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Festival Review and Photos: South By Southwest – Friday, March 18, 2011, Austin, TX


Early in the first set of my fourth day in Austin, Owen Pallett addressed the audience by saying, “it’s nice to not be playing for suits.” And isn’t that the stigma of South By Southwest? That it is some big industry back-patting pageant and elbow-rubbing convention. And while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy meeting some of the artists I admire and some of the colleagues that only existed as email addresses in my mind, an “industry event” in the music business discounts the fact that most people involved in the music business are music’s biggest fans.

Nearly every show I attend in Los Angeles is populated other bands, people who work for labels, bloggers, and public relations specialists. Strangely, the music industry keeps itself afloat through a constant stream of support. Sure, we don’t like everything, but as a writer and photographer, I have rarely felt anything less than supported from all aspects of the industry. Sure, there are people whose life mission it seems to shit on as many people possible, but for every one like that, there are tons of pure music fans who try to stay afloat in the industry for the lone goal of working around something they truly love. And I rarely see any of them in suits.

So while it may seem lame in theory, to go to a festival and hang out with all the people who tirelessly try to promote bands they believe in, remember that every show you go to is probably not much different. Sure, we are more diluted there, but we are also the ones who may be next to you cheering, buying tequila shots at the bar, or lighting your cigarette outside. And it may sound cheesy, but it is music that brings us all together. And booze. Music and booze.

Owen Pallett

Not that Owen Pallett meant anything by the statement. In fact, from the moment he began, Pallett seemed at home on the stage and I doubt that would change for any audience, suits or not. The crowd showed their hand early, shouting out requests from all corners of the Flamingo Cantina, site of day two of Under The Radar’s SXSW party. “I’ll play everything,” Pallett responded, which wasn’t that far from the truth, as he went long on his set and limited some later acts to shorter sets.

And while this may piss off some Surfer Blood fans, Pallett was in his groove and no one seemed willing to stop him. The highlight came when the singer announced that he was going to play a cover that he had stopped performing, from back when it wasn’t cool to like Joanna Newsom (and trust me, as a huge Newsom-head, it still doesn’t very cool to listen to Joanna Newsom). This brought on “Peach, Plum, Pear,” maybe Newsom’s best song and a imaginatively faithful cover from Pallett.

From there, he kept going, breaking only in his final number to announce that these should be his final dates as a solo act, as he is now working with a drummer and is “so excited for you to hear it.” Some may sigh at the thought of Pallett not being the virtual workhorse on stage, composing his own loops and entertaining with both his charismatic personality and his constant struggle to get everything just right. But, artists must grow and change, or else they fall into the trap of merely trying to top their past achievements. With new added dynamics to his act, Pallett can do just about whatever he wants. But I was glad I got to see this solo performance, even if it was for only this one time.

Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood played about 64 shows over a week at SXSW. Maybe not that many, but a lot. So, it was understandable that they seemed physically exhausted when they took the stage. Luckily, they only had time for five songs, which the band seem genuinely annoyed at. But, it looked like the band could use the break, especially considering the intense heat that accumulated in the small bar.

And, though young, Surfer Blood already know how to roll with the punches and turn out professional performances, even if their heart isn’t totally in it. The band split their set between three old numbers and two new ones. The uninitiated would have trouble telling them apart, except for the fact that “Floating Vibes,” their unplanned closer, was clearly the strongest one. The other tunes, which included “Twin Peaks,” felt fun and breezy, leaving the audience with the kind of set that would please fans, but probably not convert any new ones.

Telekinesis

As someone who sees a lot of live music, I find myself often in the same argument, claiming that someone has to see the band live to really get it. Telekinesis, an artist that never really caught my attention on record, would fit this bill perfectly. Even while setting up, touring guitarist Cody Votolato leaned over and sincerely asked a few of us up front how we were doing, seeming to be looking for small talk while the rest of the band got ready. This light-hearted attitude seemed prevalent in all three members of the live version of Michael Benjamin Lerner’s solo project. Like Lord Huron the day before, it was taylor-made for the hot cantina vibe. All the songs seemed anthematic and spirited, with the pop-sensibility of Lerner guiding the over-the-top performance. Votolato could be seen mouthing along the words, far away from the microphone. Maybe I just didn’t get Telekinesis before seeing them perform, but I get them now.

Menomena

The first time I saw Menomena in concert, it was upon the release of Friend and Foe. So, though I knew Brent Knopf had left the band, it was still a bit of a shock to realize he was really gone. Of course, the band stays clear of material, at least in this brief set, where he might really be missed, and focuses on the Justin Harris-led tunes. This isn’t so bad, as Harris sings some of the band’s strongest numbers.

