Girl Talk / Dan Deacon / The Texas Governor
The Middle East Downstairs; Cambridge, MA
The Texas Governor had begun their set already when I climbed downstairs of the Middle East. Despite the fact that Girl Talk’s headlining there had just been confirmed by the transfer of the show, to my surprise, to the larger of the venue’s two rooms, the current performers had me second-guessing -- posturing on stage to the sound of a generic pop-punk instrumental backing fit more for the divey nearby Abbey Lounge was The Governor’s vocalist, a contrived persona of jittery, disheveled drug-addledness in a gray, unkempt suit with a large rectangular Coca-Cola sticker duct-taped to his jacket sleeve: a ‘cultural commentary’ so heavy-handed it was insulting. He quaked with the manic intensity of an OCD case, meticulously touching his trembling fingers together, rubbing his palm, or tugging on his clothes, an act whose authenticity was never more in question than on the several occasions that he stopped to shamelessly hold up the CD they were trying to sell. It was like satire. The guy on the Korg was pretty good though; I felt bad for them mostly.
The stage was then cleared of everything but a long table, littered with various electronics and decorated with a green skull. A dough-y guy with large orange glasses, thinning hair, a beard, and a yellow t-shirt covered in green, hand-drawn peace signs had some help lowering the table to floor level, and as he positioned himself behind it, it became clear that this was Dan Deacon. I’d never heard of the guy, but the unmitigated enthusiasm of what had to be his 12 biggest fans, tightly packed together in front of an audience approaching half capacity, made me optimistic. After testing the integrity of the squelch and warble machines in front of him, he taped his glasses to his head, reminded us that it was 2007, and asked us to countdown from 20.
We gave it two tries, both ridiculous failures, and then he made with the flipping of the switches and the turning of the knobs. It was a filthy four-on-the-floor electronic eruption, a more danceable Les Georges Leningrad, Dan taking breaks from his flailing and sweating to talk unintelligibly into his vocoder. Each song ended abruptly, cuing some big applause, and between songs he would pant exhausted into the microphone, commissioning new countdowns and assigning tasks: “On 12 you have to look at a stranger,” or “This time you gotta be really excited, like your dog, like, just got hit by a car, but somehow that made him stronger, and you’re like, ‘Awesome.’ ” He also preached that the problems of the world could be solved with more Big Gulps and Playstations. Admittedly this doesn’t translate well to print, but this guy pulled it off, keeping the whole room dancing and raptly entertained.
I had to wonder what Girl Talk would be like in performance in anticipation of his set. I’m pretty sure he has some other material, but like most, I’ve still only heard Night Ripper. He’s not going to use turntables, is he? That would be near-impossible. But he can’t stray too far from Night Ripper -- there would be rioting. What, then?
The question was answered by an almost bare table, back up on the stage, little more than a laptop resting on it. Dressed in a red t-shirt, someone announced, “My name is Gregg, I’m gonna play some music in a little bit.” Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, disappeared backstage, reemerging minutes later in full alter-ego mode: oversized black sunglasses, hood up on his white sweatshirt, hopping around onstage to the cheers of the crowd like a boxer. As he peered into the glowing screen and clicked a button, those first familiar inhales of that Ciara song came over the speakers. Gregg clapped his hands and jumped back from the table, hopping and shaking his head for a second with an almost exaggerated enthusiasm before reapproaching the laptop, clicking with conviction on what would be the next sample, then leapt back again. And it continued.
As he (and the crowd) danced, his sweatshirt and glasses were flung off, and the set paralleled Night Ripper pretty tightly, straying a bit in chronology and content. About five minutes into it, he pulled a girl up onto the stage; her friend followed behind her, and in under 30 seconds the whole thing was filled shoulder-to-shoulder, ass-to-ass, and Gregg became lost in the swarm, the music being the only remaining sign of his presence.
I found myself watching the crowd in an almost sociological way, as some basked in the attention they found at the front of the stage. It was surreal; until that moment, I had been an ‘audience member,’ and I felt that I continued to be one for a while, until my mind began trying to reconcile that role with what the stage was presenting to me. This was no longer a ‘concert’ at all, but it wasn’t a party, either. In theory, the only difference between the stage and the floor at that point was height. But simply by virtue of there being a stage, we remained the ‘watchers’ of that scene, of whatever occurred on it. Yet those who were on stage weren’t entirely stripped of their role as ‘audience members,’ which they had much more clearly been only minutes prior. Instead, they became removed from themselves, watching us watch them, simultaneously performer and audience. And we, as their proxy, watched them watch us watch them.
