The massive music industry festival that is South-by-Southwest fell into some bad timing this year, coming right after the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis, and right before the United States and her allies joined the fight in Libya by bombing Muammar Gaddafi (Day Two of the festival was also St. Patrick’s Day, but SXSW knew that going in…). It all threatened to make the festival, and music in general, seem irrelevant, what with the world going to hell in a handbasket. But ensconced in the cocoon that was downtown Austin, on your smart phones and Twitter, with wristbands and free drinks galore, SXSW proved to once again be an engrossing, all-encompassing musical clusterfuck of an experience.
A mixture of bros, a couple of hos, comedy, and much more to close out South-by-Southwest 2011.
[Note: QRO had a number of correspondents at SXSW this year; this is just the Day Four recap from Robin Sinhababu; click here for Ted Chase’s Day Four recap, click here for Amanda Krieg’s, and click here for Tammi J Myers’]
Hometapes’ Friend Island party @ Kung Fu Saloon
Megafaun enjoyed a large audience that had many bros and post-sorority-looking girls in its ranks. Some credit’s due to Hometapes; not every day party features a big bar full of arcade games set to free play, old-school nachos, and Pop-Tarts.
Even so, the crowd seemed like they came for Megafaun, not just for free snacks. The band engaged them and eventually gave them hand percussion, a puppet, and light vocal duties.
Drummer Joe Westerlund had obvious chops, but he chose to play groovy and restrained, and make it look easy. Even when singing, he looked totally fluid and used the whole kit. He lagged a bit on the last tune, but that’s only because the audience was given singing and clapping duties, and I guess they hadn’t practiced enough to keep time.
The band’s melodic folk-rock and three-part harmonies sounded good on the Kung Fu Saloon’s semi-open-air patio. Phil Cook’s slide resonator had some glitches, but he played banjo most of the time. They sounded just fine as a drums-guitar-banjo trio; given the good drumming and their genre, they didn’t need bass.
The Body, 615pm
Where the patio, its daytime sky, and its Pop-Tarts were appropriate for Megafaun, they were pretty goofy for Providence’s The Body. Their music was composed of intense, manipulated bass sounds with doom-metal drumming. Call me a frat guy, because like the audience, much of which retreated indoors, I didn’t get much out of the show. That said, the audio I’ve heard online is far better; their live set had a fraction of its density and vocal power. Maybe when they come to your town, they can find a dark, smoky rock club to play. That would be a good venue for them.
SXSW showcase @ The Hideout
Festival acts often seem constrained by their time limits, but this French guy had no trouble. His concise, continuous ten-minute set felt like a complete statement, even though I’d have enjoyed a longer one.
His music was well composed, with good tonal and dynamic variety despite immediate changes being almost imperceptible. He combined low-end that was both pillowy and percussive with great high-end detail, both from crystalline synth sounds and from his delay-laden vocals. What I heard sounded totally different from the tracks available on his Soundcloud site.
I’d have a beer with the guy. He has cited "dgdghnfhnfnhf" as an influence and seems to enjoy foreign travel, so I think we’d get along.
Although the show itself sounded good, the engineer didn’t turn off the mains during Frenchy’s soundcheck, so you could hear the loud crackle of every connection and disconnection.
Comedy Showcase @ Esther’s Follies, 930pm-11pm
Bryson Turner of Austin was ostensibly the host, but he was also the funniest of the seven comics I saw. I don’t think it was because I had fresh ears – for comedy, anyway – either. He seemed like a bro, one who uses the word. His self-deprecation was confident, as if it’s something he does for laughs but has to invent. Although his many good jokes got laughs, his delivery was still a little cold. He could have been more connected to the audience, instead of just waiting to deliver his next line. But I didn’t mind the stiffness, given the good material. His Austin-centric humor went over especially well.
Chelsea Peretti‘s act leans heavily on her insecurities, but I’ve never seen her self-efface as much as she did in these ten minutes. She’d barely begun when she first mentioned how badly she thought the act was going, a feeling she repeated throughout her set. It was too much. Her first couple jokes didn’t quite go over, but in general I don’t know what disaster she was talking about, and her jokes themselves are so humble that piling on more of how much she thinks she sucks yields diminishing returns. But she’s surprising and funny, and for all her apologies, she has the obvious poise of someone who’s been on big stages.
Darryl Lenox, a visually impaired black man, tried more racial humor than any of them. I’d guess that he adjusts it depending on the audience, and for this mostly white crowd, he definitely hammed it up a little. Not enough to induce cringing, though. He’s got great presence, the kind that can make a long bit on white folks’ anxiety about being raped by a man fitting his description seem like good fun.
Chris Fairbanks was a little too self-effacing, but unlike Peretti, who makes it seem like a product of depression, Fairbanks appears neurotic and analytical to the point that everything must be criticized, and he’s just one of many items on the docket. It gets in the way of his jokes sometimes, but when someone has a strong overall persona, like he does, it’s hard for me to say that he should edit out this or that particular product of it. I liked best his jokes about shooting blanks and owls.
I’ve seen videos of Ben Kronberg that make his delivery look bad: he seems too uncomfortable and too out of touch with the audience to do anything but wait for them to stop laughing, mulling over whether it’s time to start the next joke. This night, he had some electronic music from his mp3 player to back him up, which made him less awkward. It tethered him a bit, too, but the boy needs structure. Also, the backing track lent a weird gravity to lines like, "Why can’t you put food in your butt?"
His most vulgar moments were his dullest, though. The bass knocked dust off the walls. Overall, the performance reminded me of certain songs from Flight of the Conchords (QRO live review) and from Tweez.
