Sunday, March 20th, 2011
SxSW 2011 Day Two
DeVotchKa, Still Corners, The Naked & Famous and more at SxSW
Frank YangThough this was the seventh time I’d hit up SxSW, it was only the second wherein I was rocking a badge and besides the obvious benefits of being able to get in the express admission line at showcases and wear a picture of myself around my neck for four days, it allowed me to pass the gauntlet of gatekeeping volunteers at the Austin Convention Center and up the escalator to where the conference part of the festival was happening.
And in addition to the panels in conference rooms, there’s also a couple of stages for performances throughout the day. I had assumed, having never actually been to one, that these were basic setups for stripped-down shows but in fact, the ACC Radio Day Stage was a massive ballroom-type deal with seats for sitting, giant cushions for lounging, bars for imbibing and a giant, fully-appointed stage for performing. In short, the proper environs for a legendary artist such as Emmylou Harris.
At the festival in support of her forthcoming record Hard Bargain, out April 26, she started the day with a radio session and interview for WFUV. The musical part of the session was far too brief at only two songs, but the opportunity to hear that amazing voice live for however long was a gift. And the interview, wherein she talked about her formative years with Gram Parsons and her new record, was also great to witness. Short but special.
The Dot Com Day Stage next door was decidedly less fancifully set up than its neighbour, or at least I assumed so from what I could see. Which wasn’t much, as though I’d finally caught up with Still Corners, the target of my wild goose chase the day before, they had opted to play completely in the dark. To be fair, their usual setup had video projections shone overtop of them but the setup of the room didn’t allow this so while the films ran on the wall beside the stage, the band played with only whatever light from the hallway outside found its way in. And while this would normally be enough to get on my bad side, the London five-piece sounded so good that it was impossible to stay mad. Imagine a ’60s film score collaboration between Slowdive and Stereolab and you’re in the ballpark – it was a formula you’d think would sound more familiar but in their hands, at least, felt exceedingly fresh. Just-signed to SubPop, their debut full-length should be out in the Summer. I cannot wait to hear it.
At this point I left the safety of the Convention Center to forage for some food but soon returned to its air-conditioned, free-wified embrace, again to the Radio Day Stage, to see DeVotchKa. It had been three and a half years since I last saw the Denver quartet – here in Austin in September 2007 during ACL – but that’s only because they hadn’t returned to Toronto for a headlining show since Summer 2006. In any case, it was far too long. Their set had a goodly number of old favourites but leaned heavily on their new album 100 Lovers and rightly so – DeVotchKa have always had a unique formula of rock seasoned with mariachi and balkan sounds but on their last record A Mad And Faithful Telling it felt as though either it or they were getting tired. Lovers, happily, finds them sounding rejuvenated by recommitting to their aesthetic and taking it tighter and deeper while simultaneously expanding what DeVotchKa is, particularly rhythmically. In any sense, they reaffirmed their status as an excellent live band, the superb audio setup doing the intricacies of their sound many favours. The one point where the room didn’t work in their favour was near the end of the set when someone accidentally (?) hit the light switches and the many many many fluorescent panels in the ceiling began firing up… not especially rock’n’roll. They did get them switched off just in time for their finale, though, eliciting a smirk from frontman Nick Urata – maybe that’s what counted as a light show?
Hitting up New Zealand’s most hotly-tipped outfit at the fest, The Naked & Famous, it required a trek to the dustiest corner of downtown they call Lustre Pearl, and by and large they were worth it. Not the most original sounding outfit but a good representative of bands for whom using synths doesn’t necessarily mean they have to forgo the more traditional implements of rock. Their high-energy sound had keyboards underpinning everything, but you could have replaced the synthetic textures with organic instruments or even done away with them entirely and they’d have still sounded right. For The Naked & Famous, the danceability was not the ends but just the means to having a good time, and good times were had.
Finally, to wrap the daytime portion of the Thursday, it was back to the Convention Center for a panel on “How To Build A Festival”, featuring the people who started Bonnaroo, Burning Man and the Northside Festival. Not that I have any intention on starting my own fest, but because I was genuinely curious about how things of that nature worked. And while there wasn’t any sort of insider information offered that you wouldn’t have been able to guess, it was interesting hearing some of the anecdotes the panelists had on their experiences in getting their ventures started and did give me a sense of why Toronto has been incapable of starting and maintaining a large-scale festival (besides CMW/NXNE) – the amount of energy and dedication required is more than any entity in the 416 has been able or willing to offer, and not unreasonably. But maybe someday?