Friday, March 19th, 2010
SxSW 2010 Night Two
Superchunk, She & Him, Marina & The Diamonds and more at SxSW
Frank YangFunny thing about plans you’ve had etched in stone for weeks – they seem to be the ones that are the most fun to jettison. Leading up to SxSW, I had assumed I would stick around at Eastbound & Down through GZA’s set, which meant that my only opportunity to see Superchunk would be their Friday afternoon Village Voice show at La Zona Rosa. Easy. And yet instead of getting my Wu Tang on Thursday evening, I found myself back at the hotel staring at my schedule and contemplating a world of opportunities with that scenario out the window. And it was decided that this evening would be a Merge kind of evening.
That Superchunk were the “special guests” kicking things off there at 7:30 PM was a pretty poorly kept secret, but even without them it was sure to be a full house with the first of several SxSW appearances from Matt Ward and Zooey Deschanel, aka She & Him. I wanted to see both and not tromp all around Austin, so sitting in Cedar Street for a few hours seemed a good plan. But first there’d be some standing in line outside the courtyard waiting for doors to open at 7. And more standing. And more. Apparently, a late-running day show had mucked up the Merge schedule such that doors didn’t open until 7:50, obviously throwing the official schedule – which only would have allowed for a 15-20 minute Superchunk set – out the window. When wristbands were finally let in, I pulled a Cedar Street Slide (instead of fighting through the crowd in the courtyard, ducking into the restaurant that runs the length of the venue and bypassing them via the entrance at the front of the stage) and snagged a perfect spot at the foot of the stage as Superchunk were tuning up. Superchunk!
And man, was it worth the wait. The Chapel Hill quartet may not be on full active duty after a long hiatus, but they played like they hadn’t taken a day off. Pogoing around the stage like the kids do (or did), they played a much longer than expected set – eight songs – including a couple new ones which will appear on their just-completed new record (!!!). Those sounded great but I was of course stoked to hear the likes of “Hello Hawk” and “Hyper Enough”, as well as getting to tell Jim Wilbur that no one heard his last solo because he’d accidentally unplugged his guitar from a pedal mid-song. I had worried that going off schedule would make for a shorter Superchunk set, but it probably allowed for an even longer one and my night had hit it’s high point just as soon as it had begun. This, kids, is how it’s done.
Three of those kids were up next in the form of one of the label’s latest signings, London’s Let’s Wrestle. I’m a fan of their debut In the Court of the Wrestling Let’s, due out next week, and had been looking for an opportunity to catch them at SxSW before their April 18 show at the Horseshoe but while their songwriting and persona would appear to be of shambolic abandon, their show was decidedly more polite than expected. It sounded great and Wesley Patrick Gonzalez’s guitar had a pleasant self-destructing tone throughout, but their delivery was more of intensity than shenanigans, save for the final, instrumental title track of the album in which strings began breaking on his SG en masse, forcing him to mangle/wrangle them off whilst trying to play. Finally – some wrestling!
The last time I saw Radar Bros was also here in Austin, also at a Merge showcase in 2008. And like that time, their set was slow and leisurely, almost to a fault. I like a lot of the sounds and influences that Jim Putnam and company draw on, but delivered as they are in such a languorous fashion, it can be a bit maddening. Their new record The Illustrated Garden is out next week. I’m betting it sounds a lot like the one before it.
They may be called She & Him, but it’s really She & Him & Lots Of Backing Players – Matt and Zooey’s band is a big one, and as such, their soundcheck took an exceeding long time to get through. Any gains in time made up by compressing sets leading up to theirs were pretty much lost as they tried to get mics and monitors working. Not that anyone seemed to care, anticipation for the duo was high and hundreds of cameras at the ready… until they essentially turned off all the lights and a show official came on the mic and said that the band politely requested that no one take any photos during their show. Of course, few listened and when they finally strode out on stage, it was to a barrage of flashes and shutters. This performance had a markedly different feel from their SxSW debut two years ago, which was maybe their third-ever live performance. Despite being a seasoned actress, at that show Deschanel seemed very nervous and uncomfortable being in the spotlight, frequently looking to Ward for cues or confidence. This time out, she was far, far more at ease, chatting with the crowd, cracking jokes, jumping up and down and generally being adorable. Musically, things weren’t quite so polished as some sound issues persisted despite the elongated soundcheck and they were both working without a set list and against a shortened set time. Not that that seemed to matter to most in attendance, who were thrilled to be seeing the pair – or at least their silhouettes – and take in their timeless-sounding, AM radio-styled pop tunes. And as soon as they were done, the venue cleared out.
Which is a shame because Wye Oak were up next. I’d have liked to have stuck around and if they were remotely on schedule, I would have but still needing to grab some dinner at 11PM and with a few blocks to traverse to Lamberts for my last stop of the night, I needed to be on my way. Lamberts was where current UK it girl Marina & The Diamonds was set to hold court and, having a thing for UK it girls, I wanted to see what this was all about. Again, the start time was delayed massively by technical issues – seeing six guys huddled around a rack case with a flashlight and shrugging is never a good sign – but unlike most SxSW showcases thus afflicted, this one would hardly be cut short. When they were finally ready to go, Marina Diamandis bounded onstage clad in Planet Hollywood overalls and a giant woolen shawl with animal ears… clearly, she was not going to be your conventional diva. And not being able to quite put my finger on what she was about was kind of the overarching theme for her set. Her voice is powerful, but with enough quirks and tics to not be too cookie cutter mainstream. the musical backing is synth-heavy, but it’s not made for the dancefloor. The lyrics are dense and pop-culture referencing, but not ironic. She’s beautiful, but not conventionally glammy (see above outfit). Whatever she’s doing, it’s been a hit in the UK and if the couple hundred people crammed into the club are a representative sample of North America (which they’re not), then when her debut The Family Jewels is released over here on May 25, it’ll do just as well. For my part, I remain intrigued if not yet completely won over.