Sunday, March 27th, 2011
SxSW 2011 Day Four
Wild Flag, TV On The Radio, Okkervil River and more at SxSW
Frank YangContrary to normal festivals wherein the biggest names are often held back until the final night so as to finish things off with a bang, at SxSW artists who typically play multiple showcases over the four days want nothing more than to get out of town as quickly as possible and as such, the Saturday lineup can be kind of lean. That’s what I was expecting out of the last day, anyways, as I’d forgotten to RSVP for one of the last stacked day parties – the Mog to-do at the Mohawk – and assumed I’d be club-hopping through the afternoon looking for something to pique my interest. Until it came to my attention that there was not, in fact, any RSVP for the party and all it’d take to get in would be to stand in line nice and early for an hour or so. Which I was willing to do.
And so it was I was in The Mohawk just a few minutes into Smith Westerns’ set. I hadn’t seen them yet this festival, which might sound like no big deal but considering the number of higher-profile parties and showcases they were playing, it was more of an achievement than you might think. And it wasn’t necessarily that I was avoiding them, but their lauded new record Dye It Blonde didn’t do much for me and so I wasn’t making an effort. Still, they’d finally managed to get in front of my eyeballs and in doing so, didn’t make me regret not having caught them sooner. There were traces of the glam-rock adjectives that their new record has been garnering, but the not-especially-lively delivery and sludgy-sounding mix made them seem more stoner (or stoned) than anything. I certainly wasn’t won over and the rest of the audience appeared to be various shades of nonplussed. Maybe I’ll be generous and chalk it up as another casualty of the noon hour set time.
Though if that were true, then an hour extra sleep must make all the difference because Wild Flag were up next and raring to go. The supergroup, featuring two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony of Helium and Rebecca Cole of The Minders were one of the must-see acts of this year’s SxSW, both thanks to their alternative nation pedigree and reputation for ass-kicking live shows, and this was their last gig of the week. And while they’re a whole new band with new songs – Wild Flag have more classic rock affection than either Helium or SK did – there’s plenty familiar about them, most notably in Timony and Carrie Brownstein’s distinctive vocal styles. And while neither frontwoman was ever shy about showing off their guitar skills in their past outfits, seeing them trade riffs and solos amidst scissor kicks and over-the-head playing was fantastic to behold. Wild Flag seems to have been assembled with the single clear mandate of rocking out and having fun and while nothing of the new material jumped right out as a standout composition, at least on a first live listen, that they give these talents an excuse to get out there and show folks how it’s done is plenty of reason to celebrate anything they do.
Though there was no real imperative to see Okkervil River at this year’s SxSW – they’d be coming to town later this Summer – it’s always nice to see them do hometown shows and hey, I was right there. And following Wild Flag, so was Will Sheff… though I don’t know who those other folks with him were. Okay, that’s not fair – I’d seen most of the new members before on past tours, but the net turnover in personnel since 2005′s Black Sheep Boy is still pretty stunning – of the band that made that record, only Sheff remains. But if the change in faces wasn’t enough to convince you that this wasn’t the same old Okkervil, the sound they made on stage should have erased any doubts. Okkervil have always been a boisterous live act, but where they once had an unhinged, ramshackle folk-rock charm, they now have a distinctly squalling electric character. Lead guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo’s contributions give them a punchier attack but also makes them sound more conventional than in the past, and I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’d ever seen Sheff pick up an electric guitar. Their set favoured the older material, but still previewed three songs from the forthcoming I Am Very Far, which sounds to be a rawer work than their last couple efforts. Of course, that could just be the live treatment – the May 10 release will tell the tale.
I’ve never really counted myself as a fan of TV On The Radio. I respect their collective musical abilities and unique sound, but their records haven’t ever really connected with me – I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t happen. That said, I’ve always appreciated how good they are live and even though it’s been some four and a half years since I saw them last, that fact hasn’t changed – in fact, based on this performance, it may be even more true than ever. The Brooklynites graduated onto much larger stages than the Mohawk’s long ago, so it was very cool to be able to see them work at the club level. What I find most remarkable about their performance is how, no matter how explosive they get, they never revert to chaos to make an impression – led by the magnetically charismatic Tunde Adebimpe, they’re perfectly calm and wholly in control of everything happening at all times. Since bassist Gerard Smith was doing battle with lung cancer, these shows and the upcoming tour in support of new album Nine Kinds Of Light had regular drummer Jaleel Bunton covering bass duties and guest Japhet Landis taking over behind the kit but even with the changes in personnel, they were firing on all cylinders and basically affirming that while they’d taken some time off over the past year, they were absolutely back.
All things being equal I’d have stuck around for the final act of the day, Big Boi, but I’d already had a hell of a day of music and there was lunch to be had.