Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011
SxSW 2011 Night Two
The Strokes, tUnE-yArDs, Oh Land and more at SxSW
Frank YangCertainly, in retrospect, I should have known better than to opt to see The Strokes give their free-to-all show at Auditorium Shores over any other showcasing band at SxSW, but the opportunity to see them so early on in their return to active duty with the imminent release of Angles and the attendant bragging rights that would come with it (at least with my more Strokes-obsessed friends) was too much to resist. I probably should have resisted.
At first it seemed a perfectly idyllic setting – free show on the lake, warm breeze, tacos plentiful – but as showtime neared it began to get dark, and not just literally. Firstly, despite advance instructions there was no accommodation made for media and photographers so you had dozens of people jammed between the fence at the front of the stage and the throngs of concertgoers with no one in place to offer direction, and when the show eventually started and the great inevitable surge ensued, we were swept up with them and pushed forward only to run into a wall of disabled people. Very unhappy ones. Apparently an area in front had been designated for the deaf, blind and infirm – which explained the woman in the pit dancing and signing lyrics – but someone had neglected to actually physically cordon the area off and as such, these folk were being overrun by everyone else. There was panic, screaming, crying, pleading with security for help (which was completely ignored) and a few physical altercations. It was in fact only the few layers of media between them and the rest of the audience that kept it from getting worse, though that didn’t keep us from getting yelled and blamed. Never mind the fact that the original plan of rotating a group of photographers through for each of the first three songs failed almost immediately and most only got to shoot from the crowd, which isn’t easy when you have thousands of fans pushing you from one side and deaf people screaming at you from the other. And I haven’t even mentioned that the fences around the park were knocked down after capacity had been reached and the teeming masses made even more teeming. Can you say, “clusterfuck”? I knew you could.
I was amazed that The Strokes are able to elicit this sort of – I dunno if passion is the right word, I’m sure the plentiful free beer and St. Patrick’s Day-ness of the occasion had something to do with it – but to generate such a frenzy amongst a crowd that largely skewed very young, like probably in grade school when Is This It was released. But even when they burst out of New York a decade ago, I thought the love for them was disproportionate to what they actually brought to the table, musically, so maybe it’s just been consistent and now cross-generational. At any rate, for good or for bad, The Strokes sounded exactly like they always have, like they’d just stepped out of a time capsule from five years ago (but not one that had kept them looking perfectly young, mind, or Albert Hammond Jr’s had malfunctioned) with their creatively dueling guitars and Julian Casablancas’ vocals still striking that perfect sleepy snarly balance. And just as they always have, they appeared kind of bored on stage, with their dressing amounting to a a set of pulsing vertical lights which only really got interesting during “Reptilia”. None of which is to say that they were bad at all – I thought they sounded quite good, in keeping with my recent critical re-evaluation of The Strokes in general – but they still sound exactly like The Strokes always have and always will, and that’s not worth starting a riot over. Still, last I heard no one was actually hurt in the melee of the show and the fireworks that accompanied encore-closer “Last Night” were a nice touch.
Happy to be back in the usual bedlam of 6th St rather than the exceptional bedlam of Auditorium Shores, it was back into A&R mode with the maybe-terrifically-probably-horribly-named Chapel Hill quintet I Was Totally Destroying It, added to my schedule on the basis of a single song and a recommendation from The Dumbing Of America. And while they traded in perfectly decent power pop with plenty of chunky guitar riffage and onstage energy, what stood out about them was keyboardist/vocalist Rachel Hirsh who clearly towered over her bandmates in charisma and ability. Vocally, she had that extra something in her voice, be it phrasing or timbre, that demanded your attention. At present she’s lifting up the rest of her band to noteworthy status but if they don’t step up their game in creativity and presentation, it won’t be long before she’s outgrown them. Forewarned.
I’m on record as not really getting tUnE-yArDs, at least from her debut album Bird-Brain – I certainly respect the creativity and ability that Merrill Garbus brings to her art but I just don’t find it especially listenable. That said, a spur of the moment decision whilst scanning the schedule took me to the Cental Presbyterian Church where I decided to put the, “you have to see her live to get it” qualifier to the test. And yeah, having borne witness now, I will agree while what you don’t get from her recordings may not be made up for on stage, but the spectacle that she offers whilst performing more than makes up for it. Standing behind an array of microphones and drums, Garbus was dazzling in showing off what she could do with her voice, either looper or unassisted, while pounding out complex beats. She melded African rhythmic sound sculptures with R&B-ish vocal acrobatics and moments of folkish simplicity, all laced with cascades of tones and textures and crazy sax breakdowns. There were a couple of flubs where she had to catch herself and give it a do-over, but no one would dare call her on it. So yes to all, while I still find her records impenetrable – I don’t expect her new record W H O K I L L, out April 19, is a top 40 pop gem – the live spectacle is something to behold.
Back on the main drag of 6th St, it was pretty much eenie meenie minie moe with respect to who would get to entertain me for the midnight hour, and given that a few people had expressed an interest in London’s Chapel Club pre-festival and they were setting up at Bat Bar right behind me, I figured that’d be as good a pick as any. And with their fancy pants Jazzmaster and Gretsch guitars adorning the stage, they certainly made a good first impression but musically, lacked clarity of purpose necessary to seal the deal. Guitars were loud and churny, but the vocalist didn’t offer much in terms of personality and the songs, while generally sounding good, didn’t come off as especially memorable. I suspect that the band would have agreed that they weren’t putting their best foot forward, as they were clearly unhappy with the sound and the singer was staring daggers at the sound man in the balcony through the entire set. But such is SxSW.
As was apparently the theme for the evening, I didn’t actually know anything about Oh Land before hitting up her showcase at Buffalo Billiards to close out the evening, save that she was Danish and accumulating a significant amount of press, though that may have had less to do with Nanna Øland Fabricius’ music than the fact that she kind of looked like a supermodel. And yeah, no one’s going to believe that that wasn’t a factor in my being there either, so I won’t try to convince you, but I do like me some Scandi-pop as well so give me a break. Those who give cut her a break for her looks must be really enamoured because musically, she doesn’t bring a lot to the table. It’s bubbly uptempo synth-pop, but lacks the big hooks that usually make this sort of thing irresistible against one’s better judgement. The material is lyrically pretty vapid and not helped along by her unremarkable voice. Yes, it comes together on the big single “Son Of A Gun” but beyond that, there wasn’t much noteworthy on display. But you know what? I have a feeling she’ll do just fine regardless.