The Best Music We Saw at SXSW on Friday
Seventies funk GOATs, queer nu metal, and so much more
By Thomas Fawcett, Julian Towers, Morgan-Taylor Thomas, Doug Freeman, David Brendan Hall, Michael Toland, Mars Salazar, and Raoul Hernandez,
11:10AM, Sat. Mar. 19, 2022
While for many on our tireless (okay actually very, very tired) music team, Friday was filled with the Chronicle’s wild day party at Hotel Vegas and witnessing Dolly Parton tell stories and sing timeless songs, we actually caught a shitload of music in between and after.
At this point our daily recapping of the previous day’s highlights – which can be back-viewed here, here, here, and here – are becoming to feel like chapters in a novel titled How 16 Music Critics Did Nothing But Watch Bands and Type for Six Days Straight – pre-order now.
The “Secret Password” Is Cymande
In the documentary Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande, Cut Chemist likened the band to a secret password. If you knew them, you were immediately part of a club of music heads who were down with an almost invisible cornerstone of hip-hop. As the band readied to take the stage Friday night, a trio of young fans jockeyed for position near me, excitedly asking, “Do you know this band?!” “I do,” I nodded affirmatively, as if giving a secret handshake.
After the film premiere and playing to a capacity crowd on Rainey Street, it seems the secret is now out. The club may not be quite as exclusive as it once was, but everyone in it should be elated that Cymande is getting some long overdue love after their trifecta of near-perfect albums from 1972-74 never got the accolades they deserved.
From the unmistakable opening bass line of “Getting it Back,” Caribbean-born founding members Patrick Patterson (guitar), Steve Scipio (bass), and Derrick Gibbs (saxophone) led the eight-piece London ensemble in a rare stateside performance, blending funk, reggae, psych, jazz, calypso, and more into their signature “nyah-rock.”
“So we're gonna give you more songs than talking, yeah?” Patterson surveyed the crowd before launching into “Do It (This Time with Feeling)” from 2015 comeback LP A Simple Act of Faith. Let’s just say that the folks familiar with this one were an even more exclusive club, possibly limited to the musicians onstage. Next came the percussive mellow mysticism of “For Baby Ooh” and the spirited breakbeat bonanza - and crowd favorite - “Bra.”
“For those that didn’t know, ‘Bra’ means brother, so I thought we’d give you a little bit of brotherly love,” Patterson mused.
That was followed by the slick funk of “Brothers on the Slide” and set closer “The Message,” mashed up with Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” for good measure.
“Together, fore we go/ Forever, like it was before…” - Thomas Fawcett
Commando Should be SXSW’s Buzz Act
Look, buddy, I don’t make the rules. It’s frickin’ March and the terms for continued human existence have been well established by now. If citizens hope to avoid waking up in a 2x5 ceramic enclosure buried 8,000 feet beneath the Mojave Desert, all they have to do is go on internet-record with an utterly idiosyncratic hot take about the music of Wet Leg. Simple.
With apologies to Californian deconstructionist queer nu-metal collective (deep breath) Commando – a band that, like nearly every other musical act on the planet, would actually benefit from additional media coverage – I’m going to begin this write-up by checking off my American civic duty to the girls from the Isle of Wright.
So yeah. Wet Leg are alright. A striking aesthetic is definitely in place (enough for me to wonder whether this band would be the sensation they are without the brunette/blonde dichotomy at its center), but the band’s coy, smirky insularity onstage came off as mannered to me – like intensely poised performers determined to put themselves across as lovably off the cuff. Clearly I’m alone. When they did their self-consciously awkward little guitar twirl thing, the day-drunk Mohawk crowd cheered like the Goodyear blimp had flown overhead announcing the cure for cancer. Could it be that I’m just a snob who can’t deal with music that trenches its appeal in IMAGE?
