I woke up on my 29th birthday to the sound of my phone buzzing. I groaned, not eager to start my day at 9AM. Without a badge to my name, the plan was to just camp out at a free day show that didn’t require credentials. When I peered to see who was calling, I realized it was the publisher who has hooked me up with credentials for SXSW in years past. I figured at this late stage, he was probably calling to say he wouldn’t be needing help this year. Instead, when I checked my messages, I discovered that he was asking if I needed a badge, and if I’d like one for anyone else. It was a birthday miracle. I couldn’t believe my luck. I called him back, thanked him profusely, and just like that, Zack and I were festival-ready. In exchange, all we had to do was get banners to a couple showcases and tweet coverage for the week. Zack took care of the first banner drop-off that same morning on his way to pick up my Dairy Queen ice cream cake while I got ready.
After collecting our surprise-badges, Zack and I headed to the showcase we’d initially planned to camp at for the day — the lineup was simply too good to pass up. We had high hopes for a day of good music, but we didn’t know we’d discover half of our favorite acts at the Beehive showcase at Swan Dive.
Entering the venue was like coming across an old friend after a long time apart. Swan Dive is where I’d hosted a few of my own showcases in the past, and it was comforting to enter the space, with its padded silver booths and old-timey chandeliers. A forgettable psych rock band was making noise on the inside stage when we arrived, so after a few minutes we headed outside to find a spot for Honne. This wasn’t a band I was particularly interested in seeing — all of the ones I’d wanted to see didn’t start for another hour — but they were a not-unpleasant way to pass the time. It’s another one of those groups that does the sort of soulful pop that Sam Smith does, with a white singer whose voice is OK and probably got him some solos at his school’s choir or something. It’s fine. But let’s fast-forward through Honne, through the massive line for free Eastcider (a delicious beverage made extra-sweet when free on your birthday), and jump to the first band I enjoyed.
Freedom Fry has a horrendous band name. I’m just gonna put it out there. When I came across them on the SXSW artist list, I might have even rolled my eyes, assuming this was going to be a group of cross-armed hipsters from L.A. looking to be ironic. However, when I hit “play” on “Rolling Down,” I was immediately won over by the sweet folk music that met my ears. Then, when the next song, “Friends and Enemies,” came on, I was impressed with the band’s depth — this was a totally different musical style, reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem's minimalist dance music. When I did more research and discovered that Marie Seyrat (1/2 the band) was French, I appreciated that the irony of the band’s name went deeper than I’d expected. Live, Seyrat and her band are sort of understated. They’re not boring to watch, but they just sound great and kind of let the music speak for itself beyond that. It’s easy to dance to the music and get swept up in the pretty melodies. In the theme of “musicians dressing like my friends,” I took a picture of Seyrat and sent it to my pal Emily, who also likes the desert-wear trend of long necklaces and ankle boots. The only song that fell flat was a Nirvana cover — they translated part of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into French, and turned it into an understated disco. It didn’t really work. But when you’ve got a song like “The Wilder Mile,” with whistles and tambourines and clap-alongs, who needs a cover?
I was nervous to leave the spot we’d carved out in front of the stage, knowing Aurora had a really big following, but Zack convinced me that we HAD to check out New Yorkers PWR BTTM, so I begrudgingly headed to the inside stage. On my way, I passed a woman who I thought might be Aurora, and said, “You’re so wonderful, you’re gonna do great, good luck!” She smiled and sort of laughed and thanked me. I felt pleased with myself. Spoiler alert — it was Aurora’s backup singer, not actually her. I KNEW she looked too different! I’m still glad I wished her luck, because backup singers don’t get enough love.
