SXSW: Day 1
03-14-2007;

[03-14-2007]

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

(Day 1) (Day 2) (Day 3)

Of Montreal / Elekibass / DJ Jester the Filipino Fist
Emo's; Austin, TX

[02-16-2007]

Out of the many bands that emerged from the legendary Elephant Six collective, Of Montreal are my favorite. Although some may consider that statement blasphemous, they should be able to concede that Of Montreal are both the most prolific and the most consistent. Their music may not have the emotional weight of Neutral Milk Hotel's or the sonic density of Olivia Tremor Control's, but when it comes to intelligent whimsy and monster hooks, Of Montreal can't be beat. After being blown away by their third album, The Gay Parade eight years ago, I've bought each successive release and seen as many of their live shows as possible. I even spent my 21st birthday at an Of Montreal show!

Unlike most staid indie-pop bands, I can count on them to deliver a completely different set every time. I've watched them play behind cardboard statues of themselves, stage one-act plays between songs, and change costumes and instruments with a frequency and fluidity that would make Prince nod approvingly. With talent, charisma and an exhausting work ethic (have they stopped touring even ONCE since 2004?), Of Montreal had garnered a following big enough to make this show their third consecutive Austin sell-out in as many years.

The standing area of Emo's was already three-quarters full by the time opener DJ Jester The Filipino Fist's set began. This San Antonio turntablist specializes in odd mash-ups, about half of which sounded as good booming through the club's P.A. as they do in theory. Placing Stephen Malkmus' voice from Pavement's "Summer Babe" atop the beat from the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait" was a stroke of genius; on the other hand, placing 50 Cent's voice from "In Da Club" atop an old country song was just corny. More troubling than his choice of tunes, though, was his lack of technical skill: there were frequent lapses in synchronization, and his scratching was merely serviceable. He frequently abandoned his turntables to toss lollipops into the audience. Unfortunately, he only tossed them to one side of the audience (read: not mine). The oral gratification might've compensated for the fact that there was little room in the standing area for me (or anyone else, for that matter) to dance.

The inclusion of Japanese sextet Elekibass on the bill could be interpreted as Of Montreal's way of appeasing fans who are dismayed by the increasingly electronic backdrops on their last few albums. Elekibass' sprightly guitars-and-drums pop is a throwback to the Gay Parade era, with the only major difference being the obvious language barrier, which singer Sakamoto's stammering stage banter exploited to hilarious effect. He spent entire sections of songs stumbling for words to say to the audience, only to give up and shout, "I can't speak English!" This frustration, of course, only compelled the audience to clap and shout even louder. Elekibass also share Of Montreal's theatrical aplomb. The band began its set by marching through the crowd with their instruments. The members struck poses between songs for anyone who wanted to take pictures of them. They padded their songs with more false endings than I could possibly count, only to receive the shock of their lives when the unfazed audience began chanting "ONE MORE TIME!!!" How much of the audience's appreciation was based on novelty, I'm unable to say. The band's talent, though, cannot be denied.

After a suitably bombastic prerecorded orchestral fanfare, Of Montreal walked on stage in outfits that looked like they were stolen from Ziggy Stardust's closet. They began their set by playing the first half of their latest album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, in order. Although frontman Kevin Barnes was in fine voice, he sounded strangely removed from the backing tracks. This could partially be blamed on the live mix: the Emo's sound men occasionally have trouble making instrumental setups more complex than the standard guitar/bass/drums triumvirate sound good. Multi-instrumentalists Dottie Alexander and Derek Almstead often looked confused. It seemed the labyrinthine backing tracks left no room for them to do more than play the occasional fill and dance around. The set didn't start gaining momentum until the band played Hissing Fauna standout "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider," which provoked the set's first audience sing-along.

