A report on my first day of South by Southwest coming up after the jump. Check back soon for Wednesday photos.
Back in the thick of it! Every year upon my arrival in Austin I'm instantly thrust into some sort of hipster mecca, where bands of all stripes are performing within walking distance, desperate to be embraced by the masses, who judging by their carefully considered fashion statements are just as eager to be noticed. I spend my days seeing bands at the myriad free, unofficial parties then hit up the official showcases at night for more music.
Yesterday the whirlwind picked up around 2 p.m., when I headed to the Terrorbird/Force Field PR party at Red 7 for my afternoon entertainment. An indoor-outdoor stage setup allowed for wandering between competing bands.
My first band of the fest was The Fresh and Onlys, a San Francisco treat specializing in fuzzed-out Bay Area psych rock. It's got a bit of Detroit coursing through its bloodstream too, with lots of power chord bang-jangle action and basslines that groove constantly without ever feeling too busy. The secret weapon, though, is the lead guitarist's high-register surf-rock sonics. A glorious way to start my day. (Side note: The singer looks kind of like Mark Boone Jr. with longer, more scraggly hair.)
I caught a little bit of Choir of Young Believers' set and found it to be decent "serious" indie stuff — you know, the weight-of-the-world-on-your-shoulders Arcade Fire attitude, only less rambunctious. Nice cello action, but not captivating enough to keep me from wandering into the indoor area in search of free Red Stripe. (That supply had already run out, unfortunately.)
Neon Indian was up next. I came here pretty skeptical of how all these chillwave bands would work in a live setting, and even more so after I heard Alan Palomo trigger a fully-formed "Deadbeat Summer" sample during soundcheck — would they deliver any sort of visceral experience? Would this be mere karaoke? (Then again, with the right performer, would that really be a problem?) Never fear, friends: Palomo is the Elvis Presley of this particular micro-genre, throwing his hips into every knob twiddle the way the King wielded his acoustic guitar and rocking the mic with authority. It was tough to hear the backing vocals, but otherwise the band contributed a lot, particularly the guitarist clad in some sort of Eastern robe. Let's hope they make their way to Columbus at some point.
I left with the intent of seeing Washed Out and some other bands at the Mohawk, but the line was insane, so I returned to Red 7 to catch one of my most anticipated bands of the festival, Real Estate. The New Jersey hazy janglers delighted me by deploying their simple, satisfying formula again and again: A pair of clean, reverb-heavy guitars intermingle Sonic Youth-style over no-nonsense rhythm section, giving away occasionally to lightweight pop sing-alongs in the vein of early Shins stuff. Despite my Sonic Youth reference, this is strictly suburban stuff that goes over gorgeously with this Westerville kid. By the time they defied the sound man and tacked their masterpiece "Fake Blues" on the end of the set, I had progressed from crushing on this quartet to falling madly in love with them. They don't do anything too crazy, but their combination of elementary indie-rock tricks and easygoing pop songcraft hits my sweet spot.
I took a break to grab a pulled pork sandwich and waffle fries at the Jackalope, then headed to the Fader Fort to find out who the night's top-secret headliner would be. Lo and behold, it was Nas! Hooray!) And Damian Marley, with whom he just finished an album. (Boo!) I figured Mr. Illmatic's set would be ruined by partnering with the "Welcome to Jamrock" singer, but in the words of Lee Corso: Not so fast, my friends. I stuck around for about 20 minutes and was surprised to discover that not only was Nas rocking the house effortlessly (such a perplexingly inconsistent but endlessly talented dude...), but so was Marley. Their solo turns and their collaborations, this pairing is a success.
I'd have been happy to see more if I wasn't eager to get to Stubb's to catch old favorites The Walkmen. Hamilton Leithauser and company spruced up their set with a massive horn section on a couple of the slower selections, but you can't beat blistering fare like "The Rat" and "The New Year." These guys know their niche, and they've built such a satisfying catalog by exploring it. Won't find many acts that sound like them, nor will you encounter many better.
I considered bailing to see some novelty acts, but changed my mind just in time to witness Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. I knew Jones had soul, but I had no idea she was such a character. Sister strutted with glee from start to finish and even pulled some dude with a questionable mohawk out of the crowd to dance with her. Her voice was, of course, tremendous, and the band was just as sizzling. (Special shout-out to the trumpet player's exceptional tambourine shaking. No joke, that dude was a force to be reckoned with.) Of all the bands doing old-school soul revival thing, it's no surprise this one has become the consensus pick.
Next came the night's biggest bummer. Broken Bells, the collaboration between Danger Mouse and The Shins' James Mercer, lived up to my worst fears. Mercer has been a cold fish since "Wincing the Night Away," and teaming with Danger Mouse did little to snap him from his slumber. Part of the Shins' appeal — and "The Grey Album" and Gnarls Barkley, for that matter — was the punchy pop spirit that exuded from even the slow jams. This was zombie music in the most painfully mundane sense of the phrase, and a horrendously muddy mix didn't help matters. To top it off, Mercer remains one of the least engaging live performers I've ever encountered. Give the man some cocaine or something.
At this point I was ailing from a persistent cold and struggling to stay awake after being up for 20 hours (and enduring Broken Bells), so I decided to stay close to my hotel and end my night at Club DeVille (holla!). I was attempting to see Califone, but the Brooklyn Vegan showcase was running late, so I settled for Bowerbirds instead. This was just what I needed at the moment: a reminder that soft, slow music doesn't have to be a snooze. The guitar-accordion-mandolin-drums combo proceeded slowly and purposefully through each tune, conjuring beauty and drama at every turn.