Monday, March 23rd, 2009
SxSW 2009 Day Four
Camera Obscura, The Grates and Peelander Z and more at SxSW
Frank YangA much-needed sleep-in, however slight, threw me off schedule before evening awakening on the final day of SxSW, so I hoofed it to the Mohawk and day two of Hot Freaks without so much as a coffee – a decision that would prove to be very… unwise by that evening. But in the meantime, I had the boost provided by another day of great music and a fresh pair of socks to get me going.
Greeting the early birds at noon were Austin trio Harlem, who seemed to treat the Mohawk patio stage like their own personal garage/rehearsal space – that’s meant in a positive way. Their music was charmingly rough around the edges but eminently hooky and their stage demeanor was that of a group of friends just goofing around and having a good time. There are certainly worse ways to start a day.
I then fled the high noon sun for the cooler climes of the Mohawk’s inside stage, where Brooklyn’s Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers were getting started. I was unfamiliar with them but they were spoken highly of by a few friends so I had a boo. A quartet led by a tiny girl with a harmonium and huge voice, they weren’t nearly as odd as first glances might imply, specializing in raw and wrenching blues-ish tunes… led by harmonium. Charismatic and compelling, and the chorus of voices people speaking highly of her/them is almost certain to keep growing.
Heading back out into the sunlight, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me because I had assumed, for whatever reason, that Jason Lytle – with the number of shows he was booked to do this week – would be working in a solo acoustic context. But no, the former Grandaddy frontman was doing the full band thing and it’s a good thing, because I don’t think his songs would have been nearly as impressive with just voice and guitar. It’s also evident that Lytle isn’t necessarily interested in distancing himself from his old band because, honestly, the new stuff sounds like the old stuff and he even closed out with – I think, correct me if I’m wrong, I haven’t revisited Grandaddy in years – “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot”, which was just beautiful.
Over at Club DeVille, it was then time for Australian fun-meisters The Grates. I was personally quite excited to finally be seeing them – their manic live shows were already legendary – but the venue was only moderately full for them. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though, as frontwoman Patience Hodgson bounded all around the stage and rest of the venue delivering tunes from their debut Gravity Won’t Get You High as well as new record Teeth Lost, Hearts Won – released last year in Australia and in negotiations for a North American release this year – like a aerobics instructor hepped up on pixie sticks. But the extra space really came in handy for their almost set-closer, when Hodgson whipped out a rhythmic gymnastics ribbon and began whipping it around and then – THEN – was joined, out of nowhere, by another rhythmic gymnast, ribbons a-flying, running around her. I doubt there was any sort of proper routine planned but for sheer, out of nowhere never seen that before ridiculous fun, The Grates won the day.
Back at the Mohawk, Portland’s Viva Voce – who were supposed to play the very first Hot Freaks but cancelled to go on tour with some outfit called The Shins – were making up for the delay with a set of guitar-driven rock that you could equally preface with “prog-” or “pop-“. Brutally loud and breahtakingly delicate, it was a fine showcase for Anita Robinson’s impressive guitar chops – to say nothing of her fine voice – without becoming over-indulgent. I only caught half their set on account of being spun around by The Grates but what I did see reminded me that I liked their last record Get Yr Blood Sucked Out and should be keeping an eye/ear out for their new album Rose City when it’s released on May 26.
My default answer for “what was the best thing you saw at SxSW” last year was Peelander-Z, not because they were any great shakes musically – they’re not – but because of the sheer spectacle of their show. Outrageous Power Ranger-esque costumes, stage climbing expeditions and general over-the-top antics ensured a memorable show whether you actually liked it or not. So naturally we had them back a second year in a row, but with the caveat that they had to keep within the allotted time limit. And I think that was the second most impressive thing about their show – I was familiar with their routine, mostly unchanged from 2008, but they somehow managed to cram everything in – the human bowling, the audience band recruitment, the crowd surfing journey to the top of the Mohawk tent – without running a minute over. The first most impressive thing was seeing Peelander Red climb onto the rafters of the stage canopy and hang upside-down, holding on only by his legs, while still playing his bass. And I’m really glad he was able to hang on because he was directly above me and if he’d fallen, I’d probably be dead as well. Not that I escaped their set fully unscathed – at one point Peelander Green broke a drumstick and whipped it into the audience, nailing me square in the face and hand. But the crowd loved it.
Trying to follow such an act is no easy feat, so it’s probably just as well that Camera Obscura don’t go in for on-stage shenanigans – just wonderful pop songs, perfectly suited to basking in the warmth of the setting sun. Though visibly worn from the activities of their week, the band capped off their SxSW and our Hot Freaks showcase for the year with a compact set of their very best material from 2006’s Let’s Get Out Of This Country and the forthcoming My Maudlin Career, out April 21. Highlights were their new single “French Navy”, the still-brilliant “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” and wall-of-noise – who ever thought that phrase would be used in conjunction with Camera Obscura – “Razzle Dazzle Rose”. Pure bliss for the SxSW twee-pop contingent, and another triumphant Hot Freaks for the history books.