The Best Music We Saw at SXSW on Wednesday
The buzzy, the brave, the thrash-able twee-pop
By Michael Toland, Abby Johnston, Julian Towers, Dan Gentile, Clara Wang, Rachel Rascoe, Mars Salazar, and Raoul Hernandez,
11:19AM, Thu. Mar. 17, 2022
Day three of South by Southwest’s first Music week since 2019 began to radiate the hype and hysteria it’s known for with Phoebe Bridgers showing up to ringlead her Saddest Factory “corporate retreat” at Mohawk and Wet Leg drawing a crowd so big at Half Step that there were as many waiting outside the venue as there were inside.
Here are the highlights from our tireless music team, who’ve been sent out to explore the sights and sounds of SXSW music – sometimes risking their personal safety (see Julian Towers recap of Pom Poko). Previous day’s recaps can be found here and here.
The Heart Music of Park Jiha
Hip-hop, rock, dance pop, jazz funk – whatever kind of music cranks your SXSW, it’s likely to be streamed through amplifiers and speakers. Park Jiha, however, mostly eschewed electronic amplification. With the exception of a few pre-recorded tracks on her laptop, the South Korean composer and former member of SXSW vets [su:m] trusted St. David’s Bethell Hall itself to resonate with her acoustic instrumentation, including a yanggeum (a hammered or plucked dulcimer), a piri (a thin pipe that sounded like an oboe), a saenghwang (a droning, keyed mouth organ somewhere between the oboe and a chromatic harmonica), and a xylophone played with a bow rather than mallets. Drawing from her new album The Gleam, Park didn’t really perform her pieces – there wasn’t a trace of theatricality in her presentation. Instead she calmly laid out her minimalist melodies by playing only the notes required to get the messages of “Light Way,” “Restlessly Towards,” and “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans” across with no trace of flamboyance. This isn’t body music, like rock & roll, nor is it specifically cerebral, like a lot of Western classical music. File these measured, deliberately paced songs under heart music – open up, absorb Park’s meditations, and find your way into beauty. – Michael Toland
Perfume Genius Pounds the Pulpit
I have been to plenty of SXSW sets at Central Presbyterian Church, and on more than one occasion, I’ve thought, “That was the perfect show for this setting.” It’s not that my memory is that short. There are many facets of the sanctuary for musicians to play off of: its austerity, the towering arch of the ceilings, the prim order of an audience sorted into pews. Each of the musicians I’ve bestowed that superlative upon have used one or multiple of those elements to amplify their work. But on Wednesday night, I found myself once again declaring, silently, that the perfect act had finally graced Central Presbyterian’s stage as Perfume Genius closed out the night.
Mike Hadreas, the man behind the moniker, alternated between sparse balladry, pop bangers, and volcanic eruptions of chaos with ease. He swaggered on stage to join his five-piece band in a suit with starched sharp lapels – the jacket didn’t last long, but the energy did. Writhing along to pop songs grounded by guitar and keyboard intricacies, Hadreas dared the audience to engage in contradiction not unlike seeing an unabashedly sexual pop act with a giant cross at his back. He was clean cut, but coquettish – the choir boy whose mic knows his naughty side. He was measured but boundless, his tenor in one moment perfectly aimed and then bouncing off the ceilings of the church as music overtook him. He knew how to play with his stage positioning, arching his back and binding his body with his mic cord before traipsing down the aisle separating the pews. He took us on a journey that the most charismatic of preachers only dream of.
This set marked the beginning of the first full tour behind 2020’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. If this is a preview, audiences are set for a catharsis, but I hate to say they won’t see anything quite like this moment. Perhaps it was an unexpected pre-show dinner conversation on religion that primed me to feel spiritualized. But once again, I’ll say, “That was the perfect show to see in Central Presbyterian.” This time, I swear to God. – Abby Johnston
Writer Injured at Thrashable Twee-Pop Band Pom Poko
Until I ate a flying elbow while trying to bust a jig at the center of last night’s Pom Poko circle pit, the spiritual affinity between traditional Norwegian folk dancing and traditional American moshing was not something I had considered.
Another fact previously unknown by me: Pom Poko – a technically-gifted twee-pop band named after a Studio Ghibli anime on a label run by a Cocteau Twin – make music to thrash your fucking head to. Really! Heard on record, the group’s inclination to run sugar-sweet melodies through squawky guitar dissonance and Bizarro World time signatures struck me as primarily aesthetic – a formula for scoring extra indie quirk points. From the sweaty center of a crowd that was going way too hard for Cheer Up Charlies tiny inside floor, it became stupidly clear that, actually, Pom Poko’s stop-start shuffle-punk rhythms are as mapped to incite dummy-rage-storms as any track on my beloved metalcore leg-day playlists. Of course, instead of playing caveman simple drop D riffs for meatheads, the group jerk their indie-kid crowds around with almost ostentatiously intelligent dynamic shifts (not even a full sentence has passed before their label bio mentions their jazz-school training).
