SXSW Thursday highlights

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Thursday offered a solid slew of shows, even if I couldn't document half of them after my camera crapped out. Never fear, though. I managed to snap a few keepers before the battery died out. Some of them will appear in next week's paper. I can't upload them right now because I'm short on time and technical difficulties are rearing their heads, so words will have to do for now.

Thursday wasn't really a day of discovery for me. I witnessed several old favorites and wasn't exactly reaching on my discoveries. Sure, I encountered some new-ish bands that I quite liked — Team Robespierre, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down — but those bands are relatively well-known in indie rock circles. I'm hoping to be blown away by that obscure nugget that I've never even heard of before.

Once again, I've narrowed down Thursday to my five favorite sets. Before we get to the review, remember you can follow me throughtout SXSW via Twitter. Now, let's embark...

(1) The Wrens: When I finally got inside the Paste/Brooklyn Vegan party at Radio Room, I was pleased to discover the outdoor stage was running behind schedule. The Wrens, who I thought I might miss thanks to a gargantuan line outside the venue, were just about to start their set in the tent out back. These dudes are one of the coolest bands around — a bunch of family men from New Jersey who put out an amazing indie rock album every seven years or so (we're due for a new one next year, dudes) and rock live shows with the enthusiasm of "the best 17-year-old(s) ever." Their set consisted almost entirely of songs from their 2003 masterstroke The Meadowlands, one of music's most hopeful and triumphant distillations of heartbreak and despair. They've been getting away with busting out the classics and offering minimal new stuff for quite a while now, and based on the mundane quality of the new song they played yesterday, perhaps they should stick with the hits. Anyway, these guys get a blanket endorsement. Buy their albums. Go to their shows. Respect.

(2) Thao with The Get Down Stay Down: After the Wrens, I had intended to watch The Avett Brothers, who have done quite well for themselves since the days when they toured regularly through tiny little Casa Nueva in Athens. But despite their obvious musicianship and showmanship, I just couldn't get into it. After a few songs, I wandered inside Radio Room to check out Thao with The Get Down Stay Down, the San Francisco pop-rock trio that has played Columbus at least once in the past year. It's a vehicle for singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen, a sassy lass whose vocals remind me of Land of Talk's Lizzie Powell (hey, where are they this festival?). Thao's music, however, hit me like Born Ruffians and their forefathers in Talking Heads. I was way into the three or four songs I witness, marveling at how much Thao and her rhythm section were doing with the standard guitar-drums-bass combo. She even busted out a little beatboxing. I'll take that over the Avetts any day, methinks.

After that was said and done, I stuck around for Passion Pit, but my ears couldn't handle the volume up close, and from the back of the tent they sounded rather hollow. Oh well; they already impressed me back at The Summit.

(3) Outer Spacist: After stopping by all-ages party venue Ms. Bea's for a highly respectable set from Columbus weird-punk kings Guinea Worms, I hit up the Columbus Discount Records showcase at nearby Music Gym. The last two years, SXSW has stuck these guys with a miserable location. This one still wasn't quite in the heart of the action, but it was significantly closer and better-suited for a grimey art-punk showcase. In fact, it was a dingy little place that reminded me of pre-constrution Bourbon Street, only smaller. So aesthetically, it fit. Unfortunately, when Outer Spacist started the show at 8 p.m., barely anybody from outside Columbus was in the bar. Dudes totally brought it anyway. I tell you what, I teased them about being slackers who didn't deserve to be a Band to Watch, but this is a great band. Every time they play, they slay. So many people would dig their totally ballsy garage rock flavored with psychedelic swirl and fronted by one of rock's most charismatic weirdos. It's a shame barely anybody saw it.

Necropolis followed. They did well without the services of guitarist Adam Smith, stranded in Columbus. But I really miss their old sound. Not that bleeding-from-asshole punk rock doesn't suit them, but there will always be a special place in my heart for the jittery post-punk band that got me hooked on Columbus music in summer 2005. Oh well.

(4) Crystal Antlers: Then I bolted for an unofficial party at a very far-off spot called Club 1808, where I intended to see Crystal Antlers and Deer Tick. I actually encountered all three members of Deer Tick on my 20-minute walk out there — first when frontman John McCauley crossed the freeway with me and hopped in his tour van, then when the other guys and their tour manager happened upon me on the way to the bar and helped me make the last couple turns to get to the place. When I got there, the place was uncomfortably packed, so I was happy to find out there was a huge backyard area as well. I figured the band setting up out there was Crystal Antlers, but it turned out to be dance-punks Team Robespierre. I caught two very impressive songs by them — didn't realize how far to the "punk" side of dance-punk they skewed — then I went inside and waited way too long for a drink.

My quest to see Deer Tick was thwarted once again when their indoor set ran up against Crystal Antlers' outdoor performance. Knowing that Deer Tick was playing a bazillion more shows this weekend, and jonesing for some high-energy polyrhythmic psych-punk, I opted for the Antlers. (Wise choice; for some reason, John from Deer Tick played solo inside even though the band was there.) I really wish my camera would have been working for the Crystal Antlers' set. Watch this video and you might get a feel for why — they're pretty electrifying in person. The material from last year's debut EP, with its spastic basslines and body-drubbing percussion, rocked me the hardest, so I can't say much about their upcoming Tentacles, which I haven't heard yet. Also, the guitars could have been a lot louder. But that's irrelevant right now. Damn did these guys bring it hard.

(5) Max Tundra: Back at the Music Gym, The Unholy Two was wrapping up a set with Guinea Worms' Gary Brownstein guesting on guitar. This particular deluge of sonic sludge was still noisy and dirgy and abrasive, but it was also the most melodic thing I've ever heard from Chris Lutzko's project. I was way into it, so I was sad to have missed all but five minutes of it. My disappointment soon bled into excitement, though, as I realized British electronic pop weirdo Max Tundra was playing on the patio outdoors. I'm not sure how to adequately describe what this guy's records are like, nor can I completely distill what he did on stage last night. He brought his glitchy, nerdy dance-pop concoctions to life with a combination of canned tracks and virtuoso performance, jumping from keyboard to mixing board to guitar to microphone with seamless success. In the moments when he let his prerecorded jams speak for themselves, Tundra busted a move with an agility one normally wouldn't assign to a wimpy-looking cardigan-wearing producer from the UK.

He wrapped up with a cover tune from The Sound of Music, which had notoriously snarky Columbus rock legend Ron House wondering whether Tundra was taking the whole "ironic distance" thing too far. "Is the wink that big?" he wondered. Without a broad enough musical palette to comprehend the reference points he was dropping, I wasn't able to adequately respond. (Don't know much about Claudio Montiverdi.) But I'll say that Tundra's excursion into Julie Andrews territory didn't bug me that much. After all, he played the jam of all jams, "Lysine," ably handling the vocals himself, so it's all good.