15 March 2013

SXSW 2013: Day Three [Thursday]

 Another glorious blur of a day here in Austin.  I love whizzing through town, hearing the non-stop aural patchwork of every musical style imaginable, pouring out of practically every club in town (which is seemingly at least half of the buildings.)  This is who I heard (and saw) today, in the spaces between those audio-montage bike rides, together forming their own musical crazy-quilt.

Mount Moriah at The Stage on Sixth Patio, 12:30pm
Solid, tuneful country-rock band signed to Merge, which makes more sense when you see what they look like – they’re definitely the indie-hipster sort of country-rockers, though I guess to their credit you wouldn’t know it just to hear them.  (Well, and also because they’re from Durham.)  They’ve definitely got some Allman Brothers flava in the guitar leads too.  They were good! But honestly 12:30 feels like a very long time ago.

Blank Tapes at Rusty’s, 1pm
L.A. band playing retro, garage-y rock.  I liked the minimalist front-of-stage two-drum kit.  Also, one of the four members seemed to only be playing auxiliary percussion (maracas, tambourine), though maybe he does other stuff sometime.  Seeing shows at SXSW makes you (well, okay, me) think about the utility economics of band composition – like, what does it really add to have that additional fourth, or fifth, or sixth member?  In this case, three out of the four sang in harmony – that’s some good value!

Chvrches at The Fader Fort, 1:30pm
These guys get compared to The Knife a lot, I think, but it seemed like pretty straightforward, by-the-book upbeat electro-pop. (Though to be fair who else actually sounds like The Knife anyway?)  Well executed and definitely enjoyable, but nothing too remarkable.  I did appreciate the outfit synergy: one member in Pipettes-esque black-and-white polka dot dress, one in blank and white striped shirt, one in a Michael Jackson “King of Pop” T-shirt, all of which went nicely with the Fort’s grainy B&W Fader/Converse ad wallpaper backdrop.  Also, adorable banter from the sweet petite big-eyed lead singer (and you’ve gotta love the Glaswegian accent), even though she’s generally not a very commanding presence for the frontwoman of a big shiny dance-pop act.  “If you leave here feeling a strong urge to buy some Converse sneakers, give it an hour, just to make sure it’s really a genuine desire.  If you still want ‘em, then go for it!”

Phox at The Stage on Sixth, 2pm
Not the next Phish, but a seven-piece folky-chamber-pop group from Madison WI – they met in high school, they said, and from the looks of things that probably wasn’t too long ago.  Chipper and wide-eyed and wholesome and gracious almost to a fault (the doe-eyed, doll-like lead singer, who reminded me of V.V. Brown, offered copious thank-yous to everyone from the bloggers who helped them get noticed to the bartender who recommended her whiskey.)  (On the other hand, she did also introduce one song as about a lady who replaces the sugar in her baked goods with apple sauce to keep them healthy: “that is fucking not cool!”)  The music was great though – gentle, soulful, upbeat, just enough intricacy to keep it interesting.  The bassist doubled on flute, and they also had a full-time banjo player (though he also picked up a trumpet for a few licks on the last song, Belle & Sebastian-style.) 

Bleeding Rainbow at Club Deville, 2:30pm
Go Philly!  Noisy punky fuzzed-out pop that just makes me grin.  Plus I walked in just in time to catch them playing “Waking Dream,” the most awesomely bliss-inducing jam from their new record.  Sweet.

Paws at The Main, 3pm
At least I think that’s who this was.  More hard noisy poppy punk.  Right on!  But, I got the picture pretty quick.  They’re from Glasgow too, incidentally.  Also, the bassist broke a string (!) on the second song.

Pickwick at The Stage on Sixth, 3pm
Spirited rave-up rock’n’soul from Seattle.  My initial thought was that they’re somewhere between Mayer Hawthorne and the Black Keys.  Revised that to more like Black Keys, except times three.  Well, there’s six of them rather than two.  But I’d also say they had at least three times the energy. (Although I haven’t seen the Keys live.)  Pickwick have an absolutely fiery lead singer who was in non-stop motion throughout, yelping and wailing and testifying and shaking his tambourine all over the damn place, on numbers like “Do the Ostrich.”  I also liked that their sound was (electric) piano-heavy rather than guitar-heavy.  (Also, incidentally, my buddy’s friend is one of the keyboard players.)

Pearl and the Beard at Papa Tino’s, 3:30pm
Much beloved by several folks I know, and also by many in attendance, though something about them feels decidedly un-SXSW.  They certainly strike a memorable, quirky image: stand-up cellist, cat-eye specs, thrift-shop glam chic, not to mention that beard.  They come off as folky and funny, and they are, sort of, but their music is much moodier and artier than you might expect from look at them.  Let’s just say the Amnesiac sticker on the cello case is a strong clue.  Really nice harmonies too.

