One of both the strange upsides and unfortunate downsides of South by Southwest is that it seems to take place in a vacuum – for a week straight, the world is reduced to the intersection of 6th Street and Red River in Austin, and it’s easy to pretend there is little happening outside it. Occasionally, though, reality intervenes: This year’s festival happened in the shadow of global catastrophe – the tsunami and subsequent nuclear instability in Japan, outbreaks of violence in Yemen and, finally, the military intervention in Libya, all of which goes a long way to make a music festival in Austin – no matter the scope – seem insignificant.
If you were looking for a way to sum up this turmoil sonically, you wouldn’t have to look much further than Charles Bradley‘s scream. A piercing, passionate instrument, he unleashed it often during the course of his riveting Friday night set – one of the week’s best by a good distance. Bradley’s songs paint a picture of a violent world – his best is a slowly-simmering number called “The World is Going Up in Flames,” and on Friday, he seemed to be jarring blissed-out festival-goers back to reality by sheer force of will. Backed by the brilliant Menahan Street Band, Bradley turned in a potent, fiery performance, one that crested with a reinvention of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” as a bit of smoky, searching soul. But the fulcrum for Bradley’s set was that scream. It’s not surprising he’s got one in his arsenal – when Daptone’s Gabriel Roth discovered him, he was working as a James Brown impersonator. But where Brown’s scream exuded sexuality, Bradley’s is colored with anguish. It was potent and wrenching, a sonic firecracker that stunned as often as it startled.
Unrest could well have been a theme of the last two days of South By Southwest; the thundering metal band Cough, with its brutally slow tempos and punishing volume, seemed to be poking at a deep-seated existential anguish. Their set was as much science experiment as rock show. The volume was ratcheted to punishing levels, but the songs crawl – almost sadistically – rather than hammer. The result is music that seems to mess with the body’s essential physiology. Emerging from their set into the daylight was a truly disorienting experience. Minneapolis’s Wolvhammer were more straightforward. Their songs erupted in a blinding blast, vocalist Ryan Mckern shrieking like a man lit on fire.
Escape is also a response to distress, and no band better personified that notion than Anamanaguchi. The band, which uses a specially-modified Nintendo Entertainment System in their songs, shot through a series of sugary 8-bit pop tunes, all of them unabashedly charming and nostalgic. Behind them, a friend projected a series of day-glo specially-created video game images – a hot pink unicorn smoking a joint, a deep-sea diver, an old man dancing. They were a welcome shot of giddy adolescence.
Just as giddy and just as adolescent were Gentleman Jesse and Cloud Nothings, who occupied the opening slot at East Side Drive-In on Saturday and Friday, respectively. Jesse exuded confidence and charisma and turned in one of the week’s most exuberant sets. Playing caffeinated new wave that owes a heavy, acknowledged debt to Elvis Costello, Jesse was like a teenage bedroom poster come to life. Cloud Nothings were just as speedy and tuneful, but exuded nervousness instead of brash sexuality. They were like an all-Chronic Town R.E.M. cover band formed by Mathletes, and they raced through each of their thrilling guitar-pop like they were terrified to be on stage.
But perhaps no band better embodied the wild-eyed nihilism that hung over the week than Odd Future, who played a series of stunning, engrossing sets during the week before playing a very bad one its final night. The group is polarizing to be sure, but most people who are fascinated by them – like this writer – love the form while loathing the content. Their attitude, the doomy sonics of their songs, and their chaotic onstage demeanor bring a bleakness, ferocity and sense of anarchy to pop music that, like it or not, is desperately necessary. They played just three songs at their closing-night set at a party for Billboard Magazine – the cover of which they grace this week. After two tentative runs through “Sandwitches” and a pair of other songs before an excited but tame crowd, Tyler the Creator announced, “Fuck Billboard, I don’t even read it, fuck all you people in the back – good night,” dropped the microphone and led his group offstage. No one complained and nobody booed. When you come expecting anarchy and destruction, a simple abandoned show makes you feel as if you got off easy.