Editor’s Note: Co-written by Joe Abbruscato and Devon Adams.
There’s a difference between a great SXSW experience and a mediocre one. Sometimes it takes a thousand-dollar badge or a lot of preplanning. Sometimes it just takes good ole fashioned luck.
In November Sundawg Media sent Devon Adams and Joe Abbruscato an email asking for help with the Mergence video at the Mergence/KONGOS show. Joe Abbruscato was able to attend, helped Sundawg Media make a damn great video, and photographed KONGOS. As Arizona concert photographers, we see a lot of music and make a lot of images (many more than you will ever see either of us publish), but there are a few local bands that, to both of us, are celebrity. KONGOS is. They have had several hits in South Africa and have played to 65,000 fans in stadiums across that country. Since the first time we heard “I’m Only Joking” and then later watched the “Hey I Don’t Know” GoPro video, we’ve been hooked. The four South African boys harmonize and have a unique look. Since November, KONGOS have been on tour with AWOLnation throughout Europe so Devon was waiting his turn to see them live in concert. South by Southwest would be that time, as they were scheduled on the TMI Showcase at Hickory Street. As we prepped our week of bands, photography and coverage for both TMI and Echo Cloud, Joe sent a tweet expressing excitement about seeing KONGOS again. Within hours @skypeevents replied to him asking if he’d like to bring a guest to their Skype Live Nation Party featuring KONGOS and several other bands. We jumped at this opportunity immediately.
The plan was that we would meet our handler Camille outside of The Belmont Friday evening near the Dakota Lounge door (read: skip all the damn lines and sneak in the side door). Before that we needed to prep questions: Skype asked Joe to interview KONGOS via Skype (go figure), and we needed to come up with two questions ahead of time. With the help of our AZ friends, Joe decided the questions would be “After touring South Africa with Linkin Park, Europe and North America, where’s your favorite place to perform?” and “What’s it like being in a successful rock band and living with your siblings?” These questions would be posed after the Skype show. Arriving early, we were met by several of the Skype employees in the lounge surrounded by swag, drinks, and free food provided by Skype. We could hear the KONGOS sound check and found ourselves chuckling because we’d spent the afternoon with the band at the TMI showcase a few hours earlier.
The bands who’d be playing after KONGOS were mostly unknown to us at the time (Andrew W.K. being the only other name we immediately recognized), but we were eager to have a great evening at an official showcase. By this point we also realized that the showcase was hosted by by Live Nation, the largest music promoter in, well, the world.
Having shot Phoenix music for over a year, our goal has been to break into large venues in the area and no one puts on a larger show than Live Nation. The Belmont was perfect for a mid-sized showcase, having a large double storied inside with inside and outside bars down stairs, as well boasting a pair of rooftop bars. As VIP guests, we had full access to both floors, which made shooting above the mosh pit for Andrew W.K. possible.
Opening the showcase, the KONGOS’ set mostly mirrored the earlier performance from the afternoon, sans The Beatles’ cover. We joked about them being a South African boy band, but in actuality, they are. With the rhythmic influences of the Burundi type drums and echoes of the culture that reared them from South Africa to the UK, their sound is a distinctive rock that, while hinting at a mainstream sound that makes people pause and listen closer. Danny’s accordion is reminiscent of Paul Simon’s Graceland work, and Jesse’s drumming mimics those you’d find deep in the bushveld. Drummers who are also the lead singers for the band never cease to amaze us. Keeping rhythm while singing lead is incredibly impressive, but it’s also amazing to experience a band’s haunting vocals emerging seemingly from an invisible air. Don’t get us wrong, the four-piece harmonies and Dylan’s lead on songs like “Come With Me Now” adds to the smooth intensity of this band.
While “I’m Only Joking” was our first introduction to this band, and, according to Dylan, the single they’re going to be pushing through the States in 2013, the story about their video for “Hey I Don’t Know” is always on the tip of Devon’s tongue in conversations. During the 2012 Linkin Park shows in South Africa, KONGOS recorded live footage via GoPro HD2s and put together a live video demonstrating the GoPro technologies while showcasing their own music. Cameras were placed directly on Jesse’s drum kits, on the necks of Dylan’s bass and Danny’s guitar, and also on the edge of Jonny’s accordion. They were hoisted above crowds and carried into green rooms. When the final film was cut, GoPro gave KONGOS permission to put the company’s logo on the front of the video, and in return, GoPro posted the video on their own site proclaiming KONGOS their favorite band.
Many of the Skype Live Nation audience members were obviously fans of the KONGOS. The set was fantastic with a ubiquitously shoeless Dylan front and center and Jesse’s wavy hair in his face as he sang into the mic above his drum kit. Johnny nodded at us when entering the venue and they quickly moved into the set, playing favorites not only like “Come With Me Now” and “I’m Only Joking” but also “Sex on the Radio” and a fantastic live version of “Kids These Days”. Glancing around the showcase, it was impossible to not notice that while many people who knew KONGOS music couldn’t stop dancing and singing along, the people who weren’t familiar with them knew they were hearing something special. Having recently signed with The Management Company, the successes this band has been seeing on the South African charts will soon develop here in the States, too.
