Saturday, March 19th, 2011
SxSW 2011 Night One
Ellie Goulding, Yuck, Summer Camp and more at SxSW
Frank YangIt was nice to have the opportunity to knock off some of the “must-sees” from my list with the very start of the official portion of the festival, thanks to NPR and Stubb’s. The former’s showcase at the latter let me see British buzz acts Yuck and James Blake early and, if blown away, circle one of their shows later in the week for an encore performance.
At the risk of being all, “what’s with kids these days”, I was genuinely surprised at how indifferent the London quartet appeared to be about being at SxSW, having such a large audience, just generally everything, even though they said they were happy to be there. I realize the slacker aesthetic was a large part of the acts to which they’ve been largely compared – your Pavements, Dino Jrs, what have you – but if the nonchalance was an affectation, it was an off-putting one. There’s no shame in looking like you’re enjoying yourselves. With that out of the way, they did sound terrific, filling their set with tunes from their self-titled record made even bigger and hookier than on disc – it was good to see that they at least took that aspect of their performance seriously. People looking to criticize them won’t be able to target their musicianship or songwriting, but their charisma? Fire away.
No such expectations of showmanship accompanied dubstep/soul-pop wunderkind James Blake’s first show of the fest and one of his first on this continent. You almost felt sorry for him that he would be thrust onto the stage at one of the festival’s biggest stages for his first SxSW experience, but that’s what he gets for being the alleged next big thing, right? His live setup consisted of a couple banks of keyboards, with himself at stage far left, a percussionist with both acoustic drums and electronic pads and a guitarist/keyboardist – all seated and clearly not intent on putting on a dazzling show, unless the open space in front was being reserved for the James Blake Dancers. It was not. When they got underway, it was evident that this was a performance that would be just as effective with eyes closed as open, amounting to a sort of pulsing real-time remix, his keys and voice being cut-and-pasted over the beats. The more soulful songs where his voice was left largely un-effected, like Feist’s “Limit To Your Love” and his “hit” “Wilhelm Scream” were still pretty stirring, though. It was interesting enough but this material wasn’t really designed for live performance, at least not in an amphitheatre setting. I suspect the more intimate shows later in the week, like at the Central Presbyterian Church, were more complimentary.
Decamping from Stubb’s to The Parish Underground let me cross Minnesota’s Now Now off my to-see list, both for the fest and overall. The trio is probably justifiably classifiable as emo pop, hence their being attached to bills I’ve no interest in seeing when they come to town, but it’s crunchy and hooky and I like it. And when you’ve got two nearly-identical girls who look barely old enough to drive chunking out riffs and thinline Telecasters, well that’s just good fun. I do think they’re good and talented enough to transcend any sort of genre circuit that they might otherwise be stuck in, but if not? We’ll always have Austin.
Unsure of what to do next, I decided to break my general “no Canadian bands” rule to stop in at the Quebec-commandeered Spill to see The Dears, but already running late, the band was unable to get their gear set up – goodness gracious they travel with a lot of keyboards – and after 15 minutes or so into their allotted set time and seeing them still sorting out power cords, I aborted and decided to get a head start on my midnight appointment.
And it’s a good thing I did because getting to Bat Bar early allowed me to meet London’s Clock Opera. At first they sounded like another lightly-danceable Brit-rock band, but after a few songs it was evident they had a certain dramatic, fist-raising quality to their songs that set them apart from the usual. I haven’t had time to do more research on who they are and what they’re up to, but certainly intend to. Consider that they had jammed the floor space with fans, sending latecomers like myself to the venue balcony, and several people asked me, in the capacity of total stranger, who they were and where they were from. I consider that a very good sign.
In the audience turnover between sets I was able to scootch downstairs and get up front for Ellie Goulding, about whom I knew only that she was declared the sound of 2010 by BBC, though all I needed her to be was the sound of the next 40 minutes or so. It’s always nice when established international acts come to SxSW and have to prove themselves again, because you get them delivering their finely-honed performances in much smaller venues than they’re used to playing. Case in point was Goulding, who was clearly used to bigger stages and as such was able to pretty well blow the roof off of Bat Bar. I’ve seen her referred to as “folktronica” and I suppose that’s descriptive, what with her building a kind of snarly electro-pop on an acoustic guitar base (though she only strapped on the guitar for a few songs) but her stuff sampled so many styles and genres that really, only a descriptor as broad and meaningless as “pop” could apply. And great. Definitely great.
And the greatness continued to the night’s close over at Latitude 30 for London’s Summer Camp. The duo of Jeremy Warmsley and Elizabeth Sankey made some headlines last year by cultivating an air of mystery around their identities when first releasing their tasty sun-kissed retro-pop, but since coming out as who they are, they’ve remained conversation-worthy thanks to the general wonderful-ness of their tunes. That said, I didn’t necessarily expect too much from them live as studio duos who don’t recruit additional players, as they didn’t, aren’t normally equipped to bring it on stage. But playing in front of very specifically-assembled video montages, Summer Camp were far more charismatic and energetic performers than I ever would have expected. Warmsley’s guitar and keys and both his and Sankey’s vocals brought a lot of liveliness that more than made up for the reliance on canned backing tracks. Without a finished album they didn’t have as much material as one would have liked but what they had was pretty much bliss.