Charli XCX at Mohawk Outdoor, 4pm
Whoa.  Now, talk about a pop singer who can totally own it on stage.  Charli XCX is an incredible performer.  Kinetic, theatrical, darkly sexy in a larger-than-life kind of way, but also not afraid to flash a smile, and clearly having a total blast herself.  And she rocks a completely distinctive (albeit perhaps questionable, but isn’t that practically corollary?) look: this afternoon, it was a neon-green Nike sports bra, dog collar, and goofy pleated plaid pants.  And long wild black hair which she flails with abandon.  (Bringing back that ‘90s Alanis style, maybe?)  I already liked her couple of released songs okay, but this took it to a whole new level (arriving home after an utterly music-saturated day, the tune that was stuck in my head was her “Nuclear Seasons”), and some of the new songs were just as good or better: lavish, quirky, charismatic synth-pop that fully incorporates the lessons of forward-thinking UK bass music (including one literally incorporates the magical shimmering beat of Gold Panda’s “You.”)  Tied with Kitten for best SXSW performer so far.  Great crowd too!

Disclosure at Mohawk Outdoor, 5pm
More amazing dance party energy, particulary once I connected up with Cathy and her crew, who travel equipped with confetti-filled plastic eggs.  (Serious dancers can be distressingly few and far between at South-by, so we’ve got to stick together.)  Props too to the woman packing a water-pistol – brilliant, and much needed!  Oh yeah, Disclosure: good stuff.  I hadn’t been totally convinced before, but I get it now: their twist on poppy, treble-heavy house (one forthcoming comp has it pegged as neo-garage…okay) is both distinctive and hugely danceable.  I liked the new, punchier songs they played a lot more than the older stuff, with their recent AlunaGeorge collab “White Noise” and Jessie Ware remix somewhere in between.  (Speaking of which, why isn’t Jessie Ware here?)  Adding in a little bit of live instrumentation (cowbell, roto-toms, bass) had a transformative effect on their performance, though somehow it seemed more pure that the vocals weren’t live.

Free Energy at Peckerheads, 5:30pm
Go Philly again!  I broke my rulez here because I have seen this band before, although not since they put out what I’m gonna say is probably still my favorite album of 2013 so far, Love Sign.  Totally mystified about why they aren’t way huger; it seems like two  years ago Pitchfork would’ve given them a prime showcase slot, and now suddenly nobody cares.  Well, folks who complained about the sheenier production and increased synth quotient on the new record (seemingly the consensus complaints) would have had nothing to worry about at this set – no synths in sight, just ragged fist-pumping classic rock and roll.  And believe me, fists were pumped.

Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent (of The Zombies) at Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, 6pm
And speaking of classic rock…  This was a total treat.  The fourth in a row, I guess.  (It was a good afternoon.)  Colin and Rod may look a little haggard these days, but they sound like they’ve barely even aged.  Blunstone’s voice, in particular, is some kind of miracle – if anything, it’s richer and fuller than it is on their sixties records, but every bit as sweet and winsome, and he just sings his heart out.  This duo setup – Argent on electric keys (his keyboard tone sounds just the same too) and harmonies – really brought out the soul in the songs, which included a few new ones (not half bad!) but also everything you would’ve hoped for: “This Will Be Our Year,” “Time of the Season,” “She’s Not There.”  Just delightful.

Chic Gamine at Empire Automotive, 8:15pm
Nice surprise here.  This is a four-woman mod-soul/R&B girl group from Winnipeg and Montreal, almost like a Canadian Destiny’s Child or something.  (Well, they also had a male drummer, but he sort of seemed like their back-up band.)  The four gamines all sing big brassy harmonies and switch off on lead vocals (and keyboard and moog bass) and I’m imagining maybe the songwriting too – sassy, funny, good stuff.

Lianne Le Havas at Empire Automotive, 9:15pm
Kinda-like-a-big-deal Brit-soul singer who I’m thinking has more going on than her generally understated presentation initially suggested.  (Her amazing, preposterous print shirt-dress – I think it was actually just a repurposed man’s shirt – was one pretty clear sign of personality.)  But in the moment, coming after the spunk of Chic Gamine (and a lengthy set change, which SXSW has trained me not to tolerate), it all felt a little tasteful for my taste.  

Mikal Cronin at The Parish, 10pm
So instead I left to go see old-school UK dubstep/digi-reggae wizard The Bug, but it turned out to be a wild goose chase.  I did catch this SF garage-rocker at the Merge showcase, which was fun.  He’s got a surprisingly strong, sweet voice, though unfortunately you can’t hear it over the guitar racket in most of his songs.  I bet the record will be a good one though.