As the KONGOS’ set was wrapping, Joe was scooped up and sequestered away to the upstairs lounge that was doubling as command central for the showcase. It was there that the filming was to take place. All around people were bustling back and forth, checking myriad computer screens, cell phones, tablets, and countless other technologies as if their lives depended upon it. This room was controlled, efficient chaos. Having worked large events in the past, it felt like home. Quickly introduced were Kayla Merrill, Live Nation’s top photographer who would be filming Joe’s Skype chat with the members of KONGOS for their Two Things online series, and Kathy Garfield, the woman who kept Joe in the know on what was happening, when, and why. Shortly after KONGOS set ended, filming was to begin. Instructions, verbal and physical cues given, Joe was sat down with a tablet to commence the Skype interview. After struggling to start through unforeseen technical difficulties (at least one due to Joe’s comical inability to handle a tablet computer properly), the interview finally commenced via Skype only a few minutes behind schedule. Questions asked and answered and laughs shared, Kayla called cut and the interview was over. Barely having the chance to put the tablet down, Joe was whisked away yet again, yelling goodbye to all over his shoulder as he was pulled downstairs, through the crowd, and out of the venue to Kongo’s tour bus, where the boys themselves were waiting to meet him in person. After a few handshakes and hellos, Joe and the KONGOS boys headed backstage where we ultimately would reunite to shoot the last of Andrew W.K.’s headbanging, party rocking set.
Leaning against rails between acts, the two of us looked up the schedule to see who would be taking the stage next. Per the set listing, The Enemy UK was poised to take over stage. Consulting the internet let me know that they were from the UK, and that of their three major label albums, all of them had topped the UK Top 10 album charts upon release. Despite this information, when the band took stage, the crowd was fairly nonplussed. Tom Clarke, the lead singer and guitarist sported a mop of disheveled hair and a polo, bassist Andy Hopkins a simple jeans and white t-shirt ensemble, and drummer Liam Watts quietly took his position behind the kit, far back on the stage. What happened next was nothing short of amazing. These three seemingly innocuous boys from Coventry launched into a distortion heavy, rock and rollicking set with more frenetic energy than had previously graced any Skype Stage. Keeping stage banter to a minimum other than to introduce a song name or two, Clarke, Hopkins, and Watts drilled, wailed, and beat their brand of social conscious punk and rock deep into our skulls. Likening their home of Coventry to Detroit, both working class towns hit hard by the economy, they launched into a fantastically loud and fast version of their hit “You’re Not Alone.” Come the end of their set, we found ourselves singing/chanting/screaming along with the rest of the crowd as Clarke began bashing his guitar headstock into Watts’ cymbals to the beat, and closed the song by throwing his guitar in the air, which crashed down to the floor as he saluted the audience and walked off stage.
While The Enemy UK was an unknown to us due to the distance provided by the Atlantic Ocean, Atomic Tom is a band we are ashamed of not knowing about sooner (but are ecstatic we finally discovered) considering they are based mere hours away. At every major music festival that we attend with unfamiliar bands on the bill, there is some act that enmeshes themselves in our souls. Having googled Atomic Tom while they set up, we found very little initial information other than they were a rock band originally from Brooklyn. We didn’t realize at the time that this four piece traditional rock ‘n roll band would melt our faces. Through their entire set we could not stop dancing (which made trying to photograph the set a little difficult), which is not something we do much. The crowd pulsated as one to songs “Red Light Warning Sign” and their cover of “Don’t You Want Me”, with which everyone sang along. When the guitar opened “Take Me Out”, we were hooked. Devon immediately texted his girlfriend to find and listen online and posted an Instagram photo so the #azsxsw hashtag followers back home could share a small iota of the life changing performance we were experiencing. Anyone living in today’s world can relate to Luke White’s haunting lyrics, and since returning from Austin, Devon can’t get the song out of his head. He won’t forget this song as he waits with bated breath for this now Los Angeles-based band to tour in Arizona.
The evening ended with Eagles of Death Metal, who sounded just like their name implies. Having played with KONGOS on several South African dates, this death metal band lived up to their name tearing through their set to a late night, drunk crowd shoving against the front barriers. Having shot through two of their songs, Devon quickly tapped Joe on the shoulder and bolted for the back of the crowd. Heading upstairs to say our goodbyes, we saw Luke White from Atomic Tom standing alone. We quickly praised the band, implored Luke to bring the band to Arizona, and shook this great musician’s hand. We couldn’t leave without thanking Camille and Kathy (who by then we’d discovered was handling the @skypeevents twitter handle), who finally were able to take a break from the chaos of running the behind-the-scenes of the show to enjoy their handiwork. Thank yous and goodbyes said, we both headed downstairs and took to the early morning streets of Austin, the ringing in our ears keeping us both company for hours to come, a constant reminder of some good ole fashioned luck.