The Portland-based group opened with oldie “Muscle ‘n Flo,” sounding a little thin, but establishing themselves as an act worthy of attention. Sounding thin wouldn’t be a problem again, as the band nailed the remainder of the set pretty perfectly. The setlist hit the high points of their two most known releases, featuring “Weird,” “TAOS,” “Killemall,” and “Queen Black Acid.” Harris rotated between the guitar and saxophone seamlessly and Danny Seim filled in the harmonies and ably backed with his percussion. After finding out they only had a couple minutes left, the band launched into a feverish version of “The Pelican,” with Harris losing his voice in the second verse and muscling through it out of pure will. Everything was left on stage, making the 4pm set feel like a night-ender.

Okkervil River

Full disclosure: Okkervil River are pretty-much my favorite band. So, to see the band come out a little frustrated made me worried that the band would not be at their best. Before they began, news struck the band that they would have to cut a song from the set (“Mermaid”). Sheff broke the news to his bandmates and they sunk in disappointment. From there, Sheff announced to the whole crowd that if they see a man in an orange vest, know that he is a little man enjoying his three days of power. Rough opening, right?

Fortunately, this precursor didn’t represent the set at all. The band waded through mix problems with enthusiasm during opener “John Allyn Smith Sails,” leading to crowd whoops and hollers during the “Sloop John B” closing. The group then treated the home crowd to two new tunes; “Rider,” an anthematic rocker that would fit perfectly on the last two albums and “Wake and Be Fine,” a galloping shouter that showcases a new sound for the vets.

From there, it was the hits. “For Real” led to singing along that would not cease until the end of the set, “Lost Coastlines” got everyone in the building dancing against each other, “Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe” saw the audience clapping along as requested, something Sheff fails to get in larger venues (at least relative to the hundred percent participation that he did in Austin). And finally, the climactic “Unless It’s Kicks” which caused everyone to raise their hands to the sky in rock and roll prayer. Sheff held us in the palm of his hand and let any personal frustration drop from his mind. As they say, the show must go on.

Jaill

So, then I went and saw Odd Future, right? HA! One look at the Fader Fort line situation and I knew this was not my day. So, I spent a good couple hours enjoying the art of sitting and treated myself to some delicious southern meatloaf (seen below). And after the break, it was back to my stomping ground, Red 7, for the Sub Pop/Hardly Art showcase.

Now, in the music industry, there are record labels, and there is Sub Pop. Any time I have to send an email or in any way deal with the behind the scenes stuff, when it is with Sub Pop, it is a joy. Not that the rest of the music world isn’t pleasant, Sub Pop is just the best. Everyone knows it. And, their roster of artists is pretty hard to match in terms of quality and creativity.

Of course, I don’t know every band on the label. Take Jaill, who rocked an enthusiastic garage sound. It was pleasant to watch, nice enough to hear, but not the kind of set that would blow anyone away. But, needless to say, I was not there specifically to see Jaill, it was just a delightful consequence.

Colleen Green

Because of the strength of the Sub Pop roster, I didn’t get to take in as much of the Hardly Art showcase as I would have liked. But, I did have the chance to take in L.A. based solo act Colleen Green. Green has a tremendous sense of melody and just enough punk attitude to be a convincing front woman. Unfortunately, she does not have the entertaining thing down completely yet, but for an artist who is still working on her debut LP, her songs show the promise of a name we will soon be hearing.

Shabazz Palaces

Due to no Odd Future, the first rap-based act I took in at SXSW was Shabazz Palaces. Yes, I shared your shock; Sub Pop has a rap group? Well, it’s not just any rap group. Focussed around Digable Planets member Palaceer Lazaro, the act is, well, to borrow a term, it’s next level shit. Experimental, strange, and captivating, Shabazz Palaces defies labels and words. It is music from the gut, from the soul, and from the mind, but, you know, with vocal effects. I can honestly say I’ve never really witnessed anything like it, and I loved every second of it. Plus, it takes balls to be a rap group on the bill with all rock acts, but Shabazz Palaces didn’t shy away from who they are, even getting a couple female artists to join them and make the moody raps seem more like a party.

Obits

Looking over my notes from Obits’ set, I apparently felt the need to write one word: “rock.” A band of old dudes, with names like Drives Like Jehu and Hot Snakes coming from their past, they produce as straight forward of rock you will find outside of Jack White projects. Guitarist Sohrab Habibion thrust his Rickenbacker with emotion and frontman Rick Froberg, who looks a little like Thurston Moore, commands his side of the stage with attention-grabbing vocals and a piercing stare. Their live show is every bit as good as their new album, Moody, Standard, and Poor, which is saying a lot, because it is pretty damn good. For old guys.

