Standing atop a white pedestal, her white dress covered in blood and her white hair wild, St. Vincent sang, “I don’t want to be your cheerleader no more.”
For a woman gushing with profound statements, that one — said during her 11 p.m. set at the NPR Showcase at the 2014 South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas — might have been the most powerful. St. Vincent is poised to become one of the most influential women of modern rock music. Her songwriting, vocal and guitar chops and visual style all showcase a visionary. Though she’s been making consistently excellent music for more than a decade, her latest, self-titled album and tour should bring her the most acclaim.
Her Wednesday night set at Stubb’s was a rare chance to see a fully thought-out and executed performance at the normally rushed, hectic SXSW. Throughout the show, St. Vincent rolled around on stage, danced like a marionette, sang her complex melodies and showcased her mind-boggling guitar talent.
While singing the slow, soothing chorus of “Surgeon,” Vincent’s fingers were a blur, playing the quick slide and hammer-on guitar line — each at two different rhythms. At other times, she would take a power stance front and center of the stage and perform long experimental solos, exploring unexpected scales and rhythms. St. Vincent and her modest backing band take the audience to some no-man’s land between math-rock, electro-pop, indie and prog. And throughout the journey she’ll hit you with her guitar effects, which sound like a million pissed-off bees.
Earlier in the evening, Angel Olsen, the upcoming singer-songwriter, gave another impressive — though far more modest — performance at Mohawk. The young musician silenced the eager crowd at the inside stage; even folks ordered at the bar in a half-whisper. People stood next to the bathrooms, climbed on tables — anything to catch a glimpse at the person with this voice. On “Sweet Dreams” Olsen pulled her vocals through a high falsetto bend. She alternated from yelps to classic rock power singing to choirgirl melodies.
Right after Olsen’s set at Mohawk, the Dum Dum Girls took the outside stage in all black (mostly leather) with an attitude that hints the band has a tougher sound than their music would suggest. A mostly heartfelt garage/surf-rock, the Dum Dum Girls have some growing to do musically, but their persona and stage presence is one of utmost confidence.
Later in the evening, Perfect Pussy, the female-fronted punk group, opened up the NPR Showcase at Stubb’s. And yes, we’re still not sure if you can say the band’s name on NPR, but you have the formerly staid public radio organization credit for such a bold choice. Assaulting the crowd with feedback, distortion and high decibels, the band had a sizable mosh pit roaring in the center of the NPR crowd. It was a quick blast of a set — maybe 20 minutes — and Perfect Pussy gave a breathless performance. With a synth player, who unfortunately can’t be heard that well over the noise, the band puts a fresh twist on punk — one we hope continues to evolve.
Between these sets on Wednesday there was Lady Gaga as SXSW Music’s keynote speaker, rumors of a Miley Cyrus appearance and the general consensus of synth-pop duo Phantogram as a must-see act. There seems to be a theme already emerging this week: women are ruling SXSW 2014.
And it’s not that men didn’t put on some good shows. Pusha-T at Mohawk had the entire crowd bouncing and singing his lyrics. Tyler the Creator even made a special guest appearance from the balcony during Pusha’s set. But, women, who are typically poorly represented in rock music are making some of the most forward-thinking art, putting on the memorable sets at SXSW, and doing so across all genres.
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Contact Reverb Managing Editor Matt Miller firstname.lastname@example.org.