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Here to prove you don’t need no stinkin’ badge, I come upon my first show at this year’s SXSW purely by chance as I stroll by Waterloo Records. Catching a whiff of some sweet-sounding, atonal sludge, I thought, “Wow, these guys sound like Nirvana!” I dart inside to find Chelsea Light MovingThurston Moore‘s newest musical pursuit. Ah, yes. That would make a whole lotta sense, wouldn’t it? Practically the whole ’90s has Sonic Youth to thank. Moore, 54, remains in fighting shape, offering up a tribute to hometown heroes Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators, and protest songs like “Groovy & Linda” and “Lip,” with his hair draping over slightly wearied eyes, his stance stoic save a pair of frantic guitar-wielding limbs. A young girl next to me exclaims, “This band is making me sleepy,” and as if in retort Moore repeatedly begins to scream “Too f*ckin’ bad!” I’m glad he said it before I had to.

Next, I passed some bar on 6th St. (sorry, that doesn’t narrow it down much) and came upon Philly band DRGN King, whose flannel-clad, long-haired lead singer reminded me of that guy from the Spin Doctors (the ’90s are officially back, y’all). His soulful, sometimes falsetto-rising drawl bled in well with the propulsive rhythm section and the group’s varying elements of blues, pop and psych-rock. I see some pop crossover potential in these boys.

On to the Consequence of Sound party at The Parish, where I caught a set by yet more hippie-looking dudes (Lennon-styled shades and all). It took me a little bit to warm to Portland’s Wampire, but they slowly caught my attention as their sound seamlessly morphed from the synth-tinged chug of a song like “The Hearse” to slow-burning, Tame Impala-esque psych-pop to blistering noise rock that concluded with an extended jam of guitar-between-legs agility.

Next came TEEN, the 4 Non Blondes of this generation if only because they are four non-blondes of the no-nonsense rocker chick persuasion. Led by powerhouse Teeny Lieberson, their style was half twee-pop chic, half black-boot cool, but their sound rocked and rumbled with an aggression that’d make most men cower. A Moog synthesizer lent drones that dripped and drooped around a tense and tight rhythm section. “Electric,” in particular, was stuffed with big riffs as Teeny’s howl reached almost operatic levels at times. The juxtaposition of her rock-angel vocals and the band’s grunge-y, sometimes psychedelic, sometimes stoner-rock swirl was mesmerizing.

Last on my agenda was Portland trio The Thermals. Together for over a decade, they seemed out to prove that with mo’ age come mo’ noise. Soon after taking the stage and bursting into their catalog of terse, snappy punk, the room’s smell transmuted from mildew and Budweiser to pure sweat. The floors finally started to shake. They were literally in the crowd’s collective face, the drummer jumping in at one point, and lead singer/guitarist Hutch Harris making the amps his podium. “Here’s your future!” he shouted on the explosive closing track of the same name, an irreverent translation of Noah and the flood and Jesus on the cross. Maybe an apt theme song for SXSW: this generation’s new religion. [Stephanie Benson]

SXSW is the sort of situation where you can walk by a random club on the way to dinner and unexpectedly hear one of your favorite bands from last year (e.g. Japandroids) playing pretty much your favorite song of last year (“The House That Heaven Built”). It bummed me out to walk on by — until the super-gnarly vocals kicked in and I thought, “Geez, these guys can’t actually sing this song live at all.” I will assume they’ve played 50 shows in the last 24 hours and blame it on total burnout.

This is thankfully not a problem for Autre Ne Veut, yet another young, hip electro-R&B affair that late Wednesday night at Empire Control Room delivers a startling set of histrionic bedroom soul singer/mastermind Arthur Ashin (yes). His debut, the accurately named Anxiety, came out a couple weeks ago, and it’s great, particularly “Gonna Die,” which basically sounds like Sigur Rós having a panic attack and is perhaps best described as “triumphantly funereal.” Ashin sings the crap out of it, unleashing a torrent of falsetto wails so intense they make “Take on Me” sound like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” The crowd is flabbergasted.

This is the highlight of a remarkable day that also involves the following:

  • Country/garage siren Caitlin Rose and a momentous six-piece backing band blast through“Only a Clown” at Emo Jr.’s, like Dolly Parton commandeering Tom Petty‘s Heartbreakers, an American Girl who can serenade herself, thanks.
  • Andy Stott delivers a set of absurdly bass-heavy cerebral techno at Elysium, every beat like a SWAT team beating down your door. When it gets a little too intense, I find that it makes for an excellent accompaniment to Addams Family Pinball.
  • Feted underground rapper Schoolboy Q closes out the Fader Fort, and when someone requests a song his DJ doesn’t have, he asks the crowd for an iPhone with that song loaded on it (“This is a 4 — you need to upgrade your sh*t), plugs it into the sound system, and off we go. Technology!
  • Walking by yet another random club, I hear Pharcyde‘s “Runnin'” and blurt out, “Is that actually Pharcyde?” so loudly the woman walking in front of me turns around, startled. Yes, it’s Pharcyde, or however many of them are calling themselves Pharcyde these days, and there’s an exuberant crowd spilling into the street outside the venue probably bigger than the crowd actually “at” the show. That song is probably on everyone’s phone, too. [Rob Harvilla]

“You’re gonna see a lot of bands this week that are playing computers and things like that,” the suspendered and ski-slope-bearded leader of old-timey-style Indiana country-blues trio Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band warned the SXSW crowd at Club Deville Wednesday afternoon, apparently just a couple hours after the new Pope got elected. Reverend Peyton wanted to remind everybody that exciting music can indeed be made “without the aid of loop pedals or octave pedals or computers or iPods.” Perfect timing too, since I’d just felt Daron Beck of the Fort Worth electronic faux-black-metal duo Pinkish Black make the entire room vibrate with his ARP Axxe synth and Roland Junior at the Pitchfork metal showcase at the Mohawk next door!