Unfortunately, this momentum was derailed when a man in the audience held up a huge sign with the Outback Steakhouse logo on it, presumably to protest the band's decision to allow the restaurant to use Satanic Panic gem "Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games" in a recent commercial of theirs. A bouncer rushed through the crowd and violently dragged the man out of the venue. A few songs later, Barnes addressed the audience:

"The guy who held up that sign made me really sad. Although I can understand why someone would do something like that, I'd hope that he would have more respect for me and my band than to do that. It's clearly obvious that we haven't sold out. I mean, I'm wearing a fucking G-string on stage! Let's get back to the positive vibe we had before that happened…with a song about molesting dead people!"

The band then launched into "Chrissy Kiss the Corpse," a Satanic Panic ditty that couldn't have proved Barnes' point better: despite the song's peppiness, its morbid subject matter was bound to keep it trapped in the college radio ghetto. Likewise, Hissing Fauna is a concept album about divorce and depression that boasts nearly unpronounceable titles like "Hiemdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse." Despite the Outback commercial, Barnes can't be accused of dumbing his music down for mass consumption.

Anyway, Of Montreal's set got progressively better from that point forward. On the sleazy funk jam "Faberge Falls for Shuggie," Barnes took off his guitar and shimmied around the stage; his falsetto sounded twice as supple live as it does on the recorded version. When Almstead manned the drums for the anthem "She's a Rejector," the band rocked harder than I could've possibly expected. They ended their set with "The Party's Crashing Us," my favorite song from their previous album The Sunlandic Twins, and the closest that they've ever come to writing a radio-friendly hit (even though the F-word appears in the lyrics). I, my best friend, and everyone else around us jumped up and down to the beat like the ground was a trampoline, higher and higher until the song reached its abrupt end. This was my 10th time seeing Of Montreal live, and they haven't let me down yet.

Ume / Tia Carrera / White Denim
The Mohawk; Austin, TX

[01-27-2007]

Of all the shows that took place in Austin this evening, this one excited me the most: three of the city's best power trios playing at one of the city's best new clubs. In its first year of existence, the Mohawk has succeeded where previous clubs in its location have failed, thanks to a combination of smart booking, technological savvy (all of the venue's shows are videotaped, the best of which are spotlighted on its MySpace profile) and great amaretto sours. The soundman is occasionally ornery: last November, Pattern Is Movement's frequent pleas for mixing adjustments compelled him to turn the house jukebox on after their fourth song. What club nowadays doesn't have an ornery soundman, though? Fortunately, he was both pleasant and professional this evening.

Earlier this month, the Austin Chronicle published a list of "10 ATXers to Watch in 2007." Opening act White Denim placed ninth on the list, and the band's set this evening completely justified the accolades. Their kinetic sound recalls everything from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's garage stomp to Old Time Relijun's lo-fi voodoo to the Minutemen's funk-flavored punk. The drummer did awe-inspiring things with polyrhythms and beat displacement. The bassist played fleet-fingered runs with such intensity that his glasses frequently flew off of his face. The guitarist glided through quick chord changes and bluesy solos. All three members sang in goofy yet strong voices; the guitarist, in particular, has a killer falsetto. The band's charisma ruled out the polite indifference that opening acts are usually greeted with, as each song was greeted with increasingly uproarious applause. The highlight of the set was "Let's Talk about It," which boasted a cowbell-driven groove that could've cured Christopher Walken's fever in seconds flat. Bring on the album, guys!

Tia Carrera followed White Denim with a set of mind-melting stoner metal. Think of the best hard rock concert you've ever seen, and fast-forward to the moment where the guitarist starts soloing like crazy, slowly coercing the rest of the band to join him in a collective burst of improvisational frenzy. Well, Tia Carrera's songs BEGIN at that point and get even wilder for the next 15 to 20 minutes. Guitarist Jason Morales went totally "Machine Gun" on us, dousing every solo with heaping helpings of fuzz, flange and wah. Erik Conn's drumming was both hard and fluid: each snare and tom hit felt like a gunshot, and every other bar ended with a newer, trickier fill. Bassist Andrew Duplantis switched back and forth between playing against Erik and playing against Jason. Like all good improvisational bands, Tia Carrera knows when to come together to state a musical theme, and when to diverge from it; the members actually listen to each other, and this synergy gives their jams a discernible structure. They played for 35 minutes, only stopping once, and would've played longer if Andrew hadn't broken a string. Put these guys on a bill with Boris, and enough head-banging will ensue to fill the emergency room of St. David's with whiplash victims. (Unfortunately, the comely Hawaiian actress from whom the band gets its name did not attend the show.)

