Grizzly Bear / Beach House / Papercuts
Bowery Ballroom; New York, NY
Passing as much time in the restroom as possible, I am relieved of the tortuous compulsion that causes me to wash my hands repeatedly when I hear The Papercuts play a chord upstairs. The quietude that is near the stage of the Bowery Ballroom is a godsend, rivaling the booming forget-me-nots and sweet nothings that are being bellowed amiably by the bar flies downstairs. As the "cathedral of sound" — so aptly christened by record label Gnomonsong — of guitarist/vocalist Jason Quever's Papercuts begins to fill the empty corners of the room, I, along with the small crowd, give in willingly to the gospel drone. Unfortunately (and rather quickly), Quever's nasal pitch and the awkward pairing of his band mates become a little boring to watch. It is like walking down the street and coincidentally getting trapped in the traffic of a funeral parade.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with drone! It's been shown time and time again how much a good drone can perk your ears up. But this is just a lethargic bear trap (no pun intended) that makes me dread waiting two more hours for the headliner. Whatever Quever's brainchild was meant to be apparently sounds better on record in one’s living room, and it's easy to attribute this to his touring band: the insecure drummer, the stiff keyboardist, and the syncopated playing of the bassist who clearly belonged in a band more like Jane's Addiction (he was the one redeeming quality, albeit). Soon the nervous Papercuts are cut short due to a late start (they were "lost in the cold"), but fortunately, the next act would alleviate the frozen boredom of the room.
It's nice to see bands lugging their own amps, guitars, and drums onstage without the entourage of roadies and venue employees running amok, so it is even more pleasant when the graceful Beach House duo Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally set up a couple of keyboards and small amps within 10 minutes and initiate their show. A drum sample fills the now-thick air of the Bowery, preceding the soft synth anomalies of Legrand's throat. The latest success of their self-titled debut is nowhere to be found. In fact, this stage seems too minuscule to hold the power that Legrand possesses with her compelling gaze and pious vocals and Scally's ever-present shadow — this is a shocking realization. My eyes attempt to search the stage for something larger, something to complement the sounds that are encumbering me, but all I find is the small duo seated one behind the other: the boy lurched superfluously onto his guitar, the girl pounding away treacherously at her keyboard.
Legrand and Scally soar immaculately through songs like "Tokyo Witch," "House on the Hill," and mixtape favorite "Apple Orchard" before asking Papercuts' Quever to join on drums and tambourine on a slightly heavier version of "Childhood." Layers of tambourines, Scally's wavering guitar plucking, and Legrand's deep coo make this tiny duo's set enormous. Even a few new songs are thrown in that hint at a more complex, rhythmic, and pop direction for their next project. What makes Beach House a larger-than-life entity on that tiny stage is Legrand's big gaze, which scans the room relentlessly, possibly eyeing every person watching — a trait missing from The Papercuts. Between songs Legrand nonchalantly addresses two overlapping keys on her keyboard that make some chords sound off-kilter and quizzically, with soft sarcasm, asks the meaning of this vice: "a metaphor for tortured love?" With a rhetorical question that becomes preeminent throughout the night, Legrand perfectly summarizes the evening's delicate deliverance of languid, seductive, lo-fi synth pop.
Now, picture this: A flute trembles softly through the moist air of a hazy wood while a guitar is picked slowly and serene vocals lead you through a path to a yellow house, an ethereal wall of sound that materializes with Grizzly Bear's arrival. So went the stellar intro of the Brooklyn foursome as they cut the anticipation of the room with a mellowed "Easier." Immediately the intricacy of the band was at the forefront: Chris Taylor fidgeted with a number of instruments from the flute to bass to clarinet in the far left while the others harmonized impeccably with one another and their respectful instruments. Most of their set was full of derivations of some of Grizzly Bear's best songs. However, much to my disappointment, the steady flow of Yellow House was hardly present, contrary to what they would have had you believe with the "Easier" intro. Instead, there was a strange, blues-guitar-driven "Showcase," from their debut Horn of Plenty, seemingly out of place and reminiscent of a rehearsal rather than a band who within the last year have seen a large amount of recognition for their efforts.
Deviations are always a welcome subtlety, especially with a sound as eclectic as Grizzly Bear’s, but the problem was not the deviations, but how and where they occurred. On songs such as "Little Brother," "Colorado," and "Fix It," the originals were remade into rock-driven anthems that really jumbled my limbs, surprising me that these songs could be made so much more stirring. However, others, like "Lullaby" and "Showcase," left me wondering what was missing in these maladroit numbers compared to the epic monsters to come later. Whatever the answer, I was glad to see them pull it together for a fantastically raunchy version of "Little Brother," which immediately brought attention to drummer Christopher Bear. Airborne a score of times throughout the night, Bear slew each drumhead and crashed each cymbal with the intensity of a titan fighting a war, singing along to every lyric that head vocalist Ed Droste and guitarist/vocalist Daniel Rossen belted out, seemingly the greatest fan of what this band had accomplished within the last three years.
"Knife" followed, bringing Droste's incredible vocals into the spotlight, showcasing the diversity that his brainchild could bring not only to record, but also to a live audience. If anyone didn't get enough of the brilliant doo-wop here, it was certainly exciting to hear a poignant cover of The Crystals' hit "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" (a strange homage to the R&B beauties that Asobi Seksu have contributed to as well, covering "Then He Kissed Me" on their tour). "Fix It," also from Horn of Plenty, began with echoes of Droste's eerie recorder and ended with chanting that acted almost like a bridge assimilating the early recordings with the new.
They closed the night with "On a Neck, On a Spit," followed by a mellow encore from Rossen and Bear of a traditional song called "Deep Blue Sea." Strange how the night began with such a delicate tinkering of sound that quickly blew up into almost psychedelic territory, ending again on a subdued note. Maybe this was supposed to evoke a state of confusion. Once Taylor, Droste, Rossen and Bear left the stage, they also left the audience wondering if the songs played were really the songs they knew, if Grizzly Bear were capable of rendering so much credibility to their hype in roughly an hour. Simply put — befuddlement and bewilderment aside — yes.
by Mila Matveeva
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