Sometimes SXSW is about making new friends, and sometimes it’s about reconnecting with old ones. Last night, The Current crew did a little of both. After wrapping up day two of the Pledge House party (which continues today and tomorrow), we walked up to Stubb’s — first to share some BBQ with our colleagues at C3 Entertainment, and then to enjoy the NPR Music showcase, which filled both an indoor and an outdoor stage.
The first artist to take the outdoor stage was one we’re now all the more excited to host a Pledge House session with today: the extraordinary Lucy Dacus, one of the most heavily-buzzed acts playing Austin this week. Some artists just have a presence, captivating listeners from the first note, and Dacus is very much among them. Whether her songs come in a quiet wash or a rocking churn, her powerful and expressive voice cuts like an airplane wing through atmosphere, pulling the music up and up and up. Songs like “Night Shift” — the title track to her new album Historian — reward the attention with uneasy, engaging lyrics.
After Mt. Joy (a band we hosted at Pledge House yesterday) played inside Stubb’s, the action flipped back to the outdoor stage for a set by the fascinating Superorganism. Divisive and they know it, Superorganism got their unlikely start through online collaboration between Maine high school student Orono Noguchi and members of a New Zealand band called the Eversons. The group, which expanded to include additional New Zealanders and a South-Korea-via-Australia musician called Soul, had a breakout hit with their debut single “Something for Your M.I.N.D.” Seven of the eight group members now live together in London.
Live, Superorganism combined the colorful tambourine-waving stylings of vocalists Soul, “B,” and “Ruby” with the prickly presence of Noguchi, who invited crowd participation by way of sarcastic banter between the songs’ slamming choruses, which often turn on repeated words and phrases. “That’s it! That’s literally it!” she said, teaching us the chorus to the band’s eponymous song. “Nothing wrong with a little bit of self-indulgence.” When the singers started to wave their arms, Noguchi commanded, “Do what they’re doing, especially if you’re drunk!”
Maybe it’s because they have an actual “Prawn Song” (Noguchi initially didn’t know what prawns — a.k.a. shrimp — were, she admitted), but to me Superorganism felt like a digital second coming of the B-52s. No doubt if you’d seen that group for the first time in 1977, you would have either been like, “What the hell is this?” or you would have thought, “This is the greatest band in the world.” The SXSW audience seemed to be having some of each reaction; listeners will doubtless continue to be both impressed and mystified by the sprawling Superorganism.
The night’s music took a decidedly different turn with Low, slowcore icons who don’t do irony. Taking the stage to introduce the trio, WFUV’s Rita Houston said, “They’re from Duluth, Minnesota. Since releasing their debut album in 1994, they’ve been writing their own rulebook.” The music world has been eagerly awaiting the group’s follow-up to 2015’s Ones and Sixes, and Low rewarded fans early in their set with some powerful new material before returning to some beloved favorites.
Excited to see emerging singer-songwriter Stella Donnelly, I headed over to the Townsend, home to hands-down the most hushed music room I’ve ever encountered at SXSW. Entering the black-draped venue, with a velveted cushion adorning the back wall, felt like nothing so much as climbing under the skirts of a towering king-size bed.
Given that the showcase was dedicated to Welsh artists, Donnelly immediately apologized for having an insufficiently Welsh accent (she was born in Australia, then grew up in Wales). The audience seemed to forgive her, since they could not have been more attentive for her delicate songs, performed solo on a quietly plucked electric guitar. Donnelly has been earning notice for her song “Mechanical Bull,” inspired by the male creepsters she encountered when working as a barista. The single, with its plaintive melody and fiery lyrics, is a representative calling card: the songs on her debut EP Thrush Metal turn on the intimate violence of patriarchy.
She described that number as “the most un-Welsh song I do,” but it will ultimately be fascinating to see just how much further afield her clear voice and strong perspective take her. The songs seem to be flowing furiously for Donnelly right now — so much so that her newest song, “Season’s Greetings,” was written while waiting in line for her visa at the American consulate.
A bonus for fans of the extended Prince family: Donnelly covered “No Room for Doubt,” a song by Lianne La Havas, whose example Donnelly said helped inspire her to pick up an electric guitar. I’ll look forward to seeing Donnelly again at Pledge House tomorrow.
For my last stop of Wednesday night, I walked down to the Lustre Pearl, which had been repurposed for the night as the Twix House of Duos. The candy brand was presenting entirely duos: bands like Tennis; Wye Oak; and Now, Now, who played our Pledge House party yesterday as a quartet but will hit the Twix House today as, presumably, a duo. Interactive stations at the event pay homage to legendary duos including OutKast (a dance floor), Sonny and Cher (a dress-up photo booth), and Simon and Garfunkel (“craft your own sound of silence”).
I arrived in time for last night’s headliners, Japandroids. The Canadian band make quite a racket for a duo, and at their first show of 2018 they slammed full-force into songs like “North East South West,” one of my favorite songs of 2017. Having just come from Low a couple of sets earlier, it struck me that Japandroids singer-guitarist Brian King — with his sleeveless t-shirt, majestic mane, and animated demeanor — was sort of like an action-figure version of Alan Sparhawk. One plays slow-burn and the other plays rave-up, but both get lost in the glorious racket an electric guitar can make when cranked to 11.