Thousands of bands converged in Austin last week, performing all over the city as part of South by Southwest 2014. Some might find the prospect of seeing music at every waking hour exhausting, but there's something surprisingly energizing about the mass convergence of creative talent in Austin each year. SXSW remains one of the best places to discover new bands, a remarkable, unique opportunity to watch, discover, be disappointed by, and celebrate a ton of indie music's most buzzed-about (and completely unknown) artists.
It cannot be easy to be a band at SXSW. Best case scenario, a group is playing a dozen or more shows over the course of the week, frequently under less than optimal conditions, without adequate sound checks, and to audiences that are somewhere between hungover and drunk and always distracted by their phones. It's unreasonable to expect too much from a SXSW performer, which makes it a welcome surprise when a band rises above "just okay" and blows you away. Plenty of bands did impress us over our four days in Austin, and we've collected a dozen highlights in this mixtape.
However, it's not possible to reflect on this year's South By festivities without acknowledging Wednesday night's tragedy, when a drunk driver broke through barricades on Red River Street, hitting and killing two people -- a third passed away from her injuries on Monday -- and injuring twenty-two others outside the Mohawk. It was strange to be at the Mohawk, one of Austin's best venues, on Friday, seeing a schedule of set times from Wednesday night still taped to one of the bar's cash registers. While the tragedy made the whole let's-see-a-ton-of-bands thing feel even more shallow than normal, there was ultimately inspiration and relief to be found in the music, a much-needed reminder of the medium's very fundamental importance.
Below, find out a little bit more about each of our South by Southwest standouts.
Withered Hand -- "Black Tambourine"
Dan Willson's work as Withered Hand mixes folk rock and indie pop, with songs that sound great but are elevated even higher by heartfelt, compelling lyricism. New Gods is being released in the US by Slumberland Records, which should be recommendation enough, but the album's list of guest performers -- Pam Berry of Black Tambourine, Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, members of Belle & Sebastian and Frightened Rabbit -- also says volumes about Willson's remarkable talent.
Ex Hex -- "Hot and Cold"
Mary Timony's resume speaks for itself -- with successful turns in Helium and Wild Flag and as a solo artist -- and Ex Hex continues that impressive run. The DC trio's throwback glam pop stood out both times we saw them; it's no surprise that Merge scooped them up for a debut album later this year.
Mas Ysa -- "Why"
Thomas Arsenault cannot be accused of sleepwalking through his live appearances as Mas Ysa. Surrounded by electronic hardware in his Mohawk set on Friday, Arsenault furiously pressed buttons and adjusted settings, periodically stopping to sing into the microphone that was otherwise draped around his neck. That energy paid off, adding another layer of intensity to his already emotionally-charged and immaculately crafted electronic pop.
Jungle -- "Lucky I Got What I Want"
Seeing Jungle twice in one day was perhaps the best decision we made at South By last week. The funky pop songs coming from the UK septet felt a little too mellow and ethereal from a balcony vantage point at the Mohawk, but the band was absolutely commanding later that night at the Hype Hotel. For a group that clearly cares about sonic precision -- how often do you see singers using windscreens in live shows? -- that second set was fully immersive and stunning.
Quilt -- "Tie up the Tides"
Quilt's performance at SXSW on Saturday at Red 7 was a welcome respite from the rain outside, with majestic vocal harmonies and textured psych that was alternately pastoral and rocking. It was gorgeous-sounding stuff that begs one to revisit this year's Held in Splendor, out on Mexican Summer.
Protomartyr -- "Scum, Rise!"
Protomartyr was the first band we saw at South by Southwest, and their inclusion here should speak to the big impression they made at Pitchfork's French Legation Museum day party. The Detroit band tonally lands somewhere between punk's sneering urgency and post-punk's despondent brooding, but with songs that carry a surprising amount of melody. Under Color of Official Right, the group's second album, arrives in April.
Big Ups -- "Goes Black"
Brooklyn's Big Ups periodically feel like a throwback to '80s punk and post-punk bands, although it never feels like they're merely aping any one band in particular. It's an impressive feat that's notable mostly in an academic context; live, the only priority is moving along to the group's intense, blunt songs, recently captured on the Eighteen Hours of Static LP.
Dead Gaze -- "Rowdy Jungle"
Who knew that some of the best power pop around was coming from Mississippi? Cole Furlow's Dead Gaze started as a lower fidelity solo project, but his five-piece band wasn't hiding any of its big hooks at Holy Mountain last Thursday. The group drew from Brain Holiday, a big, anthem-packed record that flew far too under the radar last year.
Sylvan Esso -- "Hey Mami"
Live sets by electronic pop artists often feel more like tenuous attempts to replicate studio productions than real concerts. Fortunately, North Carolina duo Sylvan Esso impressed us with more energy and charisma than scores of rock bands. Their self-titled debut LP arrives in May, and a recently announced set of dates with tUnE-yArDs sounds like a can't-miss pairing.
Future Islands -- "Cotton Flower"
Future Islands had already built a strong cult following over the years, before the band went viral with an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman in support of Singles. Samuel Herring is compelling as both a crooner and a growler, and the band's moody, intense songs are incredibly catchy; early reviews of Singles suggest that the new LP will elevate the band into the stratosphere.
Tony Molina -- "Change My Ways"
SF's Tony Molina and his band powered through a blistering set at Maggie Mae's on Wednesday night, sparing nary a second in a run of heavy, brief pop anthems from the recently-reissued and thoroughly terrific Dissed and Dismissed, out now on Slumberland Records.
Guerilla Toss -- "Trash Bed"
Frenetic barely begins to describe Boston's Guerilla Toss, who performed to and among an energized crowd at the Longbranch Inn on Friday night. The band makes a hell of a noisy racket, abrasive and funky in the vein of no wave, with a propulsive and headstrong drive.