When Sound on Sound Fest was forced to cancel in October, booker, Graham Williams performed the Herculean feat of securing club shows for 80-90% of the artists scheduled to play at the Renaissance Fest-themed event. Most of the shows took place last weekend and here’s an overview of the ones we caught.
Grizzly Bear at ACL Live: The veteran indie standby—formed in 2002 and infecting the college radio scene with 2006’s “Yellow House”—writes pensive, unfurling music for the iPod generation’s morning commute. To convene live is an initially awkward but validating realization that we’re not alone. – Ramon Ramirez
Japandroids at Emo’s: Three albums into their two-man attack, King and drummer/vocalist David Prowse have started to change up their sonic ingredients, and Saturday showed that their fans are willing to take the journey with them. It takes guts for a band that built its name on in-the-red intensity to trot out a seven-minute synth-phony like “Arc Of Bar” – with a heavily effected guitar backing track running under everything – but the song holds up and expands the band’s sound because King and Prowse still deliver the buildup and payoff crowds have come to expect. – Chad Swiatecki
Snow tha Product at Empire: Texas is ready for a Mexican-American rap breakout. How ready? As Snow tha Product’s insanely hype Sound on Sound Fest makeup show proved: hysterical screaming, delirious dancing, turned up to 11 ready. – Deborah Sengupta Stith
The Shins at Emo’s: For just over 75 minutes on Sunday night, James Mercer – who at this point in his career is the human being of most consequence behind indie rock heroes the Shins – gave a clinic on the many ways a songwriter can transform their material while still pleasing a close to sold-out crowd. – Chad Swiatecki
There’s something to be said for having the right setting.
And while Canadian indie rock duo Japandroids probably would have availed themselves perfectly well outdoors at this year’s never-to-be Sound On Sound Festival, it’s hard to think of a better time and place for their undeniable anthems than the dark and cave-like Emo’s concert hall where sounds can reverberate and grow even bigger.
Since the band’s 2009 debut album, guitarist Brian King has brandished one of those rare, singular guitar tones that make a Japandroids song identifiable almost immediately. Kind of the same thing Bob Mould pulled off with Sugar and his later solo work; a handful of Britpop bands managed to create their own tone brand as well.
In a live setting we hear that the key to King’s tuneful fuzz is expert use of sustain effect, so his parts build into a gigantic wave that makes the songs like the newer “North East South West” or an earlier cut like “Young Hearts Spark Fire” take over a room cut in half with an acoustic curtain and filled with 800 fans. A descriptor like “anthemic” applies to nearly the whole body of Japandroids’ work, and would make for a fine title for a career-spanning anthology one day.
Another key: right from the drop King attacked his vocals on Saturday night, sweating by two minutes into show opener “Near To The Wild Heart Of Life” and only pulling back his intensity when newer, more deliberate songs like “I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)” required restraint and control in his delivery.
Three albums into their two-man attack, King and drummer/vocalist David Prowse have started to change up their sonic ingredients, and Saturday showed that their fans are willing to take the journey with them. It takes guts for a band that built its name on in-the-red intensity to trot out a seven-minute synth-phony like “Arc Of Bar” – with a heavily effected guitar backing track running under everything – but the song holds up and expands the band’s sound because King and Prowse still deliver the buildup and payoff crowds have come to expect.
Of course the highest points came on the trio of undeniable anthems – “Fire’s Highway,” “Nights Of Wine And Roses” and “The House That Heaven Built” – from the band’s sophomore album that are some of the most reliable crowd-pleasers of at least the past decade.
The final song of that trio closed off the concert at just over 90 minutes, and came after Dylan Baldi from opening band Cloud Nothings grabbed a bass guitar and joined the pair for a cover of “Dead Moon Night” from beloved cult band Dead Moon, whose founding member Fred Cole died last week at age 69.
It was a suite that married the indie rock canon that Japandroids have built themselves from with the confidence of always moving forward, loudly, with continuous thunder.
Near To The Wild Heart Of Life
Arc Of Bar
North East South West
True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will
Midnight To Morning
I’m Sorry (For Not Finding You Sooner)
Nights Of Wine And Roses
No Known Drink Or Drug
Young Hearts Spark Fire
Dead Moon Night (Dead Moon cover)
The House That Heaven Built
Texas is ready for a Mexican-American rap breakout. How ready? As Snow tha Product’s insanely hype Sound on Sound Fest makeup show proved: hysterical screaming, delirious dancing, turned up to 11 ready.
