Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
SxSW 2010 Day Four
Grammatics, Venice Is Sinking, Class Actress and more at SxSW
Frank YangWhile most festivals save their biggest names for the final night, recent years have seen SxSW kind of stagger to the finish line. Everyone is exhausted, bands want to get the hell out of town ASAP and most just want it to all be over. There was supposed to be an exception to this rule in the Big Star show at Antone’s, but with the tragic passing of Alex Chilton earlier this week, that showcase became a tribute concert and if possible, an even bigger draw. So much so that festival organizers decided to make it a badge-only event, meaning that lowly wristbanders like myself were going to be shut out. But on the upside, plan B didn’t have be standing out in the cold in line waiting/hoping to get in, so at least there was that.
I did still spend a good part of the evening near Antone’s in Austin’s warehouse district, which appears to becoming the city’s fancy club district, all bouncers in suits with earpieces and velvet ropes. Perhaps the swankiest was Phoenix, where Leeds’ Grammatics were slated to open up the evening programme. I was pleasantly surprised they were at the festival, as I hadn’t thought that breaking into the US was on their agenda but perhaps with the success of acts like Muse over here, they see an opportunity. Not that Grammatics are overtly Muse-like; they shared a penchant for dramatic delivery, yes, and singer/guitarist Owen Brinley does have a similarly theatrical voice and a tendency towards Matt Bellamy-ish facial expressions, but their sound is more post-punk than prog and the inclusion of cello as a full-time instrument sets them apart. The set drew both from last year’s self-titled debut and songs to be included in the follow-up later this year, and delivered with an assuredness that belied their young ages. Their album was a grower but eventually won me over – their live set cemented that.
Post-Grammatics, I popped down the block to the decidedly less-posh Tap Room, where London’s Gemma Ray would finally be making an appearance. I say finally because she had to cancel one of her Canadian Musicfest performances because of laryngitis and was also a no-show for her showcase the night before. She was indeed in the house this time, though, and treated the small but full house to her unique film noir-rockabilly stylings, rendered in twangy guitar, looping pedals and effected vocals. The lady knows how to create an atmosphere and her cover of Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick” was an impressive bit of reinvention.
New York’s Class Actress brought me back to the Phoenix and when their set started, back to the ’80s. Purveyors of chilly, slinky electro-pop of that vintage, the trio showcased their debut EP Journal of Ardency, ably blending beats and hooks. Elizabeth Harper’s vocals are perfectly suited to the sound they’re going for, but her stage moves – while in the right ballpark – were a bit over the top for my tastes. I was probably in the minority there, though. But the tunes are solid and given the option of too much performance effort versus not enough, I’ll take too much.
Norway’s Eva & The Heartmaker were as last-minute an addition to my schedule as you could get, with me uploading their album Let’s Keep This Up Forever to my iPhone right before dashing out the door for the airport. I had been looking for something immediate and catchy for my Saturday night lineup and they fit the bill perfectly, all giddy, girly vocals and big guitars and playing Prague exactly when I had nothing else to go to. The band name refers to Eva Weel Skram (vox) and Thomas Stenersen (guitars) and each had more than their moments in the spotlight with her singing, obviously, and he taking a solo at every opportunity. But it fit and was entertaining, as was their saccharine if not especially deep Primitives-y power pop. Not really a meal, but a fun snack.
The temptation at this point was to call it a night/festival, but a double-bill of known and loved quantities at the cozy environs of the Ale House seemed an appropriate cap to this year’s SxSW. First up was the elegant orchestral pop of Athens, Georgia’s Venice Is Sinking, whom I’d seen last year at the bizarro burlesque club Ace’s Lounge. They seemed decidedly less confused by their surroundings this year – there was no moat around the stage or provisions for stripper poles, for starters – and turned in a more lively set than last time, with tunes from last year’s lovely Azar and their forthcoming Sand & Lines to go with their take on Galaxie 500′s “Tugboat”. They’ve also added some horns to the mix. The horns are good.
And while I’ve said that I don’t come down to Austin to see Canadian/Toronto bands, I did appreciate the synchronicity of having started things off by cheering for the home team – Basia Bulat at the Galaxy Room on Wednesday – and finishing it off the same way, taking in Forest City Lovers’ SxSW debut in the final show of the festival. Though a new record is pretty much in the can, their set stuck largely to the older tunes – familiar to me but new to most others in the bar, most of whom were heavily bearded (it was late, these are the things you notice when you’re tired), and it’s sensible to put your best foot forward in this sort of introductory show. I definitely felt the absence of newest member Tim Bruton, whose contributions on filling out their sound I’ve gotten used to in recent shows back home, but the Forest City charm was still very much in effect. A fine finish to a long, long week.
A week that got a bit longer after I missed my flight on Sunday morning and was stuck in Austin another couple days; I only got back home yesterday afternoon. But I digress – there’s worse places to be stuck than Homeslice Pizza on South Congress. I didn’t intend to stretch out the SxSW reviews so long, but the past week hasn’t gone exactly to plan and getting non-Sx stuff together is going to take a little longer. But believe it or not, stuff has continued to happen outside of Austin over the past week and I’ve got a big laundry list of it to sift through. But there’s going to be good stuff. And some free stuff. And whatnot.