Ume and Cloud Nothings at the Mohawk

Steven Zwick kicks off our reviews of live shows at SXSW with his take on gritty Austin trio Ume and intense indie rockers Cloud Nothings.

Ume had the distinction of being our first show at SXSW 2013 in Austin, Texas. I
suspect they were the first show for many SXSW attendees this spring, opening for the
all-ages Mohawk show on Sunday night, two days before the SXSW music showcases
officially begin. In that respect and considering their position as an Austin band, Ume
had the tough gig of starting not only the night off right (after a lengthy ninety minute
wait between doors opening and their set) but also the entire festival. But this Austin trio
looked prepared and eager to introduce us to their city and their music and quickly move
us from exhausted to moshing in seconds. Ume has built a reputation around Austin the
past few years as one of the heaviest live bands around, and Sunday night’s performance
lived up to that reputation. Singer and guitarist Lauren Larson laid down gritty rhythms
and screeching tones while contorting her skinny arms and legs within her oversized
shirt. She was a hurricane of hair and distortion moving around the stage seemingly at
random. Bassist Eric Larson and drummer Jeff Barrera provided the foundation beneath
Larson’s guitar work, propelling the songs forward with a sense of urgency. While
consistency was Ume’s greatest strength Sunday night, it may have been their main
detriment as well –with nearly an hour long time slot to fill, a crowd largely unfamiliar
with their catalogue, and a set of songs that did not vary widely in tempo or style, it felt
like it difficult for Ume to maintain the momentum with the audience that they had in the first
ten minutes. As the set finished to great applause, no one song or hook stood out to me
from the performance, rather a general sense of power and control. I’m willing to bet that
is what Ume was shooting for.

Cloud Nothings
When you make a song like “Wasted Days,” a lengthy, twisting, eight minute, fifty-three
second anthem of guitar-driven rock and self-deprecation, you usually put it toward the
middle or close of your album. When your audience is calibrated to consume little three-minute
pop burners in the vein of Pavement or Guided by Voices, you sometimes have to
go out of your way to put your “epic” songs in an place to succeed. One need only look
at Sufjan Stevens or Deerhunter for examples; their latest albums have both featured an
epic anthem as the closing song for the album. Cloud Nothings, on the other hand, put
“Wasted Days” as the second song on their album Attack on Memory. And at the Mohawk Sunday night,
it wasthe first song they played, for over ten minutes. It’s a bold move, but it encapsulates the
ethos that Cloud Nothings has been portraying for the past year and a half. The members
of the band are surely nice guys, (Dylan Baldi kindly let us take a photo with him and let
us give him a WYBC t-shirt) but as a band, they aren’t here to play nice or make friends.
They are on a mission to wind the indie rock clock back about ten years, before chillwave
or For Emma, Forever Ago happened, to respect and rekindle the flame of forgotten rock
heroes. In that context, opening the show with “Wasted Days” makes sense. Still,
whether it was a good decision in the context of the live show may be up for debate. The
opening chords of the songs quickly energized the crowd into a frenzy, but some of the
energy felt lost during the song’s wandering middle section. The other possible
ramification of opening with the intense “Wasted Days” came in the form of a broken
string for bassist TJ Duke (albeit during a later song). Given the time constraints of the
showcase, it led to a number of songs, including their most well known song “Stay
Useless,” being played without bass, which had a noticeable impact upon the music and
the audience interaction. For all their merits, Cloud Nothings are not a two-piece guitar
and drums duo. If anything, the loss of bass highlighted how important the often-
overlooked rhythm section is for this style of rock, something we were reminded of once
TJ Duke came back in (with a different bass guitar) for closing song “No Sentiment.” It
was a short, fiery set that unfortunately fizzled a bit in the middle due to technical

-Steven Zwick