Traditionally, hip-hop shows run dude-heavy, but there were a grip of young Latinas in the house for the rapper whose profile has been on the rise over the last several years.
She did not disappoint. Backed by a crew that included opening artists, AJ Hernz from San Antonio and Castro Escobar who hails from the Houston area alongside a dancing panda who almost died of heat exhaustion, she mixed razor sharp verses and club-friendly hooks into an intoxicating mess of sweaty exhilaration.
She was also down to earth and very real. She talked about how her time in Texas — she lived in Fort Worth for a couple years — shaped her as a rapper. Attending the South by Southwest music festival and seeing so many young and hungry talented rappers pushed her to sharpen her skills, she said.
She brought her mom onstage to do a shot as an introduction to “Ay Ay Ay.” The song’s hook, she explained, is based on the standard Mexican mom, head-shaking cry of exasperation. She talked directly to audience members, inviting them to hang out with her on Sixth Street after the show and apologizing directly to one woman for possibly smearing her shaded eyebrows with a spray of water. (“I don’t care who it is, mess up my eyebrows and I’ll fight you,” she said with a laugh.) Near the end of her set, she brought a mess of ladies onstage to twerk with her.
The vibe for the set was party turn up, but she also slid in savvy political messaging, largely centered around the need for real Latinx representation in the media in the Trump era.
“If you don’t understand that you can completely be conscious and woke and be aware but also be ratchet, you are stupid,” she said at one point.
As her star rises, she said, she’s been offered many collaborations, but right now, she’s primarily interested in working with like-minded Hispanic artists like Hernz and Escobar, “building a movement,” she said. Her songs liberally mix in cumbia rhythms and her new single “Nuestra Canción pt. 2” is entirely in Spanish.
Intro-ing the song at the end of her set she implored her audience to buy the track “whether you speak the language or not” to send a message to all the would-be-indifferent record execs that, in 2017, the hunger for new Latinx music is very real.
The packed house of rabid fans who spent her entire performance pressed to the front of the stage made that abundantly clear.
Though she repeatedly berated the club for not being loud enough (despite the fact that the speakers were cranking out body-rattling bass), her message came across loud and clear.
For just over 75 minutes on Sunday night, James Mercer – who at this point in his career is the human being of most consequence behind indie rock heroes the Shins – gave a clinic on the many ways a songwriter can transform their material while still pleasing a close to sold-out crowd.
Sunday’s show at Emo’s was one of more than a dozen around Austin that was rescheduled in clubs to make up for the cancellation of Sound On Sound Festival. With his five-piece backing band in the mood to try just about anything, Mercer spent the tight and tidy 17-song set changing up the delivery of some of the Portland-by-way-of-Albuquerque band’s most popular songs.
That’s not to say the night was a Zappa-esque freakout. Instead, the atmosphere and backing elements of a song like “Gone For Good” slowed down into a moody exploration of almost Ennio Morricone soundtrack material, which helped to accentuate quotable lines like “I find a fatal flaw in the logic of love.”
Doing this takes guts, especially on songs like “Phantom Limb” or the career-defining “New Slang” that are some of the most sturdy and pristine pop songs of the 2000s. On Sunday, though, “Phantom Limb” was rearranged, more restrained and drenched in dreamy atmospherics, with Mercer noticeably altering the meter and pacing of the vocals. That curveball didn’t throw the crowd, however, with fans responding loudly and taking over the “Ooooh-oh-oh” closing vocals before the entire band kicked back in for a cacophonous finish.
And “New Slang” – after a glitched and sped-up playing of the backing vocal track recording that felt like it might’ve been messed up on purpose as a goof – was played in a minimal and almost flat or removed style that was loyal enough to the original composition but kept it from turning into a full room karaoke sing-along.
Another highlight: the three-song suite toward the middle the of the set – “Gone For Good,” “Mildenhill” and “Saint Simon – that were played as arid and somber, with violins, some minor key arrangement and Mercer crooning instead of using his standard pinched high vocals.
Now more than 20 years since forming the band that initially trafficked in wafer delicate and sparse songs, Mercer is at a point where he can rework those songs pretty much any way he wants.
Whether that means taking an early delicate track like “Caring Is Creepy” and blowing it up into a full band anthem, or doing almost the reverse on other songs, he and his bandmates showed on Sunday that those songs hold up, no matter how they’re played.
