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SXSW 2015 Reviews: Run the Jewels, Tobias Jesso Jr., and Laura Marling

Plus, reports on Matthew E. White, Tanya Tagaq, Leon Bridges, and Elder

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cos quiznosA little rain couldn’t keep Austin down. Despite the chill of wet clothes clinging to beer-soaked bones, the excitement and insanity marched on. At this point, many of us have reached a peak level of both excitement and exhaustion, so it could’ve just been that no one really was capable of doing much else.

So, into the chilly wind we walked, hitting up every venue imaginable — yes, even a public library — to check out more must-see acts. With very little festival left, that desperate “But I haven’t seen (BLANK) yet!” feeling is starting to kick in, but there’s still time left to cross those last few acts off your list.

–Adam Kivel
Managing Editor

Click here to see our full coverage from SXSW and listen to an exclusive playlist. Also visit Toasty.TV to check out Quizno’s curated entertainment hub.

Matthew E. White — Noise Pop’s After the Gold Rush III at Red Eyed Fly — 12:30 p.m.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

If Natalie Prass taught us anything on Thursday, it’s that a Spacebomb Records album can sound excellent even without a Spacebomb-sized band behind it. It’s no real surprise, then, that label founder Matthew E. White put on a hell of a show with only three backing musicians. Even with the scaled-down production, White’s whisper velvet voice still puts a lot of air into old songs like “Big Love” and new tracks like the dulcimer-assisted “Fruit Trees”. Like that song, most of the new Fresh Blood material that filled most of the set was given modified arrangements to work in the smaller confines of the show, many letting guitarist Alan Parker shine on solos. Closer “Feeling Good Is Good Enough” was a highlight with its “yah yah yah yah” background vocals and building choruses. The R&B jam of “Rock & Roll Is Cold” was presented best as White was able to add stank to his vocals and deliver a fun roller of a song. White joked that his seven-year-old nephew Micah now leaves the house singing the bridge, “Everybody knows/ everybody likes to talk shit.” But like White said, that’s for his sister to worry about, while he can focus on putting on smooth shows like this. –Ben Kaye

Girlpool — Portals Day Party at Riverside Farms — 1:15 p.m.

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Photo by Sasha Geffen

Girlpool’s forthcoming album, Before the World Was Big, mourns childhood memories with a fondness that’s too dark to be sentimental. The Philly transplants have been previewing the record all week at SXSW, and on Friday they brought their wiry duets to Riverside Farms three miles away from downtown for the first set of Portals’ unofficial showcase. Sure, these two miss being kids, but their songs aren’t exactly nostalgic. They mine that transitional space between adolescence and the process of becoming a real, full, human adult — a process most people start but hardly anyone ever feels done with. “I am working for myself and only me,” Girlpool sang during the set’s last song, “Cherry Picking”. The album is set in LA, but Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker both live in Philadelphia. To hear them play here in Austin, it sounded like that uprooting was a healthy one. Sometimes the best way to figure yourself out is to sever all the stuff you used to define yourself by. Sometimes the best way to honor who you were as a kid is to become somebody else entirely. –Sasha Geffen

et aliae — Portals Day Party at Riverside Farms — 2:00 p.m.

et aliae SXSW 2015 Reviews: Run the Jewels, Tobias Jesso Jr., and Laura Marling

Photo by Sasha Geffen

Baby goats wandered in a pen just a few hundred feet from where et aliae ran through a set of crystalline electronic tracks. Hearing dance music on a farm in the middle of the day is probably one of those experiences you rarely get to encounter outside of SXSW, and et aliae was up for the task of bringing her bright singles into the daylight. As a producer, she’s playful but not showy; her music would have fit in neatly at Thursday night’s PC Music showcase. She’s focused on the prettiness of each sound she pulls through her laptop, in how each of her patches glitter next to each other, how they move and warp through time. Towards the end of her set, she wove Foxes’ vocals from Zedd’s “Clarity” into the mix, pitch-shifted way up to an unnatural, cartoonish range. The original Zedd song always struck me as a little heavy handed. In et aliae’s hands, though, it became something sadder — the pitch lent the lyrics urgency, and the production gave the song a new sense of desperation. That’s what you want out of a DJ set — for an overplayed song to hit you like you’re hearing it for the first time. –Sasha Geffen

Everything Is Melting — Austin Public Library — 2:00 p.m.

