Thursday, March 19th, 2009
SxSW 2009 Night One
Ume, Ladyhawk, Laura Marling and more at SxSW
Frank YangFestival schedules fall behind, it’s inevitable, but to do so with the very first act of the very first night is not a good sign. Austin trio Ume were set to take the stage at Maggie Mae’s at 7:30PM, a fact crucial to my attempts to cram as much as possible into the night, but when show time rolled around everyone was still standing outside on the sidewalk in line as the staff tried to figure out how to direct traffic to the venue’s three stages. Something that had apparently not occurred to them in the previous 360 days between the last time they did this and yesterday. Not impressive. By the time we got in to the room and Ume took the stage, they were about 20 minutes behind – not a huge amount, but enough to force me to bail on Crocodile, who were going on at 8.
All notion of disappointment evaporated the moment they started playing, however, as Ume simply killed it and set the bar for the rest of the night – hell, the rest of the festival – appropriately high. Singer-guitarist Lauren Larson looked like a wee slip of a girl, but was a ferocious frontwoman. She wasn’t all aggro and in your face – she was actually quite sweet and friendly between songs – but during the songs, her mission was to melt your face with her guitarwork. Equal parts stoner-heavy, grunge-sloppy and pop-melodic, watching her play while whipping around the stage like a dervish was awe-inspiring. And the fact that this was done in the context of excellent and compact songs. Absolutely superb stuff that sent me down 6th St abuzz.
As mentioned, I had to miss Crocodile’s set but I did hear them from the Wave Rooftop down on the street. Sounded good. But I had to get to Stubb’s, where Ladyhawke was set to play one of her only shows at the fest – whereas most acts play enough that you can pick and choose performances to fit your schedule, she managed to make hers one you planned your day around. This doesn’t mean I expected a spectacular performance, I just wanted to see her play and hear the songs which have been embedded in my skull for the past few weeks and that’s pretty much what she delivered. Fronting a four-piece band, she delivered a shortish set of the best tunes from her debut, played mostly verbatim from the record, and I was content. The thousand-plus people gathered to see here seemed content too.
It was then way back to the other end of 6th St to see Venice Is Sinking at Ace’s Lounge, a venue that takes the prize for oddest room I’ve ever seen a show in. The stage setup had the band on a 10-foot high stage situated in a corner of the room with the bar surrounding it on two sides like a moat. And there was a balcony around the upstairs. In a word, bizarre, and probably not the best place if you’re a band that likes to get up close and personal with your fans. For Venice Is Sinking, however, it almost seemed appropriate given their beautiful and delicate orchestrally-inclined pop – you almost want to put it on a pedestal, out of reach, lest someone accidentally brush against it and break it. Seeing them live was somewhat revelatory in that the long instrumental and ambient passages that envelop their records were done away with, leaving just the gleaming pop centres for all to see and even though I knew the songs and knew they were great, having them knocked off one after another (with a couple covers thrown in for good measure) was an eye-opener.
Latitude 30 around the corner was again the de facto British Music Embassy and I got there in time to see Laura Marling perform. The 2008 Mercury Prize-nominee was appropriately playing to a packed house but was doing so solo, quite a different dynamic from the full-band configuration that I’d seen her with last year. She actually said that Marcus Mumford from Mumford & Sons was supposed to be accompanying her but travel snafus had nixed that. So instead it was just Laura, charming and nervous, playing a brief set of songs old and new. She definitely sounds better with the band – both from the richer arrangements and the confidence they obviously provide her with – but her sheer talent was more than enough to make it a worthy performance.
And again, it was from one end of 6th St to the other to see Sky Larkin make their Austin debut at the rather dark and grungy Red 7 patio. I actually don’t know when the last time I’d seen a band have so much sheer fun playing, blasting through one fuzzy pop nugget after another and drummer Nestor Matthews, in particular, very much earning his Incredible Hulk t-shirt with the way he destroyed his drum kit and the faces made while doing it. And don’t let Katie Harkin’s casual guitar style deceive, she’s a tremendously good player – in fact, many of the accolades laid on Ume earlier in the post can apply to Sky Larkin, if adjusted somewhat for the pop and brit-rock idioms. A rollicking good set.
And though I didn’t know it at the time, the last one for the night. I hoofed it back to Buffalo Billiards intending to see Ida Maria, but when the host of the evening came out to announce the next act, it wasn’t her – no word of explanation – so I joined the slightly confused but certainly exhausted masses out the door. I hope she’s still playing her scheduled shows later in the week, but I can’t say I wasn’t somewhat thankful for the early end of day. It had been a long one, yes it had. One down, three to go.