Lifeguard Concert Review: Chess Club, SXSW 2023

“The best teenage band since Squirrel Bait.” Making your Bandcamp bio is one way to grab the attention of discerning underground rock fans with an ear for history. Chicago trio Lifeguard certainly know their way around the classics, at least if your definition of “classic” includes the frantic, noise-ridden punk offshoots of the ’80s — like Squirrel Bait, the Kentucky melodic hardcore band whose hearty and rhythmic complex records helped lay the foundation for entire genres. When I saw Lifeguard on stage at the Chess Club for an official SXSW showcase on Friday, I also noticed more than a little Mission Of Burma in their sound, as long as we’re discussing the progenitors of scratchy, dissonant art-punk.

Last month, Lifeguard announced their signing to the venerable Matador Records, who recently helped make stars of another band from the same young Chicago scene, Horsegirl. In a sense, Matador was already family; Lifeguard drummer Isaac Lowenstein’s sister Penelope is in Horsegirl, and Lifeguard bassist Asher Case’s father Brian – currently of FACS – played in former Matador band Ponys, among other notable groups such as 90 Day Men and Disappears. But listening to Lifeguard at the Chess Club, I got the feeling that even without the previous affiliations they would have appealed to Matador co-owner Gerard Cosloy, who snuck into Burma shows as a teenager and later signed Squirrel Bait to Homestead Records .

With Austin resident Cosloy front and center, and taking the photos in the above tweet, Lifeguard blew our minds on Friday. The songs flowed with the anxious energy of youth, but not clumsily. It was half an hour of taut, fast-paced post-punk with sharp edges and (sometimes) flat fifths, delivered with a confidence and authority that either belies Lifeguard’s age or underscores it (I can’t decide). Both Case’s bass and Kai Slater’s guitar at times buzzed through aggressive, discordant riffs and otherwise morphed into waves of feedback, occasionally spilling into extended drones. The vocals, mostly from Slater, were shouted and crooned with a blunted force that reminds me of Hot Snakes frontman Rick Froberg’s weathered bark, but with a not-quite-grown-up ease. The songs were tight and knotty, playing with tension and texture at breakneck speeds, like a FACS LP played at 45 rpm.

Lifeguard haven’t actually released anything on Matador yet, and before releasing a full-length, the label plans to reissue last year’s Crowd Can Talk EP; commenters on Bandcamp compare it to everything from Descendents to Erase Errata, to give you a further sense of this band’s range. Crowd Can Talk and Friday’s show has me eager to hear a new record when it arrives. This band was in some ways raised by one generation of indie rock and literally came of age within another, a scene that’s only just beginning to spill out into the world outside of all-ages Chicago shows. (See also: Friko, recent Fire Talk Records signees, who played right next door at Swan Dive during Lifeguard’s set.) Before they hit their 20s, Lifeguard already feel more seasoned and self-possessed than many buzz bands in Austin this time. year. If they follow in Squirrel Bait’s footsteps, we can look forward to some inventive sounds from these three down the road – not to get too far ahead of the fiery, inspired music they’re making now.

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