PWR BTTM is NOT a novelty act. They’re not a “shtick.” They are the real goddamn deal. As we all become better about accepting gender fluid and genderqueer people, I think the idea that a guy in a dress is a gag will disappear and we’ll just accept that people represent themselves in the way they feel best, and that’s awesome. So here we have two people, covered in glitter and paint — Ben Hopkins towering over the mic in a sweet floral day dress, and Liv Bruce sitting behind the drum kit in a crop top and light-wash jeans — exchanging snarky-but-loving remarks and sharing self-deprecating humor with the audience, who then suddenly break into power-pop songs with forceful, driving drums and wicked electric guitar riffs that take your breath away. There is something so energizing about sharing a real moment with other humans who are baring their souls in a very relatable way, and to top it off, Ben and Live are so talented that you feel simultaneously in the presence of friends, and in the presence of greatness. I think my favorite line from their songs is from one called “Serving Goffman,” which seems to be about the state of humanity and the reality that we’re all just kind of figuring things out. During a breakdown in the song, Liv sings, “What’s your favorite color? Do you need to borrow my bike? Do you have a lucky number? Do you like the movies I like?” This flashback to the things that mattered in friendships when we were all younger and not yet prejudiced is so pure and lovely — it gets me every time.
I loved PWR BTTM so much that we decided NOT to leave their set early, as originally planned so we could go get a good spot at Aurora. So, as soon as their last chords rang out, we rushed to the outside stage, which was already jam-packed with people. Still, we were able to carve out a little space and get a good sightline on the Norwegian songstress. This is the point at which I realized I’d encouraged her backup singer, and felt briefly embarrassed, but then convinced myself it was OK because I hadn’t called her Aurora so for all the backup singer knows, I knew who she was and was just cheering her on. And she was fabulous in her own right, so I’m glad I did and so THERE! Anyway. When people asked me to describe Aurora to them, I said, “She has the gesticulations and unique style of Sia, but the musical harmonies and sweetness of First Aid Kit.” I’d say that seeing her live definitely confirmed my description was accurate. At 19 years old, Aurora is impressively self-possessed — she is living in her own world, storytelling from inside of it through her music. For her show at Swan Dive, there were quite a few issues with the sound system — her mic wouldn’t work, the monitors weren’t balanced, weird sounds bellowed out of the speakers. When the latter happened, Aurora would close one eye and widen the other, making herself look almost like a cartoon character. This wasn’t a put-on, though; she is so genuine, and that is so endearing.
When she finally got started, Aurora’s voice was sweet and powerful, weaving in and out of the tracks her talented band laid for her. In that first performance, I remember the song “Warrior,” when I first noticed a buff, tatted, bearded gentleman singing along passionately — an unlikely fanboy, if one based assumptions on appearances. I remember “Running with the Wolves,” swirling and moving with a driving rhythm. I remember when Aurora apologized for being as small as she is (I’d guess 5’5”?), promising, “I’ll do my best to grow.” I remember when she said, “I’m going to take off my jacket because I actually saved my armpits yesterday! Woo!” I remember when she noted, surprised, “Oh! That’s the guy I met on the plane yesterday,” pointing to a tall gentleman in the center of the audience. I remember when she thanked everyone in the crowd who was “…wooing, and clapping, and making noise.” The energy seemed to feed her, and by the time we made it to her closer, “Conquerer,” we were all dancing like we were in The Breakfast Club, in the library during the dance montage, breaking out our ‘80s moves. I knew then that I wanted to see this show again as many times as I could, because Aurora won’t be playing small stages much longer. I was smitten, bewitched — a fan.
Instead of heading inside for Lily & Madeleine, who I’d really wanted to see, I got nervous about having a good spot for our second Oberhofer show, so we remained outside and found a spot nestled near the stage. This allowed us to do some serious crowd watching. First, I asked the tall, skinny guy in the hat if he was a photographer for Oberhofer specifically, and he said yes. I mentioned that I’d seen him at Nomad the night before, and he asked if I was a fan of the band. I said yes, worked in that it was my birthday, and he seemed unimpressed so we kinda stopped chatting after that. I spotted Brad Oberhofer heading to the stage, and so did a gentleman with a bro-ish appearance about him, who apparently knew the band’s namesake because he yelled out to him and got a hug from Brad in return. Later, this same gentleman threw some free KIND bars into the crowd, so I’ll forgive him his bro-ish-ness. He obviously has good taste in music, at least.