Two years ago, I panned Ume's debut album Urgent Sea on another website, dismissing it as a second-rate Sonic Youth imitation with a slight metallic tint. When they played at last year's SXSW, they made me eat my words with a downright feral set. I've seen them live four times since then, and they've never disappointed. No one who sees Ume perform can take their eyes off of singer/guitarist Lauren Larson. Off stage, she's a diminutive, dollish blonde with a timid speaking voice; on stage, she is a rock machine with stage presence to spare. She frequently stepped away from the microphone to convulse around the stage, hair flying everywhere, swinging the neck of her guitar up and down as if she were jousting. Her voice switched effortlessly from a kittenish coo to a frightening growl, outdoing her recorded performances by a very wide margin. At this point, Lauren's Kim Gordon impersonation is even better than the real thing! Her guitar playing is even more impressive: she adorns each song with long-lined melodies of an almost classical grandeur.

By no means, though, is my emphasis on Lauren meant to discredit Ume's rhythm section. They restarted "Hurricane" a few times because drummer Jeff Barrera kept playing the intro too fast, an oversight that he blamed on drunkenness. That blunder aside, he and bassist Eric Larson did a fine job supplanting Lauren with hefty, propulsive backdrops. The band's newer songs, which took up half the set, are better than those on their debut: Lauren's vocals make more room for melody, and the changes in tempo and dynamics are smoother. Although I still don't listen to Urgent Sea that often, I definitely consider myself an Ume fan, for their live shows have made me eager to hear their next album.

Grizzly Bear / Dirty Projectors
Subterranean; Chicago, IL

[02-09-2007]

The Dirty Projectors opened up for Grizzly Bear with a unique set showcasing mastermind Dave Longstreth's impressive vocals, which he often pushed to the limits of his upper range. Having only heard one song before, I wasn't prepared for their odd mix of unstructured rock, funk and lounge; I had been expecting more of an offbeat indie sound, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear something more original than that. Joined by two female singers, the blend of their voices together made for a nice touch. It’s not a sound I can see myself seeking out on a regular basis, so I probably won’t be going out and picking up the Dirty Projectors' back catalog, but I will say it was a really interesting performance I'm glad to have witnessed.

After The Dirty Projectors wrapped up Grizzly Bear came on stage and proceeded to play the tightest, most flawless set I could have possibly imagined. Their music, which my inferior home speakers unjustly flatten, came totally alive in Subterranean, the dense layers of sound wafting all over the room. The male harmonies that often involve all four band members were on perfect pitch and sounded amazing. These harmonies were best displayed during my favorite song (and everyone else' favorite, too, judging by the number of covers currently flooding the web), "Knife," where sounds I would have thought were coming from an instrument or even a computer were proven to actually be coming from bassist Chris Taylor's mouth. Meanwhile, the fantastically repetitive choruses of "Lullabye" and "Colorado" ("Chin Up/Cheer Up" and "What Now/What Now... ) echoed beautifully around the room and left me in a trance.

Although most of the set list came from 2006 critical darling Yellow House, it was exciting to hear a few tracks from debut album Horn of Plenty performed live; songs like “Fix It” sounded so much fuller taken out of the fuzzy, though endearing, lo-fi aesthetic of Horn’s bedroom recording. Grizzly Bear even managed to squeeze in a Bearified cover of the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss),” the second Crystals cover I’d heard in the past week (the other being Asobi Seksu’s wonderful, distorted version of "And Then He Kissed Me"). Done in their signature style, singer Ed Droste left me pontificating on the hidden meaning of the song and wondering what it was about the Crystals that make them the current 'band to cover' du jour.

The band wrapped the show up sans encore but on a great note with their most upbeat song, "On a Neck, On a Spit," sending me skipping out the door with the tune in my head. It reminded me that what I love about this band is that they somehow hide these incredible pop melodies under all these thick layers of fuzz, and the result is positively gorgeous.

