SXSW 2014, Dispatch #2: Panels, Preatures, Hungarians & Wytches, oh my!

Recapping the last 24 hours in the belly of the music-biz beast

March 13, 2014

A TRAGIC UPDATE: This dispatch was posted just minutes before the Austin Police Department reported that a vehicle ran into the crowd waiting outside the Mohawk at 9th and Red River shortly before the 1 a.m. set by Tyler the Creator was scheduled to start. According to officials, 23 people were transported to the hospital, 5 are in critical condition, and 2 are dead. More details to follow on Thursday.

So Tuesday ended better than it started as a young quintet from Sydney, Australia called the Preatures quickly won my heart, despite the fact that it was shoehorned into an awful venue, the sort of bro-populated disco that no one with a brain would visit any time other than SXSW. And the five were even better when I caught them again Wednesday afternoon at the Austin Convention Center during KCRW’s stint programming the Radio Day Stage.

Fronted by the captivating Izzi Manfredi, who exudes a leather-jacketed, retro/New Wave cool a la Debbie Harry or Chrissie Hynde, the band incorporates percolating electronic rhythms with strains of Motown soul and garage-rock guitar. The musicians have yet to make their album-length debut, but their self-confidence, energy, and maturity onstage belie their relative inexperience, and it’s difficult not to get swept away.

The day-time sessions on Wednesday started for me with a panel entitled “Man vs. Machine: The Curation Dilemma,” in which the driving forces of streaming services such as Beats Music, Pandora, and Rdio discussed the benefits of suggesting new sounds to their users via computer algorithms versus tips from human beings.

All of the panelists agreed that a mix of both is the ideal, though Beats CEO Ian Rogers was the most eloquent in lauding the human touch of a passionate and knowledgeable fan sharing the musical love. In fact, he makes Beats sound as if it’s programmed by some ideal combination of a teenage fan girl, a Lester Bangs-like rock-critic eminence, and one of those legendary free-form DJs of early FM radio who could build sets that seamlessly and sensibly segued from John Coltrane to Blue Cheer to Lulu. (In the interest of disclosure, I should note that Sound Opinions contributes some curated play lists to Beats, so maybe he’s right.)

In one way or another, the theme of man vs. machine/algorithm vs. human musical curator carried through all of the other Wednesday sessions I caught. Singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, the widow of the influential and pioneering rock critic Paul Williams, led a discussion paying tribute to the founder of Crawdaddy!, who died last April. Though only one of the participants, Ed Ward, ever worked with Williams, they all captured the unique humanity, enchanting spirituality, and boundless passion of his best writing—three things that never could be duplicated by computer code.

From there, a session entitled “The Insights Evolution: Why Only Obsessing About Music Sales is Holding You Back,” organized by the media data gurus at Nielsen, tried to show the health of the music industry in a new age when sales and radio play have been joined by many other forces to measure an artist’s success, including streams, downloads, television appearances, and social media chatter.

Some of the numbers were indeed encouraging, especially those that showed that listening on mobile devices now is almost as popular as listening on car radio, and that streaming increased by 40 percent between 2012 and 2013. Generally left unanswered, however, was how artists might monetize these changes to, say, make a living playing music. And, as one panelist pointed out in a well-chosen paraphrase, too much data actually can be a bad thing: If you turn on your headlights when you’re driving in the fog, he said, basically you just see the fog a lot better.

Also satisfying, at least to those of us who’ve been fans for a long time, was Sachin Doshi of Spotify describing how the Handsome Family—“this obscure little band”—suddenly shooting to the top of the list of the most popular artists on the site blew the minds of everyone at the company. (Thank you, True Detective.) Some things data and metrics just cannot predict.

Back to the day’s (and night’s) musical discoveries and highlights: I also caught the KCRW stage showcase for Moses Sumney, a young singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles who, like Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, builds wonderfully lush, African-influenced pop orchestrations out of electronic loops created live onstage. Yes, a lot of musicians are doing that these days. But few have voices as soulful and songs as strong as Sumney’s.

Later on, Berryhill performed at an odd space called Esther’s Follies that’s usually a comedy club. I first fell in love with the San Diego musician’s work when I heard her song “Damn, I Wish I Was a Man” on a compilation called The Radio Tokyo Tapes: Vol. 3 circa 1985. (The vintage Super 8 clip below dates from 1988.) She has a half dozen strong albums to her credit since then, the latest in 2007, and is gearing up to record a new one, hopefully funded by Kickstarter.

Berryhill’s delightful set included a healthy sampling of her new songs, some of them inspired by her late husband, and it included the backing of a ramshackle but nonetheless impressive “garage orchestra” featuring cello, bass, percussion, and vibraphone.

While waiting for the premier U.S. set by the British quartet Woman’s Hour, I had one of those mind-blowing SXSW surprises, courtesy of a quintet from Budapest, Hungary called Ivan & the Parazol. Powered by spectacularly wheezing Vox/Farfisa organ, rollicking R&B-inflected rhythms, and slightly metal-edged leads (the guitarist wore a jacket that looked like a toss-off from KISS), vocalist Iván Vitáris channeled the young Mick Jagger by way of the Fleshtones’ Peter Zaremba for a timeless blast of mid-’60s garage-rock joy. The group’s second album is due this month.

As for Woman’s Hour, siblings Fiona Jane (vocals) and William (guitar) suffered from a shortened set time truncated even more by some troubles at soundcheck. But the three songs they did play were absolutely entrancing and thoroughly soulful electronic dream-pop, holding out great promise for their forthcoming album on the Secretly Canadian label.

Finally, night two ended for me at the Wytches’ show at the “British Musical Embassy” (a club called Latitude 30 on San Jacinto). The Brighton trio’s set suffered from sound problems, too—the club didn’t seem capable of handling the volume the band deserved—but the threesome powered through with its heavy, dark, psychedelic thunder, recalling at various times the mighty Spacemen 3, the early Pink Floyd, and the Jesus and Mary Chain, without ever seeming overly derivative.

This blog’s coverage of SXSW 2014

Mar. 11, Dispatch #1: Well, at least it ain’t snowing: Crowds, Rahm, Bieber & corporate weasels descend on Austin.

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast Sound Opinions and Jim + Carmel’s TV + Dinner.