But not two hours later I’m squealing with delight as the improbably eclectic Commando comes onstage – each member perfectly suited for their own collectible trading card. In order of first appearance: faceless guitarist in a bedazzled Slipknot mask, rap-dude in Seventies soul-guy formal wear, Linkin Park type edgy-vocalist in sagging pants with a belt notched tightly around his visible underwear, shirtless drummer in leather-gimp wear, System of a Down type spazz-vocalist in skimp-tacular fishnet, howl-of-pain vocalist dressed like Elvira mistress of the dark, tough-talking vocalist auditioning for the role of gender-flipped Lemmy in Motörhead biopic, and a bassist who kinda just looked like Tom Petty. Blessedly, the band’s music lives up to the dizzying genre-swirl of its haute couture. The band’s raw-and-dirty Korn-funk rhythm skank interweaves real old school hippity-hop style rapping with deranged shrieks and chunky, nearly garage-rock fuzz riffs.
To circle back to an absurd comparison, based purely in topicality (sorry), in terms of performance, Commando were basically the anti Wet Leg too. Their drag-show style revue is intensely orchestrated, with breaks for call and response (“Is it okay to punch Nazis?” “YES!”) and shock-rock spectacle (my heart goes out to the singer who had six candles of burning wax dumped on her). Yet the band go through their pre-ordained motions with such casual, chaotic confidence all the choreography felt truly live-wire and spontaneous. If America must assign someone to butter its collective muffin, make it Commando. – Julian Towers
Not the Baby Queen Show I’d Been Waiting For, But the Gen Z UK Singer Persevered
When I walked out of the Cedar Street Courtyard, which actually resides on Fourth Street, I felt like I’d descended into an alternate reality – not because I got lost in Baby Queen’s music, or because the venue sits below street level, but because during the 40-minute set, the drunk lady next to me convinced herself and everyone around us <>I was the girl Bella Latham kept singing about. Her proof? I knew the words to closer “Want Me,” a tune about a childish crush on a soccer player.
Although I’m flattered she thought I could pass for a professional athlete, I remained apprehensive of her next move. I mean, she tried to take the phone out of the hands of the bystander in front of us, being thrown on stage with an artist I’ve only recently started fangirling over felt like a real possibility.
Nevertheless, the antics of the intoxicated couldn’t keep me from appreciating the London-based singer’s set. Opener “Internet Religion,” with its Dance Dance Revolution tempo and spunky riffs, makes a call to action on technology negatively influencing modern relations. Diary entry “Lazy” illustrates how the 24-year-old’s lack of self discipline saves her from hustle culture burnout, consequently creating a non-traditional timepiece of self love and affirmation. Fan favorite “Dover Beach” speaks to the insecurities and agitation attached to being infatuated with someone, a classic pop ballad loaded with hypnotizing scale runs and catchy lyrics. All three advertise the Polydor artist's ability to produce studio-crafted sound live.
Unfortunately, the energy crawled, and a failed group beat-drop-jump led by the South African native left the crowd standing awkwardly as she continued. However, Latham’s candor with the audience proved to be a saving grace, highlighting her casual demeanor and approachability. From hitting a fan’s dab pen to cracking Gen Z-centered jokes, the songwriter created a pleasant atmosphere for all, including the three English men who stood front and center, bouncing up and down to every heartbeat rhythm and belting every word. What the performance lacked in intensity, the Leo star-sign made up for in perseverance, offhandedness, and raw live talent. – Morgan-Taylor Thomas
Jason Isbell Inaugurates Luck as New Destination Venue
As Luck Presents looks to establish Willie Nelson’s Spicewood ranch as a more regular concert venue, they couldn’t have picked a better artist to launch with than Jason Isbell. The Americana superstar, who played special guest at the previous day’s Luck Reunion, packed in nearly 1,800 fans to the movie set town, including a number making their first trek to the grounds.
The tight hour and 45-minute, eighteen-song set dug appropriately deep into Isbell’s catalog, which has delivered one of the best runs of songwriting of any artist over the past decade. The show also notably offered a much more laid-back feel than his sold-out three night stand at the Moody Theater last August.
Kicking off with “It Gets Easier” and “24 Frames,” Isbell & the 400 Unit masterfully drove a dynamic seamlessly woven between monster guitar jams (“Super 8,” “Be Afraid”) and silencing poignancy (“If We Were Vampires,” “Cover Me Up”). The quintet largely lets the songs do the work, no frills or gimmicks or major production necessary, and Isbell himself remains disarmingly casual onstage in his carpenter jeans and windbreaker.