The Books / Jack Rose / Essie Jain
Webster Hall; New York, NY

[01-27-2007]

Music preferences can be seasonal. Summer brings sweaty, bass-heavy backbeats and punchy, sing-along choruses, while the colder months demand slower, deeper, quieter but more complex and nourishing fare. When the elements are at their harshest, we start craving aural comfort — and not the mindless kind we get from Super Mondo Rad Dance Party Hits of the '80s. We want something serene yet challenging, something that warms us on the inside while still acknowledging the deep freeze outside. In other words, The Books are as perfect for mid-winter as wool sweaters and ice skates. Lucky for me (and the rest of the assembled crowd), the rest of the night’s bill was not only equally appropriate for January, but also a refreshing departure from indie rock as usual.

Singer-songwriter Essie Jain set the tranquil mood for the night, sharing a cozy corner of the Webster Hall stage with only a keyboard and her guitar player. Her folk-tinged music recalled late-'60s Joni Mitchell, with a broader vocal range and thicker sound. Essie’s personal lyrics and powerful voice were most prominent, bolstered by simple, deliberate instrumentals. Though I had never heard her music before, every song felt like a familiar lullaby.

Jack Rose was so unassuming that it took me a few minutes to notice his performance had begun. An acoustic guitar soloist, his instrumental music conjured string traditions from around the world, flowing seamlessly between idioms as disparate as Indian raga and Appalachian folk. Each song was an intricate, meandering journey. I spent much of the set just watching his fingers move across the strings and wondering how he managed to get so much sound out of just one guitar.

As for The Books, here’s my theory: There are two types of transcendent concerts. The first, more common, kind is an active, intense experience. You drink; you dance; you scream the lyrics; you make new friends and share in a room-wide adrenaline rush. You come home drained but sated. And that rare second type? Well, that’s the concert that expands your mind.

How it expands your mind, exactly, depends on the concert. This one wasn’t so much about the music itself (though I have no complaints on that front), but about the entire experience. Before I really get into it, you’re going to have to allow me one little anecdote that I’m pretty much only including because it amuses me. Humor me the way you would your verbose grandpa, huh? So the first thing Nick Zammuto said when he got onstage was, “The only people that used to come to our concerts were a lot of nerdy Pitchfork-type writers.” He remarked that he was seeing a lot more couples at The Books’ shows, and that made him happy. My first thought was, “Haha, Pitchfork.” Then I looked down at my notepad and pen and remembered that I was in no way exempt from the nerddom Zammuto described. End of anecdote. Back to transcendence.

The band warned us that they didn’t have much “radically new” material, but what they lacked in previews, they more than compensated for with their unique combination of visual and aural elements. This may seem like nothing new — from Le Tigre to The Faint, it seems like every other band is integrating video elements into their live performances. The Books themselves have been accompanying their performances with video for a few years now. The real innovation comes in the way Zammuto and Paul de Jong have begun to meld video-making and songwriting into something simultaneous and interconnected. The few new pieces that the band did play featured complex, often witty and pointed, interplay between live performance, pre-recorded audio samples, and video elements. For one song, they explained, they synched the frame rate of the video to the tempo of the music. During the slow introduction, the video appeared as a series of still shots, with glitchy transitions in between. As the tempo picked up, the video speed approached 24 frames per second (the traditional frame rate for color film) and eventually exceeded it, images flying by almost too quickly to process.

There were other memorable moments, including The Books’ rendition of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song.” Zammuto’s brother, Mike, joined the band onstage for his own impressive song, “The Classy Penguin,” while the screen showed a series of photos of the musicians as children. The duo left the stage completely as the clever, Japanese-themed video for (what else?) “Tokyo” played, challenging the entire notion of what live performances can and should be.

The Books have always been an idea band, and it’s exciting to see them expand further into multimedia experimentation. I left the show wondering whether I should call what I just saw a “concert” or whether it was time to invent a new word altogether. It made a lot of sense when Zammuto announced the band doesn’t have a new album in the works but is planning to release a DVD of their videos — The Books may be the first band in the world to evolve past the LP.

