“I thought you all were doing a dance,” said Bully singer/guitarist Alicia Bognanno, referencing the audience’s raised bobbing fingers, signaling the sound booth to up her vocals. The across-the-crowd gesture echoed her own request and followed a swapping of microphones Wednesday afternoon at Container Bar. “I love South by Southwest,” she said with a sigh.
Mark it as another blow lobbed at that punching bag of sour sets everywhere, the sound guy, who surely has their work cut out for them this week. It was the latest in an afternoon of less-than-ideally leveled vocals, following an earlier set from equally buzzy and equally Nashville-based Soccer Mommy. (More on that in a moment.)
But, c’est la vie at South by Southwest. Even lowered in the mix, the Bully leader’s screams and growls were inescapable as the four-piece’s fiery grunge sound melted away the chill of party predecessor Porches for a packed Rainey Street crowd.
Bully is no stranger to SXSW, and, like any act that rises above the noise in such a crowded arena, they know the show is more important than the “sounds-like” labels. As such, the band is more of a knockout than a nostalgia trip, with ’90s grunge-forged guitars, disheveled and distorted, feeding back over Hole-like vocals. While the sound is familiar, the execution is done with gusto, with a hint of Diet Cig playful-punk hyperactivity and a serious scowl behind Bognanno’s messy, banging hair.
The band opened with “Feel the Same,” the heavy-hooked lead single from their most recent effort, 2017’s Losing, and closed with a blistering cover of NSFW-titled Mclusky song “Lightsabre [expletive] Blues,” for which Bognanno tossed aside her pistachio-colored electric guitar and thrashed about the stage for a three-minute barrage of raging rock.
On the less angry end of the angsty rock spectrum, buzzed-about singer-songwriter Soccer Mommy played earlier in the afternoon at Container Bar. Though Sophie Allison’s beautiful and broken Sheryl Crow-like vocals and personal lyrics were buried under guitar and bass—due to the aforementioned sound issues—the band still stopped the crowd in its tracks. Allison’s intimate bedroom pop (self-described as “chill but kinda sad”) grabs with a sense of gravity and realness that works where other overly earnest singer-songwriter types fail, and even when you can’t fully hear the words she’s saying you can tell she’s saying something special.
Soccer Mommy and Bully are a rare treat, but just two in the long list of talented electric guitar-wielding female-fronted acts playing SXSW this week—see also/go see also: Caroline Rose, Lucy Dacus, Anna Burch, RVG, and Haley Heynderickx. (Now what was it that that Recording Academy head honcho said after this year’s Grammy Awards?)
Bully plays again tomorrow night at Scoot Inn, while Soccer Mommy plays a slew of daytime shows this week before an official showcase at Cheer Up Charlie’s Friday night.