SXSW Shreds: Steve Gunn, Waxahatchee + Other Guitar Gods
SXSW offers an incredible wealth of musical experience — at any given moment, there are between 50 and 1,000,000 (rough estimate) artists performing in Austin during the fest. Bouncing around from bar to bar is a lot of the fun, but sometimes a showcase is too good to leave. The House of Vans lineup at The Mohawk was that on Tuesday night — a stacked bill that could've singlehandedly made the case for guitar music in 2015. The inimitably eerily Angel Olsen headlined, but the others were ace too. Here they are, in order of excellence.
Missouri-bred guitar goddess Angel Olsen didn't wait for a soundcheck. With a beatific grin and boozy confidence, she just began. It didn't matter that the thick bass and tinny trap drums of the between-band house music persisted for a few minutes more — it was bound to lose. "Oh my God, I need you close," she sang, and all the chatter stopped. Even the bands shredding next door seemed to vaporize as she struck her guitar, the naked reverberations sounding like an abstraction of '50s malt shop music while Olsen's impossibly rich vocals thickened the air. "This isn't easy," she said at one point after a particularly felt rendition of "Lights Out," which, like many of her best songs, pairs downcast ethereal Americana with a sort of forced optimism: "If you feel like quitting now, then try a little harder," she can be heard cooing on her enthralling album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Here, outside at the Mohawk with no band behind her, her pained quaver makes the sentiment seem fragile. Her set, however, was anything but. Sporting a Megadeth badge on the back of her white blazer, Olsen unfurled dark, haunting beauty into the night air.
This sinewy ax-man did time in Kurt Vile's band and counts John Fahey as a vital influence, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that his take on the form plays as a combination of slow-blooming drone and easy-rambling rock. If the energy level in the crowd felt low, that's because Steve Gunn and his crew make narcotic music, a heady swirl of observational poems, burbling guitar figures, and handsome tones that moves like a winding river, and digs in to the same degree. If the guy hadn't just been signed to Matador, he would've had a new deal by the end of the night.
Katie Crutchfield's acrid breakup songs and troubled tales came to bittersweet life as a few fat raindrops fell from above. "How many of you guys are music fans?" she asked with a grin. The answer was deafening, and her response was underplayed: "Yeah? Cool." With Waxahatchee, Crutchfield walks a similar line between intense emotion and detached acceptance. In person, her off-the-cuff charm takes some of the hurt out of heavy fare like "Swan Dive" and "Lively," whose grungier inclinations were brought out by the fact that, for most of the show, Crutchfield stood alone. Her twin sister, Allison, did join for a uncannily in-sync duets, including "Blue Pt. II."
Word is the guy lacquers his fingertips so he can pick all the more aggressively. Believe it — Ryley Walker is an incredible player with a voice to match. On Tuesday night, he yipped like a cowpoke, growled like Jim Morrison, and seared his throat like Jeremy Enigk. He also covered Van Morrison's "Fair Play," hi-ho-silvers and all, with such soul and precision that it felt like watching the ghost of a man who's still very much alive. With the help of his band — upright bass, electric guitar, and a dude doing double duty on pedal steel and keyboard — Walker whipped up an Astral Weeks-like atmosphere of wistful folk and gentle psychedelia.
Georgia-raised Nashvillian Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) blackens her heavy folk with gritty rock and sings with a wizened voice that belies her young age (24). At times she channels Marianne Faithfull and on rare occasion — in the best way — Danzig. Either way, it's a fit considering how dark her content is: "I was born on a bloody battleground, to the middleman between two grounds," she cooed for "Mother Earth, Father God," which felt more blues-bent coming from the live stage. She screamed or soloed (sans pick) when a song called for it, and thickened the mixture as the set progressed. The growing puddle of aural sludge only seemed to intensify the pretty.
"I think I saw Joey Fatone here," said Sadie Dupois at the start of her band's set. "Joey, if you're with us, you're welcome onstage. Always." No NSYNC stars appeared, but Speedy Ortiz did their best to keep it together. The Dino Jr.-owing, Northampton, Mass noise-pop posse sounded particularly sour and shreddy, giving their Major Arcana cuts extra oomph to bridge the transition from garage to garden terrace. "Plough" was well named — its bleak wind probably wilted every plant in the area.