AUSTIN, Texas—For me, the first full night of music at South by Southwest started at the venue where I like to end my evenings if at all possible: the exquisite-sounding Central Presbyterian Church. Those pews may be a bit hard on the backside, but after hours spent standing in packed crowds at much less classy or comfortable clubs, it can be a blessing just to sit down all.
Younghusband is a dream-pop quartet from the U.K. with two beguiling albums to its credit, including last year’s Dissolver. Equal parts Elliott Smith, Big Star, and Ride, the group’s sound filled the high-ceilinged house of worship and entranced, prompting even a nonbeliever to consider prayer. And this despite the fact that the lineup was reduced to a trio for its first American performance after one of its two guitarists had to remain behind for an emergency operation.
Next up was the Brooklyn quartet Teen, whose recent third album Love Yes I raved about on Sound Opinions and in this blog. You never know if a band will live up to the promise of even a great record onstage, however, especially under the harried circumstances of a quick set change and minimal sound check amid the chaos of SXSW.
Thankfully, Teeny Lieberson, her sisters Katherine and Lizzie, and bassist Boshra AlSaadi didn’t disappoint, joyfully grooving through their unique mix of shoegazer rock, synth-pop, and dance music in killer songs such as “All About Us” and “Gone for Good,” with which the energizing sounds contrasting with insightful lyrics about both the joys and the turmoil of falling in love.
“It feels really inappropriate to yelp in a church,” Teeny said before the band’s set came to a rollicking close. “But, oh well—SXSW!”
In contrast, the pretentious and droning snooze-folk of Car Seat Headrest, a.k.a. the Seattle-based bedroom auteur Will Toledo, was even less appealing in concert than on album, so it was time to move on, even though Eleanor Friedberger was coming up later and she and her band had played an incredible set of songs from her third solo album New View earlier in the day during a taping for Sound Opinions at the Gibson Showroom (thank you, Goose Island and KUTX!).
Ah, the curse of SXSW: There are always 10 bands you want to see playing at exactly the same time. And of course I am but one critic with two overworked ears.
Heading down to Red River, Philadelphia’s Beach Slang kicked up the energy level considerably with a rollicking set at a club called Cheer Up Charlie’s. (At least, that’s what it’s called this year; this unique outdoor venue set against a towering white cliff must have had four or five different names in the 25 years I’ve been coming to Austin.) After two EPs, the group released a strong album late last year called The Things We Do to Find People Who Feel Like Us, building on a connection to the soulful but gleefully sloppy punk of early Replacements at their best.
Like Paul Westerberg, bandleader James Alex walks a fine line between poetic and pathetic, and in Austin, he did so gracefully while trying to calm a crowd that slam-danced frantically in front of the stage. (Slam-dancing! In 2016!) Alex skillfully grabbed control by “slowing things down” with the brilliant “Too Late to Die Young,” crooning the very Westerberg lines, “Too young to die, too late to die young/I try to fight, but get high and give up.”
The night ended with two more wonderfully raucous bands next door at Mohawk. Fronted by the frenetic Victoria Ruiz, Downtown Boys is a multiracial, bilingual sextet from Providence, Rhode Island that isn’t afraid to fiercely tackle political issues such as racism, homophobia, and the prison industrial complex, all while dancing madly and heaping on dollops of the best punk-rock saxophone since X-Ray Spex. Like all of my high points this evening, the music was even better as well as sweatier live than on the recent album Full Communism. (Are you getting the idea that this band might be Donald Trump’s worst nightmare? Good!)
Finally, the night thundered to a close with the only slightly less crazed and more tuneful brand of punk served up by the Philadelphia quintet Sheer Mag, which is led by another remarkable frontwoman, Tina Halladay. As if to vividly and loudly illustrate the comments that First Lady Michelle Obama made at the start of a very long day one, Halladay’s belief in herself and her band was undeniable, as was her unbridled joy in raging in the face of any and all doubters.