The Best Music We Saw at SXSW on Tuesday

A Zamrock fruit plate, apathetic Irish drone-poetics, and so much more

Dare I say, two days in, that this is a perfectly sized South by Southwest. The streets are strollable, long lines are scarce – though hot shows did hit capacity – and yet there’s plenty of action.

Aside from Ashanti’s hit-parade, which we’re running as a separate post, here are our music team’s favorite moments from Tuesday at SXSW. Meanwhile, Monday’s highlights, in case you missed them, can be re-lived here.

WITCH Bring Zamrock… and Fresh Fruit to Sahara Lounge

WITCH (photo by Thomas Fawcett)

Seldom has a band and venue been more simpatico than fuzz-core Zamrock legends WITCH and the ramshackle African-themed eastside outpost Sahara Lounge.

As the band opened with the languid instrumental soul-psych of “Home Town” from WITCH’s 1973 debut (and the first commercial Zambian album ever released), Emmanuel "Jagari" Chanda made his way to the stage through the crowd banging a cowbell while carrying a plastic grocery bag full of percussive instruments and a paper plate full of whole fresh fruit that he would mostly finish by set’s end.

“I come from the third country north of South Africa,” Jagari said of his home country Zambia. The 70-year-old frontman is one of the few survivors of the psychedelic rock scene that he spearheaded there in the Seventies, and the last original living member of WITCH, although keyboardist Patrick Mwondela – who gives off serious Bernie Worrell vibes – joined the band in 1980. The latest iteration of the group is rounded out by four Dutch musicians who teamed up with the band in 2017 following renewed interest after their back catalog was reissued.

“My adopted Zambian guys,” as Jagari wryly called the Dutchmen, masterfully played the source material – from the James Brown-styled funk of “Mashed Potato” to the loping garage rock of “Lazy Bones.”

“In Africa we sing with our hips but here everyone bangs with their heads,” Jagari observed.

The packed shack did just that for the full 90-minute set. While that’s not quite as long as WITCH’s marathon overnight lock-in performances mandated by political violence-induced curfews of the late Seventies, it was a hell of a way to spend a Tuesday night in Austin. - Thomas Fawcett

Cassandra Jenkins Gently Commands

Cassandra Jenkins (photo by Rachel Rascoe)

With a soft but stern flick of her wrist, Cassandra Jenkins indicated to her synth player Adam Schatz (also known as the artist Landlady) to add a hazy background to her mic check. Her voice never rose above a gently commanding whisper in the preparatory exercise, and wouldn’t for the entire set at St. David's Historic Sanctuary. Still, the thoughtful, restrained layers of the five-piece group’s sweeping chamber-pop arrangements left ample room to bloom. Rob Barbato on bass, Austin Vaughn on drums, and Charlotte Greve – a celebrated classical composer in her own right – on flute and saxophone supported plush re-assemblies of Jenkin’s 2021 sophomore album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature.

On it, the New York songwriter plays with captured nature sounds and voice memos. She elegantly streamlined the sonics in her live iteration. Like to end dazed opener “American Spirits,” Jenkins raised an iPhone to play a voicemail from a friend, at the time trapped in a Texas jail. Schatz’s playful revolving synth filled in for the record’s warm texture, in addition to an intense, beautifully dueling saxophone solo shared among multi-instrumentalist Schatz and Greve. Before a more punctuated pop edition of “Hailey,” Jenkins stepped up to an abbreviated expositional spoken word entrance of standout “Hard Drive.” Her comforting voice prevailed as ideal for vaguely melodic prose.

“We spared you a 35-minute version of that song,” she said of her most popular single. “That was the other plan.” Here’s hoping. – Rachel Rascoe

Just Mustard

Listen, I’ll be frank. I’m sick to death of passion in music: roof-raising rebellion, earnest indie-introspection, intellectual precision in composition and performance, whatever – all that crap’s played out. Instead, gimme all five members of Just Mustard nearly falling asleep on their amps as they bombarded the swanky Seven Grand bar with teeth-shattering noise – an anti-spectacle so rivetingly unified you could easily imagine the band spent the hours beforehand rigorously rehearsing the precise middle-distance to absently stare off into.

Though they fully – or, rather – half-heartedly embody the bracing apathy that once gave shoegaze its name (and fell out of fashion as the form’s most popular practitioners began trending closer to swoony dream-pop), the Irish upstarts don’t particularly sound like any drone-poetics before them – their purple-noise-wash emerging less from overweening romance or angst than it does cold, cruel apathy, as though Mete Kalyon’s terrifying air-raid siren guitar tone were an accident of tuning he's too lazy to correct.