Spooner Oldham
Donna Jean Godchaux, David Hood, etc.
The Legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section/The Swampers with Spooner Oldham, Donna Jean Godchaux, etc. at The Stage on Sixth Patio, 10:15pm
Unclear exactly how many of these geezers were actually in the original Muscle Shoals band – at least David Hood and Jimmy Johnson were there, for sure.  Anyhow, pretty amazing to get to see this, and also weird how this kind of thing goes on surprisingly often at SXSW and people rarely seem to really take notice.  They did “Brown Sugar” (“Jimmy here engineered this song”), “When A Man Loves A Woman” (“I’m going to sing this a fourth down from where Percy sang it”), and called up Spooner to sing “Sweet Inspiration” (“you probably won’t know this one, you’re too young”) and “I’m Your Puppet” (fitting, as he looks a little muppet-ish); just two of the zillions of classics he co-wrote in the sixties.  Unreal.

Air Traffic Controller at Bayou, 10:40pm
Apparently these guys are from Boston, but they gave the distinct impression of being British.  In particular they reminded me of my favorite, not quite Mumford-ish Brit-folk/pop band, Stornoway.  Though maybe that’s mostly because of the main guy’s dapper little hat.  Anyway, good stuff; nicely-crafted, winsome, bouncy pop tunes, though the NPR-approved “You Know Me” definitely takes the cake.

D E N A at The Tap Room at Six, 11pm
German (I guess?) pop/club/rap weirdo who put out the amazing single “Cash, Diamond Rings, Swimming Pools” a month or two ago.  (Watch the video, it’s awesome.)  She’s a little bit slacker M.I.A., a little bit old-school good-times hip-hop (like Young MC or Biz Markie), except it’s definitely closer to dance music than rap, with sparse and funky electronic beats, to which she occasionally added some simple but effective synth chords.  Her other songs were great too, including one about status updates and one whose hook was back-and-forth exchange with her DJ/backup girl: “Are you on the guestlist?/welcome to the club”/“I think not”/“get the fuck out!”  Real talk.

Zebra Katz at 1100 Warehouse, 11:25pm
More awesome left-field hip-hop, this time from Brooklyn and seriously bad ass.  “Imma Read” is the anthem, a simultaneously hilarious and majorly hardcore bitchy/queeny dis track, with a hypnotically spare, menacing beat – performed, like the rest of his set, tag-team style with rapper Reddd Foxxx (not sure why she doesn’t get equal billing.)  I feel like I can’t really do this performance justice, but it was tremendous; you should get familiar.

Bernie Worrell Orchestra at Flamingo Cantina, 12am
Alright, just had to stop in and see what Bernie is up to.  Well you know, he’s doing his thang.  Wearing a crazy gold top hat with a five-foot-long feather.  Getting down on the funky clav.  Reminding us that if we want to feel alright, not to be uptight.  Or something like that.

Action Bronson at North Door, “12:20am”
Outrageous.  Action (or “Bam Bam” as he likes to call himself) tends to come off like a bit of a novelty at first, what with all the bullet points – former chef; raps about food; sounds like Ghostface; built like a blimp.  But he is definitively not a novelty rapper.  Indeed, he’s practically a classicist.  He seems to be rapping about food less, which is really a shame (though probably good for his cred.)  He came on at least twenty minutes late (mostly because the whole showcase was running behind), announced that he had “literally just woken up,” and after maybe twenty minutes, maybe not, abruptly dropped the mic on the floor and walked off stage.   

Rustie at 1100 Warehouse, 1:15am
I didn’t know if this would be a DJ set or not, and I couldn’t tell for nearly the first half – it was, albeit presumably with a bunch of his own stuff, and lots of crazy tweaking plus actual vinyl scratching (!), but with a strong enough, undeniably distinctive cohesive character to it that it partially invalided my quibbles last night about DJ sets at South-by.  Basically it was trap music – in a nutshell, “EDM” with similar extremes of intensity to Americanized dubstep, but atop a hip-hop/dirty South rhythmic chassis instead of a dub/reggae one.  Which, for my money at least, means it’s a lot better for dancing, and also better for mixing with hip-hop (which Rustie did, dropping Danny Brown and Wacka Flocka Flame among others.)  He also flipped TNGHT’s “Goooo,” which is an incredible track in the proper context.  Things got pretty wild, pretty much constantly, with often outrageous amounts of absurd, laser-zapping sci-fi tension building up before a beat would finally, triumphantly drop.  I guess that’s how they roll in Glasgow.

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