Saturday, March 21st, 2009
SxSW 2009 Night Three
The Bird & The Bee, Fanfarlo, Wheat and more at SxSW
Frank YangConsidering that Friday afternoon was arguably one of the best blocks of music experiences I’ve ever had at SxSW, it figured that the karma pendulum would have to swing the other way sooner or later. As it happened, it was sooner.
The official portion of the day started downstairs at Waves, a narrow little venue on 6th, where Shad was kicking things off. You can insert my standard “not really a hip-hop guy” disclaimer here, but I really grew to like his The Old Prince Still Lives At Home during Polaris season last year, and though I’d caught bits of his live show, had never seen him do a proper set. Guess I can check that off my list. Backed by a live rhythm section and DJ, Shad was a complete entertainer, his raps flowing into his banter and back while evidencing loads of charisma and good humour.
It was then up to the Central Presbyterian Church for Fanfarlo, which was the perfect setting for their ornate, orchestral folk-rock. Frontman Simon Balthazar, natty in a bow tie, looked like a nebbish music teacher leading his charges in exercises in musical splendor, in this case their really excellent new album Reservoir. I commented on the Arcade Fire reference points when previewing this show but the comparisons go far beyond just sonic and stylistic similarities. Fanfarlo also manage to create the same sense of excitement and wide-eyed wonder that I got on early listenings of Funeral. Very highly recommended.
So it sounds like things were going pretty well, right? What on earth was I complaining about? Well, the next stop on the sched was Maggie Mae’s Rooftop, and one thing I’d forgotten when planning things out was how much I absolutely hated Maggie Mae’s rooftop. If you’ve never been, the “venue” is a not-that-wide balcony around the perimeter of the venue with little in the way of actual sightlines, a low, poorly-lit stage and the washrooms just off to the side so that people needing to expel their beer have to fight their way through the crowd and walk beside the band to get to the restrooms. So lame. And of course it’s always packed, even for acts you’d think were a bit niche – like British bluegrass revivalists Mumford & Sons. They were pretty terrific last year in support of Laura Marling (who was standing behind be trying to videotape the proceedings) and when they finally got their sound issues sorted, they were pretty terrific again. With four-part harmonies and superb musicianship to go along with emotionally resonant songs that really do seem to bring new life to the genre. Great performance, shame about the venue.
And yet I didn’t leave, for Wheat were set for the downstairs – a much less heinous locale than the upstairs, to be fair – at 11. In the half-decade since I saw them last, they’d essentially split, re-formed, lost a member, and generally gone through more existential shit than any band should ever have to – and yet, here they were, back again and with a new album ready for June release. Their persistence alone was reason to cheer, but the jury is still out on the new material. That the band – now with Brendan Harney on keys and vocals and with a new member behind the kit while Scott Levesque handles guitar, lead vocals and epically awkward stage banter – was having a great time being back was unquestionable, but their aesthetic has gotten so art-pop eclectic that it’s difficult to get a handle on. I mean, a dance song? Really? Maybe I’m just too emotionally invested in their old stuff, which they thankfully included enough of in the set. But I will still give the new record a proper chance when it arrives.
By rights, The Bird & The Bee’s midnight show at Karma Lounge should have been a disaster, if not cancelled outright. For starters, the band on before them – some awful dirge-country outfit – was running a half hour late (worst words in the English language – “we have three more songs”). The venue was packed, sweaty and generally horrid (two banks of green LED lights ensured the absolute least flattering light for the performers possible). And when the Bird & The Bee finally got to set up, they were incapable of getting Greg Kurstin’s keyboards working through the monitors. I was tired, drinks had been spilled on and around me and with things looking bleak – the SxSW volunteer and stage manager almost got in a fight – I was ready to cut bait and sleep.
But patience was rewarded as the band improvised with their equipment and not only salvaged the evening but made it a triumph. With their matching primary colour plastic dresses and synchronized dance moves, to say nothing of some wonderful songs, Inara George and her band literally managed to turn my frown upside-down. The set was shortened a bit due to the delays but they were still able to fit in the essentials – “My Love”, “Fucking Boyfriend” and “Love Letter To Japan” – as well as a couple of delicious covers, Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and The Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love”. Swoon. Too short and I want/need them to tour up to Toronto ASAP. Do it.
So perhaps my lead-in to this post was a bit dramatic. It was hardly a bad night, not even close, though there were moments. I think the weariness of the week is starting to really hit me. But got to pull up the ol’ bootstraps… last day! Woo!