Hampton Yount was the best physical comedian of the night, but he had the worst delivery overall. He was too meta and self-aware; although comfortable onstage, he didn’t seem natural. That’s partly due to his observational humor, which constantly attempts to take the audience’s viewpoint in a what-is-the-deal-with-that-esque manner, but neither his persona nor his material made him suited to be that person for me. Especially when he talked about Jewish dating websites.
Tig Notaro got plenty of laughs for her physical comedy, but I wasn’t into it. She’s very low-key, maybe too much so for the size of the room. You know how stand-up comedy is different from your funny friend joking around for you comedy? Well, Tig Notaro delivers stand-up as if she decided not to make that leap and just keep things casual and low-key. Oddly, then, she was good when she made loud, weird noises. I enjoy some of her videos, and recommend trying to sit close if you’re ever watching her show.
Chicken Ranch showcase @ Headhunters
Mr. Lewis & The Funeral 5, 11:15pm
I watched this show from the balcony. Next to me, some idiot girl with an orange, yellow, and green water pistol was squirting the crowd below, her shorthaired girlfriend egging her on. Obviously, folks were getting confused, annoyed, and wet. These two knuckleheads kept at it, so I asked the squirter for the pistol, feigning wanting a turn at messing with people who were trying to watch the rock show. When I instead tucked it away and out of her reach, she got upset. I guess that’s not surprising, given her agenda.
Anyway, this Austin band is mining some Waits/Cave/vaudeville-style territory, and while I can’t say much for the recordings of it, they put on a decent show. Smart arrangements give the set variety; many of their songs end with cool little keyboard solos, and even dull tunes have neat sax parts. Better yet, their details are easily audible in this little venue, which has always surprised me with its respectable sound. Their best song was their last song, the bluesy title track to their new album, Delirium Tremendous. I won’t be surprised if it sounds too slick and wooden on record, but I’ll give it a listen.
The drummer grooves a bit when he’s tasked with sparse beats. He reminds me of the drummer from Whitehorse Friday night (QRO recap), although that’s not really the same at all and I shouldn’t make the comparison.
SXSW showcase @ Rusty Spurs
Like most Americans, I learned about Complete from YouTube depictions of an inept, plodding, totally sincere show they played, likely in 1997 at a Fort Worth bar. Much has changed since that night. They’ve gone from a quartet to a trio with Curtis Brumbalow on guitar and vocals, bassist Peter "Sparky" "Creecher" Creech has traded in his Seuss hat for face paint, and they’ve tightened up considerably.
That last point is unfortunate, because cohesion had nothing to do with what made the videos of Complete so unique. But it wasn’t just incompetence, either; playing hard rock badly is common. The videos were amazing because they looked like a rock band, and are clearly trying to rock, but it’s like each guy’s in his own world, and the drummer’s never heard a 4/4 beat in his life. Then there’s Curtis, who by his own account was in his Sammy Hagar phase at the time.
By contrast, the Complete I saw at Rusty Spurs, a vaguely Western-themed gay bar, played songs that made sense. They were sloppy, but they were clearly playing conventional rock music. The drummer played an actual four-beat, Creech played quarter notes without having to look at the fret board the whole time, and Curtis’s strumming fits the songs far better than the Navarro-meets-Shippy-meets-idiocy thing their old guitarist did.
The videos border on the avant-garde, but if you were expecting that, you would have been disappointed. The crowd didn’t seem to be, though, and the band seemed no less sincere than in 1997.
Chimera Music showcase @ Elysium
I think all kinds could enjoy a Mi-gu show. Yuko Araki’s a fine drummer and a good storyteller, if you can call it that, and Hirotaka Shimmy Shimizu knows what he’s doing on guitar. That is, he didn’t play one extraneous note, and what he did play helped fill in the huge gaps in the stories. So did Araki’s drumming, which takes stopping and starting again to a whole new level. Actually, it’s not unlike Led Zeppelin’s "Black Dog", if John Bonham was doing all the singing. And wearing a tiny red ladies’ hat.
They’ve played as a quintet, but this time it was just the two. Certainly, some of the instrumental passages could have used a couple more instruments, but most of the time they were pretty compelling.
I wandered down to the merch/restroom/billiard area, sat on one of the covered pool tables, and wrote my notes. Staff soon began to clear everyone out – including closing the restrooms – and block off the area so that Yoko Ono could enjoy a secure entrance to the stage. For those of you who haven’t been to Elysium, it’s far from the grungiest of venues, but it’s not nearly nice enough for such treatment to not seem ridiculous.
Panache showcase @ Mohawk Patio
Quintron and Miss Pussycat, 1am
Quintron is handsome, and were he not attached to Miss Pussycat, I think he could have danced with any of the many pretty girls in the crowd. Actually, he did anyway, making a shirtless descent on to the concrete dance floor late in the set. Miss Pussycat looked on approvingly.
She began the set with a puppet show, about which there are two things to say. First of all, it had a low-tech brilliance all the way through that was more entertaining than the narrative itself. They pulled off all the movements and special effects with such confidence and skill that even the cheesiest things seemed like assets. Second, the show appeared to sanction the bloody, bloody (special effects!) shooting of a policeman character, and the crowd went nuts for this. Granted, the policeman had hardly behaved in accordance with professional standards, but his death and the applause it received had me feeling far more conflicted than I ever expected to be over a puppet show produced by someone named Miss Pussycat.
I don’t go to many shows where dancing is prevalent, so this was easily the most grooving crowd I was in all week. People were getting a little rowdy and having a great time. Quintron was a great performer, always fun to watch despite being behind the organ all the time. From that perch, he also sang the whole way through, beat a kick drum, and gave his famous Drum Buddy a few whirls. The tunes began to sound the same after a while, and though I didn’t get "Jamskate" as I was hoping, they’re fun to watch whatever song they’re playing. Especially if you like dancing, are looking for a special someone, and hate cops.