Caring Is Creepy
Name For You
Kissing The Lipless
Mine’s Not A High Horse
Gone For Good
Painting A Hole
Half A Million
Grizzly Bear crammed the floor of ACL Live on Friday night, and robustly packed in the mezzanine. The upper balcony was about half full—a minor miracle all the same.
The four-piece Brooklyn, New York, outfit is a pop oddity. 2009’s breakthrough album “Veckatimest” went gold, as single “Two Weeks” scored a Volkswagen commercial. The psychedelia-tinged music is warm and layered, richly alive with folksy vocals and omnichord flourishes.
The veteran indie standby—formed in 2002 and infecting the college radio scene with 2006’s “Yellow House”—writes pensive, unfurling music for the iPod generation’s morning commute. To convene live is an initially awkward but validating realization that we’re not alone.
“I’m really glad we got to come play here after all,” singer Ed Droste said toward the end of the 14-plus-song, 80-minute set. “We were worried about it. Skipping Texas doesn’t feel right.”
He was referring to the cancelled Sound on Sound festival, which originally booked Grizzly Bear. It was scrapped in October after a major investor pulled out, and quietly set back 11 years of essential area shindigs loaded with unconventional and rare performances. Event promoters salvaged some of the lineup by booking it across venues like Empire Control Room, Emo’s, and the Mohawk this weekend.
At ACL Live’s Moody Theater, the band emerged amid a blinding wave of blue lights, between art installations that resembled a widely strewn fishing net. It created an aquarium visual for set opener “Four Cypresses,” a clash of fervent drums and restrained multi-part vocal harmonies.
“Tangled in a pile, it’s chaos but it works,” guitarist and singer Daniel Rossen crooned. It’s a sullen track about refugees and war.
August’s “Painted Ruins,” the band’s fifth album and first since 2012, has more synthesizers, pulsing beats, and isolated vocals. The tunes are dialed in and instantly appealing—they work on, say, “CBS This Morning,” where the band performed last week. And as entertainers force meaning from the uneasy political terrain that clogs their push notifications, and scramble to interpret it in their music, Grizzly Bear’s music looked outward.
Droste is Instagram-famous, boasting more than 600,000 followers, in part because he worked as a global travel correspondent for Vogue. (He also blasted Taylor Swift on Twitter for being mean at a party, prompting fan backlash and the eventual deletion of his Twitter account.) Droste devotes social media real estate to activism, and seems to guide his band as its moral compass.
Older songs like “Fine For Now” landed with weight: “There was time, it took time,” Rossen sang. “If we’re faltering, how do I help with that?”
“Losing All Sense,” peppy and led by a fuzzy bassline, recalled the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” But otherwise Grizzly Bear concerts are unconventional for rock norms as an audience member: You’re forged between walls of loud crescendos, waiting for something to sing along to, and drenched in strobe lights. (The taped-on-the-entrance warnings about strobe effects were not to be taken lightly.)
“It’s called live music… just a moment in time to absorb each other’s sweat,” Droste deadpanned during an awkward pause to configure his gear.
Otherwise proceedings were seamless. The band thanked budding Austin songwriter Molly Burch for opening, and touring multi-instrumentalist Aaron Arntz for his hard work.
“We want to throw it back to 2006 for y’all,” Droste said as something of a self-aware joke, as if the band had early hits to dust off.
But it did. “Yellow House” centerpiece “On a Neck, On a Spit” played as a lively fan favorite with its rollicking folk chorus. Rossen has said that it’s a song about accepting and toasting his “loner” spirit. For a house packed full of people who surely despise networking happy hours, it was sublime.
[cmg_anvato video=”4191822″] On October 6, roughly a month before the knights were set to storm the castle, booker Graham Williams was forced to cancel the medieval-themed Sound on Sound Fest because an investor pulled out. A few weeks later, Williams has managed to mitigate the financial loss for his company, Margin Walker, by booking an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the artists scheduled to perform into club shows around Austin, including 15 events that will happen over the weekend of Nov 10-12, when the festival was supposed to take place at Sherwood Forest Faire. But he says the whimsical event that rose from the ashes of Fun Fun Fun Fest last year, to pair indie rock, hip-hop and retro punk sounds with fair maidens and merry men, is likely dead.
