Since its inception, MTV’s Woodies Festival has acted as one of SXSW’s great clearinghouses of acts who are poised to break. Though the 1975, Childish Gambino, and Iggy Azalea held the headlining slots, the afternoon fest seemed built around only the second live performance for Jack Antonoff’s new band Bleachers.
The fun. guitarist’s side group dropped its first single “I Wanna Get Better” about a month ago, and it has been searching for a momentum push. Perhaps Antonoff should have chosen a better single — the borderline strident “I Wanna Get Better” appeared to be the outlier during Bleachers’ brief set, with the rest of the material made up of the sort of dark, slippery guitar pop that could score the best kind of John Hughes movie. As a band leader, Antonoff’s croon and cadence eerily match those of the Killers’ Brandon Flowers’, though considering Flowers is one of the great frontmen of this generation, that should probably be considered a compliment. Of the songs introduced, the ominous “Shadow” and the anthemic “Wild Heart” both sound like potential breakout hits, though if all else fails, they have a perfectly fine future as a Tom Petty cover band, since their run through “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was the highlight of the entire afternoon.
The other big breakout was Vic Mensa, the Chicago-based rapper who is a member of the Save Money crew alongside Chance the Rapper (among others). Vic’s 2013 mixtape INNANETAPE was one of the sleepers of last year, and his live presence presented evidence that he could have some real legs in the rap game. He’s less loopy than Chance, but 32 times as filthy—his rhymes about three-ways were particularly eye-raising. But his commitment to chaos is admirable, and on the last song of his half hour set—the swampy “Don’t Harsh My Mellow,” from his recently disbanded group Kids These Days—his only goal was to get the gathered crowd completely manic, and then dive headlong in the crowd and surf. Mission accomplished on both fronts.
The rest of the afternoon drew the fine line between the merely nondescript and the hopelessly boring. Wild Cub put together a nice ’80s arena-synth sound, and it’s clear why “Thunder Clatter” made a bit of chart noise in the UK, but it’s also hard to picture them headlining anything. London Grammar seemed slightly closer to breaking, though the trio’s brand of baroque layers did not sit well with the easy-drinking revelers on the ground. As long as they maintain their well-executed but limited approach, they’ll remain an ideal headphones experience, not a commercial juggernaut.
Echosmith seems in a similar boat, and even the novelty of being a family band (the four members are all siblings) seems to be wearing off in the wake of Haim. Of all the bands looking to make noise on the Woodies, though, Echosmith seemed most ready to break out, sitting only one commercial or movie trailer away from crossover success — if only because their sound feels a bit more dynamic than some of their brethren on the bill. Until then, they’ll always have the Woodies.