Not a dancer myself, I moved to the back of the room, finished my beer at the end of the set, and left. Besides, I have that CD at home. But it looked like they were having a hell of a time.
SXSW: Day 3
Friday was the last day of SXSW for me and most of my friends. I think that if we’d stayed any longer we wouldn’t have made it out to the shows until early evening, anyway. While I would like to say I missed Birds of Avalon and Voxtrot Thursday night to get some much needed, quality alone time with my hotel mattress, the truth is that the lot of us wound up plying ourselves with whiskey and beer into the wee hours of Friday at the restaurant next door and having a mini iPod party in the hotel parking lot. “What’s your favorite Band song? ‘Bessie Smith’? DUDE, me too, let’s listen!”
Sound lame to you? Trust me, it wasn’t nearly as lame as the line to get into the early afternoon Chunklet party, a.k.a. the “Mess with Texas” party, at Red 7 on Friday. We called our Chunklet connection about helping us break the line to get inside to see Les Savy Fav and a few others, but it just so happened that said connection was out with Tim from Les Savy Fav planting drug paraphernalia on people and pretending to be narcs. Supposedly we’ll be able to catch a video within a week or so at SuperDeluxe.com.
After a few minutes, we retreated from the Red 7 line and waited on a table for some barbecue (finally!) at Stubb’s. In the meantime we drank free beers and margaritas and went out back to hear Galactic play a craptastic set for a bunch of people who, unbelievably, were into it. The only explanation I could come up with was that they were very, very drunk and probably didn’t understand what they were doing.
Instead of getting back in the line for the Chunklet party post-barbeque and fried okra, we headed a few blocks over to the No Depression party at Habana Calle 6. We made it just in time to catch the end of Elvis Perkins’ set around 4:30 p.m. and to see Jim White, who was on my short list of must-sees, play at 5. I had seen Jim White open for The Handsome Family at the Echo Lounge in Atlanta back in 2003, and I loved him in Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. He had lost quite a bit of weight, had become a bit gaunter as a result, and had gotten a much shorter haircut, but he was as witty and entertaining as he always is. He asked his wife to come onstage and sing with him. He commented that she had “just given birth,” so he figured he could get her to sing with him. He didn’t exactly indicate what it was she gave birth to, and we weren’t sure what the connection between giving birth and being able to sing was, but it was a good performance nonetheless. He told several jokes and engaged the crowd in laughter, but my favorite moment was when he played “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes.” As he sang the lyric “When the wild wind whips around your head you know/ that you have found a perfect day to chase tornadoes,” the wind began to blow very hard and gave the song an eerie atmospheric quality that made him seem prophetic. That wind gave his lyrics more weight than they would have had in a more ordinary setting, and of course the Alabama in me loves his notion of the God-haunted South coupled with trailer-trash aesthetics and small-town folklore. After all, the man does have a song about bars being like churches that serve beer.
We met a few industry folks after White’s set and made nice before heading to the Austin City Limits studio to catch Beirut at the KEXP showcase. I’m a casual Beirut fan; I’ve listened to several tracks on The Hype Machine and have generally enjoyed what I’ve heard, but I loved their live performance. Horns seemed to be a popular addition to indie rock sets at SXSW this year in general, but Beirut get major props for going all the way. In fact, I think we’d find it challenging to come up with many wind instruments that weren’t represented in their set. Zach Condon reminded me of Jody Nelson from the Through The Sparks show we caught earlier in the week in that he spoke quietly and infrequently but maintained a hushed confidence. When he stopped playing to sing, he hoisted his flugelhorn on his shoulder proudly and in doing so somehow made it seem cool to play a flugelhorn. Still, it was hard to shake the impression of the band as a bunch of dorky high school marching band kids who got together and thought it would be neat to start a horn-toting rock band.