Brad went to the back of the stage, where there was a box and a chair. He tested the box a bit with his foot, and then the chair, and sort of studied them side-by-side before deciding against the stack-and-climb plan he was clearly hatching. His bass player’s eyes widened and he said something to the effect of, “Yeah don’t do that, man.” It made me wonder what his band members had seen him do before.
Then I watched Brad smile wide when he spotted a young woman with a septum ring sitting by the side of the stage. Clearly a friend of the band’s, he gave her a warm hug and then played a little riff just for her as a warm-up. It was a very sweet moment, and I felt almost intrusive in getting to witness it.
The setlist was pretty much the same, but the show was even wilder. During “Dead Girls Dance,” Brad grabbed, his mic and stand, and moved it out into the middle of the crowd. We parted, very much like Moses and the Red Sea, and he played a riff before heading to the back of the venue, climbing up a wall and onto the top of a shed. He started clapping, causing the audience to clap along, and then a security guy snatched his guitar and helped him back down — I’m not sure what Brad would have done without the presence of this bouncer-like figure, but I’m partly glad we didn’t find out. Brad came back to the stage, mic stand still in the crowd, and jumped up on his drummer’s set before jumping off, losing his balance, tumbling backwards and off the stage onto his back on the ground — and turning that into his next move, wriggling along the ground until he made it back to his mic stand in time to sing the words of the jammy “Dead Girls Dance.” You just never know what you’ll get with Oberhofer.
After their set ended, as Zack and I were exiting Swan Dive, I passed Brad in the narrow hallway that connects the inside and outside spaces. I said, almost frantically, “Oh my gosh that was so great, you were so great! Thank you so much!” I was almost taken aback with how quietly — almost meekly — Brad responded, “Thank you.” He was smiling, but he had never seemed shy to me until that moment. I wondered after if he felt trapped in the hallway, or if it was hard for him to accept praise as it can be for me, too. I thought about his lyrics, which examine death and the endings of things and the hollowness you can sometimes feel in interactions. I hoped he felt that my compliments were genuine, and that he could review them later and trust that he’d done a good job. I want for him to feel confident and proud. He works so hard and puts so much of himself, emotionally and physically, into what he does.
After a quick interlude picking up the banners Zack had dropped off earlier in the day, and some delicious cheese pizza from Pizza Hut (don’t judge me it was my birthday damn it), Zack and I plotted our next moves. We’d picked up a FastPass to get in to the Thao & The Get Down Stay Down show later that night, but when we examined the different lineups that could pull us to a thousand different venues, our choice was clear: we wanted more Aurora, and we wanted to see what I’d call one of my most anticipated SXSW artist discoveries, Coast Modern. The latter were a band with just two songs published, but those two songs were so strong that we just had a feeling we’d be fans. Boy, is that the understatement of the century.
We arrived early at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop, thereby catching the end of a forgettable indie pop group. There was this weird empty pit that had formed in front of the crowd, keeping the audience a good eight-to-ten feet away from the stage. I wondered about the phenomenon aloud, and a guy in the audience laughed, “Someone needs to break the barrier!” I quipped back, “I’ll do it, I’m not afraid! I’m just tall so I don’t wanna be a jerk!” We waited till that other band’s set was through before getting central and close, and as the four Coast Modern lads set up their gear, I made a friend with a social media marketer in the crowd, who laughed with me about being 29 and feeling old now that bands are much younger than we are.
