Monday, March 28th, 2011
SxSW 2011 Night Four
Owen Pallett, Donald Glover, Veronica Falls and more at SxSW
Frank YangAs mentioned, Saturday nights at SxSW have traditionally been kind of slow as far as options go, but this year seemed especially lean – when The Bravery are your headliner at Stubb’s, you have a problem. For my part, I had a number of options circled but nothing that I’d classify as a tentpole show to build my night around and so was glad to see an 8PM listing for IAMDONALD at Red 7 that I’d somehow missed in past schedule scans – and it was a 90-minute show! Double score.
The titular “Donald” was Donald Glover, aka “Troy” from Community, aka all-around funny dude. This, however, wasn’t going to be stand-up. It would be a preview of the IAMDONALD tour which would be kicking off in April and offer both comedy and music, the latter in the form of Glover’s Childish Gambino hip-hop persona. So would this particular showcase be one or the other or both? No one in line was particularly sure, but all were pretty keen to find out. Especially when Community co-star Danny Pudi was spotted entering the venue, briefly raising hopes of a full “Troy & Abed In The Morning” taping.
What it would end up being was more of a dry run than anything else. Much time both pre- and during the show was spent hovering over laptops, working out the synching of multimedia elements and technical details of the live instrumentation, but when they finally got down to brass tacks, it was… alright. The combination of a really bad sound mix – instruments way too loud, vocals mixed too low and yet distorting – made it really difficult to understand what Glover/Gambino was saying, and so a lot of the time it was just, “hey it’s the guy from that TV show jumping around on stage!”. Perhaps if I’d done some prep work like a lot of the audience appeared to have, it’d have gone over better – folks around me were dancing and rapping along with what I gathered were rather graphic and weird descriptions of Gambino (and hopefully not Glover’s) sexual proclivities. Content aside, Glover was an impressive rapper and singer – there was some soul/R&B-style grooves in there as well – and while there’s humour in what he’s doing, it’s pretty clear he’s serious about it. I was a bit disappointed that the stand-up portion of the IAMDONALD tour wasn’t part of this show, though the offhand between-song banter was pretty great, and I can only hope that it allows them to smooth things out before the actual tour. Like turning down the keyboards. Gawd.
Things were much more conventional over at Latitude 30, where London’s Veronica Falls were setting up. Though 50-50 co-ed, Veronica Falls is a “they” and not a “she”, offering a distinctly English take on the ’50s retro garage pop movement. Rather than invoking the sun and beach of their American peers, they’re decidedly darker in outlook though twee-er in sound and come off as though their garages were located in dreary landlocked council estates. Though prevailingly cute, they offered more intensity than you’d expect from the style and were capable of getting right loud when necessary.
And around the corner from the British Music Embassy (as Latitude 30 was dubbed for the week) was the Chilean Music Showcase at Maggie Mae’s, and at the Chilean Music Showcase was a band called Intimate Stranger who, despite the unfortunate name, got my attention during a random schedule browse. Not that this should be interpreted as a broadening of my musical horizons to include more international flavours; Intimate Stranger are fronted by a Brit and sound more like they hail from London than from Santiago. Their guitar-driven tunes are relatively simple, built on tight, unrelenting grooves that bloom and evolve with deviations and improvisations on the theme as it progresses. From that description you might call it jamming but the focus on the song and the melody always keeps things in line. Like many of the acts I saw this week, they were laden with potential but the charisma wasn’t quite there yet – frontwoman Tessie Stranger was a stunner but didn’t seem entirely comfortable with herself and her bandmates preferred to keep their heads down and just go about their business. They owe it to themselves to do better than that.
To cap off the festival, I went off the grid somewhat and hit the Stereogum-sponsored unofficial after party at the Purevolume House, determined to catch Owen Pallett before the clock struck 12 (figuratively speaking) and SxSW turned back into a pumpkin. And in the process, I was introduced to what would be my stock answer should anyone ask me, “what was the worst thing you saw at SxSW?” – Puro Instinct. The Los Angeles outfit has apparently been getting some buzz of late and I can only imagine it’s because of the angle of being fronted by two sisters, one 23 and the other 16. It surely can’t be because of the music. Actually, musically they weren’t bad, with kind of a bubble-goth thing going on and the younger sister, Skylar Kaplan, a perfectly decent guitarist. But big sis Piper… well, if she was going for the drunken aunt at a wedding thing, she nailed it. Possessed of nothing resembling a singing voice, she rasped and croaked her way through their mercifully short set, unable to carry a tune and unwilling to put her drink down as she tried. It was a sad, sad thing to behold and I may be mistaken but I think I saw Courtney Love standing at the side of her stage, shaking her head with disdain.
I’ve mentioned my general boycott of Canadian acts when I’m at SxSW and a sort of extension of that is my habit of taking local acts for granted, in the “I’ll see them next time, they play all the time anyways” sense. And that is how, with the exception of his two-song set at last year’s Polaris gala, I’d gone nearly three years since seeing Owen Pallett live, either as himself or Final Fantasy. And that, kids, was simply far too long – especially since his Twitter feed was implying a format change after the festival, though that may just be recruiting a band. And if that’s the case, I’m sure it’ll be marvelous but part of the wonder of Owen live was how he was able to recreate his miniature symphonies entirely on his own (and with a little help from technology). A wonder I was finally able to get reacquainted with after a couple of near misses over the week. Granted the Purevolume House was kind of an odd setting for him, what with it’s over the top light show and underage afterparty vibe, but you take what you can get. And what we got was a shortish but satisfying set that served to either remind or reveal, depending on how well you knew his work, his musical brilliance. I may not constantly sing his praises hereabouts, but make no mistake that I think he’s one of the most creative talents working in Canada right now, and any time he gets on stage he proves it. For me, a terrific way to close out the festival and for the kids, I think they liked his Mariah Carey cover.
And that, folks, is SxSW 2011 in the books. There’s still the A/V posts with pics (all of which are up), MP3s, videos and links but those will be mixed in with your regularly scheduled news and spews starting tomorrow. I appreciate your sticking through this somewhat decompressed reportage schedule, at least compared to years past – it’s amazing how much you better you feel when you’re not up until 4AM trying to write up the past day. And to anyone who’s heard me insisting loudly that this would be my final SxSW, that I’ve got other/better things I want to do with my travel budget and vacation time… I have nothing better to do. See you next year?