A report on my second day at SXSW coming up after the jump...
As is usually the case on SXSW Thursday, I got a later start than I'd like thanks to sleeping off the previous day's dawn awakening/airport hustle/band marathon exhaustion fest. But once I got out in the sun, I spent the afternoon taking advantage of this fest's ability to cater to my ever-shortening attention span. That is, I banged out a whole lotta bands by taking in a few songs each and moving on.
I didn't skip a minute of Best Coast at Levi's Fader Fort, though. Bethany Cosentino does simple guitar pop (look ma, no bass!) infected by slight shoegaze sonics and a bad case of 90s nostalgia — very Phair-y — yet she makes every three-chord ditty sound like some brand new phenomenon. When I'm with her, I have fun.
I should mention that Best Coast wasn't technically the first thing I saw Thursday. The hopscotching process started 20 minutes earlier when I stumbled upon Viv Albertine (of The Slits fame) performing at DIY hub Ms. Bea's. I probably would have paid her more mind had I known who she was, but at the time she just seemed like an aging yet attractive British lass with some OK tunes. I felt bad when I came home and looked her up and discovered she was in an important band. Sorry, history.
Anyway, after Best Coast I continued hopping between free, unofficial events on the east side of I-35. Wandered into an outdoor party called Eastbound and Found just in time to miss Warpaint but catch Slow Club, a British guy-gal duo who knew how to use the details to their advantage. He strummed and sang; she harmonized with him and manned a minimal, stand-up drum kit. They used so few tools of the trade, but their control of dynamics was a thing to behold; a slight shift from palm-muting to chords ringing out or from brushes to drumsticks made all the difference. A pleasant surprise, they were.
The Morning Benders were even more delightful. They look like children, but they play some of the most mature chamber pop I've encountered — not afraid of the slow-burn, but also happy to indulge in some wall of sound overload, plus the sharpest harmonies I've heard at this fest. These boys clearly love their Grizzly Bear (whose Chris Taylor produced their new LP), but they're too talented to reject as rip-off artists. I'm ecstatic to listen to that album of theirs when I get home. Pretty funny to hear their singer making stage banter about partying hard last night, though, since he looks like he's 14.
Next was a trip back to the Fader Fort for Local Natives, another band of Grizzly Bear acolytes but with a bit of Yeasayer exoticism in the mix. I can't emphasize how much more engaging this band is live than on their debut album, which was a bit of a snoozer on first listen. Maybe this invigorating display will give me some new perspective on the recordings, or maybe I'll just make it a point to see them at The Basement this spring. Their frontman is one of those ball-of-energy types who you can't take your eyes off, despite never fully spazzing out. And he's got quite the impressive 'stache.
Back at Ms. Bea's, indie rock vets Quasi were singing sweet songs in the sun. Sam Coomes was graying and scraggly but quite excited to be back in action, while Janet Weiss continued to be one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. Weiss' Jicks bandmate Joanna Bolme was there on bass, which makes sense since Jicks probably aren't doing much this year while Stephen Malkmus tours with Pavement. I never listened to much Quasi growing up, and theirs was probably the least memorable set I saw Thursday afternoon. But I still dug the simple, straightforward sounds emanating from the stage, particularly when ex-spouses Coomes and Weiss would lock into searing harmonies over poppy power chords. More 90s nostalgia, but this time from a genuine 90s band.
At this point I walked back into downtown to witness my first Columbus act of the day, Attack! Attack! The Westerville crabcore prodigies have gone through two lead screamers since the last time I saw them, but since then they've also become one of the hugest bands in the world among teenage scene kids. Their bizarro melding of throat-searing screamo and vocoder-heavy trance techno (a variation on the old loud-quiet-loud formula, only all loud) has made them objects of desire and objects of ridicule, but the polarity was fully shifted in their favor yesterday at Red 7. Sonically, it was a mess — perhaps Red 7 isn't used to handling music like this? — but they were sharp, and the kids were going nuts. Chalk it up to the naivete of youth if you wish, but I haven't seen anybody else received with half as much enthusiasm. Not my cup of tea, but far be it from me to deny them their moment in the sun.