I was worried about Coast Modern. We’d experienced this with Jungle before — a band has one or two really great songs, and the rest all blend together into an unidentifiable mass. I feared that this would be the trap this Californian group would fall into. One of the things that immediately saved them from this fate in my mind was the drummer, Steph Barker. Though she is not an official band member, she is so energetic and fun to watch that she added a whole new layer to the sound and a fantastic vibe to the set. The same could be said for the other non-permanent band member, bassist Micah Jasper — even though I couldn’t make out the lyrics the first time around, I knew he and permanent modern-coaster Luke Atlas were screaming SOMETHING fun on the track “Comb My Hair.” Really, at any given moment, you could be watching any of these kids rocking out and be pleased with what you saw. The man with arguably the biggest job, though, was Coleman Trapp, the lead singer of the band who ONLY sings at live performances. Without an instrument to hide behind, this is a task solely for the commanding. One of the reasons I’m so obsessed with the Drums is that Jonny Pierce OWNS the damn stage. He dances like a possessed alien robot and it’s fucking magical. In what turned out to be his first official Coast Modern performance, Coleman was a bit more subdued than my favorite frontman, but he wasn’t undeserving of the job. He had a chill confidence that made you feel you were in good hands. The band ended on their two singles, “Animals” and “Hollow Life,” and while the other songs in their set are strong, these are powerhouses. They have a groove that, as one Twitter fan put it, is “…the optimal BPM for body rolls,” and their catchy lyrics speak to that sense of feeling disconnected but wanting connection so strongly it can hurt. By the end of this first set, I hadn’t yet realized that this was going to be my diamond-in-the-rough discovery of SXSW. I knew I’d had a good time, and I hoped the band had, too.
Before Coast Modern had set up and played their show, Zack had spotted Aurora walking around and asked if I wanted to go meet her. “No,” I said shyly, “I really don’t want to bother her.” However, as I was standing there alone in the middle of the dance floor, as it were, while Zack was off grabbing some water, I noticed the Norwegian songstress just as she’d walked past me and back behind the stage. I vowed to myself that if she came back the other way, I’d say something, and just a moment later, she reappeared, swinging her jacket around and looking a bit aimless. I leaned in and made eye contact, and said, “Hey Aurora, you’re just so wonderful, you were so great earlier today, I’m so excited for your show.” She smiled wide, held me by the elbows, and said, “Thank you!” She gave my arms a quick squeeze, and headed off to wait for her set with her band.
So, when it was Aurora’s time to take the stage again, I felt more connected than ever to the singer, and even more excited to hear her play in a venue with what I hoped would be better sound than earlier in the day. Unfortunately, the same sound issues that plague SXSW on the whole delayed Aurora’s set again, so that she had to start 10 minutes late. She was so apologetic throughout her set about this, but let me tell you — I can’t remember the last time I was in as supportive a crowd as the one who showed up for Aurora that night. The applause roared out between every single song, and really came to a peak after she sang “Running With the Wolves.” Aurora had been a little less free at the start of this show because I don’t think she could hear herself in her headset or monitors, but this was the song when she started to dance with spellbinding hand gestures, and I think the audience felt that she was easing back into herself and feeling more comfortable. At the end of the song, we all cheered our approval in a huge wave of appreciation, and she seemed almost moved to tears, putting her hands to her face and saying, “Thank you, thank you,” over and over again because there was really nothing else to say. This wave of energy carried us all into “Conquerer,” and this was the moment that got me and made me a lifer for Aurora: during the lyric, “Open ears, their eyes are open/Makes me call for you,” as Zack is my witness, Aurora pointed at me, and we shared a smile, and for the rest of the song, happy tears formed in my eyes. You see, that small gesture from another human being made me feel understood, like we both knew that we were in on this secret we were sharing, and that she knew that I got what she was trying to say with her music. If nothing else, it was recognition that we appreciated one another, and we both sang and danced like the sun wouldn’t rise in the morning, and who cared if it wouldn’t? It was the best possible way to finish off my birthday — apart from a huge slice of ice cream cake and a cuddle from my loving husband back at home.