A quick cab ride back downtown took us to the Billions Showcase at Antone’s. We were particularly interested in hearing the amazingly beautiful Annie Clark perform as St. Vincent. I really like her music, and I thought her presentation was ideal. She came out alone and played a few songs on her guitar and on her keyboard. Before the audience had a chance to become bored (if that were possible), her boys, as she called them, came out dressed in brown button-down, collared shirts with small black ties. My friend pointed out that they looked like a cross between western cowboys and boy scouts. Clark played a few songs with them before calling out the horn section for her grand finale. The gradual addition of instrumentation really helped to build crowd interest and energy, and the guys in our group were mesmerized by her Billie Holiday-ish vocal phrasing. The really humbling thing is that she could probably play guitar much better than any of them, too.
Next up was Margot and The Nuclear So and So’s, but I hardly felt like reliving that mistake since they played in my hometown too recently for me to forget. Instead of hanging around, we wandered out into the street and somehow wound up in the crappy Viper Room being hit on by a dude whose best pick-up line was “All I care about right now is your hair” and another dude whose line was one of those wrist slappers we all used to carry around with us in the ’80s. Perhaps we should’ve stayed at the Margot show? Perhaps.
A few creepy dudes, beers, and slices of pizza later, we wound up sitting in the lobby of the Austin Convention Center watching Aqualung -- who was playing in the next room — on the television set propped up just outside the venue. It’s not so much that we cared to see Aqualung; our next plan of attack was to make it to the front row of The Polyphonic Spree showcase for a grand SXSW finale. I’m not a big fan of Polyphonic Spree records, and that song “Soldier Girl” makes me want to become a violent woman, but we were aware that witnessing the band live would be quite a different experience.
Surely enough, their set was an aural and visual overload. We couldn’t watch musicians on one side of the stage for very long because we worried about missing something on the other side of the stage. There were six singing/dancing girls in the middle of the stage, Annie Clark in front of them playing her guitar and making “I keep surprising myself” faces at the audience, Brian Teasley to her back-right throwing his drumsticks up in the air (not catching them more than half the time), and wild-eyed Tim DeLaughter creeping us out with his over-the-top antics in front of it all. And this doesn’t even cover half of the people onstage. Luckily for me, there was no “Soldier Girl,” and the songs the band did play were epic in scope, quite the spectacle. For the final song, the band went nuts; Clark threw down her guitar and danced upon the strings, Teasley grabbed a snare drum and jumped into the crowd, and the girl choir thrashed around rabidly. I still can’t say I’ll ever own a Polyphonic Spree record, but I’m now sold on the idea that their live show is not one to miss.
The Polyphonic Spree ended their set — and my first SXSW experience — around 2 a.m., and I went back to our hotel feeling like I had seen plenty. I’d missed countless bands I had wanted to see -- The Broken West, Bob Egan, the M’s, Les Savy Fav, and the Bon Savants, to name a few — but I’ve learned that one of the biggest mistakes SXSWers can make is to stand in long lines or even travel across the city to see certain bands when so many others are right there. After all, SXSW is supposed to be all about discovery, and who’s discovering anything new if everyone’s lined up for a mile to hear The Stooges?
All photos by Leah Hutchison, except The Polyphonic Spree photo by Traci Edwards
The Apples in Stereo/ Casper & the Cookies/ caUSE co-MOTION
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY
Just when you start to think that indie rock is dead, The Apples in Stereo come back to save it. Okay, that’s a little optimistic. At least the Elephant Six stalwarts managed to release an album that, without transcending the genre, reminds us of why we fell in love with it in the first place. Sure, the band’s first full-length since 2002 is bigger and louder than ever before. Yes, it’s on freakin’ Elijah Wood’s Simian Records. Saddest of all, longtime drummer Hilarie Sidney left the band in late 2006. Whichever of these facts is hanging you up, get over it. That’s right. Get the fuck over it because the album is great and the live show is even better.
Brooklyn’s caUSE co-MOTION opened the night playing to a crowd of screaming friends in the audience. Although their noisy, pop-punk sound didn’t do much for me, I’m not totally writing them off. I was mostly annoyed by what I call the “monotone lisp,” a vocal affectation that innumerable singers have employed throughout the past 30 years. The band saved their best material for the end of the short set, and I did enjoy a few songs that featured fun, unpredictable guitar riffs and catchy new-wave bass lines. I was surprised to find that they’ve been around for close to five years, but nonetheless, I stick by the judgment that they need some more time to cook before moving beyond the boroughs.
