13 March 2013

SXSW 2013: Days Zero through One

Austin's blowing up.  The city is expanding rapidly – it was the second fastest growing city in the nation last year – and it's easy to see.  (And easy to see why.)  The quick driving tour my buddy gave me after I touched down here on Monday offered abundant visible evidence of the town's growing pains.  The plaza where I did some yoga and thrift-shopping last year; the dusty food-truck-filled lot where we'd grubbed at the end of each night; multiple former sites of installations and pop-up venues: all now new, in-construction condo developments.

South by Southwest, the city's annual orgy of hyperactive media saturation and corporate sponsorship, is bloating too.  For the first time this year, the official music conference stretches across five days instead of four, now taking over Tuesday night, and the unquantifiable slew of attendant goings-on means this thing is practically a full week.  (Not even mentioning the film and interactive portions.)  My M.O. for this year, in part to ward off the 20% increased risk of burnout with that extra day, is to really really let it be low-key; pace myself; enjoy it; not worry about which of the hundred-squillion bands I might be missing at any given moment; and overall not to get – as Hundred Waters' drummer so aptly quipped this evening (can't believe I've never come up with it before) – South-by-South-Stressed.  Also, to focus on bands I've never seen before, especially those that are completely new to me.

So far so good.  It's Tuesday night (only Tuesday, it's felt necessary to keep reminding myself...) – and I've already had well over 24 busy hours of show-going, even with getting a late start both yesterday and today.

Divine Fits
I caught three bands Monday evening, getting a good head-start on my resolution with two that were total unknowns: Grand Rapids, MI's seven-strong Arcade Fire acolytes/NPRlings The Soil and the Sun (oboe! hippies!) and Philly's own self-described "chilltronica" outfit Vacationer (vibraphone! light-up globe!)  In between there was hot-ticket Divine Fits, the cool-rock supergroup featuring local sex god/Spoon man Britt Daniel plus the slightly uncanny Britt Daniel-alike Dan Boeckner.  Their album still strikes me as Daniel-by-numbers and fairly light on substance, but "For Your Heart" was a white-hot early SXSW highlight.

Chelsea Light Moving
Today, after a highly enjoyable morning interview session with Nick Cave, I spent the afternoon scuttling back and forth along the strikingly uncrowded Red River St. (it will not stay that way for long), bopping between Mohawk and Red 7 to see Thurston Moore's rebound-relationship Chelsea Light Moving (basic, punky, fun), LA pop scientists Fol Chen (probably better on record, though they graciously elected to open with their four best songs), Barcelona electronic bliss-poppers Delorean (Ekhi Lopategi is a dorky schlub of a frontman, but "Seasun" is such an anthem that it doesn't matter), Japanese kinder-prog goofball Shugo Tokumaru (who forgot the words on his ukulele cover of "Video Killed The Ladio Star" and whose accordionist also occasionally "played" wooden toys that didn't actually make any discernible sound) and lastly the very pleasant, very Captured Tracks-y Widowspeak (who've gotten themselves some very sweet white velour jackets embroidered with their name and "2013 tour.")

The best part of the day, after finally scoring some hearty veggies for dinner, was chilling out on a dock on the river right at sunset, at a boathouse that was serving as a Soundcloud-sponsored SXSW Interactive venue, with a decent free blonde ale in hand, watching an interminable ribbon of bats stream out from under the Congress Ave bridge (an iconic Austin sight I've somehow never managed to catch in five trips here), while a handful of happy hipster kids danced to a pretty solid unidentified Cut Copy-knockoff electro-pop band.  Good, good life.

Tonight the official SXSW showcases started – just a relative handful, making for a relatively pain-free decision process.  Apart from a brief foolhardy attempt to join a friend for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (apparently one of this year's hottest items, for better or worse), I stuck with the Pitchfork-curated showcase(s) at Mohawk for almost the entire night.  It was too crowded to actually see Night Beds (though I listened to his awfully lovely warble from the bar for a spell) and I skipped on Denmark's nice-but-sleepy Indians after three numbers, which means that the first almost-complete official SXSW 2013 set I saw was by....

