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Festival Review and Photos: South By Southwest – Wednesday, March 16, 2011 – Austin, TX


Wednesday

In my preparation for South By Southwest, I created a spreadsheet with bands I was hoping to see, somehow under the impression that I could freely pass from club to club with ease. By my second day in Austin, I had nearly abandoned the guide in favor of my new philosophy: try to catch as many bands as possible in the same place.

Maybe some people don’t have the aversion to lines that I do. After all, growing up in the shadow of the Matterhorn teaches you that no matter how awesome Space Mountain is, there has to be a limit on how much time you are willing to sacrifice for a three minute ride.

Thus, the Force Field PR/Terrorbird party on Wednesday afternoon seemed to make sense in that it was easy to get into (if you got there early), had a remarkable lineup of bands, offered 2 free Sparks malt beverages, and was in the same venue I had been in the night before, thus making it easy to find. As the old knight dude says in Indiana Jones 3, I “chose wisely.”

Screaming Females

Screaming Females at a little after noon almost felt wrong, like such bruising rock should only be reserved for the deepness of night. I say almost, because Screaming Females could never really feel wrong. Marisa Paternoster shoots off Jello Biafra shaky vocals and loose, muscular guitar riffs that can bridge generations and taste levels. Yeah, Screaming Females are impressive to watch and to hear, and are about as good of sure bet as there exists right now.

Violens

Not every band on this bill could destroy like Screaming Females or some of the later groups would, and Violens, unfortunately fit this mold. After such a kinetic set, Violens felt pedestrian and thin. In their favor, the set was intriguing enough to make me think “I wonder what they sound like on record?” And that is really the goal of these kind of roster showcases, for the little guys to play with more established (and polished) acts and pique the interest of the chatty crowd. So in that, the set was a success. But at the time, it left room for desire.

Cloud Nothings

Cloud Nothings didn’t have any problem capturing attention. Playing the indoor stage, the Cleveland-based project of Dylan Baldi came across as loud and flexing, contrasting the boyish voice of the singer. From opener “Understand At All” onward, the set offered a fine juxtaposition of in your face punk rhythms with well-crafted pop songwriting. The drummer set his kit up sideways, a tool that allowed him to be a focal point rather than a backing player. This was also effective, as his bouncing pounds on the kit exuded the energy that we all felt.

As the set continued, it became noticeable that the small room was filling up, which made for a perfect time to display standout “Nothing’s Wrong,” as fine of a song as any young man can hope to write. Cloud Nothings are the poster boys of the power of youth, but it is Baldi’s confidence and maturity that the group will see their growth in musicianship and fanbase realized. Like any parent, it will be sad to see these kids grow up, but it will be beautiful to see them reach their potential.

Exray’s

San Francisco’s Exray’s were another group that fell short due to an unfavorable timeslot and a Sparks’d-up crowd. In sound, there were many similarities to one of my favorite groups, Silver Jews, but the sound-mix was poor and the music demanded more attention that the crowd was willing to give at that point. It was unfortunate for Exray’s, but the event’s free gift included their vinyl, so at least the band will have the opportunity for a second chance with a good portion of the crowd.

Braids

Looking back at the insane amount of music I took in over five days, Braids still stands out. I had little to no knowledge of what they were about, besides the fact that a few close friends made them seem like a big deal. But from the moment the four-piece embraced mid-stage in a long, pre-set group hug, it was clear that these Canadians were something different.

Their performance felt like the hug never ended. Raphaelle Standell-Preston, the primary singer, would lock gazes with her bandmates while she sang, and would encourage them with smiling eyes when their turn to take lead would come. This didn’t alienate the audience, which was about the size that had gathered for No Age the day before. Rather, it felt like you were privy to a basement band practice, that you were witnessing something intimate and by proxy, became involved in the intimacy.

At the thirty-minute sets’ conclusion, the filled patio erupted into what would have been a standing ovation, had we not all already been standing. Preston thanked the crowd with tears threatening to drop from her eyes, noting that the band was “so excited” to have been given the opportunity to come to Texas. It was a sincere and moving moment to see a band genuinely taken aback by the response it had received, and, it was comforting to know they deserved it. One of the best moments of the week.

Generationals

The tradition of on/off bands ended when Generationals followed an excellent set with another excellent set. These New Yorkers offer some straight-ahead pop with the crunch of garage amps to create a pogo-bounce of good times. But by the closing number, the group revealed some legitimate chops, showing off extended jams that never meandered, but rather, always seemed focused and direct. Often two dishes can seem off-putting when they are put next to each other and seem unrelated. But Braids and Generationals were both good enough that no one could care that they were drastically different.