The Reverend’s “real instrument” brags would’ve come off more stodgy if he wasn’t so high-energy, amusing and rhythmic about it — telling us he was setting his guitar to “evil” (one of his guitars, anyway, the green one, I think, not the more rustic and antiquated one that looks like it has a banjo in the middle); demonstrating how “the bass player is my thumb”; threatening to call out any “hipster sonovabitches” present who didn’t call-and-respond along to “Two Bottles of Wine.” He and his washboard-and-tambourine-wearing, red-rose-in-hair better half Breezy and their rudimentary-kitted drummer Aaron Persinger called up some pals to shake maracas from the old suitcase onstage to that one, and Breezy lit her washboard on fire. Hope they raised a lot of money for the Rock On Foundation.

Pinkish Black, inside in the dark not out in the sun, weren’t as much a party, but they were pretty interesting — just two guys, a short-haired one mainly on drums and a long-haired ’70s prog-looking one on electronics and Diamanda Galas/Meredith Monk shrieking, making an intense science-experiment racket that’d make Suicide or Throbbing Gristle proud, even if Rev. Peyton probably wouldn’t have approved because they didn’t have those machines back during the Great Depression.

He might, however, have approved of Royal Thunder, the Georgia metal trio that preceded Pinkish Black at the Mohawk. Or at least approved of their groove, which has a lot more hip-shake in it than metal’s allowed itself in the past few decades, even if more people actually shook hips at the Peyton show. Peyton’s band and Royal Thunder have blues roots in common, too, not to mention marriage: In both bands, both non-drumming members are a couple. Colorful ones, too. Royal Thunder Guitarist Josh Weaver has more tattoos, but his witchy-singing wife Mlny Parsons has plenty, and hers looked more interesting: multi-eyed creature above Guadalupe-type lady on the right arm, racing pig above long-green-faced creature on the left. She wore all white beneath her shaggy semi-dreads; him all black beneath his goatee; their drummer split the difference beneath his muttonchops.

Here’s how I’d track their songs, more or less (at least according to my notes – I hadn’t played their very good 2012 album Cvi in a few months, so titles elude me, and I may be doing some conflating here): A sort of heavy howling dirge into an extended swinging wah-wah dance pound into some ambient space drone getting louder and louder into another open-faced droner that started with subtle cymbal-work and built into full-on hard rock. Women in the audience seemed to get the danceable (i.e., not just headbangable) parts more than guys did, though guys in Motörhead,Neurosis, and Thin Lizzy T-shirts in the audience seemed to appreciate all of it more than the guys in Darkest HourIn Flames and Chemlab shirts did. Kinda curious what Chemlab Guy thought of Pinkish Black though.

Walking away from Red River, the best music I heard coming out of a venue was Medium Medium‘s forgotten 1981 punk-funker “Hungry So Angry,” and the best music I heard coming out of a car was Taylor Swift‘s “22.” Really wanted to catch Venice Beach skate-rockers The Shrine at Scoot Inn, but the line was way too long and slow and I didn’t have a skateboard handy. Best graffiti of the day, written large and very visibly at S.L. Davis Ave. and Chicon, far east of the festival action but just a few blocks from where my car was parked: “$X$W… WELCOME TO THE EAST SIDE. PLEASE DON’T MOVE HERE.” [Chuck Eddy]

IMG_4158To some, especially a snooty SXSW audience, Twenty One Pilots are a tough sell: they wear face masks; they mix screamo, emo, and rapping that sounds like Eminemo (sorry); like Something Corporate, they sound like something corporate – something so unabashedly polished, professional, catchy and voraciously pan-genre it seems engineered in a lab, which I suspect is why, when the band launched into its set on Wednesday night wearing Cobra Kai-style skeleton costumes, folks were as still as bean stalks, standoffishly so. Frontman Tyler Joseph was unperturbed: “We’re going to give you everything we’ve got,” he said, and then proceeded to shame any band who’s ever said this and not lived up to it: He played his piano like freaking Billy Joel; flew around the stage rapping and walking like Ed Grimley; he climbed the stage, then sang an entire song while traversing the perimeter of the venue from the second floor balcony; he implored the crowd to part itself to form an impromptu catwalk. By the end, we were waving our hands like we just didn’t care, because we didn’t: whatever weird mix of forces brought this band together, there’s no doubt the world is a better place for it. “Whatever you use music for, chances are it’s in here,” said Joseph. Once again, not an understatement.

To offer a counterpoint to Harvilla: After Twenty One Pilots’ unapologetic bombast, it was hard to get my head around Autre Ne Veut’s cerebral shoegazing. I needed a better chaser than that. What I needed were the Specials. Wait, make that THE SPECIALS! This was a SXSW dream come true: these guys were childhood heroes of mine; I named my ska band Tricky Dump Truck based on what I thought Lynval Golding was saying when he scatted. I was not alone: the crowd was full of skankers and crowdsurfers, lapping up every jam, and the band played every jam: “Monkey Man,” “Nite Klub,” “Pressure Drop,” and of course “A Message To You Rudy,” a song I’ve played a thousand times during a hundred different phases of my life. I teared up, and then some guy in a checkered shirt and skinny suspenders high-fived me. Good times. [Garrett Kamps]