Last night, Stereogum took over the Mazda Studio At Empire Garage for our first official showcase of SXSW 2017. We curated a lineup that spanned the spectrum of recent rock-oriented music and featured a bunch of artists we’ve believed in for a long time now: 2015 Band To Watch Mothers, Hurray For The Riff Raff, Julie Byrne (whose new LP Not Even Happiness was recently an Album Of The Week), 2014 Band To Watch Girlpool, and headliners Real Estate and Sleigh Bells, both Bands To Watch from 2009 who have since become pillars in the indie world.
Mothers kicked things off at 8PM, playing a wiry set full of songs that melded various approaches and sounds. Like many bands in the (somewhat nebulously-defined) DIY rock circles, Mothers sound like a broken-down modern interpretation of ’90s indie part of the time, but the most gripping moments of the set were when they sounded like a dreamier band with all the gloss burnt away, or when they settled into a long, mesmerizing song that rode along an intensifying krautrock-meets-postpunk groove.
Next up was Hurray For The Riff Raff, the project helmed by Alynda Segarra. Even with all the talk of Americana’s resurgence in recent years, many artists have fallen through the cracks as the focus has often settled on a certain notion of Americana, oftentimes a white Southerner playing in the traditions of where they grew up. With the release of the new Hurray The Riff Raff album, The Navigator, it seems there may finally be a bit of course correction, with Segarra (who’s of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in the Bronx) mixing a whole range of musical touchstones into her interpretation of Americana, offering a distinctly different voice to the landscape. Her set had enough room for meditative slow-burners and more rousing numbers alike, fried guitar lines and her powerful voice acting as the connective tissue between it all.
Next was the one-two punch of Girlpool and Julie Byrne, a pair of Stereogum favorites. Girlpool continued in the vein of the show up until that point, offering an angular rock set ahead of their forthcoming sophomore album Powerplant. Once defined by their spare guitar-centric writing, the hook with Girlpool’s second full-length is the expansion to a full-band sound, which carried over live, too, and allowed the core duo to explore all sorts of new sounds and approaches this time around.
After that, Julie Byrne played a hushed, acoustic set showcasing all the gorgeous songwriting from Not Even Happiness. And just as on the album, her voice was the centerpiece, at times plaintive and at times enigmatic.
Byrne wound up pairing pretty well with Real Estate, too, with the two of them offering a sort of mellowed section of the night. Longtime purveyors of easygoing jangle-pop indie, Real Estate’s new lineup (with Julian Lynch replacing Matt Mondanile) continues in that mold as their new album In Mind comes out this week. Yet as gentle as their whole ethos is, it’d be a mistake to underestimate how pumped people get as these shows—there was fist-pumping, and there were “oh-oh” singalongs, and there were people dancing to each sparkling guitar riff.
Then Sleigh Bells waltzed onto the stage at 1AM and obliterated any sense of a calm, woozy Tuesday evening. When a band as inherently unique and hard-to-classify as Sleigh Bells becomes something of an establishment, it’s easy to forget just how idiosyncratic one of their shows are: within one song, you can feel like you’re at a raging house party, or a club night, or a sweaty punk show, or a big sleazy arena-rock concert. The Sleigh Bells gig last night was lined with singles, a sharp reminder of the sheer amount of jams this duo has. And if the pulverizing riffs somehow didn’t have people convinced, the visual impact of Sleigh Bells onstage should’ve finished the argument: Alexis Krauss continues to be one of the most magnetic frontwomen in indie, full of the kind of charisma that comes with walking out to weaponized guitar riffs and knowing you own a room. She and Derek Miller and their backup guitarist stalked back and forth across the stage in front of a wall of Marshall amps, occasionally almost moving in formation. Altogether, it was the exact kind of set you want from a late-night festival gig—and from a band too many of us have started to take for granted, it was a sugar-high slap across the face reminder to keep paying attention.