SXSW 2011: Day 1 Report

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 03.17.11 in Spotlights

Now well into its second decade, the days during which South By Southwest – and the bands it attracts – could count novelty as a chief draw are long over. And with blogs and social media sites having likewise moved from fad to institution, the odds that anyone would be hearing a band for the first time in Austin is also significantly reduced. And so the thousands of bands looking to make an impression at South By Southwest this year have had to return to more conventional means of attention-getting – none perhaps more crucial than enthusiasm.

For the bands playing eMusic‘s packed-to-capacity day party at Beauty Bar, enthusiasm meant volume. Even Hurray for the Riff Raff, mostly unplugged and demure on record, amped up and stepped out, frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra swaying and dancing through souped-up renditions of “Take Me” – which Wednesday became a joyous square dance – and “Slow Walk,” whose sawing violin line served to tug the song insistently forward. Grass Widow also stiffened up and hurtled forward, rendering the pin-straight guitar lines on their record in bold, determined streaks.

JEFF the Brotherhood, who drew the afternoon’s largest crowd, took a more personal approach to attention getting: Frontman Jake Orrall wandered off the stage twice, the second time playfully staring down an audience member before dropping to his knees with his guitar for a long, spiraling solo. JEFF is moving past the impish punk of their debut toward something like ’70s metal – territory they shared with Ty Segall, whose breakneck, blistering songs were delivered at fantastically punishing volume. But if Ty was brash and unhinged, Obits delivered that same ruthlessness in a deadlier, more precise package. Obits are masters at the needlepoint attack – their songs are just as potent and devastating, but they favor tight, compact bursts of sound, which hammer and goad.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart have grown, too: Their set on Wednesday, delivered two weeks in advance of their widescreen second effort Belong was ragged in the right places and expertly managed in others. New songs like “Heart in Your Heartbreak” were stunning in their attack, the band abandoning the bashful persona that characterizes them on record an, instead, delivering a set of raucous, rocketing rock ‘n ‘roll.

Later in the evening the British band Yuck, already hotly tipped, delivered enthusiasm in reverse: Their set was a note-perfect replication of their charming debut, but the members of the band were practically motionless throughout. Vocalist Daniel Blumberg hunches over the microphone like a student trying to guard his test paper from cheaters. His physical posture seemed to mirror the shyness and social anxieties of the characters he was singing about. He sighed out the verses on sterling renditions of “Suicide Policeman” and “Shook Down” while the band stood frozen around him.

James Blake, too, showed little interest in the art of showmanship, but where Yuck’s songs built to snarling squalls of sound, Blake’s were ethereal and angelic. His set was the evening’s biggest gamble: His record is full of feather-light, prayer-like songs perfect for quiet spaces, not-so-perfect for outdoor amphitheaters. So it was stunning to hear Blake – augmented only by a drummer and a piano player, figure out ways to equip his songs quiet splendor with a kind of stunning gravity. The formula was simple, but effective: bass beats the size of depth charge detonating on cue, while Blake’s voice – layered and distorted – filled up the space in between. Often, he seemed to trying to see just how much minimalism the audience would tolerate. A good half of one song consisted of nothing but Blake’s voice, in a strange, several-part minor-key harmony – floating out over the crowd.

For those who like a bit of showmanship – and who like that showmanship leavened with a healthy dose of nostalgia – there were OFF! and Raphael Saadiq, both of whom shoot straight past subtlety in their quest to charm. OFF!, a hardcore band comprised of the members of other legendary hardcore bands, proved the best point is the one made quickly: Their songs lasted barely a full minute, but all of them snapped and crackled like a cut power line. At times, their set felt like a giddy hardcore history lesson – after each blinding burst of sound, vocalist Keith Morris, known best as the original vocalist for Black Flag, would tell a story about Los Angeles, invoking the names of storied rock venues like the Honk Kong Café and Madame Wong’s. The frenetic blasts of OFF!’s thrilling hardcore were the periods at the end of his narratives.

And then there was Raphael Saadiq, himself a revivalist who finds his inspiration in classic R&B. What struck about Saadiq’s set – besides its needed emphasis on audience participation – was how spare it was. There were no horns or strings – de riguer for other R&B roadshows. Instead, the songs were pared back to just a framework of ragged guitars, one of which was played by Saadiq himself. It was a sharp move, one that drew out the music’s great debt to both blues and gospel. If Blake’s synth-spirituality skewed monastic, Saadiq’s was full-bodied Pentecostal. That both could share the same stage is evidence of the festival’s dizzying diversity.