Papercuts

Another band that fell victim to the short-set-blues was Papercuts. I felt a certain attachment to seeing them, as I never had before, had interviewed Jason Robert Quever recently, and had reviewed their recent album, Fading Parade. So was it a disappointment to have them cut to only five songs? Yes. Yes it was. But the band killed those five songs, sticking to what is probably their five strongest numbers.

Opening with the oldie “Dear Employee,” the SF group came off as lush, full, and sweet sounding, not overbearing the reverb, but rather sounding of the moment. The band can take some hits for their use of reverb, but on this night, they showed that their chops are very much there and Quever hides behind nothing when they sing. This led into new cut “Do What You Will,” with Quever reaching high for the chorus and coming down with the note every time.

The latter half of the set consisted of “Future Primitive,” an amazing “I’ll See You Later I Guess,” and their new album standout, “Do You Really Want To Know.” Throwing Papercuts in between Obits and Dum Dum Girls may have seemed like strange placement on paper (rock, dream pop, rock), but Papercuts were loud enough and based in emotional intensity, so it all kind of worked. Next time I see Papercuts, I want a few more songs, though.

Dum Dum Girls

Dum Dum Girls remind me of the girls you always wish would hang out with you, but you were too intimidated to talk to, and who might have seemed like ice queens from afar. But then, when you got to know them, you realized they were just normal girls with a sexy fashion sense and tattoos. Of course, they still wouldn’t sleep with you, but just having them around made you think that maybe some other hot chicks would. But then, that didn’t pan out either, and you were just left feeling really sexually frustrated and having to hang out with these cool hot chicks who had no interest in you sexually, whatsoever. Wait, what?

Looks aside, Dum Dum Girls offer catchy fuzz-pop tunes with attitude. That attitude can come across as harsh, but you have to think there is a soft spot under the harsh exterior. Just look at their opener, “He Gets Me High,” or their many other classically romantic tunes. But the girls perform with little emotion, and rather, serve their set up more or less emotionlessly. It works because it plays into the mystique, and you know they can’t keep it up forever. I think we are all waiting for the image to show the slightest crack.

J Mascis

I experienced J Mascis’ set in two parts. The first, for a couple songs, the mix was horrible and the vocals were overwhelming. I began to question everything: why I was in Austin, why J Mascis was performing solo-acoustically, what was going on inside, how many drinks had I consumed in that day? After answering question number three, I returned to see the J Mascis I had been hoping for, shredding his acoustic guitar, delivering his heartbreaking vocals, sporting badass silver Adidas, and shaking his head around. It’s nice to see him stepping out of his Dinosaur Jr. comfort zone, and in doing something different, reaffirming who he is as an artist.

Fergus and Geronimo

Like Papercuts, Fergus and Geronimo occupied a space of being a band that I had both interviewed and reviewed an album for, but never seen live. So, it was worth it to take a J Mascis break to see what the had to offer. It turns out, they have a lot.

Though a duo, Fergus and Geronimo fill out their band to six for the stage, filling our their bigger numbers to the intended sound, rather than trying to recreate the studio magic that couldn’t be performed by two people. There was no subtlety in the music, with even the more stripped-down tunes seeing a recreation for a bigger show. Though stuck on the smaller Red 7 indoor stage, songs like “Never Satisfied” were opened up to accommodate anyone who may have stumbled in.

And then there was the punky rendition of Devo’s “Girl You Want.” Sure, their album may seem all over the place, but seeing it come together on stage for a singular vision of the band was reassuring. What might be an impossible album to be pulled off live came together and probably won over a few new fans.

The Head and the Heart

And did Sub Pop save the best for last? Pretty much. The Head and the Heart, a band that has quickly graduated from coffee shops to opening for The Walkmen, made it easily apparent why Sub Pop was so willing to pick them up and distribute their debut. My instant reaction was to call them an indie Lady Antebellum, but another fair assessment would be a folky Arcade Fire. However you want to describe them, the blend of fiddle, guitar, piano and voices culminates in foot-stomping tunes, more than a couple of anthems, and a whole lot of good times.

Making their way through standouts “Down In The Valley” and “Lost In My Mind,” the end of the show provided two thrills. For one, the singer asked me for a light, making that the first experience I had ever had of lighting an onstage musician’s cigarette while he performed. And two, the band, which danced all over the stage and displayed comfort and care in their interaction with each other, incited a few new fans to join them, unsolicited on stage. These weren’t creepy stage divers or drunken buffoons, they were just inspired youngsters, who joined in by grabbing random percussion instruments and playing along. For a virtually unknown band, this was a proud moment of inspiration. For the crowd, it was a perfect ending to a long and fulfilling day.

< Read South By Southwest day three - Thursday March 17th

Read South by Southwest day five – Saturday March 19th >


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