What a difference a couple of years make. This time in 2010, Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno, who record as Best Coast, were working on their debut album, "Crazy for You," and were at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, trudging among countless day parties and showcases and trying to make an impact.
Jump forward two years, and the band, now a four piece, offered evidence of its success: Best Coast played a select handful of SXSW shows, the biggest being at the aptly named Hype Hotel, where on Saturday they were one of the hottest tickets of the night and the line stretched down the block.
Cosentino, whose stage presence has grown exponentially over the years, was in the enviable position of building on the grand success of "Crazy for You" by teasing new songs from the band's eagerly anticipated follow-up, "The Only Place," due May 15. There's a chance the record will debut near the top of the Billboard charts.
At the Hype Hotel, Best Coast interjected four of those new songs during its set, and each highlighted Cosentino's increasing vocal and onstage confidence. Where on earlier songs such as "Boyfriend," she hid her voice beneath layers of Bruno's distorted guitar, on the catchy, chunky-but-intricate melodies of new songs "Mean Girls" and "Last Year," she hit bigger notes with assurance, as though she'd spent her time between albums working on her delivery.
And as she bantered with audience members, she pleaded with them to be better than the other crowds had been during the band's Austin experience, complaining with salty honesty about how they behaved. This was indeed an improvement, she finally concluded, especially while Cosentino was holding a cup of whiskey. "Chug, chug, chug, chug!," the crowd commanded, and she did.
Earlier, along 6th Street (one of the most drunken strips in the entire world that night), every door exploded with rhythms, and they competed with the various street bands blowing tubas and banging drums. At a club called 512 at the heart of the chaos, a young, charismatic Chinese punk band called Rustic tore through 1977-style snarling punk rock. With a vocalist who spit words like Johnny Rotten and a bassist with a Skrillex-style assymetrical haircut, the group delivered cocky rebel rock that offered proof of the genre's reach and durability. (A few years ago in Myanmar, I was pleased to see graffiti on a Yangon wall that read, "Punk's not dead." Indeed.)
A few blocks away at the Mohawk, San Francisco singer and guitarist Mikal Cronin, whose music had been highly recommended by a few reliable sources earlier in the week, tossed off ridiculously confident and catchy garage rock songs. "I don't want apathy, I don't want empathy," he sang during a song called "Apathy," strumming on an amplified and distorted acoustic guitar. He finally concluded, "I don't want everything -- I don't want anything," while bass, drums and a second guitarist locked into a groove.
The other notable show for me on the final night of South by Southwest was by an L.A. band called Soft Metals; a male-female synthesizer duo composed of Ian Hicks and Patricia Hall, the pair crafted heavy-duty Kraftwerk-suggestive mantras via the deep hum of analog synths. It recalled early Depeche Mode and Human League, but with more heft and intensity, like synth pop on steroids. Over these deep and danceable beats, vocalist Hall offered phrases and lines with a certain detached dryness, but it was a wonderful contrast with the warmth of the synth tones.
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-- Randall Roberts
Top photo: Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino plays the Hype Hotel on Saturday at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Credit: Hype Hotel
Bottom photo: Chinese punk band Rustic plays at 512 in Austin as part of the South by Southwest music conference. Credit: Randall Roberts / Los Angeles Times