SXSW Day 3: Pitching my tent with Pitchfork
Thoughts on my third day of SXSW antics after the jump...
I spent six hours at Emo's and Emo's Jr. Friday afternoon watching all 12 bands at the Pitchfork/Windish Agency party. Say what you want about Pitchfork, but they got together the majority of my must-see SXSW acts under one roof (two roofs, technically). And while I've found hanging around the same place kind of tedious before, when a show's timetable flows as well as this one did, one-stop shopping becomes the preferred way to experience this spectacle.
(I should mention that on the way to this show I walked past J Mascis on the street. One of those special SXSW extras.)
All right, take a deep breath. There's a lot to cover here, but I'm going to try to be quick and concise so I can get back out there for one more day of rock.
The New York DIY duo High Places started my day with a bang. They use lots of hand-held percussion and samples—nature sounds, steel drums, tribal beats—to create a clatter that's surprisingly poppy. Mary, the singer, has a way with melancholy melodies that cut through and stabilize the band's barrage of sounds. Her nonchalant stage presence, paired with Rob's man-on-a-mission drum-machine hits and intense focus on his machinery, makes for a much more exciting live show that I expect from one of these increasingly popular electronic duos. I can't wait to get ahold of some of their recordings.
Lykke Li is another among the new wave of idiosyncratic Scandinavian pop performers. As she led her sparse but powerful band through killer pop song after killer pop song, I realized you don't have to decide anymore between being a dance-pop diva and an inventive indie rocker.
I had heard of New York-based Cleveland export White Williams before, but I always assumed he was a singer-songwriter. Not so: Joe Williams and band make music that transports me to 1980s Manchester, dipping liberally into Joy Division/New Order's dance-punk catalog and the bouncy space-pop of Berlin-era Bowie. Riding in on a sea of guitar delay, club beats and swanky keyboard, he's an influences-on-sleeves guy to be sure, but his songwriting and shy-but-captivating stage presence are a marvel to behold.
Jay Reatard played punk fast and furious, discarding the electronics that characterized his old bands Lost Sounds and Angry Angles. His set was a short collection of even shorter blasts of pop-punk power. He and his band were like one big blur of hair, launching into the next song and the next and the next without even one break. It couldn't have lasted more than 15 minutes, but it didn't need to.
The UK's F*** Buttons continued this fest's trend of experimental electronic duos. Their take on the format involved lots of throbbing keyboard sounds, a toy microphone and a drum or two. The result was droning tunes that drew power from relentless rhythms, glorious texture and subtle melodies building over time. The occasional scathing screams and monkey sounds were a nice touch, too.
Perhaps the best set of the afternoon came courtesy of Minnesota's Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver. (That's pronounced "bone ee-VAIR," folks.) Backed subtly by a second guitarist and a drummer, the indie folk hero heir apparent used his gorgeous falsetto and understated balladry to monumental effect. His set was a reminder that you can build a powerful climax without a blitzkrieg of distortion. I'd expect this band to ascend to Iron & Wine-level success.
Atlas Sound is the side project of Deerhunter's Bradford Cox, and their set was basically a Deerhunter show without Cox's provocative antics. In fact, Cox was friendly and polite—complimenting the sound guy on his mix, recommending the Breeders' Saturday set and even congratulating his roommate on a promotion after answering his phone call on stage. As for the music, the spaced-out, reverb-drenched hallucinations were pleasant enough but ultimately unmemorable sandwiched in between so many powerful performance.
New Sub Pop signees Fleet Foxes wondered if they belonged among such an incredible lineup, and after hearing their harmony-heavy folk-rock set, I wondered too. Maybe I'll appreciate the studio version more.
It was cool to see Times New Viking among all the other indie rock buzz bands, and the Columbus shit-pop trio delivered once again. They never fail.
I don't really buy into Yeasayer's 21st-Century update on Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, although Conan's favorite song in a while is pretty damn good. Ultimately, though, I'm kind of glad Psychedelic Horseshit has taken to skewering these guys.
I remember enjoying their album last year, but live I didn't get A Place to Bury Strangers at all. The band sounded as blurry as the screen of smoke that encased the stage, and not in a good way, but in an unfocused mess sort of way. I've seen a lot of "sloppy" bands this week, but there usually seems to be a method to the madness. This was just one long, chugging power chord.
The end of the marathon came with perhaps my most anticipated act of the festival, os Angeles' No Age. They're another experimental duo, but they go the drums-and-guitar route, so their music is much more visceral than what those electronic acts. It's more of a mind-bending take on skateboard punk. It rocked, but after an afternoon of so much transcendent music, it didn't hit me as hard as I expected. I still highly recommend seeing them or picking up Weirdo Rippers (and the forthcoming Nouns.)
Whew! That was a lot of bands. Time to head back to Downtown and see some more. For a report on my magical Friday night as well as all of Saturday's action, check back tomorrow and throughout next week.