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Thursday began with an unexpected, fantastic free show. One of the best parts about SXSW, and sometimes the most frustrating, is that there is so much happening at once, and often it’s the unpublicized, no-badge-needed events that are the best. So, when Amanda Palmer tweeted there would be a ninja gig — e.g a free spontaneous show she generally does in most cities while touring — it was instantly a must-attend.
In a way only Amanda Palmer can achieve, a venue was found and a show was hobbled together for the eager fans waiting outside in just five hours. Held in the old and beautiful Scottish Rite Theater, it featured Palmer playing a grand piano, multiple bands that she had connections to, or in a couple of cases just met, Jehane Noujaim, her husband Neil Gaiman and some amazing and inspiring music and conversation.
SXSW is all about the intimate shows where anything could happen, and that’s exactly what Palmer’s performance was. A dalmation statue was found backstage and became the gig’s mascot — named Pongo — and a young band was able to play because the drummer’s dad knew Gaiman and asked if he knew of any shows. This was a one of a kind event only possible in a Palmer-curated SXSW world.
From there it was back downtown to the Warner Sound Party. Held in the lobby and outdoor area of The Belmont, this felt like everything Palmer’s gig was against. Brands were plastered everywhere and industry representatives really seemed to care less about the music and more about getting drunk and name-dropping. That didn’t stop the musicians there from putting on an entertaining show.
Guards was the opening band. With a mix of chill rock and power-pop, infused with catchy hooks and psychedelic undertones, this New York based band instantly set themselves apart from others and managed to prove they were more then just kids cashing in on the current vintage trend in music.
After Guards was Surfer Blood, a young band from Florida that blew minds with their debut “Astro Coast.” Though the boys look like they’re still in high school, they are able to mix early-2000′s pop-rock with old school surf rock into something simultaneously catchy and edgy. With clean guitar, stuck in your head forever melodies and lead singer’s, John Paul Pitts, great stage presence — at one point demanding attention by walking through the crowd — this band was able to pack huge energy and talent into a short 30 minute set.
Following Surfer Blood was Atlas Genius, who managed to have a much cleaner set then they did Tuesday night and even got the apathetic crowd clapping and cheering. Following them was dark and dreary Frightened Rabbit, the Scottish band who’s gotten buzz the last few years for their melancholy folk-infused pop-rock. They seemed a little unhappy about the short set time — under 30 minutes — and couldn’t seem to find a rhythm as they went through a few new songs and made the unfortunate choice of ending on a long drawn out ballad which intrigued almost no one.
The first stop on Friday was the Tumblr house. All throughout SXSW different spots have been turned into venues, including some houses. Thrown in the backyard in a small house by the Colorado River, this showcase was a nice relief from the overcrowded venues in the middle of 6th street. The line up included Ducktails, Peace, Shout Out Louds and Ra Ra Riot.
Ducktails, with their chill wave psychedelic sound provided a great soundtrack to a warm afternoon in Austin. From their clean guitar to perfectly timed synths and keyboard, Ducktails showed that they deserve more then being under the radar like they have in the past few years.
Peace, an up and coming English band, kept the psychedelic vibe going, and managed to create a vintage sound that made the party feel like it was being thrown in 1994. It was the perfect blend of the songs these boys probably grew up on and what’s happening with indie-rock now. The singer, however, was less then impressionable, and just mumbled intelligible words with a heavy accent in between songs.
Shout Out Louds, a highly publicized band, sadly gave an almost forgettable set. Their music was standard indie-pop-rock and while they got the crowd jumping and moving with their upbeat catchy tunes, there was almost nothing about them that stands apart from the dozens others like them playing this week.
The headliners, Ra Ra Riot, put on an energetic and well-crafted show. With the lead singers almost falsetto vocals, delicate and well-placed violin and drum beats that you couldn’t help but dance to, this band’s talent burst through every note. They even overcame some less then great sound quality to get the crowd dancing and singing along to every song.
After the Tumblr house it was off to Auditorium Shores, a great outdoor space on the other side of the river. SXSW offers a lot of free shows for the public, and that night it was The Flaming Lips playing to a packed field.
The band decided to do something “radical” as singer Wayne Coyne said and premiered a slew of new songs and stage show. What ensued was not what most of the concert-goers were probably expecting, but then coming into a Flaming Lips concert with expectations is probably a bad idea.
For forty-five minutes The Flaming Lips played a series of overly-long slow songs full of ambient and ethereal synths, occasional kick-drum and Coyne’s vocals randomly spurting out lyrics with heavy reverb. He was wearing a series of large tubes which lit up, making it look like lights were shooting through him, and was cradling a giant plastic baby. At one point, Sarah Barthel from Phantogram came on to provide echoey, noise-like vocals, done while Coyne pulled her hair, which he insisted she made him do. In addition, a new trippy-as-ever light show and background display was revealed and naked girls in giant plastic balls floated around.
The band eventually got to the songs people came to here, but you have to respect The Flaming Lips for being themselves and continuing to do whatever the think is art, even when it’s strange and almost boring and they can feel the audience’s patience wearing down. Unveiling something so experimental and unpolished at SXSW is a risk, but you could tell that Coyne and crew didn’t care. They are The Flaming Lips and they are going to whatever they want as musicians.
If you missed Part 1 of SXSW, check it out here.
Contact CU Independent Editor-In-Chief Isa Jones at Alexandra.firstname.lastname@example.org.