Yet even as the band kept finding new pockets of twitchy calm to disrupt with bombastic fret breakdowns, never once did the ear-wormy songs misplace their core danceable thump. Likewise, overall-clad frontwoman Ola Djupvik’s delightfully strange stage presence was crucial in helping her ostentatiously talented bandmates set a breezy, crowd-pleasing tone. Though she’d often begin each song by standing stiff in a pose of stern, meditative focus, it was never long before some goofy dance whim – be it jogging in place or hopping on the amps to cling to the rafters – shattered her stone face. For a few songs she even came down to shove around with us in the pit. At the end, when she pulled off a jig that utterly showed up my earlier efforts in the arena, I wasn’t even upset! (Except to the extent that I was still in pain from eating elbow! Which I was! A lot!) – Julian Towers
Geese Rides the Buzz
As Geese took the stage at the Rolling Stone and Twitch showcase Wednesday night, a comment from the Twitch livestream playing on the large screen at 3Ten ACL pleaded “LET THEM SLEEP!” Whether part of their busted NYC punk aesthetic or the result of being one of the busiest buzz bands of SXSW 2022, the Brooklyn sextet did indeed look worn down only halfway through the week.
When frontman Cameron Winter stepped the mic and the jagged, biting guitars kicked in, though, the band delivered pure energy that more than earned the hype. Working some new material alongside standouts from last year’s Partisan Records-issued debut Projector, the young outfit jittered and wailed with an anxious cool as Winter strutted and stomped around the stage. Geese teeters into a tightly wound chaos, wanting for the kind of dive bar they can smash.
Lead singles “Low Era” and “Fantasies/Survival” showcased the amalgam of influences that regularly, and rightly, get called out with the band: from Television’s slicing post-punk guitars and the Strokes’ hard-beat moaning swoon. Even a touch of Britt Daniel and Spoon, who have Geese opening a string of shows later this year, seep in on “Disco” as Winter lays into huskier-strafed howl.
All those influences all merely serve as touch points though, and the quick five song set didn’t leave much room to explore how Geese continues to evolve their own sound ripping at the NYC tapestry. It was enough to prove the band one of the breakouts of SXSW this year.
Likewise for the preceding set from Mattiel, which cut into an intoxicating and eclectic Eighties vibe from the Atlanta duo of Mattiel Brown and Jonah Swilley. Brown’s vocals floated and punctuated with a Karen O versatility atop the machine beats and Swilley’s guitar, one foot in the art punk gutter and the other in the glossy pop spotlight. - Doug Freeman
Rhythm Section vs. the Coconut Compound
You can close the voting for “best live synth bass of SXSW 2022” – just give the trophy to Poppy Ajudha. Backed by a hotshot trio of women musicians, she sang slinky R&B punctuated by some very nimble Novation Bass Station octave jumps to an enthusiastic crowd in the Sellers Underground basement. The South London singer commanded the tiny floor stage at the Rhythm Section label showcase with a punk rock confidence reminiscent of Amy Winehouse. Ajudha’s single “Disco Yes” has 53 million plays on Spotify; I suggest you add to that number.
George Riley was another standout, holding court over a sampler while belting out uptempo R&B laced with light breaks and just the right amount of trip-hop. The intimate room felt fitting, but I’d love to see her on a bigger stage (she plays Cedar Street Courtyard on Friday at 10pm). New Orleans young gun Hiatt Db and Rhythm Section label boss Bradley Zero were all smiles as they closed the night on the CDJs.
Meanwhile around the corner, Coconut Club proved itself a perfect SXSW venue. ADE (Amsterdam Dance Event) brought in some heavy hitters from Europe, but the majority of the programming was made up of local legends. B the Beat ripped through cumbias in the laser pit, and Bill Converse played a wire-tight set of frenetic house music until 2am on the Neon Grotto rooftop, reminding everyone in attendance why he’s Austin’s best DJ. – Dan Gentile
La Doña Brings a Message and the Party
La Doña opened her C3 showcase with Hank Williams’s classic “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry,” a call to the duality of her Chicano music, since Williams is both classic American and Native American. Cecilia Cassandra Peña-Govea insisted in our recent interview that people only compare her to fellow Texas-rooted singer Selena because she’s a Latina who wears lipstick, but in her red satin off-the-shoulder dress and cowboy hat the resemblance is unmistakable – even if the San Francisco native plays more classic corridos than Selena’s poppier Tejano polka.
Peña-Govea brought out a trumpet for her signature moñas by second track “Quien Me La Paga,” which she alternated with guitar for the rest of her 30 minute set. Reeling off several “femmeton” ass shakers off 2020’s “Algo Nuevo” and shouted out her Brownsville roots during 2021’s Texomaniacs conjunto collab “Mal De Amor” with the electric stage presence of someone who grew up performing.
“We’re going through the same thing,” Peña-Govea remarked of the gentrification that’s shaping both Austin and San Francisco. “There’s an influx of money, and it leaves us behind.”
Peña-Govea is an activist who brings a fiesta. – Clara Wang
Wet Leg’s Birthday Debut
A thousand butterfly-wing-flap moments likely contributed to Wet Leg being the buzziest debut at SXSW, but I’m comfortable stating the main cause was a preternaturally good and fun song called “Chaise Longue.” The debut single landed on Domino Recording last June. Since then, the English duo have risen to a level of interest attracting passersby cries of “What is this huge line for?” and a handful of fans peeking over the fence from the bar next door during their packed first performance in Austin. A prior searing set by Sasami, at a showcase put on by both artists’ label, brought Rainey’s Half Step to capacity and beyond.