Weekend

Before the San Francisco three-piece Weekend took the stage, a couple near me asked if they were worth seeing. After I proclaimed my enjoyment of Weekend, I likened them to a more melodic A Place To Bury Strangers, something that after my second time seeing them, I stick with. Weekend’s set was hurt slightly by the Red 7 patio’s recurring mix problems, but they made up for it in noise and attitude.

One of the first things that you will notice when you look at the band is that they look like men, not so much like the adolescents that make up the majority of bands of the indie scene. And while I would never judge a book by its cover, Weekend seem to have a leg up on the indie competition in that they have a clear idea what they are doing and where they are going. In particular, Kevin Johnson’s comfort with his guitar leads you to believe that every piece of feedback and every ringing note is carefully orchestrated. Throw on there the finishing jammer of “Coma Summer,” complete with the looped wails of Shaun Durkan, and you have yourself a promising niche band that I’m willing to bet will be able to tweak their sound for a little broader appeal with their next release.

Toro Y Moi

Now it’s not that I don’t like Toro Y Moi; I do. Sort of. If nothing else, I respect Chaz Bundick a whole lot. His basement project turned full-on band has received much acclaim and far be it for me to say it is undeserved. I, personally, find it a little hard to get into, hence my in-set tweeting of “Boro Y Moi” and “Toro Y Blah” (possibly “Toro Y Yawn” also, but I can’t take credit to coining any of these).

That being said, I was hoping for my first live Toro Y Moi experience to be Bundick, on stage, fiddling with knobs and instruments, creating loops, and somehow, trying to pull off the juggling act. What we got was a pretty straight-forward funk-rock show. It was something different to the album, which you have to commend him for. It pleased pretty much everyone in attendance, which I can’t discount. But, I was disappointed, which is the thought I will leave you with.

tUnE-yArDs

As I said for Toro Y Moi, there is a certain joy from watching an artist try to create a grand scope by themselves. Of course, Merrill Garbus doesn’t work alone. In fact, she even has a two member horn section incorporated into the live set. But Garbus is both the voice and spirit of tUnE-yArDs, creating her own percussion loops, rocking ukelele, and adding in a bevy of texture. Add to this the complex harmonies and you have a stimulating live set.

That being said, despite the complexity of what is going on on-stage, the music has a base appeal of being easily accessible due to her power of melody. Sure the rasta vibe (see “Gangsta”) may cause an eye-roll or two, but like her former tour mates Dirty Projectors, stoney rock can be just as thought provoking and satisfying as any genre when given the care that tUnE-yArDs provide. The crowd ate it up and hung on every sound that came from the stage, including an eruption at the conclusion on “Powa.” With a much anticipated (and getting great advanced reviews, might I add) album due next month, it would seem that tUnE-yArDs has the most to gain of anyone that went on stage at the Red 7 on Wednesday afternoon. And they left the set with a profile strapped to a rocket, ready for launch.

Yuck

From the Force Field PR/Terrorbird party, I made my way to Stubbs Barbecue for Duran Duran. Actually, that is not true. Though Duran squared were the headlining act for the showcase, I came for the openers, with the plan to take in three acts and make my way to Queens of the Stone Age to end the night. Stubbs is one of the most storied venues in Austin, with a 2,500 person dirt backyard and a giant stage to house all sorts of travelling bands. Plus, there is great food and you can smoke. It is a great place to take in a show, and offered the UK’s Yuck as the first band on their bill.

As I mentioned, Stubbs is a huge stage, and Yuck attacked it mightily. Having seen them a couple months ago in a smaller club, I can say that the band was not quite as comfortable playing in front of the huge audience. Luckily, the giant audience didn’t notice. Opening with “Holing Out” and “The Wall” allowed the band to rock out from the get go, with frontman Daniel Bloomburg occasionally losing his shit and yelping away from the microphone.

But Yuck, much like their club date, saved the best for last, with their catchiest tune “Operation” and their epic “Rubber” closing out the 8-song set. “Rubber” saw the members building the song into oblivion, erupting into a barrage of beautiful noise. For an opener, you will be hard pressed to get much better than Yuck.

James Blake

If the photo pit was any indicator, James Blake was one of the must-see acts of SXSW. People stood shoulder-to-shoulder to snap a shot of the British post-dubstep darling. Sadly, his set was delayed with technical difficulties and had to cut three songs, limiting the performance to just five tunes. On the bright side, if anyone questioned James Blake’s (and his small backing band’s) ability to transform his dense album to the stage should be comforted to know that he does, and perfectly.

Of course, outdoors with more than 2,000 people isn’t quite the ideal environment to take him in (which some Duran Duran fans made vocally apparent), his takes on “Limit To Your Love” and “The Wilhelm Scream,” not only hit the album high points, but expanded them to new levels by extending them past their album conclusions. And the bass fucking killed. Sure, there isn’t much to watch, but like a Panda Bear live show, James Blake has designed his set for the fans and those who are into it will be rightfully pleased.

