SXSW Wednesday highlights
The first day of festivities in Austin offered a surprising wealth of riches. By the time I returned home for a break between afternoon and evening rock, I had already seen half of the bands I came here to see. Wednesday night was full of marquee shows, but my path to most of them was obstructed by lengthy lines outside the venues, so I took the discovery approach for most of the evening, accompanied by Chuck Hootman of Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails fame.
Since I already tweeted on everything I saw yesterday, I'm only going to spend time here on the best bands of the day. I've narrowed it down to five spectacular sets. Without further ado:
(1) The first band I encountered was Columbus' own Psychedelic Horseshit. Backed by percussionist at large Ryan Jewell and an additional guitarist I didn't recognize, the group tore through a set of new tunes that has me geeked for their next LP. More than ever, the group has a handle on how to ground all that noise, experimentation and general sloppiness with strong songs that cut through all the, um, horseshit. Sometimes it seems like they're just messing around up there (Exhibit A: the rudimentary dub jam session straight out of band practice), but the set offered enough individual moments of glory to suggest Matt Whitehurst really does have some grand scheme at work, and I'm still buying it big time. (At least until the next time I see them play a lackluster show and I start to wonder about emperor's new clothes again.)
(2) Despite the "WAVVES SUXX" campaign instigated by Psychedelic Horseshit during their set at Beerland, 22-year-old Nathan Williams' noise pop project was a revelation at Emo's. To cite one of my most prescient tweets of the day, "The kid has charisma and a knack for pop hooks. I like it." Backed by a drummer, Williams grabbed his guitar and busted out nugget after pop-punk nugget, sounding like the ideal midpoint between Guided by Voices and No Age. His precocious but not pretentious attitude, exemplified by constantly asking the sound guy for more guitar, then knowingly acknowledging what a rock-star cliche that was, only added to the set's appeal. He isn't the slickest of musicians — many of those high-pitched "ooohs" were far from in tune — but he's a scrappy melodic savant with enough charm to transcend the flaws in his musicianship. Top shelf stuff.
(3) The set of the day, hands down, came from Akron/Family at the Mohawk patio. I am a big fan of the band's records, but I always manage to miss them when they come through Columbus. After yesterday's experience, I surely won't ever skip one of their sets again. I have always considered them a freak-folk band, but I think that undersells what this trio pulls off. The set yesterday managed to combine just about every genre I can think of without sounding hackneyed or cliche. They began with some quieter numbers that featured some slick licks from Seth Olinsky (looking tre Anastasio) then slid into a polyrhythmic dance party that eventually found all three members, plus a horde of guest percussionists, shaking along to a mechanized beat. Little by little, they brought their melodic instruments back into the fray, keeping the hip-swinging rhythms in play all the while, until they built up into a climactic explosion of chants, drumbeats and distortion. I'm not doing it justice here, but just know that it made me happier than any concert since Clipse at last year's SXSW.
(4) The best find in my evening of exploration with Chuck was Winter Gloves, a lockstep-tight indie pop act from Montreal that reminded me of Muse, only with a greater dance music fixation and more restraint. And yes, I realized that I might has well have just described Radiohead, but Winter Gloves isn't a carbon copy of Thom Yorke and company. I only saw three or four songs by this bunch, but it was enough to have me hoping they'll be through Columbus some time soon. Note: They're on Paper Bag Records, the label that also brought us Tokyo Police Club.
(5) Though I was so exhausted that I found myself falling asleep standing up several times during the set, the parts of Phosphorescent's performance that I was awake for were indeed a marvelous way to close out my night. Matthew Houck and band ran through their Willie Nelson covers album To Willie, but each track was more muscular than its laid-back studio counterpart. Houck stalked the stage with no guitar, showing he's as much an able frontman as a gifted songwriter. Unfortunately, he just came through Columbus two weeks ago, so y'all might not have a chance to see his show anytime soon.
OK, time to hit the town for another day of music. Remember you can keep up with me on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates on the festival.