Friday, March 16th, 2012
SXSW 2012 Day One
Niki & The Dove, Blood Orange, Widowspeak and more at SXSW
Frank YangAs something of a SXSW veteran – eight years, now – one thing I try to explain to the newbs heading down to the big Texan throwdown is that there’s simply so much happening at any given time that it’s a mathematical certainty that you’re missing something great. So don’t sweat it, enjoy what you’re at and don’t try to do too much or it will cost you not far down the road. I think it’s good advice, and for the first proper day of the festival, it’s advice I probably should have taken.
But then it’s just so easy to see stuff. Wednesday started out on the east end at Shangri-La for Portland’s Blouse, even though their electro-pop was probably better suited to post-midnight moods rather than the bright noontime sun, they made it work. The four-piece actually sounded better than I’d have expected based on some live performance videos I’d seen – tighter and more precise. They were as icy as you’d want but smooth and deliberate, and seemed more comfortable live than their origins as a studio project might have led you to expect.
With Swedes Niki & The Dove being one of the hotter and busier acts going into SXSW, I thought I might have some trouble getting in to see them. But the nice thing about 1:30PM is that a lot of people are still asleep and/or hung over, which made getting into their Under The Radar showcase much easier than I expected. As was evident from the abbreviated set I saw in Iceland, the duo had star quality in spades and within the first three songs, demonstrated their command of pop, dance and balladry all while maintaining a consistent sound reminiscent of a bedazzled, electro-pop Kate Bush. Their debut album Instinct, out May 14, should be big.
I know that set times are no sure thing – particularly for day shows – but it’s always annoying when someone gets bumped on the order of hours. So upon getting to The Mohawk and seeing that Blood Orange got moved back two hours, plan B went into effect and doubled back to Red 7’s patio. Seeing La Sera wasn’t part of that plan but was a pretty good bit of luck as it turns out I like them more than Vivian Girls. Having never been a real Vivian Girls fan, I probably needed the reminding that Katy Goodman can sing and she can write and – as turned out to be necessary – she can recover from an self-immolating bass amp. Good, light-hearted pop songs and big smiles.
But they were just a warm-up for Widowspeak, whom I had come to regret missing on their visit to Toronto last Fall. The sweet shyness of their self-titled debut came across with much more coyly, even playfully, in the live setting thanks to Molly Hamilton’s magnetic presence and glowing smile. It was quite a contrast to their labelmates Blouse whom I started the day with; warmth versus detachment, honey versus ice. Both delicious in their way but Widowspeak really hit the spot.
Korallreven was on my schedule by virtue of being a Radio Dept. offshoot – they share keyboardist Daniel Tjäder on their rosters – but I didn’t really plan on making an effort to see them, they were more of a safety. But when they’re starting to play the moment you enter the room – I had to cut through the Red 7 inside room to leave – you may as well check them out. The presence of live instrumentation and a singer made me hope the live show would be more focused than their An Album By Korallreven, which I filed largely under pretty but hazy chillwave. And while it sounded alright – there was definitely more immediacy to it all – it was still pretty low key in delivery. I stuck around for a bit then headed back to re-engage plan A at The Mohawk.
When Dev Hynes – aka Blood Orange – started his set, just singing overtop pre-recorded backing tracks – I kind of hoped that there were some in the audience who were unfamiliar with him ready to dismiss him as some kind of karaoke act; that would have make their inevitable jaw drop when he picked up his guitar that much more delicious. As demonstrated when he came through Toronto last October, Hynes makes the one-man show far more dynamic and engaging than anyone could expect, ripping guitar solo after guitar solo between crooning funk-soul verses be it from the stage or in the audience. Blood Orange may have begun as a bedroom studio project, but rather than abandon that aesthetic to bring Coastal Grooves to the stage, he’s instead brought the stage into his bedroom – with sexy results.
I’d meant to save London’s Clock Opera – one of last year’s discoveries – for later in the week, but they were playing the inside room of The Mohawk right then and there so… yeah. May as well. And if there was any acts that I’d be fine with seeing multiple time over the festival, they were one. It turned out to not be quite then and there as their set was delayed with soundchecking – their electro-rock , but when they got underway it was mostly all good. Mostly, because the material they opened with – presumably new songs from Ways To Forget, out April 23 – wasn’t as immediate as the singles that had built their buzz over the past year, but by the time their set wrapped with the trio of “Once And For All”, “Belongings” and “Lesson No. 7” the energy was definitely there. Net terms, it wasn’t as anthemically triumphant as past shows I’d seen but that made a good excuse to see them again later in the week – maybe they’d have found their groove or maybe they’d be burnt out. We would see. Though with seven bands in the first afternoon, odds were that I’d be the one burnt out.