Saturday, March 15th, 2008
SxSW XXI III
Photo by Frank Yang
The downside of putting on your own day show is you feel kind of obliged to stick around. It’s just as well, then, that we put together a pretty ass-kicking lineup for Hot Freaks!, the first day of which went down yesterday at Club DeVille and the Mohawk. Now while the dense concentration of so many terrific bands in one spot made it tempting to try and see (and cover) everything, I was already starting to feel the past couple days – mainly in my lower back and knees – so I picked my spots judiciously and spent the rest of the time hanging out with friends in air conditioned spots. Though only mid-March, Friday’s weather was pure Texas Summer… or maybe just Toronto Summer and Texas Spring. Either way, it was damn hot.
Opening things up was an act familiar to readers of this site, Nicole Atkins & The Sea. As grateful as I was for their willingness to take the early slot, I was just as grateful to the good-sized crowd who got up just as early to come out and see them. As always, Atkins and her band sounded terrific and provided a torch (song) that shone bright even at high noon in Texas. A mosey to the Mohawk’s inside stage introduced me to Blair, a New Orleans singer-songwriter who came equipped with a country heart, a rock band and a willingness to let herself get frayed around the edges. An engaging new talent who will merit a longer look in the near future.
Back outside, San Francisco’s Dodos announced that they weren’t just another rock band when their set opened with a trombone playing “Taps” through a delay pedal. In fact, they weren’t really a rock band at all – their roots are much more folk, but delivered with a verve and creativity that made them fascinating to watch and listen to, especially as their songs never became overly obtuse or impenetrable. Along those same lines, though with more rustic overtones, was the set from North Carolinans Bowerbirds, whose sun-dappled set on the Mohawk’s inside stage was nothing short of stunningly beautiful. Both are acts that have been on the periphery of my radar for a while now but whom I obviously need to get to know better, and soon.
Also newly discovered was Chicago’s Cameron McGill, who was playing the inside room while I was intending to only pass through but was encouraged to stick around by Dodge and am glad I did. Mating late-era Beatles melodies with a distinctly midwestern sensibility, it didn’t surprise me one whit to hear that the sprawling, seven-piece would be touring with Margot & The Nuclear So And So’s later this year. Hell, between the size of their two rosters they could easily field a football team.
In between all that down-home, old-school folk and roots rock I took in some decidedly more contemporary fare on the Mohawk stage with Edmonton’s Cadence Weapon, accompanied as always by DJ Weasel. They fought through an overheating turntable to still deliver a set of compact, party-inducing, audience-invading hip-hop that made good use of the many, many energy drinks Cadence said he’d been downing since the night before.
The toughest call for me that afternoon was deciding between the two headliners – we had Jens Lekman serenading a packed DeVille and British Sea Power unleashing rock on the Mohawk, both show-stoppers but I could only be at one. I elected to take in a few songs of Jens’ set – he was playing only with a percussionist on bongos – and got to hear his complete, annotated performance of “Postcard To Nina” reminding me of how absolutely hilarious (in a deadpan, Nordic way of course) he was. It hurt to tear myself away, but I did so anyway.
And for the first few songs of British Sea Power’s set, I was regretting that I did. They got off to a slow start, unfortunate considering the set was front-loaded with great Do You Like Rock Music? material, but after reaching back to their debut for “Remember Me”, they seemed to find their rhythm and began picking up momentum, culminating in an earth-scorching “Spirit Of St Louis”. This was the first time I’d seen them since Eamon Hamilton left the band, and at least as far as the wacky stage antics that the band had built their live reputation on, his presence was sorely missed. Odd costumes aside, they were quite businesslike in their approach and while I can appreciate their desire to shed what could be considered schticky… it was also loads of fun to watch. Ah, well.
So with half of Hot Freaks successfully in the books, I opted to stick with the “pick one venue, let the bands come to me” approach for the evening and got what I think was the best seat in the house at The Parish for the Merge Records showcase. We were welcomed by label honcho Mac McCaughan, performing as Portastatic with a solo acoustic set including covers, old and new Portastatic songs and an airing of Superchunk’s “San Andreas” that couldn’t help making me wish that the reunion bandwagon would make a stop in Chapel Hill.
Next up was fresh-faced Baltimore duo Wye Oak, previewing songs from their debut If Children (out April 8). They made an impressively full racket for just a two-piece – Andy Stack’s ability to handle drums and keyboard duties simultaneously was definitely noteworthy – but over the course of a set the sonic limitations of their configuration became evident. But considering their tender age, growth is inevitable.
A few songs into the Radar Bros’ set, frontman Jim Putnam mentioned that they were going to slow things down a bit and some smart-ass in the audience yelled back, “slower?!?”. But it was a fair point, because if there’s one thing the Radar Bros are not, it’s in a hurry. Their set was a totally chill affair, like a single-speed bike ride through the sun-dappled Laurel Canyon. It might have been a nice soundtrack for a lazy afternoon but in this setting, it was just snoozy.
And so it fell on Sweden’s Shout Out Louds to be the evening’s ambassadors of rock. To this end, they turned in a suitably chaotic set, with instruments getting overturned, favourite songs from last year’s Our Ill Wills like “Impossible” and “Tonight I Have To Leave It” were rearranged in ways that I’m not entirely sure were deliberate and the band just generally having a time of it. They did, however, get the audience to shake off their Radar Bros-induced torpor so for that, they had my thanks.
Not that anyone would have stayed asleep for the night’s next act, presumably the reason a lot of the crowd as in attendance – She & Him. I don’t know that you could say there was a lot of pressure on M Ward and Zooey Deschanel with their musical collaboration – it’s not like they don’t have successful day jobs to go back to – but there was no ignoring the intense attention that the project was getting. And how did they respond? Amazingly. Their show was far, far better than anyone could have expected – Ward burned it up on guitar (as always) and vocals as needed, but the spotlight – figuratively and literally – was on Deschanel. Her voice was clear and beautiful and she also demonstrated some chops on the keyboard and beyond her adorable wide-eyed, deer in the headlights stage demeanor, seemed perfectly comfortable up there though there were numerous sideways glances for cues/guidance/encouragement from her musical partner. But while the attention was focused squarely on the she and the him, full credit must be given to their band, in particular the drums. The simply massive drum sounds turned the old-timey, folksy songs that populate Volume One into a fully engaging live experience and helped make their show one of the highlights of the festival.
Now that was a show that would be difficult for anyone to follow, but Destroyer is not an act that has ever worried about impressing in a live setting. Dan Bejar’s disdain for performance is well-documented, and was on display as he and his band evidenced no urgency at all as they dealt with myriad technical difficulties. But the irony of it all is that Bejar is a very charismatic performer and when they did play, they somehow managed to turn that indifference into a peculiar sort of lurching intensity in stage-testing material from Trouble In Dreams. Almost despite their best efforts, Destroyer still managed to entertain and enthrall.
Three down, one to go.