For the American-Statesman
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“How does one cover a showcase, ever?”
My friend’s text gave me pause as I drove to Spider House for All the Friends Ball, the annual concert that kicks off South by Southwest with an all-day showcase of Austin’s finest, freshest and freakiest musicians. How was I supposed to cover a 13-hour showcase that hosted 50 artists across five different stages? Truth be told, I had already missed the first half of the day’s festivities, but that still left me with several dozen artists from which to choose. Would I stick with those I already knew and loved, or check out a bunch of fresh faces? Should I camp out at one stage all night, or would I be better off racing back and forth and gleaning as much as possible from five minutes at each set?
As it turns out, All the Friends Ball serves as a tidy microcosm of SXSW’s music section at large, and should be covered thusly. In other words: Ease into things, let the music lead you, and please, don’t try too hard to have fun.
This approach proved successful for the crowd that ambled toward the Spider House patio to catch Whiite Walls’ twilight set. The sleek disco/funk quintet turned the patio into a dance floor with peppy, percussive guitar licks and infectious keyboard melodies, as one enthralled fan watched from the side of the stage and drummed furiously on his leg.
If Whiite Walls warmed up the nighttime crowd, Blastfamous USA worked them into a righteous frenzy an hour later on the same stage. The blistering indie-rap trio, consisting of combustible MC Zeale and production duo NGHT HCKLRS, delivered a flurry of high-octane, hook-heavy bangers that could incite a riot in the streets just as easily as they incited a mosh pit at Spider House. Zeale raced across the stage and beckoned viewers to jump, march and pump their fists in solidarity, his leather-clad figure silhouetted against the Spider House sign.
“You’re standing too far back, come closer—unless you’re a blogger, then you can be cool and stand back,” the rapper teased. Joke’s on him; even the bloggers wanted to be up front.
Fans of more guitar-driven fare got their fill as well, sometimes from multiple acts at a time. Marmalakes dazzled on the patio with their psychedelic indie rock, while Otis the Destroyer coaxed a sizable congregation over to the chapel stage to watch their rough-and-tumble garage rock. Veteran punk trio XETAS pummeled the ballroom stage — literally, digging the headstocks of their instruments into the floorboards — and turned the dense crowd into a whirlwind of flailing limbs. One overzealous fan took the tumult as an excuse to do chin-ups on the venue’s support beams, earning a rightful tongue-lashing from bassist Kana Harris, who wasn’t about to cede her spotlight to a belligerent jock riding high on testosterone.
XETAS’ raucous performance counteracted an intimate, riveting ballroom bar set from SOBBRS, the sobriquet adopted by electro-pop savant Jesus Acosta. Taking cues from the lush, ethereal production and brooding hooks of Lorde and Banks, SOBBRS made a strong case for electronic-oriented music on a predominantly analog lineup; the audience happily obliged.
Closing out the night in the ballroom were Black Pumas, the psychedelic soul sextet helmed by Grammy-winning producer, guitar wizard and Grupo Fantasma alum Adrian Quesada as well as local crooner Eric Burton. Black Pumas just released their first single, the divine “Black Moon Rising,” on Friday, with a full-length debut expected this summer, yet they already seem destined for greatness. Watching them enchant a half-full, sleepily satisfied ballroom felt like the beginning of a meteoric career, just as All the Friends Ball felt like the beginning of a fruitful SXSW. If the rest of the week can foster such authentic joy and discovery, we might just make it out of this thing alive after all.