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Eight artists that surprised us at SXSW

Kelis | Photo by John Vettese
Kelis | Photo by John Vettese

It’s been almost a week since the four-day nonstop multisensory rush that was the 2014 editon of Austin’s annual South by Southwest music conference, which has given me just about enough time to catch up on sleep, edit my way through thousands of photos and sort out my thoughts about the experience. Here are eight artists that grabbed my attention at this year’s SXSW, beginning with the woman you see above.

Kelis – The transformation of the onetime “Milkshake” hitmaker didn’t take me as unawares as it may have taken other festival-goers. A few years back, I caught her on tour with Robyn at The Trocadero, and saw that she’d moved on from her bubblegum dance days to a sleek and more sophisticated electropop sound. But still, this was impressive – her backing band was a dozen members strong, it had a sharp horn section and a disco-funk sound to die for, and the singer had enough awareness of nostalgia’s power that she dropped “Milkshake” in the final third of her late-night Friday set at the Hype Hotel. Which was totally fun, but it would have been a powerful performance without. Her sixth album, Food, was produced by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio and is out April 18th on Ninja Tune Records.

Feathers | Photo by John Vettese
Feathers | Photo by John Vettese

Feathers – These Austin locals just got off a European tour opening for Depeche Mode, and their sound sits nicely alongside the 80s icons’ dark synth-dance tones. I caught them Saturday at the goth-leaning Red River club Elysium, and frontwoman Anastasia Dimou freaking owned the packed room. While their sound is decidedly hard-hitting, she has the presence and command of a pop singer – or, say, an alt-pop singer a la Emily Haines of Metric. Even when the power momentarily cut out, Dimou kept singing a cappella and off mic. Their Only One EP dropped in January.

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Review: A sold out Union Transfer crowd swoons for James Blake

Blake-8All photos by Melody Chiang

UK born electro pop sensation James Blake entranced a sold out Union Transfer crowd on Monday night with a soulful performance that was nothing short of spellbinding. The young Blake, who won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize this year for his album Overgrown, is no ordinary electronic outfit: instead of enticing you to bounce against the walls like a wild banshee, his live shows pull from the depths of your soul and ask you to simply feel, and that’s precisely what went down at Union Transfer.

Photo by Melody Chiang
Photo by Melody Chiang

The set opened with the bone chilling and hair raising track “I Never Learnt to Share” from Blake’s self-titled album released back in 2011. From the shrills and shrieks that accompanied the opening vocal loops the early number was clearly a crowd favorite. Blake did a beautiful job of incorporating beloved older tracks that early fans yearn for with songs from the most recent release Overgrown, his most widely popular album yet. At a climatic point in the performance Blake began with the more digitized and bass-heavy “Air and Lack Thereof”, a single from way back in 2009, before transitioning into arguably his most popular track “CMYK”, which features rare outside sampling from R&B artist Kelis (Blake’s usual MO is to use his own vocals). Naturally, the whoops and woo’s from the crowd were in full force.

In the relatively short time Blake was on stage, he managed to perform almost all of Overgrown to the delight of many who became introduced to Blake’s music following the album’s release. One of the most beautifully intimate parts of the set came with Blake’s performance of “Our Love Comes Back”, featuring soft vocals in a slower loop that made our hearts jump and throats lump. It was so moving you could hear a pin drop in the max capacity venue (in reality it was the soft clinking of glasses from the back bar that emphasized the silence). He continued to pull from Overgrown with “I am Sold”, “Digital Lion” and the initial track release “Retrograde” that garnered the album so much attention.

Photo by Melody Chiang
Photo by Melody Chiang

Never one to stick to a particular album live, Blake returned to 2011′s James Blake with “A Wilhelm Scream”, a track that displays Blake’s own transition from his older style of music to new, merging the former concentration on potent beat loops to the latter’s more lyrically heavy style found on Overgrown. He strayed further with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”, a curveball that threw off everyone in the crowd in the most wonderful way. “Limit to Your Love”, a Feist cover and another of Blake’s most popular tracks, kept everybody ablaze before the heart melting conclusion. Nobody in the audience had any clue of the masterpiece that was to come. Continue reading →