As I watched Casper & The Cookies set up, I knew that something, well, kooky was in the works. Casper Fandango (nee Jason NeSmith), in champagne crushed velvet pants, and his bandmates, bedizened in false, metallic eyelashes and exaggerated makeup (these are the guys, mind you) decorated their mic stands, bass drum, and keyboards with fake flower garlands. I worried that they were all gimmick and no substance, but my fears were in vain. In fact, if The Apples in Stereo hadn’t been so goddamn exciting, Casper's Cookies would have stolen the show. The band members’ androgyny contrasted with the fairy tale concept of their new album, The Optimist’s Club, which, as Casper told us, is about “falling in love in THIS EXACT CITY!” It all made me wonder whether these Athens indie-pop folks are making a concerted effort to bring the glam-rock aesthetic back. I mean, have you seen Kevin Barnes recently, all sparkly make-up and, um, naked? None of them sound anything like David Bowie or Roxy Music to me, but I’ll take Casper & The Cookies’ charming, exuberant, multi-effects-pedal pop any day and consider the eyeshadow a bonus.
The Apples in Stereo had some glitter of their own to show off. Decked out in a silver spacesuit, complete with matching cape and light-up goggles, the keyboard player looked like a refugee from Mothership Connection.
About half of the set comprised songs from the new album, New Magnetic Wonder. 1998’s dreamy concept album Her Wallpaper Reverie will probably always be my favorite, and I can’t get enough of The Apples’ early psychedelic stuff. That said, I wasn’t particularly unhappy about the predominance of newer material. Do I wish they had played “Haley” (from the ’96 rarities collection Science Faire)? Sure. But the band’s peppy delivery of tunes like the celebratory “Energy” and bouncy “Same Old Drag” made me forget any qualms I may have had with the setlist. It didn’t hurt that Schneider and co. tore it up on Wallpaper classics “Strawberryfire” and “Ruby.” An as-yet-unrecorded song rocked harder than even the New Magnetic Wonder material. Now that early influences The Beach Boys and The Beatles have faded into the background, perhaps Cheap Trick is providing fresh inspiration?
The Apples in Stereo, if not better than ever, are bigger than ever. Persistent shouts of “Stephen!” were a constant reminder of Schneider’s appearance on The Colbert Report in late 2006 (see also Someone Got Into My Subconscious and Made Half an Hour of Television About It). To their credit, they teased once or twice but ultimately didn’t play it. It’s far from their best song, and it just wouldn’t have been that great out of context. And hey, its omission didn’t stop one zealous fan from screaming, “Rob, you’re a genius!” after every song. Think of it as a “Clapton is God” for the indie-rock set.
The Arcade Fire
Judson Memorial Church; New York, NY
I'm visiting the restroom in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church when the strains of "No Cars Go" float downstairs. "Jesus Christ!" I hiss, and then clap my hand over my mouth. Church. Right.
Feeling like I should be reprimanded for my tardiness, I guiltily dart upstairs into the chapel, but no one could give two shits about this hack of a journalist because a massive Neon Bible is creating a halo above a pack of exuberant Canadian musicians. The crowd is at once ecstatic and reverent, drinking in a song they first heard on the Arcade Fire's self-titled EP, now resurrected in splendor in this stained-glass chapel. We're treated with "Haiti" next, another familiar tune, and handclaps abound. Coffee and water are the drinks of choice on stage; no booze that I can see. Lead singer and lyricist Win Butler, a true master of stage banter, explains between songs: "My doctor told me to stop doing shows, and to go home and sleep... but here I am!" His face splits into huge grin, masking the fatigue that comes with a solid month of touring Canada and the U.K.
Tonight is the second of five (count 'em) sold out dates at this little church in Washington Square Park. While stumbling through the slushy streets of Manhattan, I felt as if I should have been wearing a sign announcing my destination, in hopes that my intent would make up for my obvious lack of street smarts. Tickets for this show popped up on craigslist.com mere hours after the 5-minute sellout, with prices topping $600 a pair.
Butler is obviously wise to this. "I had a dream last night," he tells us. "I dreamed that I was sneaking people into this show, but some people were getting upset that they weren't getting in and others were, so I threw all of these wristbands up in the air for people to catch, and then they all fell on the floor and people walked on them." Nice dream, but everyone in this room knows they had a stroke of luck in getting here tonight.