Wet Leg’s leading Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers emerged happily with arms around each other’s waists to walk-on soundtrack “Concerning Hobbits” before ripping into their own “Too Late Now.” Later, an unreleased song impeccably captured their addictive formula: a sugary-sweet melodic portion ended with the saucy lyric “Why don’t you just suck my dick?” Then, a shared group scream, and a series of contagiously smiley guitar-toting twirls from the front persons. New material, as their debut album isn’t out until next month, proved the Wet Leg universe won’t all be tightly-wound, prickly post-punk. One slow jam harkened to Teasdale’s past life as a piano-playing singer-songwriter in the vein of Regina Spektor.
Unfortunately, sound issues persisted throughout the set – especially interruptive for a band built on precision-cut vocal insertions and snappy combinations of bouncy pop and gritty guitar. Feedback appeared to deter Chambers from throwing in more of her singing parts, emphasizing the leading force of Teasdale’s vocal charisma between the fuzz. A synth player/third guitarist in the quintet sang too, announcing midway that Wet Leg’s Texas debut aligned with Teasdale’s birthday, requiring a crowd chorus. (Teasdale joked “I’m finally 16” in one of only a few words spoken by a surprisingly shy band considering their cheeky lyrics.) Naturally, the largest singalong came for the finale, a perfect song for hopping-along about laying on a chaise longue in your underwear. – Rachel Rascoe
A PorchFire Records Revival
PorchFire Records rose triumphantly from the grave once again to grant, arguably, three rhythmic wishes: electro, experimental, and energy. While rooted in younger underground favorites local to bat city, short stay musical vagrants shook things up at West Campus cathedral, the Ballroom, for this unofficial SXSW showcase featuring official artists. Brooklyn five-piece Psymon Spine was canonized for their new age shoegaze sounds and Eighties synth pop overtures à la Tubeway Army righteousness. Indie rock undertones painted a soundscape reminiscent of the Frights with more electrification through punching hooks and harmonious fervor to birth a sound of the Features meets John Maus. The Slaps, a trio from the Midwest (Lexington/Chicago), made a stop on their two-month national tour to dish out heavy bass lines, seamless rhythmic shifts, and progressions that keep you guessing. Ambivalence painted their faces as they bellowed commanding harmonies from deep in the gut, evoking a mellower Surf Curse or more experimental Current Joys. Frontman Rand Kelly sported a flaking temporary tattoo in the decisive location of right jugular that depicted a bulldog in a military-style helmet, acquired via vending machine in Houston-based Dichos Taqueria. Fresh sounds and faces in the typically undeviating mid-20s venue captured unanticipated awe sparked by a feverous synth and powerful vocal layering. – Mars Salazar
Yoo Doo Right at M is for Montreal
Looking for festival tips, here’s a couple: Fourth of July siege Festival International de Jazz de Montreal and September sit-in Pop Montréal International Music Festival. Both take place in a truly international arts hub pulling all the best acts from Africa, Scandinavia, and North America. Wednesday night at the most crucial music conference on the latter continent, a pair of seismic psych trios from the Canadian headquarters touched down on the back patio of Swan Dive on Red River, long a home for the annually stacked M is for Montreal meet.
Tip of the Marshall stack to German/Japanese mothership Can, the Quebecois triad of Justin Cober, Charles Masson, and John Talbot proved They Doo Right righteously – and also at an ear-sundering volume. The latter drummer pulled focus early, rocking the kit as if he sat in the electric chair, spasming percussion while guitarist/keymaster Cober and bassist Masson set off an airplane-hanger roar. Like My Bloody Valentine at the long extinct Austin Music Hall, heavy decibels somehow lost the race to an even more massive intent.
Cruising the bandleader’s soaring electronics, Yoo Doo Right dive-bombed a gargantuan bash, its instrumentals loud and distorted enough to collapse upon themselves in a chain reaction of musical mass. Halfway through the thunderous 45-minute set, Talbot struck up a motorik beat and the hordes of SXSW attendees streaming onto the patio began moving to the Earth-shaking pulse. Ear-to-ear grins permeated all under the tent.
In sharp contrast, Population II dissipated all the energy in the space by dicking around far too long in set-up. Finally starting almost 15 minutes late, which then reduced their showcase time to 25 minutes for a threesome routinely turning in 20-minute sonic booms, drummer and singer Pierre-Luc Gratton, guitarist/organist Tristan Lacombe, and bassist Sébastien Provençal never fused vintage gear into cosmic transport. Lacombe’s searing organ and Vox teardrop ax combined with a beastly eight-string bottom end from Provençal, which then collided with Gratton’s high-pitched caterwauls and resulted in a messy, disjointed audio scrum. Even the band itself felt the air suck out the Swan Dive as they barely acknowledged the end of the set and began packing up unceremoniously. – Raoul Hernandez