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SXSW 2014: the first half of Astralwerks’ showcase at the Parish – 12th March 2014

By on Friday, 21st March 2014 at 1:00 pm

I always make a point of seeing at least one massive band at every SXSW, and this year I decided it was about bloody time that I made the time to see Brighton indie band the Kooks. One of our good friends back home absolutely adores them and while I am no Kooks scholar, I would be able to recognise a couple of their songs, so my argument was that I should probably go and see them before I die, just so I would know what my friend Kelly is on about. The Kooks were scheduled to have two official festival appearances, one Friday night at Stubb’s, but after an unfortunate and never to be forgotten setback of being turned away there last year despite being on the guestlist for the Joy Formidable and then being shut out of the 1975‘s appearance at Huw Stephens’ night at the British Music Embassy at SXSW 2013 after, I decided the earlier Kooks appearance at the Parish would be safer. I don’t know whether or not it was necessary, but myself and my best Canadian buddy Jordy queued over a half hour in advance to make sure we would be close to the front.

The Kooks were third, smack dab in the middle of Wednesday night’s line-up. We had no idea what to expect from the bands that were to come before the Brightonians. First up was Claire, a synth-led pop band from Munich. While the band is named for singer and frontwoman Josie-Claire Burkle, it is most definitely not a solo vehicle, with clearly talented musicians and producers Matthias Hauck, Nepomuk Heller and Florian Kiermaier as part of the band. However, if you didn’t know all this, it would look at least on the surface that Burkle fancied herself like a German Lykke Li, dressed in flowy black garb, having long hair that all too conveniently swung side to side, often hitting a drum with sticks similar to what the Swedish singer/songwriter gets up to in concert. Both this act and the American one to follow reminded me of very popular bands currently in existence, which I suppose says more about how the major label system works than anything else: when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…and when it works, clone, clone, clone.

However, upon further listening to the live Claire experience, it’s impossible not to get drawn into the sheer catchiness of their synthpop songs and the amount of energy they themselves put into the performance, throwing their whole bodies into it. Burkle in particular seemed overwhelmed and nearly ready to cry at the end of the set, when the crowd assembled was responding so well to their music, the cheers were deafening, as if nearing riot stage. When non-music people ask me what the point of SXSW is, I give examples like this: when you’re watching a band that nearly no-one’s heard of get an absolutely amazing reception in a place so far from where they come from (in this case, Germany), you can’t help but feel your heart grow warm that it’s music that is a unifying presence, a uniting force that transcends all.

Parade of Lights had the unenviable task of following up such a scorching set from the Germans. A sentiment that echoed many times in my head all week that also rang true with the Los Angeles band: when is a keyboard truly necessary? What weirded me out most about Parade of Lights was that if I closed my eyes while they played, I could have sworn I was in a Bastille concert. I felt like I could have been in any top 40 disco in London. When I opened them and their frontman/guitarist Ryan Daly came into view, I could have sworn I was looking at Dan Smith.

There’s no denying that this indie synthpop genre thing is here to stay and there were hundreds upon hundreds of bands in Austin last week that could have been classed in this genre, but after a while, even your electro-loving editor gets battle fatigue. I have nothing bad to say about Parade of Lights – their songs are infectious and I can see having a good night out dancing to them, they’re clearly going to do well with the young kids watching MTV in their bedrooms late at night and I wish them well, as they look like they’re having the time of their lives onstage. But for me, it’s a case of “been there, done that, got anything new up your sleeve?” (The difference I found between them and Claire was that for the Germans, I actually felt like I wanted to jump up and down and dance, with Parade of Lights, not so much.)

By then, it was nearly 10 PM and time for the Kooks to play. I had watched as the crowd had thinned and rebuilt itself twice in between sets, people milling in and out of the venue. Yet another great thing about SXSW: you don’t like the next band or you’ve already seen them before? Leave your current club and go to any number of other ones nearby. By the time 10 neared, who was actually in the Parish were mostly diehard fans, probably a 70/30 ratio of girls to guys. It started to get claustrophobic. Again, I had never seen the Kooks ever at that point, but I had envisioned the fangirls getting territorial and yes, the claws were out and pushing and shoving became the norm. (Please. Seriously, if you want to see your favourite band, for the love of god, show up early and don’t be rude! I am always amazed by the number of fans – 99% invariably half-naked girls in heels – who think it’s their right to push and shove you out of the way so they can get down the front. We’d arrived there as the venue opened up at 8 and earned our places fair and square. So nyah.) After I was done shooting the band, I let a Kooks uberfan up in my spot so she could see better. Because those acts of kindness are what music fans should do for each other, yeah?

I took the above photo on my phone and it was picked up by Astralwerks,
who used it in a Storify post. Let’s just say I was chuffed!

What will probably surprise most people ahead of the Kooks’ new material out later this year, prefaced by new single ‘Down’ out on the 20th of April is that the Brighton band have turned…urban? (Something of note: it appeared recently as a Zane Lowe Hottest Record in the World on Radio 1.) They do not sound like the same band that put out 2011’s ‘Junk of the Heart (Happy)’, which could have been a Peter and Gordon staple in its winsome, pearly white-teethed innocence. So going into an r&b direction is quite a shock. It’s a risk also seen in ‘Around Town’, with a groovy bass line and powerful percussion anchoring the song more than any obvious melody, which seems stark contrast to band staple and happy-go-lucky ‘She Moves in Her Own Way’. I guess we’re going to have to wait and see how the new direction pans out for the Kooks, but for nearly an hour in that sweaty, packed Parish, I’d say no-one there cared about the future. For everyone else, it was all about being the same room with their heroes.


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