A flying leap is the best visual I can give for how the Arcade Fire launch into "Black Mirror," the radio-friendly single from Neon Bible. I was admittedly not impressed when I spun it on my radio show, but live, it took on new, er, life! There's as much to watch as there is to hear, and the lights catch Richard Reed Parry's silver upright bass as Regine Chassagne holds her face in her gloved hands as she sings. The resulting effect is positively angelic, echoing throughout the church in heavenly waves.
Butler introduces the pipe organ-fueled masterpiece that is "My Body Is A Cage" and nods to Chassagne. "We don't celebrate Valentine's Day in Canada... but this is for my wife." For the first time, I notice the aforementioned instrument on stage and get chills.
"Windowsill" brings on a change of pace, moderately timed with singing string solos, and as the audience remains positively pious in nature, we're laughingly reprimanded by Win: "Stop being so quiet! I know it's a church, but... okay, everyone pick a word, like 'turtle' or 'fuck,' and yell it! Talk to your neighbors!" The band is soaked with sweat at this point and Win's bro William's eyes are squeezed tightly shut in a smile that seems to run in the family.
There are 11 new reasons as to why the Arcade Fire can sell out a lower Manhattan church five nights in a row, and one of the better arguments is the shoegazy use of violins on "The Well and the Lighthouse." "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" and "Rebellion (Lies)" from Funeral send the crowd dancing with familiarity before we're sobered up by "Intervention," the majestic, pipe organ and choir-heavy track from Neon Bible. It's the last song of the set, but we barely have time to get depressed as the band exits and enters again almost immediately, armed with extra French horns. The deceptively mellow "Ocean of Noise" ends with a raucously organized orchestral flourish. I'm scribbling madly and nearly become one with a French horn by accident as the musicians stream through the audience.
The wind is whipping the snow madly as I stumble outside, but I'm humming "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" to myself in a glazed state of bliss, thinking that was an excellent song to end on, indeed. I'm still seeing trails from the gigantic Neon Bible, and while that may not have been a religious experience, it's the closest this heathen's been in a long time.
SXSW: Day 2
My group of friends got off to a late start on Thursday morning. Other than a few sleepyheads, most of us had gotten to bed around 4 a.m., and someone made sure to draw the curtains over the hotel window so that 4 a.m. looked no different than noon.
When we did make it out, we discovered a beautiful day. Our first stop was around 3 p.m. at Schuba’s 11th Annual SXSW Roundup. There were a handful of acts I was looking forward to seeing: Benjy Ferree, Cold War Kids, Elvis Perkins, and Russian Circles, in particular. I had also considered the possibility of free beer and barbecue. There was free beer; there was not, however, free barbecue. I’d heard all this talk about free grub at SXSW and hadn’t yet managed to find any.
We walked into Yard Dog Art Gallery and immediately out the back door, where we found a crowd of people in a relatively small space pushed up to a tent where a band had already started to play. I grabbed my beer in a plastic cup -- the boys grabbed two each -- and we joined the herd to hear a band whose identity we had yet to discover. After we posed a few questions to irritated listeners one offered the answer “Cold War Kids.” I figured they were irritated not only because I was asking them questions, but also because they couldn’t see anything. I had a lovely view of a bunch of dudes’ heads, and what I could hear didn’t make me very interested in seeing anything more. I’ve heard lots of talk about soulful singing and blues-flavored indie rock, but what I actually heard at Yard Dog was loud singing and guitar that didn’t sound very “bluesy” to me.
My girlpal and I opted for Mexican food for the second day in a row and left our boys at the Midlake show. We both liked Midlake but had seen them not even a month earlier at the BottleTree in our hometown of Birmingham, AL. We took a quick ride across town on Austin’s Golden Dillo (that’s what their transit system is apparently called), to catch some bands at Filter Magazine’s High Noon at Cedar Street party. When we arrived, Kenna was playing. I would tend to file them under “decent-sounding indie rock,” a generic label that now encompasses too many of the bands I saw at SXSW. They had some appealing, if typical, vocal harmonies, and the lead singer gave us plenty of photo opportunities. He bounced around stage, used his hands for emphasis since he played no instrument, and wound up climbing up the stairs and standing atop a rail by the end of the band’s set. His ego-driven behavior was a comic distraction to the blandness of the music, and most of the audience was amused watching his antics.