The Alabama native joked about the SXSW rite of passage in his younger days – “We’d play eight shows a day starting at 10am, which means one day I got drunk seven different times” – and even noted seeing R.E.M. in Austin on their final tour, anecdotes punctuated with two of their songs: a stunning “Nightswimming” and rocked-out “Driver 8.” Guitarist Sadler Vaden likewise offered up Drivin’ n’ Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue,” all cut for the most recent Georgia Blue covers album.
Although the previous night’s “Hope the High Road” and “Dreamsicle” were left aside, the Unit hit high points with “Something More Than Free,” “Last of My Kind,” and “Speed Trap Town,” and closed both the regular set and quick two-song encore reaching back to the Drive-By Truckers’ “Never Gonna Change” and “Decoration Day.” The encore also added a highlight with Vaden and Isbell trading almost bluegrass acoustic guitar licks on a reworked “Tour of Duty” from 2011’s Here We Rest.
Perhaps more importantly for the evening, Luck proved that it could serve as an extraordinary destination venue for more than just Willie Nelson. Isbell can hold down the event during Austin’s biggest week of music without any need for special guests, but the unique locale will continue to draw fans to experience the magic of the setting. With Shakey Graves set to close out the weekend, and Modest Mouse scheduled for April, maybe the venue can emerge as a world-class but distinctly-Austin calling card. - Doug Freeman
Beck Was at Mohawk Watching Japanese Breakfast
Beck hasn’t hit up SXSW since 1994, a fact mentioned during his keynote early Saturday afternoon, and apparently he had no intention of skimping on the action this go-round. The experimental alt-rock trailblazer showed up for a taste of Japanese Breakfast aka Michelle Zauner (slated for her own keynote today) at Mohawk’s “Hi How Are You: the Unfinished Fest.” Hold the FOMO though; he didn’t join her on stage, instead opting to watch from the shadows while Zauner crooned through her cover of Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love.” No telling how long he stuck around, but I did nearly smack into him rounding the corner onto Red River from 10th Street on my way out of the venue’s backdoor. It's likely a long shot, but maybe there's still a chance for an impromptu collabo if J. Brekkie pops in for Beck's solo show tonight at the Moody Theater. Crazier shit has happened at SXSW, so who knows? – David Brendan Hall
The Dream Syndicate at St. David’s Historic SanctuaryAs they’re simultaneously prepping for the release of their eighth album and celebrating the 40th anniversary of its classic debut The Days of Wine and Roses, L.A. rock veterans the Dream Syndicate used their second SXSW showcase to workshop the show they intend to take on tour later this year: a set of recent material and choice cuts from the catalog, followed by Days front to back, with tonight’s show being the first time. The first half was more like a fourth, including reunion-era standouts “Glide” and “Out of My Head,” Medicine Show’s “Like Mary,” and “Where I’ll Stand” – the first single from Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions. After sharing a memory of sleeping on Jody Denberg’s floor after the Syndicate’s 1982 show in Austin, bandleader Steve Wynn said, “Let’s drop the needle on side one,” and we were off. Longtime setlist perennials “That’s What You Always Say,” When You Smile,” and “Tell Me When It’s Over” got proper readings, of course, but deep cuts like the breathless “Definitely Clean,” the noirish “Until Lately,” and the dreamy “Too Little, Too Late,” sung by surprise guest Vicki Peterson from the Bangles as substitute for the long absent Kendra Smith, provided the deepest pleasures. “I think this album’s a keeper,” Wynn commented dryly, before leading the band through a blazing “The Days of Wine and Roses,” a model album closer on par with The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Blue Öyster Cult’s “Astronomy.” As the final chords faded into the air, Wynn summed up the show for everyone in the sanctuary: “What a freakin’ blast!” – Michael Toland
Catcher Burns Midnight Oil at Classic Co-op Show
Miss me with that mid-30’s seltzerpalooza sweeping Sixth and Rainey, I want someone to slip me that early 20’s hooliganism straight-up gnarly. The crumb trail of twist off bottle caps led me directly to an unofficial show at Pearl Street Co-op, a sanctuary for adolescents (a label which I humbly abstain from) who are looking to bust a jive and seek out lineups that habitually run 30 minutes behind schedule. The show ran so late that the arguably most anticipated band, Godcaster, begrudgingly had to drop out as to not play at 4am and muck up their own schedule. Nevertheless, Brooklyn based six-piece Catcher made the midnight-oil burn worthwhile through distortion-drenched punk and an unexpectedly fitting amplified violin.
