AUSTIN, Texas – As South by Southwest enters its home stretch – the music festival and conference will conclude Saturday evening – the temptations become harder to resist. The event, now in its 27th year, was once a showcase for the unsigned and the independent, but Friday offered opportunities to see Green Day, Depeche Mode, Sleigh Bells and Usher up and close and personal.
Arguably even more significant, however, is South by Southwest’s enduring ability to offer a glimpse at artists who are not yet celebrities. For some, Friday afternoon and evening was the chance to see artists who could grace the cover of Rolling Stone. For others, including this reporter, South by Southwest once again offered a glimpse at the artists who will hopefully be worth discussing in the days, months and years to come.
Some, such as European punk band Savages, don’t even have a full album to their name. But the London-based quartet didn’t waste any time letting a tightly packed Austin club know what it was all about. “This next one is called ‘Shut Up,’” said singer Jehnny Beth introducing a song early in the set. And then she slapped her arms in time to the bass – all while the instrument wrapped around the drums like barbed wire – and ultimately gripped the microphone stand as if it were a weapon of militaristic power.
Savages are intense. The band’s set Friday was 30 minutes of anxious rhythms, stern vocals and jaggedly focused riffs. It’s gripping stuff, and Beth’s death-stare into the audience made sure no one dared leave the venue. Not that anyone seemed to want to, as Savages matched the ferociousness with arrangements that were built around whiplash hooks and a rather focused chaos.
Words like angular, howling and post-punk get tossed around when discussing Savages, but that’s a disservice to the band, placing it in a dated punk rock continuum. With so much forward momentum in its songs, everything about Savages on Friday felt current, be it the way the tunes have an underlying thunder to them, or the way the guitars and rhythms played ping-pong with the riffs and beats.
It’s moody, it quakes and the band even seemed slightly out of place at an outdoor club. Though it was past sundown, Savages ultimately belong indoors, with the lights dimmed as low as possible and the audience straining to see who, exactly, is making such a rumble.
The quartet, outfitted in skintight black, threatened numerous times to go off the rails, but whenever guitars dropped out and Savages displayed a frightening industrial groove, it didn’t last. There were moments, for instance, where it seemed as if an alley-cat had suddenly been let loose on the cymbals, but it was brief, as Beth would smash her arms to her side and lock onto the microphone to lead the band with laser-focused aggression.
Yet not everyone who impressed Friday was as forceful as Savages. That’s for the best, as this post is being written at 3 a.m. after a week of sleeping no more than four hours per night and having eating only sporadically. A little more time with Savages – or an act of similar ilk – and one would be liable to be too wired to get anything done, as the band was that much of a caffeine jolt.
Ultimately, however, the day offered looks at lively electric soul, courtesy of the beautifully mesmerizing Sohn, and the gloriously rushed, hook-filled pop rock from Mikael Cronin. Sohn performed here as a three-piece, and reconfigured timeless R&B; sounds for a digital age, laying and distorting a bevy of ambient noises. The songs yearned for a connection, and the sounds twisted and turned until keyboards sounded like saxophones.
Cronin was more direct, but provided an equally timeless service. Though the band’s three-part guitar attack sometimes tripped over itself – one 20-second solo giving way to another giving way to a shout-along, misfit chorus – Cronin and his band of unkempt music geeks (they covered Wreckless Eric’s "[I'd Go The] Whole Wide World") wrote songs for the boys and girls out of their league and all the hopeless romantics who have fallen in love with a record collection.
Just as approachable – though a completely different genre – was country up-and-comer Caitlin Rose, who recently released her sophomore album, “That Stand-In,” on ATO Records (Alabama Shakes). She covered Buck Owens, possessed a voice that was somewhere between sweet and scornful and her songs -- an upbeat take on get-the-crowd-moving Western swing -- were packed with relatable wit.
“This is a song about having too many things in my house,” Rose said in introducing one. And a few songs later, “This is a song about getting married on accident. That’s the only way it will ever happen to me.” She sang of trying to kick a cigarette habit and of feeling awkward for being the one arriving at the party without the “bottled wine.”
It was all deceptively simple. The finely detailed arrangements packed a kick, and Rose’s voice is the kind that’s so comforting that it isn’t until the song ends one realizes how much it’s missed.
Friday night concluded with another artist with little recorded output to this point, Denmark’s MØ. The musical project of Karen Marie Ørsted, MØ offered Lady Gaga-sized workouts with do-it-yourself aesthetic. Ørsted doesn’t rap, but the songs are grounded in hip-hop beats. She’s a relentless performer, jumping, punching and whipping her ponytail at any momentary break in the vocals.
Expect MØ to be impressing at a dance tent at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival before too long, as this sort of oddly colorful dance-pop won’t go unnoticed. Performing here as a three-piece, Ørsted was balanced by a keyboard that mimicked a symphony and a guitar that out of nowhere would suddenly drop a hard rock riff or some prog-rock noodling.
Yet rare is dance music this brassy, as MØ doesn’t want to get on the club floor simply to party. As she sings like a balladeer in the hand-clap-driven “Pilgrim,” she wants to escape a world filled with news of war and celebrity babies. “Hush little head,” she orders herself, “you’ll get sick.”
It's a message that could also serve as a lesson for how to handle South by Southwest; don’t over-think it, and listen to something new.