Be it the ominously propulsive rhythm section (occasionally aided by frontwoman Katie Ball’s Iggy Pop stylings on the tambourine) or the vocals that raise unpredictably from ghostly murmur to hardcore-leaning wails, there’s simply no precedent for much of what Just Mustard is bringing to Shoegaze. All we can only hope for in return is that this scuzzy, bone-raw band soon gets the chance to play an Austin venue that doesn’t serve upscale black licorice cocktails or have goofy-ass deer-heads mounted on the wall behind them. Then again, it’s not like they’d notice. – Julian Towers

Constant Follower Leads Into the Darkness and the Light

Constant Follower (photo by John Anderson)

Stephen McAll works with a quiet intensity. The Scottish songwriter’s debut LP as Constant Follower, last year’s Neither Is, Nor Ever Was, boils heavy below the surface wash of ambient folk, the songs that seem to sing against the tide of time and loss, clinging to brief moments of beauty.

In St. David’s Bethell Hall Tuesday night, McCall seemed initially taken aback by the intensity returned to him from the reverential crowd. The seated quartet painted an atmospheric tapestry to open, McCall’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar against the textured tones of Andrew Pankhurst’s electric and David Guild patient bass, and mellow hum and harmonies from Annie Bond’s keyboard.

Rolling into “I Can’t Wake You,” McCall would stare intently at the audience, meeting eyes in the crowd as if challenging them to listen deeply and sink into the songs with his patient, halting delivery drawing out the lines. At times, that calm heaviness could unfurl like Red House Painters, and others like Will Johnson fronting Balmorhea.

The intensity belied McCall’s overall affability that began to emerge midway through the 40 minute, seven song opening showcase set. Through his Scottish accent, he marveled at being in America for the first time (“I didn’t believe in turtles until today. I want to see some raccoons”), laughing and charming between the songs of quiet devastation. “Weave the World” offered a lighter touch but “What’s Left To Say” pulled a melancholy inevitability across the nearly half-full room.

McCall’s songs feel simultaneously claustrophobic and expansive, as if they’re trying to break out of themselves and float away, but can’t escape the shackled pull of memory and anchors of time. But in the constant grasping is a gorgeous struggle, deeply human and complex and ground in his reckoning with vivid moments that seem to carry lifetimes within them. - Doug Freeman

Walt Disco Screams Self-Love, Even with a Shortened Set

I walk into Cheer Up Charlies tri-penta-tangle shaped outdoor area expecting to see bodies moving and speakers pulsating. Instead? Casual audience chatter and bandmates running around the stage trying to figure out set settings. At last, an electric wave fills the air. “Hey, we’re Walt Disco!” frontperson James Potter says unassumingly.

Sighs of relief sweep over the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. Whether the set started 15 minutes late due to technical difficulties or because whatever monster truck light show happening next door at Mohawk ran over remains a mystery to me. Yet, the 20 minutes of unfiltered excellence I did see provided me enough serotonin for the rest of the night.

The Scottish outfit plugged in at CUCs, a high-traffic stop for Austin’s queer community. Fitting for this androgynous six-piece draped in an array of styles, the definition of organized mismatch: Potter wearing a pair of blooming hot pink pants partnered with a light pink frilly sweater and matching corset; bassist Charlie Lock in a striped maroon sweater vest and matching trousers; drummer Jack Martin fitted in a white tank; guitarist Lewis Carmichael suited in a squeaky black leather fit; keyboardist David Morgan sporting a Doom tee and black skirt; and guiatarist Finlay McCarthy with a sweater/shirt/cover of sorts.

Inspired by the greats – ABBA, St. Vincent, Girls Aloud – the Glaswegians’ sound captured the intense poetic vibrato found in Potter’s Rocky Horror voice while encapsulating the energetic aura of a classic pop ensemble. Loading the setlist with positive affirmations of sexual and gender exploration, the band seamlessly transitioned from an angelic and emotional time-piece “Heather” to the aggressive punk rock of “Hey Boy (You’re One if Us).” Potter gazed into the eyes of listeners, speaking directly to them and making each conversation seem personalized. Interpretive dancing supported the band’s self-loving message of acceptance while intrusive riffs and demanding drums power their merger of punk, rock, and pop into one cohesive, out-of-body experience. – Morgan-Taylor Thomas

