SXSW Review: Ben Howard, Daughter, Michael Kiwanuka [St. David’s, March 16, 2012]

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Reviews, South By Southwest | 2 Comments

Austin, TX – Nestled between the adrenaline-crazed beast that is 6th street and the increasingly popular Central Presbyterian Church, St. David’s Episcopal Church feels like an oasis for the sedentary and sane-minded. On this night at least, it was indeed the much more muted second cousin to the Presbyterian, where legions came out for Fiona Apple. In contrast, I had to inquire about the venue even after I got to St. David’s because the typical trail of shoe-gazing concert-goers were nowhere to be seen. I was initially apprehensive – surely the multitudes cannot have missed a good show, and so by extrapolation I have made a mistake. It wasn’t until 10 minutes later that I found out what was going on: 300 ppl were shepherded quietly in the hall, listening intently to harmonies from the Staves. The performers all stood on the same level as the pulpit, before a statue of the Virgin and Child. Lighting was spartan but effective. Not long after I sat down, Ben Howard came on stage to set up.

Ben Howard

Ben Howard, St. David's Historic Sanctuary

Singer/song-writers don’t blend well with a bar. We learned that years ago with Ed Harcourt. It was necessary for this night’s success that I be among a quiet crowd. It worked well for Audra Mae, and it worked this night. The atmosphere in St. David’s was respectful but by no means quiet. Ben Howard humbly introduced himself and set the course directly to Promise, probably the most muted track on his album Every Kingdom. Working with a skeleton crew consists of just a cello/vocal and percussion, Howard was effective in the immersive emotional experience. You can almost breath in the anticipation, burning ever slightly brighter than the candle-lit altar. Hearing the words “I lost faith in the Lord” in a church hall was arguably interesting and Ben himself expressed a minute dose of reservation. By the time he strummed out the transtions in his guitar during Old Pine perhaps 4 songs into the performance, I could hear many people around me singing in the pews. But then again, I almost did too. I never expected a full reproduction of the studio version of any particular on the album, but Old Pine was one that strayed the furtherest – a sign that he was ever so comfortable with the setting to take some risks, although it’s not for me to judge how many of these deviations were reharsed. He does look to possess much more depth than his 23 years. While his album Every Kingdom came out September last year in the UK, it is only hitting this side of the Atlantic in April 2012. At the end of the set, Howard invited all the other artists of the night to join him on-stage for a John Martyn sing-along. I wouldn’t draw comparison between the two as others have, however. Martyn’s voice and style is, IMO, so much more care-free than Howard’s, reaching almost a jazz-like state by the later years. This is by no means a criticism towards Ben Howard. He is a clear talent as clearly demonstrated by songs like the Fear and Diamonds, and possesses a good grasp of his audience and his own presence.

Ben Howard, St. David's Historic Sanctuary


Daughter, St. David's Historic Sanctuary

Of course, not everyone injects a clear dose of confidence into their performance. Outwardly, Elena Tonra, one third of Daughter, resides on the diagonal opposite of that spectrum. It does, however, take some comedic wherewithall to dead-pan the line “this next song is about death” right after a bashful “thank you” in front of a congregation of 300 and then continue as silently as the new moon gave way to the full. They apparently first formed in London after Tonra got tired of the singer/songwriter mould. Her voice navigates the unconventional ballads as effortlessly in concert as she was on the EP, even if it was a little less refined sometimes. Serpentine melodies such as those in Landfill and Candles resonanted well in those hallow halls, eerily similar to Sunday morning sermons emanating from the pulpit. Except they speak of much more interesting stories and probably carry fewer moral lessons. The guitar was a little different, as well, at one point using a cello bow to play his notes (I think it was for the song Switzerland?), gererating a different sound that seems to have its own harmonics embedded. If I have any musical talents I’d let you know why… Regardless of how it works, they were well-received by the audience. It is funny, however, the number of singers who caught my attention at SXSW over the years with songs about death. Maybe they were all trying to tell me something.

Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka, St. David's Historic Sanctuary

I had never heard of Kiwanuka before this point – I was actually about to leave after Daughter’s set. But a friendly reminder from the woman sitting right beside convinced me otherwise. I can see how some of the comparisons online are accurate. His voice is soft and uncomplicated, happily lacking the frivolous ribbons that singers from American/British Idols carries. Ricky had the same feeling back in January. But I think he’s still looking to that one song that can cement his to the annals of folk/soul fairytale. Home Again and I’m Getting Ready are both very solid starts, to be sure. They are at once modern, and yet both had brushes with the old-time charm. Home Again, especially, sounds much more folk-like in concert with minimal accompaniment compare to its brother on the album. I am certain the next album will bring some changes that will break the unnecessary contrasts with the older generation. Overall, this was a very simple night series of concerts that showcased spectacular talents.

SXSW Review: The Big Pink, Best Coast, Santigold, March 16, Stubbs

Posted on by Ricky in South By Southwest | 2 Comments

For part 1 of my Spin Party SXSW review, go here.

We take off right when Brooklyn synth pop group Chairlift left the stage. For me, the next act was the primary reason why I went to the Spin Party.

England’s The Big Pink recently released a new album – Future This that has thus far captured my heart and imagination. It’s ambitious, brave and full of big anthems. Tracks like Stay Gold, Rubbernecking and Hit the Ground all are classic songs that sound timeless and something that Alan Mcgee circa 1990 would have salivated over. It’s big, and it’s bold, so it was probably a surprise to some that the Big Pink sound was accomplished using only Robbie Furze on guitar and vocals, Victoria Smith (a bit crazy it seems) on the drums and two people on the laptops. The short set by this band consisted of tracks off the new record and their previous hit – Dominos. Despite the somewhat minimal setup, the band’s electro inspired wall of sound was just great. Tracks like Stay Gold and Rubbernecking already sound like massive hits and I definitely look forward to seeing them play a proper show in the future.

Immediately after The Big Pink was California’s Best Coast. The Jim Beam swigging Bethany Costentino has become a bit of a super star since Best Coast’s excellent debut album Crazy For You came out two years ago and her magnetism was a huge draw for the crowd. Best Coast’s new record, The Only Place comes out in May and let’s just say, expectations are high. The duo took the Spin stage at Stubbs with a few more musicians for a more balanced sound as they played a set mixed with new material and old, among the favorites played include classic tracks like Boyfriend and When I’m With You. Both new track and old sounded good, as they both display the classic surf rock meets low fi sound that made the group so popular when they first emerged. Underneath the blistering guitar licks lies Bethany’s sweet melody and sugar rich voice. It’s a good combination and based on what I heard, their new record should be equally as good as their last one.

The headliner on the bill was Santigold. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full four years since this genre blending artist set the world on fire with her self titled debut. Since then she’s had to change her stage name (renaming the i with an a) and watch other similar artists received more accolades. However, this year she is back with new album Master of My Make-Believe and if SXSW was her announcement that she was back, she did it in a big way.

Using costumes (for the entire bands), choreographed dancers and other stunning visuals, Santigold stunned the crowd at Stubbs with set that assaulted both the audio and visual. I wasn’t really expecting much, but all the costumes, dances and enthusiasm finally got to me. The nice thing for me was that the visuals on stage seemed to go naturally with the music and didn’t seemed forced at all (a nice change of pace from some other artists who employ visuals to get their point accross *cough* nicky minaj) Santigold mixed in new songs with old and both sounded quite good. She’s got a unique voice and a creative mind, and it shows as her music skips across genres and melds together a variety of influences. A great way to end off another great day at Stubbs.

SXSW Review: !!!, March 17, Doritos Stage

Posted on by Ricky in South By Southwest | Leave a comment

That’s right, for SXSW, Dorito’s erected a three four story stage that looked like a vending machine to promote whatever flavor their mad scientists have concocted (“SUPER ZESTY JALAPENO BBQ!”).