Nashville's Torres.  I guess it's supposed to be a one-woman bandonym for singer/songwriter/rocker Mackenzie Scott – though in this case she was joined by three adeptly flailing bandmates – who is both adorable and totally bad-ass.  She's also an extremely fun singer to watch; her rather Katy Perry-ish face contorting expressively into all kinds of shapes to accompany her vaguely Patti Smith-ish groan and wail.  Her songs are great too – on the repetitive side, but definitely not in a bad way.

Marnie Stern
Meanwhile, Marnie Stern is, well, also both adorable and bad-ass, though in a decidedly odder way.  Even beyond the inevitable initial disconnect of a Barbie-blond, model-pretty lady (dressed in pink no less) fronting a ripping power trio, and nonchalantly busting out her justly famous fretboard finger-tapping.  Most notably, she took seemingly any available opportunity (mic checking; technical difficulties; bemoaning her bandmates' apparently insufficient stage banter) to talk about her vagina, usually in a somewhat surreal way (for instance, claiming that she would "stretch it like a rubber" between two microphones on stage.)  Her music is pretty strange too, with hooks and structures rarely falling how you'd expect them.  My sense was that the new material is less intense and mathy.  Also, probably obvious note: man, Zach Hill Kid Millions is a redonkulous drummer.

Back inside, conservatory-trained faerie-folk/IDM outfit Hundred Waters were a surprisingly entertaining band to watch, their layered, intricate music taking on quite a bit more energy and distinctiveness in person.  (Though they still seem like a highly improbably fit for Skrillex's label.)  They seemed young and enthusiastic, but also clearly very serious about what they do, in a way that was a real pleasure to observe.

Azari and III
Next up – for something completely different – Toronto old-school house-jackers Azari & III turned in easily the most impressive and memorable set of the day – possibly one of the most engaging electronica-based performances I've ever seen – with frontmen/vocalists Fritz and Starving Yet Full mugging, vogueing, freaking on each another, stripping down through layers of rad couture, jumping into the crowd to dance with the birthday girl and generally keeping things hyped-up and hyperactive, while the knob-twiddling half of the quartet – the eponymous (Dinamo) Azari and (Alixander) III – grinningly glitched up and futzed with their constantly shifting, early '90s rave-style house grooves.  "Reckless (With Your Love)" is the peerless, unquestionable anthem, but "Manic" and a couple others gave it a run for its money.

Almost every act I saw on the Mohawk Indoor stage had a substantially delayed set start seemingly due to some manner of technical issue(s) in the setup/sound-check process; the effect snowballed throughout the night so that by the time Swedish girl-pop duo Icona Pop took the stage to occupy their impressively complex-looking glow-in-the-dark-trimmed setup, they were nearly an hour behind schedule.  Even their arrival on stage was marred by a false start, and things got worse from there... ultimately they only managed to get through about a song and a half (including "Manners," significantly re-arranged into, essentially, high-intensity dubstep, complete with copious chest-massaging bass) before their bass cut out.  After a surprising amount of vacillation about what to do, it eventually came out that, apparently, the actual club PA system was blown (perhaps not too surprisingly), with Icona themselves the probable culprits.  So, a satisfactory explanation at least.  But a painfully brief set.  I guess "I Love It" will have to wait 'til another day.

Nicolas Jaar
A bummer made up for, first, by escaping the packed Mohawk Indoor room for some much-needed fresh air and water and, second, stopping by North Door on the way home to catch the last half-hour of Nicolas Jaar's set.  The guy is just a genius.  He's making some of the warmest, smoothest, most sophisticated and inviting techno around, and the dark, moody, newly re-jiggered venue was perfect for it.  (This was definitely a dance-oriented set, and the room was more than happy to oblige, so that helped a lot too.)  I didn't even feel any need for him to dip into his more recognizable fare, e.g. "Space is Only Noise You Can See" ...but he played it anyway.

Well, so much for South-by warm-up.  Tomorrow we get real.

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