SXSW: Day 4 Recap

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

I started the day irked, but by just after midnight, I was beaming with pride for Columbus and satisfied with SXSW Day 4. For another extended recap and photos, click below, and, as usual, look at the photo galleries below this entry for more content.

(Note: If you don’t want to read a bunch of spoiled griping, skip these next three paragraphs.)

Saturday’s concert-going began with bitterness. I forgot the Ohio State-Xavier game was on, and I chose to write up Friday’s happenings during the game’s time slot. When it was over, I got a barrage of messages (OK, two) about how exciting the game was. Why I didn’t check when the Buckeyes were playing is beyond me. Anyway, the point is I was disenchanted.

I got a lot more disenchanted fast when I saw the ridiculous line for the Mess With Texas party, a music and comedy get-together that featured, among other acts, Chicago garage rock combo the Ponys and ex-Mr. Show comedians Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. This seemed like a fun time, but I missed my chance to get into the show when I missed my chance to watch the Buckeye game. By the time I arrived at Red 7 (inspiration for retired local DIY space Red 16?) a mass of people stretched all the way down the block and around the corner. The line looked like it might literally last until nightfall.

I gave up on Mess With Texas and tried a party nearby at the Mohawk, where Menomena was set to appear again. Since they were a high priority for me before the trip and I was slightly underwhelmed by their show Friday, I figured I would give them a second airing like I did with Peter Bjorn and John. When I showed up to the Mohawk, I realized the party (sponsored by an organization called Hot Freaks) was a big three-stage extravaganza, with the indoor and outdoor stages at the Mohawk tied in with next door’s excellently named Club de Ville. To add to the ultimately trivial factors causing me much annoyance, the schedule for this shindig indicated that the Ponys were scheduled to play here too—an hour ago. Through bad decisions and bad luck, I had now missed the band three times (probably more—a lot of the more popular and/or up-and-coming bands seemed to have six or seven shows scheduled throughout the week). They aren’t even a passion of mine—at least not yet—so I don’t know why I wanted to see them so bad, but I did.

That was the end of the day’s minor misfortunes. Along with the bad news came some good: Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos, an act with Columbus ties that I had forgotten about, was penciled in for the party, as were a “special guest from Dallas” that turned out to be the Polyphonic Spree. When it comes to their music, I’m no big Polyphonic fan, but I love me some gaudy spectacles, and the Spree’s super-sized stage show certainly qualifies. Additionally, I kept planning then forgetting to catch Margot, which features Columbus’ Erik Kang on violin and pedal steel, so to have this fall into my lap—things were looking up. A clumsy filmmaker might have even slapped one of the Spree’s schmaltzy feel-good anthems on the scene.

When I walked in, though, it was Asobi Seksu, who I described earlier this year as music for dreampop aerobics. The set duplicated the fast-paced, sparkling sounds of the album, save for the conclusion, when a dozen dudes somehow ended up on stage banging drums. Pretty jarring, but pretty sweet.

Menomena was next. They played as inconsistently as the day before, with flashes of brilliance interspersed between long passages of shakiness. As I wrote yesterday, the arrangements are somewhat thin compared to the albums, but the main gripe is Justin Harris’s singing. All three guys contribute vocals, but Harris takes the lead most often, which is strange considering how much he struggles to hit his own notes. Besides that, they just don’t seem like they play together that often. I guess I should just stick to their wonderful albums, but as evidenced by my behavior at this festival, I don't give up easy on love. I’d rather stubbornly keep going to see them and hoping it gets better.

Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos made for an opposite experience. I’d never heard a peep of their music, so I had no expectations, and I was satisfied with what I heard. The eight-piece group is one in a long line of slightly mopey folk rock bands, but solid songwriting and the band’s grand scale helps to make the music rise above the average Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack snoozer. (Call it blandcore*: Snow Patrol, Matt Pond PA and the weaker material from Death Cab for Cutie spring to mind. Thankfully Margot easily transcends that tag and we can just call it “indie folk pop” or some other convoluted label people like me reluctantly employ.) Kang, one of Columbus’s more diverse talents, fit right in among the clatter of trumpet, auxiliary percussion and the usual rock band gear. His skills on violin and pedal steel are ideal for music of this sort—delicate but strong. This band is blowing up, and I’m glad he has this opportunity to play with them.