Closing off that stage on Saturday night was New York’s very own !!! (pronounced check check check). It seems ages ago since this band created massive buzz with their breakout track Me and Giuliani Down by the School Yard , but here they are, on the last night at SXSW letting their fans know that they will soon have new material to be released.

!!!’s music is all about the dancing and their live show is a perfect representation of that. If you look up the definition of “play that funky music white boy” in the dictionary, you might find !!! singer Nic Offer beside it. The man is the engine that drives !!!, from the opening beat to the last track, Nic danced up the storm. I think he probably burnt 3000 calories in the show, which consisted of him dancing in the stage, dancing in the photo pit and dancing in the crowd. The crowd ate it up and Nic Offer’s dancing (which reminded me a lot of Ed McFarlane of Friendly Fires fame) was a huge part of what made this show successful. It also helped masked the fact that behind all the rapid fire drum beats, horns and punk guitar licks, !!!’s music hasn’t really progressed much in the past ten years. Maybe it’s just their live show music, but !!! today seems like !!! circa early 2000s, which involves Offer delivering/speaking rapid fire lyrics over punk/dance sounds. While it’s all energetic, I felt like it all sounded the same after awhile, save for the track Must be the Moon, which still sounds as amazing today as it did in 2007.

Sameness aside, you can’t go wrong with a one hour dance party, and !!! definitely delivered that at SXSW.

SXSW Review: Spoek Mathambo, Dionvox, Escort, Chairlift, Spin Party

Posted on by Ricky in South By Southwest | 1 Comment

Spin always seems to throw one of the better parties at SXSW so it should be no surprise that I parked myself in the Stubb back lot for the entire Friday afternoon. With an eclectic lineup, free alcohol and free bbq, you can say that I was sufficiently sophonsified that afternoon. Let’s take a look at the acts on the bill.

The opening slot of any afternoon party is always the toughest – half the people are still sleeping, the other are hungover and mostly lack the energy to do anything more than stand around. These factors were of no deterrent to Spoek Mathambo, a South African hip hop artist that seems to incorporate many elements from other music genres into his upbeat tracks. Some parts of his set involved him rapping over heavy guitars and sounded straight out of the late 90s while others involved the heavy use of horns and percussion and was reminiscent of what I think Carribean dance halls sound like. Throughout it all, the man was dancing and trying to get the crowd going. A pretty good start to the day, Father Creeper, the new album from Spoek Mathambo, is out this month.

Up next was Dion*Vox. Formerly known as Ramona the Band, Dionvox certainly captured the eye of all the male music photographers at their indoor stage with set, which involved both the lead singer and a go-go dancer progressively stripping throughout the set. Their outfits indicated to me that they were some sort of post-industrial, gothic electro s&m band. Their music consisted of the lead singer sultrily singing over industrial-type electronic music. There was also a guy who was with the dj, who just stood there the whole time for no real reason. I can’t quite place what they sound like because I was wondering if the go go dancer was going to take off all her clothes.

Up next was Escort, a Brooklyn collective that absolutely brought their A game to the outside stage. I counted seventeen members on stage including an all out horns and string section, backup singers, multiple drummers and guitarist. I wonder what their rider looks like. I also found it funny that the two Asians in the band were on keyboard and violin…surprise surprise. Escort’s set was awesome. They brought the funk, the beat and the whole kitchen sink and got the crowd moving. Lead singer Adeline Michèle has the makings of a star – her charisma is off the charts as she danced, engaged the crowd and sang throughout the set. I predict big things for her and the band, now that their debut album is finally out.

Immediately following the funkapalooza known as the Escort show was Chairlift, a Brooklyn synthpop duo that seemed to have expanded to a four piece for the Spin party. The band played a set full of tracks from their new album Something. Lead singer Caroline Polachek has some interesting dance moves, which I think was directly inspired by Natalie Portman’s character in the movie Garden State. I struggled to find catchy hooks or melody with their new material but the crowd seemed to eat it up, as did Paul. Maybe their synth driven tracks require a more careful listen, I’m not sure but nothing they did really caught my ear.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this review!