Bandicoot Buzzes Cheer Up Charlies

Crammed into the inside room at Cheer Up Charlies, where the gender-neutral bathrooms still confound out-of-towners, Welsh quartet Bandicoot served up an indefatigable eight-song set that started at roof-raising and stayed there. So many of the Swansea band’s elements – the stripped-down R&B rhythms of Sixties Brit rock, the protopunk attack of hard-edged Seventies pub rockers like Dr. Feelgood, the self-consciously smart pop of late Seventies England – sound familiar to the nerdy ear, but the way the band streamlines it into one loud sugar rush prevents anything from becoming outright theft. Like any good act, each Bandicooter owns his own musical personality, from guitarist Tom Emlyn’s casual virtuosity to drummer Billy Stillman’s precision thrash to bassist Kieran Doe’s extra caffeinated hot foot. But singer/multi-instrumentalist Rhys Underdown pulls focus, and not just because he sounds like Elvis Presley gone post-punk. Though he’s just as buzzed as his bandmates, he manages to keep control, like the ringmaster of a circus gone kablooey, and that makes songs like “Fuzzy” and “Bleed Out” crackle like balled lightning. Bandicoot’s debut album Black After Dark came out just last week, and undoubtedly the raving, pogoing punters in the crowd left the club to look for it. – Michael Toland

Mayhem Reigns at Mohawk

One of the founders of the now infamous Norwegian black metal scene, Mayhem – whose backstory involves suicide and murder – has managed to survive for nearly 40 years. They showed fans why they’ve endured with Tuesday’s non-SXSW performance at the Mohawk. In 2017, the last time they rolled through Austin, they played their first studio album De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas in its entirety, but this go around, the audience got to experience Mayhem’s music throughout their prolific career as the band’s setlist spanned their decades of releases. As the audience listened to their evolution musically, they also witnessed the band change form with the music physically. Donning everything from horror movie worthy costumes to monk’s robes, vocalist Attila Csihar even gave a nod to the scene they helped birth by finishing the set in biker-influenced black leather and – the hallmark of black metal – spikes and studs. As if that weren’t enough, the show opened with metal maniacs Midnight, all cloaked in executioner’s masks, furiously blasting their evil brand of black metal-meets-Motörhead rock. Their own song titles describe them best: “Satanic Royalty” playing “Black Rock n’ Roll.” – Robert Penson

Los Bitchos Christen Their First U.S. Show with a Bottle of Tequila

The first thing you feel is the drums. Every one of Nic Crawshaw’s snare hits registers loud, cracking, intentional through the packed-out Cedar Street Courtyard – powering Los Bitchos’ pulsating, mostly-instrumental exotica alongside wrench-tight bassist Josefine Jonsson. The London-based outfit, who’ve generated enough buzz off recently released LP1 Let the Festivities Begin! to get shine in Rolling Stone and headline Tuesday British Music Embassy showcase, thrive on joyous, approachable stage energy and crafty compositions that have cool-part after cool-part. Certainly the cumbia-aspect of Los Bitchos feels lightweight in a city where you can hear authentic, masterful musicians playing even at a weekend flea market, but the UK quartet, rounded out last night with Ryan Fitzgibbon of erstwhile Austin no-wave act US Weekly, cast a wide stylistic net on Tuesday that equally indulged in Turkish psych, funk, and rock – all of it a playground for the basement shredder guitar heroism of Serra Petale. After passing around a fifth of tequila twice during their set, Petale celebrated this being Los Bitchos “first time playing in the United Fuckin’ States of America” and local audience members were polite enough not to mention that Texas is its own country. They closed, appropriately, with “Tequila.” – Kevin Curtin

Hotel Vegas Embodying the All-You-Can-Eat Ethos of SXSW

Fresh off a flight from San Francisco, I hopped onto a borrowed bike at 5pm and headed into the fray of Red River where … nothing seemed to be happening except price gouging (Hoboken Pies, shame on you for your $5.75 slice). Then a quick ride past the highway reminded me of why even the late afternoon dead zone of SXSW is worth celebrating.

The dream of mid-2010s SXSW was alive and well at Hotel Vegas, with no line, three stages of bands, and plenty of mid-Seventies Statement Outfits. On the patio stage, Oakland’s Fake Fruit was representing the Bay Area with a set of confrontational, sloppy-not-sloppy post-punk. Inside Volstead, the bass player from Juniper Berries made themselves at home sitting on the edge of the stage, adding low-end backbone to delicate Pavement-inspired vocals. Meanwhile back inside Vegas, Loteria powered through a set of real-deal rock and roll that channeled Big Star’s cockiest moments. They closed the set telling the crowd not to take no shit from nobody, a mantra which I plan to keep in mind all week long.

There’s certainly value to mapping out a bingo card of British buzz bands in the SXSWGo app (Yard Act do indeed rule), but events like Vegas’s Spring Break Boogie are where the real magic happens and the festival’s all-you-can-eat ethos lives on. – Dan Gentile

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