“I don’t know. It was such a new brand, such a new name, still in, like, the growing phase, teaching people what it was,” he says. He doesn’t want to speak for everyone involved and, with a busy weekend of shows on the horizon, next year seems very far away, but “it feels a little hard to see that happening again.”
“It’s such a bummer that this thing was so close to becoming this pretty epic event annually and we just got basically screwed and left holding the bag,” he says.
Williams says SOS Fest ticket sales were on track and the investor, who he declined to name, just got “cold feet” about the festival market in general. A devastating mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas at the beginning of October didn’t help. “A tragedy of that magnitude made this week even harder for potential plan b investors,” he said on Oct. 7, the day after the cancellation was announced.
For well over a decade, Williams has been the music scene’s premier torch-bearer for a new school version of “Austin Weird.” First with Fun Fun Fun, then SOS Fest, he’s demonstrated an uncanny knack for combining well-curated music with brilliant moments of absurdity to create memorable experiences. (Mini bike hot dog jousting! Punk wedding officiated by Henry Rollins! Taco cannon!) But the festival landscape has evolved in ways that make it much more challenging for an independent promoter to stand up an event without outside financial backing.
“Back in the day, festivals were different,” he says. “Bands got paid, production got paid, everyone got paid that weekend, when the bar sales were in, when the sponsors had handed off the check, when all the ticket money came in to the bank account.”
These days, after well-publicized flops like the Caribbean island disaster, Fyre Festival and Pemberton Music Festival in Seattle, which declared bankruptcy two months before it was scheduled to take place, everyone from artist management to the production companies who provide festival essentials like fencing, lighting and sound, demands more money up front.
“I feel like we’re, kind of, one of many smaller events that are independent, that don’t have a massive company behind them who can put a couple million dollars into an operational account,” Williams says. “So that’s why you need, kind of, investors for festivals…That’s why a lot of the festivals have now been bought by Live Nation — so they can fund it and pay themselves back at the end of the festival.”
Williams feels the mainstream festival market has become oversaturated. “I’ve been saying for years that the bubble is going to burst,” he says.
He believes, the “mega fests” like Coachella and Bonnaroo will survive because they have enough backing, but many fests on the second tier will struggle. Williams didn’t mention Austin City Limits Festival by name, but it’s worth noting that Friday and Sunday single-day passes for both weekends and 3-day passes for the weekend two were still available in the days leading up to the massive event at Zilker Park this year.
“When people used to go to a festival that has 80,000 people at it, and it was the only festival for 500 miles, half the audience were tourists… out of towners,” he says. “Now there’s a version, it may not be as good, but there’s a version of that festival within 100 miles of every other city.”
Williams believes some of these events, “that all have the same lineup in a slightly different version,” will eventually phase out.
It’s still up in the air whether his own company will attempt to stage some sort of a festival in Austin or outside the city limits next year. Williams says there have been conversations, but nothing concrete. “Finding the right brand and right concept is what’s important for me … if the event works, if we can make it work, if the idea is cool and the location works, I’m always happy to get involved.”
But right now, he feels good about the crunch turnaround, booking over 50 SOS Fest artists into club shows to salvage some of the fest’s spirit. A week out, tickets are moving well. He suspects about half of the shows will sell out and the other half will come close.
Going forward, he’s primarily thinking about ways to build Margin Walker’s core business, the roughly 700-750 live shows his company routes through Texas each year.
“We have some ideas going around, we’re talking to some folks, but my biggest focus right now is just doing what we do,” he says.
He returned to the road this spring, but according to a post on his official Facebook page, “He began to feel run down during recent tour dates and learned that his cancer spread to his liver, though hasn’t returned to his stomach.”
Bradley has canceled all tour dates while he takes time off “to focus on treatment and recovery.”
The post included a message from Bradley to his fans: “”I love all of you out there that made my dreams come true. When I come back, I’ll come back strong, with God’s love. With God’s will, I’ll be back soon.”
“We’re so very sorry to hear the news today about Charles Bradley and his continued battle with cancer. We’re hoping for a fast recovery for Charles again, and look forward to his return to the stage,” SOS Fest organizers said in a statement.
On Nov. 10-12, Sound on Sound Fest is set to bring the ruckus to the Ren Fest for the second year in a row with a solid roster of seasoned indie faves, emo acts old and new, and rising stars from a variety of genres ready to hit the stage at Sherwood Forest Faire in McDade, roughly an hour outside of Austin. NYC dance punks the Yeah Yeah Yeahs lead a lineup that also includes the only Texas appearance from psych-folk outfit Grizzly Bear, a rare showing from alt-R&B innovator Blood Orange and punk lifer Iggy Pop.