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Photo by Adam Kivel

“I’d like to invite everyone into the large meeting room … It’ll be a rockin’ good time,” the genial voice announced over the public speaker system, alerting the dozen and a half parents and young children enjoying reading time, library employees, and early afternoon stragglers of the impending concert in the George Washington Carver branch of the Austin Public Library. Rather than a rockin’ good time, though, those who did wander in came across something stranger but no less enjoyable than that loud speaker promise. Local drone outfit Everything Is Melting opened the afternoon’s festivities, at first seemingly shy to break the volume barrier, as if some cartoon librarian were bound to wander in and shush them out of existence. But the duo, decked in strange masks and colorful togs, eventually built their set to a volume meant for a proper concert, layering guitar, tribal percussion, and cassette recordings in a loopy, hammock-swinging drone. As a former library employee, the fact that the Austin Public Library is stretching itself into weirdo music during SXSW is an impressive feat, and Everything Is Melting provided the homegrown talent and weirdness that the city clearly prides itself on. –Adam Kivel

Chastity Belt – She Shreds Magazine showcase at Zen Fit — 3:00 p.m.

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Photo by Jon Hadusek

Seattle’s Chastity Belt have played something like five shows a day this week. They were visibly exhausted but fought through their set at the She Shreds Magazine showcase at the Zen Fit rock ‘n roll dojo. In fact, everybody in the place was visibly exhausted, wearing their hangovers. The band’s downbeat guitar pop felt right amongst the tired eyes and glazed faces, the sound of long days, bad romance, and sleep deprivation. There was a certain catharsis to the scene. For Chastity Belt, it’s the home stretch of a long week and a valiant promotional push for their album, Time to Go Home, which drops soon on Hardly Art. They handled it admirably. –Jon Hadusek

Run the Jewels — Spin Day Party at Stubb’s — 4:00 p.m.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

A little fighting goes a long way for Run the Jewels. Hear me out: The two hip-hop masterminds were on fire Friday evening at Stubb’s, still sizzling from a recent altercation days prior at the Spotify House, where a drunk idiot attempted to swing at ’em. (If you’ve seen the video, you’ll know it didn’t end well for the guy.) “If you interrupt us, we’ll kick your fucking ass,” Killer Mike declared, and later added: “I would like to dedicate this next song to FUCK the Ferguson Police Department.” Granted, Mike’s traditionally an energetic performer, but there was something unwieldy and primal about his energy. He stormed the lip of the stage, tossed his hands in the air, and grappled his partner-in-crime in a series of hugs. And that emotion is hardly exclusive; this is a guy whose heart beats heavy for his fans. He thanked ’em for all their love and empathy, complimented a girl’s hair in the crowd, and promised to keep the tour running as long as possible, despite any hesitations from his doctor (who also works for the Atlanta Falcons). Bottom line? Your failed fight is our big win. –Michael Roffman

Mick Jenkins — Lyve Presents Floodfest @ Cedar St. Courtyard — 8:00 p.m.

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Photo by Adam Kivel

Rather than assume his skills had translated to widespread acclaim — or that the crowds in the Cedar St. Courtyard were there exclusively for him rather than setting up shop for Run the Jewels’ appearance later at the venue — Chicago MC Mick Jenkins knew he had to both clarify his persona and win people over. Luckily, his spiritually powerful message (about needing truth in your life as much as you do water) and his poetically charged rhymes more than won over the growing masses. Jenkins’ set stuck close to his excellent 2014 mixtape, The Water[s], intermittently leading the crowd in a chant of “drink more water.” It took a while to catch on, but by the time tape highlight “Jazz” finally hit that sweet spot, he didn’t need to coach anyone or goad them into joining along. With a brief, delayed set time, Jenkins turned quite a few heads and will likely get credit for more than a few individuals who start gulping down a few bottles of H2O. –Adam Kivel

Ruby the Hatchet – Black Smoke Conjuring Showcase at The North Door — 8 p.m.

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Photo by Jon Hadusek

Philadelphia’s Ruby the Hatchet opened Boss Tweed Backline’s Black Smoke Conjuring showcase at the North Door, riding the hype of their latest Tee Pee Records release, Valley of the Snake. But it was a messy set, the opposite of what a rookie band wants out of their official Southby performance. Frontwoman Jillian Taylor was drunk, admitting as much, and her vocals — the defining element of Ruby’s sound — were flat and poorly mixed. Also, the mic cable had a short and kept crackling (strangely this went uncorrected for the latter half of the set). The band’s “Buckingham-Nicks gone metal” vibe was lost. Fortunately, they’ll have a chance to redeem themselves at tonight’s Heavy Metal Parking Lot II show at The Lost Well. –Jon Hadusek

Click ahead for the rest of our Friday coverage along with an exclusive gallery.

Tobias Jesso Jr. — Central Presbyterian Church — 8:30 p.m.