Next, I enjoyed standing in the front row for Sydney, Australia natives Youth Group’s set, and there wasn’t anything terribly special about their music, either. Like Kenna, they played listener-friendly, guitar-driven indie rock. They’ve been compared to and have toured with Death Cab For Cutie and have even been featured on The O.C. They also remind me of Dirty On Purpose in a good way, and I think it was the pretty, delicate melodies and the guitar reverb that did it for me. Had their set been much longer I might have gotten tired of the sameness of it all, but as it was I quite enjoyed it.
During Youth Group’s set my girlfriend went inside to rest her feet, and I switched places with her for Badly Drawn Boy. I know he was the headliner of the party and I know I probably should’ve stayed out there to watch, but one of the glories of SXSW is getting to see so many bands and not really caring about the ones you miss even though they might be ones to see in a hometown scenario. I found a comfy couch where I could hear but not see. Damon Gough was alone, and he played a man-and-a-guitar set, which was the perfect accompaniment to resting my ass on that oasis of a couch while people five feet away crowded toward the stage. His set ended around 6:30 p.m. and gave us plenty of time to go next door and devour some yummy veggie spring rolls in plum sauce at Saba Blue Water Cafe before heading to the Mohawk for the Secretly Canadian showcase.
The longest line I stood in the whole week was the line to get in to see The Besnard Lakes at the Secretly Canadian showcase. I wanted to hear them and possibly Richard Swift at 11:30 p.m., but we were able to hear quite enough of The Besnard Lakes whilst standing in line by the fence lining The Mohawk. We ran into some old friends, and as we chatted, a cloud of thick smoke came wafting through the holes in the green fence accompanied by what surely couldn’t have been The Besnard Lakes. I was expecting the pretty Beach Boys sound of “Disaster,” but what I heard was much more jam bandish. We sat on the curb and listened until I heard “Disaster,” which wound up sounding very different from the lovely version on The Besnard Lakes are the Dark Horse. Figuring this show was a complete wash, we trucked it over to Antone’s to catch Sondre Lerche at the Astralwerks showcase.
Small Sins were in the middle of their set when we arrived, so we caught the rest of their set and thoroughly enjoyed watching the guitar player dance around like a huge dork and the auxiliary percussionist beside him bang two tambourines together like a three-year-old having a temper tantrum. Their self-titled album on Astralwerks sounds more subdued, but if they’d been that subdued live they probably would’ve been more commonplace and boring. Good for them that some of them act foolish onstage, because their behavior made them memorable.
Sondre Lerche finally played, around 10:30 p.m., and I was surprised to hear how much his music has changed since I caught him with Ed Harcourt at the Exit/In in Nashville in ’03. For the most part, he played songs from his 2007 release Phantom Punch, which is incredibly different from the last release of his I heard, 2002’s Faces Down. Back then he had an instantly recognizable pop sound with sunny melodies and memorable hooks. The songs from Phantom Punch are more straightforward rock songs with little to set them apart from other straightforward rock songs. Even so, he charmed the audience with his gorgeous smile and upbeat banter, as always, and I couldn’t help but notice that the first three rows of fans consisted of cute females.
My friends and I were debating an early night, but we hung around long enough to catch The Little Ones’ set. They are a fun, hand-clapping, lollipops-and-sunshine indie pop band that had SXSWers out of their hot, tired, grumbly pissypants mood in no time. I bet if you’d wandered through the crowd you would’ve seen some typically head bobbing indier-than-thous dancing retardedly -- or at least caught off guard. My grumpy boyfriends, for example, had been ready to go home, but they, too, were caught up in The Little Ones’ set and were particularly geeked-out by the band’s use of a Mellotron.
After this set, most of us were ready to retreat to our hotel before the 12:30 a.m. headliner bands. I stopped by Habana Calle 6 briefly to check out Birds Of Avalon, but I was yawning so much I couldn’t make it past one song. Thursday for me was the most disappointing day of the festival. I hadn’t seen any particularly stand-out shows, and most of what I did see has since globbed itself together in my mind to form indie rock band 'X.' Sifting back through each one to focus on stand-out differences has been difficult because there just isn’t that much to say about one that can’t be said about the others.
All photos by Leah Hutchison
SXSW: Day 1
After a thirteen-hour drive across Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana into Texas and a 3:30 a.m. arrival Wednesday, I can’t say I was terribly excited about my first day at SXSW. Preparations leading up to the trip surely did nothing to cure the anxieties I had. A veteran SXSWer friend insisted that I make an Excel spreadsheet “with backups for [my] backups,” and I couldn’t even figure out how to make the stupid charts. I opted for the handwritten version instead and felt ready for, if wary of, the week of exhaustive festival-going.