In a dank side-alley conversation, Catcher disclosed that they gained one of their band members the old-fashioned way, from a Craigslist ad, and one the new fashion way, via Tinder. Ample thrashing and strutting bolstered the new-wave progressions and forceful, droning vocals of frontman Austin Eichler. The rowdy bunch pulled from their mid-February album The Fat of a Broken Heart, which translated into a live show riddled with uptempo post-punk evoking South London’s Shame or a heavier, more erratic Fontaines D.C.
Hailing from hop-skip metropolis Dallas, four-piece indie-pop fusion Fishing in Japan also captured attention for their metamorphosis into a mellow rock oriented live sound compared to their streaming service status quo. Light guitar tone and the soft, airy voice of Wolfgang Hunter draws a parallel to indie-rock band Brantwood or Austin-based Sarah & the Sundays.
Catcher claims to embody a trifecta of sass, grass, AND class… however the black-clothing clad yobs took a long drag from a cigarette over the realization that during South By, they ride – or rather play – for free. - Mars Salazar
Hearing Geezer Butler Talk About Metal (and His Parents)
Considering, for a moment, the natural element Black Sabbath propagated on Planet Earth, the fact that a SXSW badge holder could waltz up to Geezer Butler after Friday morning’s Featured Session on “The Enduring Power of Metal” in the Austin Convention Center to snap a selfie or get their arm signed rather boggles the mind. Try catching Jimmy Page in such a compromising position. Yet there sat and smiled Birmingham’s Terence Michael Joseph “Geezer” Butler, 72, a picture of sanguine composure dressed in black and slate gray, with rainbow in the dark socks.
Tied to SXSW Film premiere Dio: Dreamers Never Die, which streamed online for conference attendees hours before the panel, the armchair murderer’s row of Sirius XM metal moderator Eddie Trunk, Ronnie James Dio’s manager and widow Wendy Dio, Skid Row power forward Sebastian Bach (dude is big and tall and rangy), and Butler suspended time for an hour in a long, deep, fourth-floor ballroom for a large and very intent contingent. All four appear in the documentary, not scheduled for release until fall, and so luxuriated on the life and death of its elfin subject, booming low tenor in Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and Dio. Metal existentialism also came up:
“‘A lot of steel clanking together like heavy metal,’” recalled Butler of the first review hipping him to the latter term – one hardly meant as a compliment.
“[Ronnie] didn’t like that term,” agreed his spouse. “He preferred ‘hard rock.’”
“I don’t know why all the logos [of extreme metal acts] look like tree branches,” cracked Bach, which cracked up the room equally.
Expert chaperone, Trunk established the traditional marginalization of the genre, which both Dio and Butler agreed bought metal a lifetime of loyalty from the exact same demographic, to which Bach recounted singing the first song Sabbath and Dio collaborated on, “Children of the Sea,” at a school talent show to the abject horror of its judges – and winning. Butler did him one better in recalling his father’s reaction to opening the gatefold on his group’s 1970 debut and seeing the upside-down cross.
“Mother of God! Mother of God! Mother of God,” exclaimed the true man of the hour, crossing himself in mock terror and later revelaing his parents wouldn’t allow him to buy them anything once he became successful.
Would you believe the Geezer who wrote the majority of Sab lyrics intends to auction off an NFT comic and soundtrack series? 2022 also portends the publication of his autobiography. And all the while, there grinned he who helped alter music forever, the man who once wrote: “Day of judgment, God is calling/ On their knees, the war pigs crawling/ Begging mercy for their sins/ Satan laughing spreads his wings.” – Raoul Hernandez