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

There isn’t a better venue for Tobias Jesso Jr. at SXSW than the Central Presbyterian Church. Forget for a second that it’s “God’s house,” as the Canadian singer-songwriter observed Friday evening, and appreciate the environment for its archaic offerings. There are the stained-glass windows with their earthly tones, the wooden pews that whine intermittently, and the vaulted ceiling where whispers turn to clatter. It’s intimate. It’s unique. It’s timeless. Fiona Apple staged her comeback there three years ago, and now the unlikely venue has claimed another historic performance.

For a little over 40 minutes, Jesso Jr. not only sold his music, but himself, to Austin. He did it all from behind a weighty grand piano, which was placed mere inches from the first pew. He wasn’t looking down at the hundreds in attendance; he was seeing them eye to eye. “I’ve only done one cover my whole life,” he admitted and then played it: Big Star’s “Thirteen”. It was a soft, minimalistic take that felt refreshing, which is quite a task given how often it’s been covered in the past. Oddly enough, Jody Stephens performed the same track only hours earlier at the ACC.

Kaplan-COS-3-20-Jesso-3But something extraordinary happened soon after. Following “Bad Words”, Jesso Jr. attempted to play “True Love”, something he’d attempt to do again and again and again. Now, don’t reach for your LP copy of Goon, you won’t find this song there. This one currently exists as a demo, one which he originally sent to Chet White and one that was too late to squeeze into his Top Rated debut. What started out as a simple flub eventually turned into a charming, personal dare. “Lemme think it through in my head first,” he professed, staring down his keys with a grin. “I played it earlier today too — so it’s not for a lack of trying.”

After his third failed attempt, he shrugged and decided to “come back to it,” recalibrating his efforts toward album highlights like “Can We Still Be Friends”, “Just a Dream”, “Hollywood”, and “Without You”. Despite these diamond performances, he couldn’t shake off the enigma of “True Love” and tried a couple more times, speculating that it could be “the Devil’s song,” considering their holy surroundings. Eventually, a fan played good samaritan, handed him a cellphone with the lyrics, and … well, no, that didn’t work either because the feedback eeked in. Once that was amended, however, he pulled it off.

By then, it didn’t matter if the song was the theme to Fraggle Rock or the greatest piece of poetry Jesso Jr.’s ever written. He already won everyone over. His string of hiccups did more performing than any song ever could, introducing spectators and fans to a human being and not just another singer. Isn’t that more rewarding, though? Isn’t that what people want at the end of the day — someone worth believing? It’s only fitting then that they found such hope in a house of worship. If only every Sunday morning sermon could sound as soulful as “How Could You Babe”. It’d give the NFL a run for their money. –Michael Roffman

Laura Marling — Communion Showcase at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary — 8:45 p.m.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

Explaining that this was her fourth South by, Laura Marling told a tale about sneaking through the bathroom window of an unnamed 6th Street bar to catch The Breeders, saying that it was “the first in a succession of mildly rockstar things [she’s] done in [her] life.” Now she can add providing one of the highlights of SXSW 2015 to that list. With “Strange”, she delivered one of the best, most ferociously strummed folk songs in recent memory. Shortly thereafter, she took it down (“Because we’re in a church,” she quipped. “We must behave ourselves.”) with the gentle acoustic romance of “Walk Alone”. Performed with estimable confidence and pulling at different strings, both wound deep in the heart; the two tracks proved that she’s one of the modern masters of folk rock.

Even as one of the greats, she messed up twice. The second was a hilarious slip in “David” where she sang, “He looks wasted and thinks of me,” instead of “looks east.” She covered her mouth, chuckled sheepishly, joked of her extreme exhaustion, and continued on right where she’d left off, even as small laughs still poked through. And the song, like the set, ended up gorgeous. She received a standing ovation, and though I know there’s one day left, my SXSW could’ve ended there with hers and I’d have been content. –Ben Kaye

Ibeyi — Central Presbyterian Church — 9:30 p.m.

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Photo by Sasha Geffen

Twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz make music together under the name Ibeyi, which means “twin” in the Nigerian language Yoruba. They are both only 20, and they released their self-titled debut last month. At Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church on Friday night, Ibeyi performed as if they’d been playing together for more decades than they’ve been alive. They filled the beautifully resonant chapel with hand percussion, synthesizers, and drum machines; during one song, Naomi snapped her fingers and slapped her body into a nearby microphone as Lisa pushed bass through a pair of keyboards. They were a gracious and inviting duo to watch, often encouraging the audience to clap along to their beats or sing along to their lyrics. They premiered a new arrangement of “Oya”, a cut from the debut, with sampled vocals, drums, synth bass, and their powerful harmonies. Before their last song, the Diaz sisters asked if anyone in the audience was a twin. No one was, so they asked everyone to think of the twins they knew as they sang a cappella while walking through the aisle between the pews. For such poised and practiced musicians, the sisters of Ibeyi carry a sense of fun with them that makes them magnetic onstage. –Sasha Geffen

Leon Bridges — Communion Showcase at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary — 10:45 p.m.

