SXSW Dispatch: An NPR Music knockout with Nick Cave, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and more - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
The NPR Music Showcase at Stubb’s ( clockwise from left: Waxahatchee, Nick Cave, Cafe Tacvba, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) | Photos by John Vettese

NPR Music‘s annual showcase at Stubb’s BBQ has become a coveted ticket at South By Southwest, and last night’s bill was a knockout. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds gave a stunning, electrified performance of songs from their new Push the Sky Away; Philly’s Waxahatchee played a hushed and intimate indoors set; Mexico five-piece Cafe Tacuba rallied the outdoor crowd with song and dance; and Yeah Yeah Yeahs notched the energy up even further, premiering songs from their new LP Mosquito and taking a deep-digging trip into their back catalog.

The capacity crowd was teeming with excitement for Cave, who’s an expert at constructing a mood. “We’re going to start with a rather long song,” Cave said, pointing to the dusky sky as they took the stage. “Hopefully, by the time we finish, it will be dark.” The eight simmering minutes of “Higgs Bosun Blues” led to the equally restrained, nervy “Wide Lovely Eyes.” “Jubilee Street” dialed up the energy – it was a much more raucous take on it than we hear on the record – and by the Bad Seeds’ signature “From Her to Eternity,” the energy was so high and the volume so loud that the Stubb’s PA cut in and out. It stayed at this pinned level for the remainder of the hour-long set, meaning Cave’s normally flawless vocal delivery grew shaky at the louder points. “The Mercy Street,” however, slayed, and the title track to Push the Sky brought the vibe down to a calmer, but nonetheless uneasy level.

Waxahatchee’s indoor set followed, and singer-guitarist admitted that she was a bit nervous – this being her first South by Southwest, and on a major showcase no less. Her uneasiness showed – she played with more confidence and fervor at the tour kickoff show a few weeks back – but it wasn’t long till the performance relaxed into a touching, strangely comforting mix of solo contemplation and full-band rockery. Back outside, Cafe Tacvba’s set was mesmerizing. The band has been around for over 20 years, are pretty much rock stars in their native Mexico, but much lesser known in the U.S. Vocalist Rubén Isaac Albarrán Ortega was unreal onstage – he worked the crowd in a way that reminded me both of Anthony Kiedes and Paul Sprangers of Free Energy, leaping around the stage, pointing and smiling at members of the crowd. It was athletic, acrobatic, and the dance moves he and his bandmates delivered – while self-consciously corny on the one hand – were pretty incredible as well.

Rivaling Cave’s set in terms of audience anticipation was the performance by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and as NPR Music’s Bob Boilen pointed out on Twitter, Karen O knows how to make an entrance. Decked out in a bright yellow jumpsuit with silver studs and wrapped in a streamer boa, she rushed onstage to the racing title track of the forthcoming album, due out April 18th on Interscope. The band played four songs from it – the gospel-punk single “Sacrilege,” as well as the spaced-out “Subway” and “Under the Earth.” The rest of their set pulled surprisingly broadly from the band’s back-catalogue, going all the way back to their debut 2001 EP for two shredders (“Art Star” and “Miles Away”), and hitting on all of their full-length albums. Like Cave, Karen’s voice was shaky at points, but more out of overexertion – if you’ve seen them live, you know she can freaking scream. Probably the most refreshing thing about their set was the air of giddiness and informality about it – like the band was playing for a small crowd of friends, not a massive crowd of fans and industry folks. And for all the whisperings you read about how Yeah Yeah Yeahs actually hate one another, how they all live in separate states and separate coasts, and how the collaborative magic of their Brooklyn beginnings is no more – it all seemed moot. The band was having a visibly great time performing with one another.

Check out a full gallery of the showcase below, and read Cave and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ setlists below.

Nick Cave Setlist
Higgs Bosun Blues
Wide Lovely Eyes
Jubilee Street
From Her to Eternity
Red Right Hand
Jack the Ripper
Mercy Street
Stagger Lee
Push the Sky Away

Yeah Yeah Yeahs Setlist
Cold Night
Under the Earth
Art Star
Gold Lion
Cheated Hearts
Miles Away
Heads Will Roll

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