Foxygen played their first set of a busy (extended) weekend at SXSW yesterday, to (predictably) mixed reviews. Sounds like the acoustics were pretty rough so previously-held opinions colored the reviews pretty heavily.
I stayed put because I was eager to see Foxygen, no matter the delay or the unwelcoming surroundings. And the core Los Angeles duo of vocalist Sam France and guitarist-keyboardist Jonathan Rado plus assorted friends did not disappoint as they rendered onstage the brilliant tunes from We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic.
To be sure, the acoustics of the cavernous concrete space worked against the band’s intricate and sometimes delicate arrangements, as did the scent of the foul fast food being handed out by Taco Bell, one of the corporate sponsors. (Taco Bell—in a Texas city with another great mom-and-pop taco joint every 15 yards!) But if Foxygen could deliver in circumstances like that, no doubt it can do infinitely better anywhere else.
For a 2 p.m. set, the main stage at Stage at 6th is packed. Even for a midnight set, Stage at 6th is packed. In dress and stage presence, Foxygen sells the psychedelic-hippie image with perfection and Sam France took On The Mountain to the streets, barking the chorus while hanging out the window overlooking 6th Street. Their set featured much of their latest album and much of what I thought of their set would echo what I wrote in the last Hitting The Trunk Road. So rather than cut and paste, why not just check it out on your own.
The contrast between James’ set and that of Foxygen, the band who preceded him, could not have been starker. Foxygen got some buzz earlier this year on blogs and Pitchfork, and their debut album is not terrible – it’s kind of a sixties throwback, and it smacks a bit of the Kinks, the Stones, and the Velvet Underground. But they were so woefully bad that I almost felt sorry for them. They are young, and their singer wore a vintage tuxedo, and there was a cute girl in the band shaking a tambourine and wearing a big red hat like the Puritans used to wear. They are like a garage band, in that they sounded like high school kids practicing for a battle of the bands in their parents’ garage. I am not exaggerating when I say that there are literally 25 bands in Kansas City better than Foxygen. There are bands in Kansas City that I don’t even like that are better than Foxygen. At times it seemed like they actually did not know how to play their instruments, like they were just models or actors who’d been hired to look like musicians. I don’t want to be too hard on them – maybe they were tired, or drunk, or just having a bad day – but my impression is that they are a typical example of how the music industry hypes fashionable young bands who are just not that talented. All style, zero substance. Next please.
Sam France announced to the crowd that the festival was testing his physical limits. “I am empty,” he said. It makes sense– SXSW is a demanding gig, and if you scream, move, and perform with the sort of intensity France does, you’re going to wear down pretty fast. But after telling everybody that his voice was shot and that he was running on fumes, a few people in the audience told him to stop whining– that he’s a musician and this is his job. France’s wide-eyed reply? “Come on stage and talk to me about it, you fucking coward. Come on, get on the fucking stage.” He calmed down long enough to play “In the Darkness”, said goodbye, and walked off the stage. The band sort of looked at each other, a bit exhausted, and apologized to the audience for cutting the set short.
But then, France came back and offered a sincere apology, both for walking off stage and for taking his anger out on that audience member. “I’m sorry about what I said earlier to that guy. I wasn’t even talking to him– I was talking to myself.” And then, they pulled out a crashing, powerful performance of “On Blue Mountain”. By the end of their set, I kept thinking that France didn’t need to apologize for his vocals or his energy level in the first place– the guy was a fantastic showman and his voice sounded great the whole time. If this is what an exhausted Foxygen look like, I’d definitely be curious to see them at full power.
Looking forward to when new video from the weekend starts dropping!