Early in the afternoon, my friends and I finally made it from our hotel six miles outside of Austin to the convention center, where I was horrified to the discover that the badge line extended from one section of the massive center to another and then up two escalators to another line on the third floor. Luckily, the process was efficient, and I made it through the line within 45 minutes and was ready to hear some music.
This didn’t happen before my girlfriends ditched me. They already had wristbands and wanted to get over to the Mohawk to hear Architecture in Helsinki, a show I am admittedly glad to have missed. I wound up with the boys. After we were taken care of at the convention center, we headed down to the Mohawk and heard Apes and Androids playing from the back patio, but the line to get in the venue was stretched down the block. I was a bit annoyed when my boys wanted to walk all the way back to Slackers Lounge, a venue where we’d seen some hot girls dressed in cropped tees and short shorts passing out handbills, but I decided to be agreeable and roll with it.
This turned out to be a great decision because, as I’ve often heard is the case at SXSW, there were some previously unannounced shows scheduled and free domestic beer available until the club ran out. The first of the unannounced shows was Robbers on High Street, a newish indie rock band from New York. On record they are pretty decent, if forgettable, but live they were quite entertaining. Sometimes they sounded like Spoon and sometimes they sounded like Sondre Lerche, but their setup and methods were far more memorable than the songs they played. One of my friends noted that the drummer’s kick drum was a suitcase and that his snare drum rested on a chair in front of him. When they played a song with a trumpet player, the trumpeter, with the apparent goal of softening his sound, aimed his trumpet toward the door and away from the audience. All these tricks showed the band was interested in overcoming any poor acoustics in the room, and they made all of us happy because we could listen comfortably without feeling the need for earplugs.
Next up was Jesse Sykes, one of my must-sees, playing a set with ex-Whiskeytown guitarist Phil Wandscher. I was delighted to hear the two of them play in such a small space with such few people attending. They were scheduled to play other shows with the full band, but hearing them play in such an intimate setting trumped that option for me. Neither Sykes nor Wandscher has an exciting stage presence, but it’s likely that fans of their records don’t expect that, anyway. I didn’t, although I thought it would be nice if both of them would look up from their fixed stares at each others’ shoes. I didn’t know whether Phil Wandscher was Phil Wandscher by the look of him because I’ve never even seen a photo, but I thought I recognized his sparse, haunting playing style immediately. It’s the perfect accompaniment to Jesse Sykes’ pensive vocals. They played several old songs, some of which I recognized from Oh, My Girl, and a new song or two. Sykes remarked that their set felt surreal, and I wondered whether she was referring to the fact that they were playing to a sparse crowd in an echo-y, Miami Beach-looking venue where they would never play outside of SXSW. My friends and I sure as hell wouldn’t have wandered into such a place had it not been during SXSW.
After the Slackers Lounge shows and a nice breakfast dinner at Katz’s Deli on 6th Street, the girls and I went to a decidedly girly show at La Zona Rosa: The Pipettes. The line was surprisingly long, and as a SXSW novice I wondered with horror whether the folks in that line were coming early to catch Peter Bjorn & John at midnight. The line quickly dispersed, though, and we wound up with a passably good spot in the crowd for The Pipettes, who had already started playing. The Pipettes are from Brighton and are not typically the type of act I would care to listen to on record, but like several other bands we saw throughout the week, they were somewhat of a spectacle live. They are admittedly a novelty — which usually makes me cross in my old age — but they are a talented novelty, and they had the audience smiling stupidly throughout their performance. Their short, polka-dot dresses, sassy songs, and Shangri Las-like dance choreography made them irresistible. We were sorry their set didn’t last longer, but at SXSW there’s hardly time to fret about one band when there are so many others to see.
Next we took a quick cab ride over to Habana Calle 6 Annex to hear Through The Sparks but stopped off at Flamingo Cantina to hear Austin natives Oh No! Oh My! Whatever pleasantness had been instilled in me by the Pipettes was obliterated by this all-male group, which was just as silly as the Pipettes but not nearly as clever. Their name suggests such silliness, and although their songs tend to be quite catchy and likable, their live set felt like a big inside joke that we weren’t a part of. This makes sense because they were playing to the home crowd, and the venue was stuffed with people who kept yelling “tell the one about...,” referring I guess to jokes that fans were fond of. After this Kevin Federline-looking dude in front of me started dancing erratically and closely enough to elbow me in the face, I grabbed my girlpal and dragged her out of there.