At this point I took a break to watch part of OU's wondrous upset over Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament, then resumed rocking with my second Columbus act of the night, The Main Street Gospel. They kicked off my evening of official showcases in stunning fashion. Dudes made a power move a few months ago by adding Vug Arakas on second guitar, and it paid off big time; I've never heard them slay like they slayed yesterday. There was so much Crazy Horse feedback and guitar violence in the air that I could have sworn Habana Calle 6 was filling up with smoke. I only wish more people would have been there to see it.
Skipped over to Stubb's to see a couple bands I've been hearing about for some time but barely listened to. First was The Besnard Lakes, whose glacial post-rock proved less memorable than their singer's massive hair. Wasn't really feeling The Soft Pack either. Their tightly knotted post-punk was passable but didn't do much to stick out. That said, I could see them scoring an iPod commercial any day now.
My third and final Columbus artist of the day was Lydia Loveless, who did well by herself at B.D. Riley's. Her whiskey songbird voice is so sweet and clear, and her band has really congealed into something fierce. Ben Lamb threw himself into each upright bass pluck, while Parker Chandler locked in with him on drums. Most importantly, Columbus Americana vet Todd May was an upgrade over the already skillful Mike Folker on guitar, not least of which because of his killer background vocals and twangy duets with Ms. Loveless. I was told a representative of Bloodshot Records was in the small but responsive crowd; surely she noticed people dancing in front of the stage and the many ears perked up outside on 6th Street.
Across the street to Buffalo Billiards next for Efterklang, a Danish group with Coldplay's pop magic touch, Sigur Ros' ear for expansiveness and the playful disposition of Los Campesinos! This was the most wonderful performance I've seen so far over two days of consistently solid sets. The sound was pristine. The arrangements were gorgeous. The musicians were both passionate and precise. And there was so much joy bubbling up there on stage with each dramatic swoop. Somebody's got to bring this band to Columbus, stat.
I tried to see a buzz band called Beach Fossils next, but they got kicked off their showcase for showing up too late, so I went with old reliable Man Man instead. Their Captain Beefhart/Tom Waits novelty has worn thin over the years, and at first I thought I might not enjoy the set very much. But they quickly proved that they're far too accomplished as entertainers to be left behind as relics from 2005. Honus Honus scrambled around stage throwing feathers and wearing various costumes, while the band bobbed and weaved deftly through a treacherous musical funhouse.
Headed back to Stubb's for a few minutes to hear some new Broken Social Scene songs alongside old favorites "7/4 (Shoreline)" and "Fire Eye'd Boy". The new offerings held their own against the classics, especially some tune where Kevin Drew appeared to be singing about "Texaco bitches." I did, however, find myself wondering when they started to sound so much like Fleetwood Mac.
I decided I'd like to see a little bit of The xx to better preview their upcoming Wexner Center show, so I dipped out of Stubb's and headed to the always-packed Mohawk patio. I was surprised they didn't have a proper drummer, but the pad-triggered percussion didn't hinder their brand of whispery twee funk. They look so serious up there with their horrible New Wave haircuts; it's hard to believe they're not a secret Culture Club parody. (Or a Young Marble Giants parody, as my friend Sean suggests.) Yet the music is so strong that it demands to be taken seriously, aesthetics be damned.
The claustrophobic crowd on the patio was jostling me beyond reason, so I went inside Mohawk to finish my night with a few songs by Bear in Heaven. If you thought Local Natives dude had a powerful 'stache, wait til you see this guy in my photo gallery. The trio's keyboard-driven prog-pop sounded great in the moment, but here in the light of day I can't really remember many details about how they sounded. Mostly couldn't stop admiring/recoiling at that mustache.