It's the strangest thing about covering a multi-day music festival: you simply wake up in the morning, and more or less pick up where you left off. I began my second day of South by Southwest with a trip back to April 2011, via the terrific new documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, which chronicles LCD Soundsystem (and its figurehead, James Murphy)'s farewell show at Madison Square Garden.
Directed by Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern, Hits aspires to be a post-millennial The Last Waltz for dance-rock hipsters, but is far less concerned with Murphy's insightful ruminations on the perils of aging in a business built on being young, sexy and ahead of the curve and more engaging as a visceral concert film. Hits is designed to be heard in a theater with a top-of-the-line sound system, and the footage from the MSG gig is often beautiful, capturing the weird, in-the-moment images found only at these large, ritualistic gatherings of humanity. Although die-hard LCD Soundsystem fans will get more out of the film, casual viewers owe it to themselves to be won over by both Murphy's demeanor and the unbelievably catchy tracks. I pried myself away from Hits, which was screened on the lower level of the Austin Convention Center, and hustled upstairs, to the Radio Day Stage and KCRW's showcase, where British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka was winding down his set.
Kiwanuka is a name that you could potentially be hearing a lot more frequently in the coming months. His debut LP, Home Again was released just last week, and although he was gypped out of an opening slot for Adele's twice-canceled U.S. tour last year, he's still got talent to burn, as evidenced by his original material and his stellar cover of Bill Withers' I Don't Know to close out his performance. Soft-spoken, but with a lovely, lilting voice that blends soul, folk and pop, Kiwanuka is one hit away from being a star. He cleared out, and one of the bands at SXSW this year with the most deafening buzz, Alabama Shakes, calmly materialized.
If it's not apparent from the glut of cameras at the foot of the stage in the clip above, it was as if a Kardashian sister had wandered into the ACC. Brittany Howard and her Alabama-bred bandmates don't necessarily rewrite the rock rulebook, but they do dole out hip-shaking riffs (not unlike the currently arena-dominating Black Keys, say) and have a not-so-secret weapon in Howard's molten glass voice. It's a pure force of nature and when the dust settled after this alternately incendiary and tender turn, it was clear that Alabama Shakes can handle the hype.
After a break to do some writing and, y'know, eat, I found myself in an almost comically long line outside Stubb's, awaiting entrance to the evening-long NPR showcase, but most importantly, Fiona Apple's first public performance outside of Los Angeles in four years. The temperamental songstress has a new album (The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do) due in June, her first in seven years, and watching her work through an hour-long set that was raw and determined, I realized just how much her skills have been missed.
Her voice was a little rough, initially, and the crowd wasn't quite sure what to do with the brand-new material (Apple previewed three new songs from Idler), but when she laced into the closer, Criminal, or Sleep to Dream, it was as if no time had passed. You could argue the wisdom of making the outdoor amphitheater space of Stubb's the launching pad for a comeback -- acoustically friendly, it is not; more delicate material like Extraordinary Machine suffered -- but Apple, who scarcely spoke to the adoring, tightly packed crowd, grinned as she plucked her in-ear monitors from her head and left the stage. Fiona Apple is making music again, and we are all better for it. I didn't envy Sharon Van Etten having to follow Apple, but she has a stout new LP of her own, Tramp, and the crowd (which, unsurprisingly, thinned out in a hurry after Apple's set) was receptive to those songs and their tough, hard-won charms.
From Stubb's, it was a lengthy hike back up Red River, to the small, inexplicable cluster of homes-turned-clubs just off Cesar Chavez. The cognitive dissonance of attending a hip-hop showcase in an upscale, rustic-chic space like Lustre Pearl was jarring, but once you got past the mason jar light fixtures in the trees and rough-hewn deck, all that was left to focus upon were the thumping, heavy beats and a steady parade of blog-famous, but not-yet-mainstream-known rap acts, leading off with Queens export Action Bronson.
Action Bronson's rapid-fire, culturally charged rhymes gave way to the curated sonic atmospherics of Montreal's Jacques Greene, who never uttered a word and, honestly, began playing his set so subtly that he'd been on stage a good five minutes before many audience members realized he was gearing for a seamless, full-tilt ride. Watching a DJ briskly flip through a monster book of CDs does take some of the fun out of it, but Greene kept the party going, ahead of another of SXSW's more highly hyped prospects, the amusingly named Mr. Muthaf---in' Exquire.
Volleys of profanity, aimed with all the precision of a green Army recruit, struck a rapidly growing crowd and touched a nerve. Audience members began reacting in strange ways -- one inebriated fella not far from me began twitching in what appeared to be a one-man dance circle -- and outside, Austin cops and code compliance officers began drifting toward Lustre Pearl. Despite the ominous signs, Chicago-bred Exquire rarely let up, offering one explosive track after another.
Day two wound down at Haven, a dress-to-impress, dude-bros-and-bottle-service-type joint, where I arrived at the tail end of Band of Skulls' performance (and, as my day-long odyssey began, so did it end: KCRW was sponsoring this particular showcase). It was intense, soaring rock music that had the room pressed in close to the stage, ignoring the sweltering feel of the room.
And while Band of Skulls was appealing, it was New Zealand pop princess Kimbra I was at Haven to see. Currently best known as an key ingredient in Australian singer-songwriter Gotye's popular single Somebody That I Used to Know, Kimbra is forging a solo career with her debut album, Vows, due out in May. Although Gotye's idiosyncratic pop is providing exposure, her own style is much closer in spirit to Motown, with a soulful crackle evident from the opening notes (which, for unexplained reasons, were delayed nearly a half hour). If Kimbra can find a single that sparks American interest, she could enjoy some success apart from viral hits.