SXSW 2014 Highlights: Glass Animals, John Fullbright, 8th Grader
Attending the music portion of South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, TX, can be both exhilarating and frustrating. Stumbling upon new-to-you music that hits a sweet spot is what it's all about, along with seeing favorites one, two or 10 times over the course of a few days. There's always something you're going to miss, though. But if you can stomach that, you just might find some new favorites, much like I did.
Here's a rundown of some Wednesday (3/12) evening highlights.
Glass Animals The crew at KCRW in Los Angeles rarely disappoints with the radio station's annual SXSW picks. I kicked off my initial evening of coverage with the first band of their official showcase, Glass Animals. The U.K. natives are young, focused and surprisingly elusive in the online world. Though they were placed in a venue that seemed to care more about it's "upscale club" vibe than providing an optimal SXSW experience, the four-piece outfit pulled off a beautiful 30-minute set of tight electronic concoctions that felt like one future radio hit after another.
One such standout was "Gooey," a seductive number that flows slow and sexy and also happens to be the title track of the group's latest EP, produced by frontman Dave Bayley and executive produced by the award-winning Paul Epworth. It's audio gold for sultry synth-pop lovers. Keep an eye out for an album drop later this year on Epworth's own Wolf Tone label, to which Glass Animals was the first band signed.
Moving from a club vibe to a church sanctuary for the Americana goodness of John Fullbright exemplifies the true range of SXSW experiences. The Oklahoma native, whose 2012 debut "From the Ground Up" earned a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album, performed his second show of a scheduled nine before one of the quietest, most respectful conference crowds I've witnessed.
Over the course of the 40-minute set at St. David's Historic Sanctuary, Fullbright demonstrated his piano, guitar and harmonica mastery (as usual) while focusing mostly on material from his impending second album, aptly titled "Songs." Set to drop in May, the new work continues to showcase his enviable ability to turn compelling story into eloquent song.
The modest singer/songwriter with a scratchy, soulful croon captures the highs and lows of the average American with quoteworthy lines about love, loss and other questionable scenarios we may find ourselves in. There are few performers—particularly those in their mid-20s—who leave me slack-jawed with lines of lyric ("If you never knew what never was, you'd never cry again." Seriously?!) Couple that with a chill-inducing blues cover of Porter Grainger's "Ain't Nobody's Business," and you can see why I end up at every Fullbright performance I can.
And how does one follow up a late-night SXSW church visit? With a rambunctious and slightly raunchy performance by the one and only 8th Grader.
The San Francisco-based project, helmed by multi-instrumentalist Jayson Martinovich, rocked the tiny Firehouse Lounge with a high-energy hybrid of R&B-singed synthpop and a vocal delivery reminiscent of George Michael, Prince and others who literally ruled the charts during my eighth grade year. Add in a spot-on saxophonist who had me thinking of the late Clarence Clemons and some dizzying laser lights and no wonder I was sold.
Though the act's eponymous EP gives a great taste of their range (who wouldn't want to slow dance to "All the Sweetness"?), 8th Grader brings much more life to the in-person party. Wait for "Sex Tongue," assuming you can handle some pretty forward lyrics, and "You Deserve It All," which could easily and perhaps should become an anthem for college-aged women in need of a self-esteem boost.