Part of the appeal of South by Southwest is the joy of surprise: happening upon a band that you’ve never heard before, and might never hear again, and being drawn into their musical world for a short time. I left room in my itinerary for such happy accidents by veering off any schedule at times and following my wandering ears. One particular night turned into a series of unexpected revelations—some fleeting and ultimately disappointing, but revelations nonetheless.
The first occurred when I was exiting a restroom at the Austin Convention Center and heard what sounded like Bjork being tortured by a metal band. I just had to check this out. I homed in on a music hall where the L.A. group Shiny Toy Guns was blasting out full-on rawk music with metal, electronic, prog, and pop elements. The band was visually intriguing, with a gothy drummer on the left side of the stage, a hunched-over keyboardist at right, and between them a guy on guitar and a woman on bass. She was the besieged Bjork. For a time their music was completely mesmerizing, a pure sonic blast of adrenaline, deep and loud and tight. But alas, they could not sustain this, and soon slower tempos and intelligible lyrics revealed the cracks in their metal armor. They were entering power ballad territory when I split, fast.
I strolled several blocks to the Cedar Street Courtyard, where a much more sedate sort of rocking was occurring: The duo Beach House was doing their Mazzy Star/Nico thing, creating a gauzy haze of music that cushioned listeners’ heads like pillows.
I was becoming hypnotized and sleepy by the time Toronto’s Bedouin Soundclash took the same stage and ratcheted up the energy level with their hopped-up ska music. Sporting two horns, a rock-steady rhythm section, and a throaty vocalist, they sounded as natty as they looked in their black shirts and jaunty hats. The singer’s Canadian-Jamaican patois was clearly an affectation, but a damn good one. A crowd sing-along with “Stand by Me,” though? Time to go.
The Felice Brothers were as ragged as Bedouin Soundclash was sharp, in both appearance and musicianship—and yet their gig over at the Habana Café Backyard was equally fun. A roots-fueled band of brothers from upstate New York, the Felices played washboard, accordion, fiddle, and other trad instruments with abandon, ripping through songs like “Whiskey in My Whiskey” and “Ain’t Gonna Think About Trouble Anymore.” Two drunk dudes danced Western swing-style in front of me, their lit cigarettes nearly burning each other’s face as they whirled. (I love you, man.) Ending the show, one Felice tackled another and wiped out the drum kit. “We didn’t mean no harm,” one said as they cleaned up the wreckage. Like the stage, their music was a glorious mess.