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Photo by Ben Kaye

The house was so full for Leon Bridges’ late evening set that the fire marshal had to walk the aisles counting attendees with a clicker app on his phone before staring the show. The young Texas musician has only a small handful of singles out, mind you. But the appeal was instantly recognizable. He lined up on stage with his seven-piece band in the way you see in old photos of Otis Redding or even James Brown. You could picture the 1960s’ record exec walking into a smokey club, discovering him, and getting him his first big gig. If there’s one thing that exec could still teach him, however, it’s a bit of stage presence, as the circular arm dancing can only take one so far when the soul music played is so emotional.

But no one need teach Bridges a thing about vocals. His effortless, smooth singing voice seemed almost more natural than his speaking one. Most of the songs referenced Louisiana, Mississippi, love, and/or his family, sometimes all at once, like with “Mississippi Kisses Down in New Orleans”. Regardless, each was a soulful, stunning throwback to R&B’s golden years. “I’m going to take you to church with this next one,” he quipped before “Shine”. The song, like much of the set, would’ve certainly brought the crowd to worship — if we weren’t all seated in pews already. –Ben Kaye

Elder – Black Smoke Conjuring Showcase at The North Door – 11 p.m.

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Photo by Jon Hadusek

Boston’s Elder have played a ton of sets this week, mere open rehearsals compared to what went down at Boss Tweed Backline’s Black Smoke Conjuring Showcase at the North Door. Backed by a line of Orange cabs and under a lighting system that’s Red Rocks-level lavish, the band delivered a set that will forever live in the memory of whoever bore witness. Elder’s songs push 10-minutes apiece, weaving in and out of various time signatures, bombastic riffs, jazzy breakdowns, and ambient guitar passages. From a songwriting perspective, it’s remarkable how well these various parts are assembled, laced with transitions that would make Richard Wagner nod in appreciation. Nobody’s writing heavy music that’s this romantic, this complex without being convoluted, much less playing it live note for fucking note. Singer/guitarist Nicholas DiSalvo and bassist Jack Donovan are bonafide virtuosos, sonic craftsmen capable of spiritual transfixiation, and for 45 minutes, they captured eyes, ears, and soul. If we’re in the post-metal era, as the genre’s declining presence at SXSW would indicate, then consider Elder the harbinger of a brighter, if uncertain, future. –Jon Hadusek

Tanya Tagaq — globalFEST Showcase at Speakeasy — 11:00 p.m.

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Photo by Sasha Geffen

You know those deep bass notes that rattle your sternum? Imagine someone doing that to you with only her voice. I had watched Tanya Tagaq’s Polaris performance after she won the 2014 music prize for her album Animism, so I thought I knew what I was in for. I didn’t. On Friday night at Speakeasy, Tagaq stood in the crowd while her two accompanists soundchecked, and I didn’t even notice her until she climbed onstage. She’s unassuming in person, with a friendly, relaxed demeanor. And then she sings.

Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer, which means she can do more with her breath than most people can do with their whole body. She whips air around like a weapon, sucking it in and crying it out. Her death growls hit like a bass drum, while her trebles carry high and piercing. She performed a single piece of music backed up by drums, violin, and a network of electronics. I think the whole range of human emotions must have occupied her body in that half hour. Her singing was rhythmic, pulsing; unlike lyric singing, throat singing doesn’t mask breath. The breath isn’t a pause you try to hide between phrases — it’s a part of the music, a human necessity integral to the art. Her compositions moved from throes of sexual desire to deep, bodily grief to snarling aggression. She clawed at the stage, howled at the audience, ran her hands over her body — her instrument — as she poured out sounds that felt natural and primal, and yet otherworldly, transcendent. She had no inhibition. There was only her and the sounds she pushed through the air around her, like the earth itself had opened up to scream. –Sasha Geffen

Weedeater – Dirty Dog Bar – 12:30 a.m.

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Photo by Adam Kivel

The pairing of stoner metal outfit Weedeater and one-third of the Geto Boys, Bushwick Bill, would seem unlikely, but the four seemed to get on swimmingly, as the aging rapper introduced the North Carolinians’ massive riffs. They’re all niche genre mainstays that have been entertaining their respective crowds for decades. Though tonight was more than a brief introduction: Bill even got a few verses — sure to note that his balls are big, in case you were wondering — during that hazy gray time between waves. Tracks like “Gimme Back My Bullets” and “Weed Monkey” have a slow, burning power, digging their heels in and fighting against the insane blur that is a SXSW Friday night. –Adam Kivel

Friday Gallery:

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