Rapping Oakland spliff-nymph Kreayshawn played at South by Southwest, and it wasn't a disaster. It wasn't embarrassing. It wasn't a joke. Her 20-minute set actually felt like a success. Which was quite an achievement considering the factors working against her: 1) That the SXSW chattering class regarded her with a cynicism normally reserved for Doritos' giant vending machine stage; 2) that ultra-profane cohort V-Nasty was on mellow mode throughout the show; 3) that Kreayshawn was immediately preceded by legit Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B., who reminded a Saturday afternoon crowd of his skills with an incredible 10-minute freestyle; and 4) that Kreayshawn's past live performances have been unthrilling at best.
It wasn't the best performance by a Bay Area artist at the sweaty Austin music confab. Rather, it was one of the week's many surprises, something this musical bacchanal turns out as reliably as it does hype and hangovers. At the Scoot Inn on Austin's East Side, Kreayshawn showed a crowd of scraggly hipsters that even if she can't really rap, she can still shout funny things into a microphone over huge, swaggering beats, and sometimes that's enough.
At SXSW she even had new songs to show off — presumably ones that will be on her debut full-length album, due out this year. The silliest was new single "Breakfast," which, this being Kreayshawn, naturally concerned waking-and-baking. But there was also "Left Eye," which is about how men are incurable cheaters, and in which the 22-year-old born Natassia Zolot threatens to remove the offending penis with a blade. Roughly 10 months into her blunted odyssey of music-world fame, this tiny tattooed troublemaker has grown so confident onstage that the line felt like a genuine threat, and not — as so much of her set used to — like an empty brag at a middle-school talent show. None of the new songs got arms in the air as effectively as closer "Gucci Gucci," of course, but given a few months and a wacked-out music video or two, that's not impossible to imagine.
Surprisingly, Kreayshawn got a bigger audience than Wallpaper., who was planted at the bottom of a Tuesday night bill headlined by Lionel Ritchie. Sounding thick and confident through the huge P.A. of the Moody Theater — where they now film the classic live music television show Austin City Limits — Wallpaper's three drummers and two very charismatic singers managed to draw a few wriggles out of the room's small audience. Over drinks later in the week, principal member Ricky Reed shook his head over what he called a stiff "industry crowd," but the newly major-label group got a solid airing. Now it just needs a few more songs as good as "Stupidfacedd," the thundering crunk anthem whose video landed the group a spot on MTV last year.
When S.F. electronic artist Tycho took the stage at Clive Bar on Thursday night, principal member Scott Hanse immediately noted the lack of bass in the house sound system, and quipped to the audience that we should just "imagine" it. Naturally, we prepared for the worst. And as the three-piece waded into their mellow, ambient-like soundscapes, we began to fear the set would be a form of musical anesthesia. But then something interesting happened: Between the placid pools of guitar melodies, yawning synths, and gently meandering basslines, the deep skills and agile fills of the live drummer went to work on us. Soon the front of the audience was nodding along enthusiastically, watching the songs drift by in the same way one watches a dazzling sunset with suspense and awe. (Or maybe we were watching the projections of sunsets above the stage.) We still missed Tycho's tectonic low end, but ended up with a new respect for the band's live powers.
One becomes so used to operating among large crowds at SXSW that any less-than-packed show seems both eerie and luxurious. The amount of space at the Mohawk patio on Saturday for the 11 p.m. set of newcomer S.F. rocker Mikal Cronin felt downright wrong, though — especially after the music started. With Ty Segall on lead guitar and Segall's longtime bandmate (and former SF Weekly intern) Emily Rose Epstein on drums, Cronin blazed through the melodic garage-rock of his debut album, switching up his normal set only to include an anthemic cover of Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World." Cronin is still shy onstage — he barely spoke to the crowd, and never bothered repeating who he was — but his songwriting chops belie his relative inexperience as a performer. He has all the sonic grit of Segall, his buddy, but Cronin's songs wield soaring hooks that transcend the rote movements of many of his peers. You could even imagine cleaned-up version of them on the radio. By the end of that electrifying set, the population of the patio had swelled close to normal SXSW proportions. The cheers for Cronin's songs were loud and sustained. San Francisco had given Austin yet another surprise.