Even though one stamp got me in to the Mohawk and Club de Ville, the latter was filled to capacity when I showed up for the Polyphonic Spree, so I had to wait in line for a bit. There I encountered a friendly group of NYU students who are in charge of booking the musical acts at their school. Later, before the evening showcases, we shared some Korean food and then grabbed some free Red Bull and vodkas at one of the myriad “exclusive” parties. Anyway, back at Club de Ville, we finally got in and discovered Tim DeLaughter and his 20-some minions clad in all black. The new Spree album is called The Fragile Army, and the group has switched from white robes to black military uniforms with cut-out paper hearts on them. I’ve always figured the over-the-top pop this band produces would work better when paired with a stage show just as outrageous, and sure enough, the show delivered. The songs are so emotionally frank, with lyrics like bumper sticker slogans and huge climaxes that deserve music with a little more substance. Paired with the spectacle, the songs made a lot more sense—it was a pep rally against sadness. Or to put it another way, it was like going to a weirdly professional yet drug-addled high school musical. Good way to end the daylight hours.

My final hours of SXSW were spent at the Columbus Discount Records showcase—the first night when commitments to cover Columbus pretty much killed my chances of seeing other stuff. No big deal, though—CDR put on a great show, albeit in a very strange place. The showcase took place on the open-air second level of the Light Bar, a mainstream dance club and concert venue a couple blocks from 6th Street. Imagine a bunch of art-punk bands moving their show from Bourbon Street to the roof of Spice Bar, and you’re getting there**. Adding to the weirdness was the severely elevated stage, surrounded by a tall metal guardrail to (presumably) prevent rockers from falling off. (Or maybe to quell stage divers? Somehow I don’t picture the average show up there inspiring such behavior, despite the good sound system.) With music that might as well have been Sunny 95 piped in between sets, some of the noisiest bands in Columbus plied their wares.

Terribly Empty Pockets, a band could hardly be described as noisy, went first, though. The Pockets had a rough SXSW. Singer Josh Holt spent the week battling a double ear infection, and keyboardist Justin Riley had to skip the showcase because he had booked his honeymoon for the date months ago. Surprisingly, the Pockets beat back their bad luck and played a wonderful set of their trademark quirky pop. Riley’s keyboard parts were missed, but a new listener wouldn’t have noticed. And Holt didn’t seem sick at all, cracking wise between songs and singing with as much idiosyncrasy as ever.

Next up was the best set I’ve ever seen from Night of Pleasure. The raunchy punk act has never really flipped my wig, but since they got a new drummer and a few blistering new songs, they’ve stepped up several notches. Before, they had the raw power, but now that it’s paired with other assets, it seems a lot more potent. Also, the band’s debut 7-inch is stellar.

At this point, I ran across town to see noise-rock bludgeoners Rusted Shut. You can see why fellow noise bludgeoners Sword Heaven swear by these guys. Harrowing and merciless, their set was quite an experience.

Sprinted back to Light Bar to see Necropolis put on a standard Necropolis set: fast, frantic, zany, strong and of course gritty. I’ve written so much about this band, but suffice it to say this set did not disappoint.

I hadn’t seen El Jesus de Magico since last fall, and I was pleased with what I witnessed this time around. The band’s flirtation with melody continues to yield captivating results as they explore the dark corners of psychedelia. And singer Jon Witzky, who always seems to be in the midst of a bleary-eyed hallucination on stage, wisely lets the songs breathe through instrumental passages, even if it leaves him without anything to do sometimes besides get swept up in the music. Their sleazy squall has never sounded better.

Last up was Grafton. The veteran garage rockers, who recently added Sun frontman Chris Burney on bass, were as rock solid as ever. There’s a reason legions of Café Bourbon Street revelers hold this band in the highest regard. When it comes to straight up rocking, few can match Grafton’s fury.

*Note: Blandcore is closely related to, but not synonymous with, Braff Rock. Some Braff Rock is too wimpy to qualify as blandcore. However, in a Venn diagram, blandcore might exist entirely within the sphere of Braff rock. So, much like a square is always a rectangle but a rectangle might not be a square, we might say that blandcore is always Braff Rock but Braff Rock might not be blandcore.

**Note: The last time I remember such a clash between venue and performers was when the Sun, Times New Viking and the Feelers played at Scarlet and Grey Café, but they set that show up to be purposefully weird.