Smith Westerns

Smith Westerns are a little bit ahead of Yuck on the learning curve of handling themselves on a big stage. But the point remains, they are still getting there. None of this comes from lack of effort, swagger, or ability. If anything, it is just practice. There are times when Cullen Omori rocks a little too hard and forgets to make his vocals audible. But these minor bumps are offset by the fact that Smith Westerns have excellent songs to carry them.

Opener “Still New” will grace the Chicago band by having the moment where the Harrison-eque guitar lead kicks in and captures the entire audience’s attention. “Dreams,” which followed, builds the Smithy’s appeal higher through the sheer comfort the band feels in playing it. Plus, if you are familiar with the first Smith Westerns album, it is a pleasure to hear the strong songs from it played live and not through a fuzz box. “All Dye Young,” “Imagine Pt. 3,” and closer “Weekend” all show off Omori’s songwriting chops. When the band’s grasp and reach finally meet, they could be headlining Stubbs, rather than thrown in the middle of a showcase.

The Antlers

As I mentioned, I planned to make my way to La Zona Rosa after the Smith Westerns for Queens of the Stone Age’s set. Upon arriving, I found both an intense line and the information that Rolling Stone had exclusive rights to the photo pit (in their defense, it was the Rolling Stone showcase, I’d do the same thing if I were them). So as I meandered back to the music epicenter, I walked by The Parish, quickly remembering The Antlers were scheduled to play the venue at midnight. With a minimal line, I found myself in front of the stage, Lone Star in hand in about ten minutes.

Now, I half-hoped The Antlers would be performing their upcoming album, Burst Apart, in its entirety, as they were scheduled to do the next day at the same venue. I say half-hoped, because I love the old Antlers songs and wanted to hear them too. As if the NYC band could read my mind, a middle-point was displayed, and it scorched with intensity and passion.

Opening with the slow-burning “Kettering,” The Antlers, with a new second guitarist, began their set with focus, hammering every inflection of the verses with even-more purpose than they displayed when Hospice was first toured. It is easy to forget that The Antlers began as a make-shift band, but after a couple years of heavy touring, they are now a true team, working with each other to fill all the sonic gaps and pick-up where the other leaves off.

Besides the quiet “Atrophy” in the middle of the set, the body of the performance consisted of all new songs. “Snarf,” (which doesn’t appear on the album’s released track listing and might be a code name or b-side) showed a more synth-driven Antlers, but “Parentheses,” “No Windows,” and “Rolled Together,” all saw the band building on a familiar formula, but with even a larger scope. The drama and lush beauty of Hospice seemed present in each song, but there was even more inspired crescendos and built-up climaxes across the three numbers.

This, of course, led to the concluding number, the emotional and powerful “Two,” which is probably the best song The Antlers have yet to release. And, most notable is how, well, happy the band seems. As the band has progressed, they have seemed deliberate in their desire to shed the torture that drove their debut. If this preview was any indicator, the positive energy suits The Antlers well, and we should get excited about Burst Apart.

The Dodos

It turns out, the show I wandered into was the Frenchkiss showcase, and The Dodos were to close out the night. Now, I may be biased (partial disclosure: I have covered The Dodos a few times, now), but Meric Long and Logan Kroeber have a special rapport that only exists within duos. I think a part of them realizes this, too, which was a factor in them parting ways with their former vibraphonist while working on new album No Color. So, you can imagine my shock when I saw a second guitarist standing on stage with the two band members. But before you freak out (I doubt you were going to freak out), note that this extra member in no way messed with the band’s chemistry. As has been widely reported, Long went a little over the top and created a new album that would be hard, if not impossible, to pull of live without a little help. And even if you doubted the third member’s necessity, you couldn’t argue with the fact that they pulled off the new songs perfectly.

Opening with “Good,” the band let the song build until its concluding peak, and without pause, launched into No Color’s first single, “Black Night.” It was a seamless, and likely a carefully rehearsed move that invited the audience into the intensity that The Dodos seem to thrive on. The rest of the set featured mostly new songs, but notable was closer “Ashley,” for its extended jam that saw both Long and Kroeber reach their sweaty peaks, causing an eruption in the crowd that had thinned in the wee hours. But The Dodos are the kind of band that would play just as hard for their friends as they would for a thousand people. And at The Parish, where the crowd was somewhere in between, The Dodos left the impression of a band still hungry, and plenty capable of getting their fill.

< Read: South By Southwest day one - Tuesday March 15th

Read South By Southwest day three – Thursday March 17th >


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