
It was scary because of the pit, which spat beer cans, humans, and other objects into the air; it was scary because of Spielman’s blood-curdling screech; and it was scary because of the head-spinning pace at which everything happened. Like classic hardcore only more violent, this Sacramento outfit’s music is quick but heavy, lurching from one punch-out to the next, practically coercing listeners to move to it. Beyond the intimidating display, though, there’s a sense of joy. In between beatings, people were smiling and friendly. When Spielman asked, “Hey, who’s drunk?” most of the hands in the pit went up, and grunts of approval filled the tent. The people in front seemed to know the words, seizing any moment Spielman dangled the microphone in front of them to sing (scream) a few lines.
About midway through the set, the singer did them one better: He stepped down off the stage—an ominous pause as the bull entered the ring—and then, as the band rushed into another song, became completely swarmed by the fans. His long, greasy hair was lost in a pile of humanity; meanwhile, fearsome-looking bass player Spencer Pollard (ripped chest, covered in tattoos, Abe Lincoln beard) issued his own guttural exclamations from his perch above the melee. Eventually, Spielman and his Suicidal Tendencies T-shirt reappeared back onstage. He lost his microphone; a fan handed it back to him. The screaming and the mayhem continued, more frenetic than before, and when it was done, Spielman complained about getting punched in the ribs. Then he bragged that the band had five more SXSW shows to play.
—Ian S. Port
The-Dream – ACL Live at the Moody Theater
He’ll always be known as “that guy who made like $15 million off writing Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella'” to some, but Terius “The-Dream” Nash belongs on stage just as much as he belongs in the studio. With the Air McFlys lit up on his feet and a knotty gold chain thicker than a garden hose around his neck, Christina Milian’s ex-husband pummeled the crowd at the Billboard showcase into submission. Though the Atlanta singer-producer didn’t pirouette or shed visible tears, his set felt like a gift wrapped in purple paper for someone a tad too young to ever catch Jodeci perform during their early-’90s heyday. Bangin’ were two of the best s-word songs ever written, “Shawty is Da Shit” and “Rockin’ That Shit,” but Nash could also get away with inner tumult exposure too—via the slow, sinewy “Used to Be.” Even Lionel Richie, the night’s headliner and no dummy in the soul that pops department, name-checked him later on.