The lineup also features a fine mix of hip-hop and R&B that includes new heat from the likes Vince Staples, Noname, Kehlani and Snow tha Product alongside old school artists like Digable Planets, Egyptian Lover and G.O.O.D. Music president Pusha T.
The “120 Minutes” generation of indie music fans will be happy to see Dinosaur Jr. and Ministry in the mix while Taking Back Sunday will tug the heartstrings of music lovers who came of age in the aughts. British metal band Electric Wizard is flying in for a rare one-off performance and influential doom metal band Sleep will also play the fest.
“It’s such a good balance of young artists from all genres and older classic artists,” festival founder Graham Williams said on Monday afternoon. “Last year I thought the top part of the bill was a bit youth heavy, which isn’t a bad thing at all, especially for festivals. This year I think it’s just a bit more diverse.”
Williams noted the lineup includes “a lot of artists who have a new record and they’re just on fire right now,” rattling off Foxygen, Real Estate, Japandroids, Girlpool, Twin Peaks and Cherry Glazerr as examples.
He’s also thrilled to welcome back to the fest soul powerhouse Charles Bradley, whose 2016 appearance was sidelined by complications from a cancer diagnosis. “Last year everyone was like, ‘Is he going to make it?’ and now he’s back on stage and killing it again,” he said.
The biggest criticism of last year’s fest was a bungled shuttle service that left many music fans stranded and waiting around for hours. Williams admits his company failed to deliver on that front and this year opted to “outsource (the shuttles) to people who do that for a living.” At a daily rate of $20 round trip from the Mohawk in Austin, the shuttles, operated by the national outfit Festdrive, will be significantly pricier than last year, but presumably more reliable. The company will also run shuttles to the fest from Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and College Station.
While last year, fest organizers embraced the location, on the Central Texas Renaissance Fest grounds, this year they plan to take it to the next level. They’ve added a “sort of crazy Renaissance Fair dance club” in the site’s Viking Mead Hall where Peanut Butter Wolf, Lindstrom and the Hot Chip crew will put in DJ sets. They’ve hired more actors and folks who run the site’s medieval games. They’ve also moved the main “dragon” stage from a parking lot outside the gates into the main festival grounds. Though his aim was to “treat the location as a headliner,” last year, Williams was bothered by the fact that many fans got waylaid at the big stage and lingered there for hours before wandering into the festival village.
This year his goal is to “make all the magic happen where it’s the most interesting and compelling. So when you walk in, you actually walk into the whole Renaissance Fair, through the wooden gates with log spikes and everything.”
Full 2017 Sound on Sound Fest lineup:
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Grizzly Bear ~ Iggy Pop ~ The Shins
Blood Orange ~ Electric Wizard ~ Pusha T
Kehlani ~ Vince Staples ~ Sleep
Ministry ~ Washed Out
Dinosaur Jr. ~ Taking Back Sunday ~ Digable Planets
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires ~ Japandroids ~ Austra
Real Estate ~ Converge ~ Yelle
Ariel Pink ~ The Story So Far ~ NONAME
Foxygen ~ Cannibal Corpse ~ Hot Chip (DJ Set)
Cloud Nothings ~ Boris ~ Poolside
Twin Peaks ~ Citizen ~ Lindstrom
Cherry Glazerr ~ Turnstile ~ S U R V I V E
Girlpool ~ Power Trip ~ Snow Tha Product
Mild High Club ~ Wolves in the Throne Room ~ Blanck Mass
Hoops ~ The Menzingers ~ Egyptian Lover
Sweet Spirit ~ The Hotelier ~ Juan Maclean (DJ Set)
Capyac ~ Sorority Noise ~ Peanut Butter Wolf
Holy Wave ~ Mannequin Pussy ~ Tim Sweeney
The Frights ~ Helms Alee ~ Honey Sound System
A Giant Dog ~ USA/Mexico ~ Kamau
Alex Napping ~ Street Sects ~ Lovefingers
Midnight Stroll ~ Growl ~ Mélat ~ Sam Lao
DJ Sober ~ Flying Turns ~ Chulita Vinyl Club
All/Everything ~ Dayuta ~ Kydd Jones ~ Tank Washington