Photo: Sean Ruch

Cable #11: One-Night Experimental Fest
Blockhaus 10; Nantes, France;

[Blockhaus 10; Nantes, France]

Cable #11 was a noisy, nasty, wonderful night of music held in a cramped bunker built during WWII by the Nazis. Homemade benches and tables. Homemade instruments too. The soirée was organized in part by Will Guthrie, an Aussie and Nantes resident whom I saw perform at Pannonica a few months ago.

Keith Rowe and Ben Patterson showed early on that this was going to be a special night. Their set was, at once, medical, visceral, and abstract. They sat at a card table and scraped rocks across rocks, sometimes knocking them together, occasionally employing the amputated neck of an electric guitar with a motorized toothbrush sitting atop the strings. Everything was closely mic’d and reverbed. The smallest movement of the stones on the table created sounds that made the bones in my chest vibrate. I imagined steps down a corridor to a giant morgue or boulders falling in a deep crevasse. The duo performed two pieces in one stunning half-hour burst. I love how experimental music can bring your focus back to essentials; in this case, I rediscovered my appreciation for the simplicity and power of rotation, vibration, and friction as musical agents.

Next, Fabrice Favriou unleashed a distortion fetishist’s dream: a 30-minute screed where the dude recorded the carnivorous feedback from his guitar with pedals and then looped the shit over top of new noise he made by jamming a wire brush from a drumkit across the pickups. His show had a nice crest and release that finished with some pecking at a cymbal with the headstock of his guitar. I must emphasize the violence of the sound and technique here: halfway through the set, I could no longer hear and he was no longer holding his ax like it was an instrument. It was swinging in front of him, parallel to the ground. It looked like he was holding his guts in.

The best act of the night was Anthony Pateras / Sean Baxter / David Brown, a trio of Aussies that improvised on prepared piano and guitar and drums. The music was somehow raucous and sophisticated all at once, and the dynamic tension among the three was fascinating to watch.

The oldest member of the group sat in the middle and tweaked the prepared strings of his polished guitar with the precision of an acupuncturist. He remained stoic throughout the set. The men to his right and left, however, let fly. For a while I thought the pianist had even taken the strings completely out of his instrument. In fact, he had loaded that baby with handfuls of common bolts and screws which somehow yielded tones remarkably similar to those from an African mbira. I loved his playing style: he often looked more like a furious stenographer than a pianist, his fingers typing madly over each other at the high end of the keyboard. He used the butt of his palm to mash rows of keys at once. The playing, however, was passionate without being wayward. It was the perfect counterpoint to the broad poise of the guitar and the childlike violence taking place on the drumkit a few feet away.

The drummer used a large set of wind chimes as “drumsticks” and simply pulverized his kit with them. He shoved the chimes into the drums, as if they were long metal pills to be swallowed by the drums’ flat mouths. His foot was always on the kick pedal, sending agitated rolls of bass tone through the cacophony spilling out above them. At one point his drumsticks were actual sticks (like from trees), which he broke and dropped onto the drums from two feet above.

In the last piece, he used tin flatware to attack his drums. After several minutes of battering breadpans and platter covers, the piece reached its dramatic peak as he cracked a plastic plate with agonizing slowness.1 He and the pianist often looked at each other as they played: the pianist’s head bobbed; the drummer’s eyes widened with what looked like the fierce hope that he could keep assaulting his kit all night.

The final set came courtesy of Brit Tim Goldie, who poured beer on himself, struck kung-fu poses, put a snare drum over his face and screamed through the surface of it, and generally did his best to torture us with acute metal-on-metal screeches. It was a fittingly discordant end to a night that was altogether beautiful thanks to the originality of its attendant terrors.

1This, to me, was amazing. P, B, & B had developed the tension in this piece so thoroughly that a room full of people was fucking {mesmerized by a guy bending a plate. This is the only thing that was happening. No guitar, no mad piano. Just a man and his bare hands and a Frisbee. And it was musical.}

  

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