Frank YangI usually go into SxSW with a “no Canadian bands” mandate, which might seem unpatriotic but considering that most/all of them will come through Toronto on at least a sem-regular basis, I don’t see the logic in flying to Texas to see them perform.
That said, some exceptions are made and Montreal’s No Joy kicking off the day at the Mohawk’s inside stage was one of those special cases. Though only around a little while, it seems they’ve already gotten to the point where their local shows are as support for bigger acts I don’t want to see, so this was the only opportunity I saw in the near term to see what they were about. And what they’re about is loud, fuzzy guitar rock that’s really too abrasive for the “shoegaze” or “dreampop” adjectives that get thrown about to be accurate – they may opt to hide behind their hair but they’re certainly not shy. There’s some real aggressiveness at play but it’s tempered by a melodic sense that’s actually more evident live than on their record Ghost Blonde, and they avoid getting too sludgy-heavy thanks to some nimble drumwork. Extra props to Jasmine White-Gluz for having a cassette 4-track affixed to her pedalboard for the purpose of adding samples and static to the mix. Sure some digital sample would have been easier and more efficient, but certainly not as cool.
Catching Erland & The Carnival at the Dirty Dog Bar was a fortuitously timed and located set, happening directly en route from the Mohawk to the Convention Center for another panel. Their claim to fame is having former Verve, Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad & The Queen guitarist Simon Tong in their ranks but even though his resume certainly outshines those of his bandmates, he still stayed off to the side and leaving the spotlight to frontman Gawain Erland Cooper. His presence was most definitely felt via his musical contributions, though, adding atmosphere and texture to their distinctly baroque folk-rock. They may be a new act but the sophistication of their material and onstage composure was that of a far more veteran act. I’m pretty sure I’ve got either self-titled debut or their latest album Nightengale kicking around – I need to dig those up.
The purpose of getting to the Convention Center was a panel entitled “Your Guide To Touring In Canada” which, like the festival one I attended the day before, didn’t have any real bearing on my life – my days of piling into a van to bring rock across the great white north were over before they even began – but was certainly interesting from a “how does this work” perspective. And it was interesting, hearing representatives from Six Shooter Records, Collective Concerts, Massey Hall and LiveNation discuss the various concerns and considerations that international acts should take into account when attempting to break into the Canadian market. Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the border and getting across it, and gave some insight as to why we hear of band members being left behind in Buffalo or why some artists don’t even try to make it up here.
Shifting gears from talking about live music to seeing it, it was time to explore the east end of Austin – well, east of I-35, anyways – which in the past had been a no man’s land with respect to the festival but in the last few years had become home to many of the more and more day shows popping up, mostly in decidedly more ramshackle environs than their west-side counterparts. This certainly described Shangri-La, which was basically a shack with a bar and a backyard with a stage. And on that stage was Ottawa’s White Wires, whom I’d successfully managed to miss seeing in both Halifax and Toronto, and yet connected with deep in the heart of Texas. Not just me, though – arriving a little into their set, I saw the trio had amassed a goodly size of revellers, pogoing and voraciously devouring their punchy and barbed-wire hooky pop-punk. They don’t reinvent the wheel but are quite adept in using it to run you over with good tunes.
Across 6th St was the East Side Drive-In, though I don’t think it had that name when we thew our “Eastbound & Found” party in the same space last year – it was just the big lot north of the Fader Fort. Regardless, this year it had both a name and a new occupant for a couple days, Pitchfork and their #Offline mini-fest and with all respect to the presenter, but we did a much better job of filling the space last year. It was remarkable how empty both stages were considering they had assembled a pretty respectable lineup, but perhaps the problem was that it was a lineup better suited to filling a club with a couple hundred people than a large outdoor space intended to host thousands. But attracting the fickle masses wasn’t my problem this year, and the lean crowd meant that I was able to saunter right up the stage without issue for Edwyn Collins’ set.
I knew that Collins was recovered enough from the strokes that felled him a few years ago to record new records – the latest of which Losing Sleep is out now – but was pleasantly surprised that he was fit enough to travel and perform live. He did it with plenty of support, backed by a big band of veterans and young bucks and spending most of the set singing from his seat on a road case. His set comprised new material as well as reaching back to the Orange Juice catalog for “Falling & Laughing” and “Rip It Up”, all of it sounding like a timeless melange of pop, rock, soul and funk done with style. Though he deferred vocals to his bandmates at a couple points and invited his son William to come out and sing with him on “In Your Eyes”, Collins was up to the task of being front and centre throughout, and for the rousing set finale – “A Girl Like You” with its guitar riff proving still glorious after all these years – he stood up and belted it out. A tremendous return.
It would have been nice if that show momentum had been carried forward with Owen Pallett’s set, but after an extended setup delay – it’s never a good sign when the artist and stage manager are just standing around at the side of the stage talking – Pallett apologetically announced that his set would be a further ten to fifteen minutes late as some of his equipment – like his violin, apparently – had been left at another venue earlier in the day. Calculating my chances of seeing Pallett play again later in the week – quite good – I cut my losses and headed over to Lustre Pearl to wrap up the afternoon.
There they were hosting Los Angeles’ Dum Dum Girls, whom I’d missed when they came through Toronto a few weeks ago due to other show conflicts. I may well like them the best of all the fuzzed-out retro-rock acts kicking around these days, and I’m even reluctant to lump them in with the other “garage rock” bands – the aesthetic might be similar, but I find their songcraft is considerably more sophisticated, able to evoke dark edges around the sunshiny sound, and the presentation? Well let’s just say they’re a very good looking band. A great-sounding one, too, with terrific harmonies and sharp guitar work over top driving rhythms, all delivered with an effortless cool. Or mostly so – even the coolest-looking band wasn’t immune to the Texas heat and by the end of their set, there was sweat and running makeup but even then? Awesome.