By 10 p.m. we were safely removed from Oh No! Oh My! and planted in a less-crowded audience at the Habana Calle 6 Annex. As we walked through the gate I heard a SXSW worker ask some girls, “Aren’t you going to stay for the Alabama boys?” and listened as the girls snickered and walked off. I thought later about how they had written off said 'Alabama boys' Through The Sparks too soon because their set stood out as being one of my favorites that day. Their stage presence is questionable, I suppose: They certainly don’t shoegaze, but they don’t compete for attention, either. Frontman Jody Nelson was soft-spoken and self-deprecating, and it was easy but unfortunate to miss his stage banter. At one point he sat down at an electric piano and remarked something along the lines of, “They say that rock ’n’ roll died when Buddy Holly died, but I think it died when people started bringing these fuckers onstage” and motioned toward a laptop computer the band used during their set. Traditionally their songs have been most easily categorized as folk rock, but apparently their upcoming record is different enough to warrant the label “avant/experimental,” which is how they were listed on SXSW.com. This set featured a little bit of both sounds, and the band, like Nelson himself, exhibited a quiet confidence that helped them appear relaxed and unassuming.
After Through The Sparks’ set we trucked it back over to La Zona Rosa to catch some boys (and a girl) from overseas: Tunng and Peter, Bjorn & John. I was worried that with all the blog buzz, PB& J would have the place packed out enough that we couldn’t get back in, but there were surprisingly few people there. I immediately guessed why. Onstage was Fink, a.k.a. Finian Greenhall. Not knowing who Fink was and not knowing much about Tunng other than that “Jenny Again” song is awesome and that they were high on my list of bands to see, I was incredibly disappointed at the thought that I might in fact be seeing Tunng. The mediocrity was Fink, though, and luckily it didn’t last very long.
The stage setup for Tunng was interesting to watch. I observed as three chairs were planted fairly far apart from each other onstage and three chairs were set behind and to the left of those chairs. This was where the laptop that would produce the band’s scratchy electronica sound was set up. To the right of the stage was what my friend called an “adjunct percussionist” setup: various wind chimes and a triangle tied to a string that was stretched across and tied at either end. There were three guitar players, the adjunct percussionist with his weird instrumentation, and a female background vocalist/tambourine player in a swishy dress. The group, from London, seemed excited to be in the U.S. and playing for such a large crowd and was polite to the audience between songs. The vocalists’ harmonies were strongly reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, and the glitchy laptop add-ins contributed to the originality of the songs. They played my previously mentioned favorite, “Jenny Again,” and pleased the crowd with their unique take on Bloc Party’s “The Pioneers.” My feet hurt and my back ached terribly by this point, but as a folkie at heart I was dazzled and invigorated by this beautiful set, and it turned out to be my favorite from the entire festival.
Next up was every indie kid’s favorite Swedish pop group, Peter, Bjorn & John. As extreme crowd pleasers, they were the appropriately chosen headliner for the night, though I found myself wishing they were playing at a time I felt more like seeing them. After playing a few songs, principal singer Peter Morén mouthed off at the audience for talking; he mocked the industry in a thick Swedish accent, suggesting that the talkers were bored industry people with better things to do. They were touring as a three-piece (and of course their name suggests they are nothing more than that) and naturally played many of the songs differently than they sound on the records. Although they played songs from every record, the crowd responded most to the tracks from 2006 release Writer’s Block, particularly “Young Folks” and Björn Yttling’s “Amsterdam,” which was played at a slower speed live. Morén soaked up the crowd’s energy, and during the last song he crazily abused his guitar, rubbing it against the mic stand and sliding it across the stage, ending by dancing upon it. The practical side of me hoped he didn’t pay a lot of money for it and that it could easily be replaced, but another part of me was pretty damn excited to witness the spectacle.
Yet another part of me was dying to skip the cab ride home and immediately be asleep on my side of the bed in our crowded hotel room. Excited by a day full of great shows yet exhausted from all the activity by 2 a.m., I thought about little else besides sleep — and whether I’d see anything later in the week that would top my first day at SXSW.
All photos by Leah Hutchison, except Through the Sparks photo by Traci Edwards