SXSW Friday highlights

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Friday was a fruitful one in terms of seeing bands I’d never seen before. And while some of the shows I was anticipating were satisfying, the best sets of the day came from bands I had never heard of.

Per the established routine, here’s a rundown of the day’s musical excursions focusing on the five best sets I saw. (Still having problems getting photos to upload...) Before we get to that, though, I should remind you that you can follow me on Twitter throughout SXSW. Now for the reminiscing…

(1) Rafter: In the mid-afternoon heat, I hurried over to Ms. Bea’s, hoping once again to witness a set by Deer Tick, whose 2008 LP War Elephant has become a recent obsession of mine. It turned out Todd P’s extravaganza was running behind schedule, and even if it had been on time, John McCauley was going to play solo again, and his cab wasn’t even there yet. So no luck again in that department. On the plus side, my efforts to get there on time yielded an encounter with Rafter, one of the two or three most exciting new discoveries of the festival. The absurdly over-the-top dance-rock act features a guitarist-singer dude, a drummer/keyboard player and a booty-grooving background singer/eye candy gal. (Rafter is apparently the singer’s name in addition to the band name.) Additionally, there are some pumped-in backing tracks, and a saxophone player occasionally wanders through the crowd to help drive the point home as the melodies hit their peaks. Were this just fun music that didn't take itself too seriously (or seriously at all), it would have been a pleasant enough lark. But Rafter's music is as complex as it's accessible — the sort of songs that can be taken as a big, dumb whole or picked apart as marvels of modern party music. Book them for your next Bar Mitzvah.

I spent a couple hours at the Fader Fort after this, and while each of the three bands I saw was enjoyable, none of them blew me away. (But hey, free booze at last!) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart are this year's Peter Bjorn and John, the band with the sublime new indie pop record that plays countless gigs throughout SXSW but can't quite deliver live. We Have Band offered one solid single and a lot of warmed-over 80s nostalgia. Women were competent but rarely transcendent, drawing from the darker side of indie rock.

(2) Abe Vigoda: At this point I wandered back across the street to Ms. Bea's, where Ponytail, surrounded by a mass of devoted lookers-on, was intent on destroying my will to live. Nah, that's an overstatement, but the singer's Yoko Ono routine tried my patience mightily. When their reign of terror finally ceased, I was rewarded with the chance to see Abe Vigoda at last. I intended to see the art-punks at their home venue, The Smell, when I was in LA last fall, but car trouble kept me away. The bouncy blasts of melody they offered up here seemed smoother and more conventional than the material from last year's Skeleton. Combined with the singer's overlong bangs, I got an almost Fall Out Boy gist from the whole thing, which was understandably a little unsettling. When they busted out the prickly picks from last year, though, it was everything I wanted it to be.

A rather motley crew of bands followed, but the only part of the next couple hours worth mentioning was when Brooklyn metalheads TOMBS busted out their awesome lead single, "Gossamer." Too bad the rest of the set couldn't match its brilliant combo of seven-ton heaviness and dense harmony.

I spent most of Friday night at the Misra Records showcase. Part of the reason was that my old pal from Athens, Josh Antonuccio, was sitting in on guitar with Pittsburgh singer-songwriter Emily Rodgers. She presented a dark and drowsy sort of set, then I headed out for an hour to see Eugene Mirman do some standup comedy. (You may know him as the creepy landlord from Flight of the Conchords.) This was a splendid success, but I left it out of the "top 5 shows" gimmick since it's comedy.

(3) The Low Lows: Next, my attempts to get into the Devo show were thwarted, so I wandered back to the Misra showcase, where I came face to face with my favorite discovery of the festival so far. The Low Lows are a sprawling ensemble of Austin locals featuring your typical rock instruments plus xylophone and horn section. They look like they might play some sort of cliche roadhouse rock, but when that scruffy lead singer started playing sad, spare riffs caked in brittle reverb, my head jolted toward stage. And when the songs erupted into the best mournful gospel psychedelia this side of Spiritualized, I nearly wept with joy. Gotta get this bunch up to Columbus.

(4) Southeast Engine: Up next was another bunch of old friends from Athens, Southeast Engine. My appreciation for their new From the Forest to the Sea continues to grow, and I think a lot of that has to do with getting to see them play these songs a couple times. I liked tracks like "Black Gold" and "Law Abiding Citizen" from the start, but some of the others required me to get in Adam Remnant's headspace a little better before I could properly enjoy them. Now I'm diggin' it. I still think it's funny that of all the old-school tracks they could bust out, they have decided to stick with "Stranded in the Heartland." Why not mix it up with a little "One Caught Fire," boys? "In Case of Emergency," perhaps?

I headed back across town and randomly stumbled upon the end of a Tim Easton set with Aaron Lee Tasjan on lead guitar. (Columbus expats unite!) Sounded damn good. Then...

(5) Deer Tick: At long last, I witnessed a Deer Tick set. Most of the stuff was new, or covers, or old — whatever, it wasn't from War Elephant. The whole set, even the songs I knew, was a lot more rollicking than the album, but McCauley's sound and spirit remained the same. A very satisfying performance from some very talented hipster hicks. My quest fulfilled, I could head home to rest my weary heels.