The second night of South by Southwest was overshadowed by tragedy. Moments before midnight, a car plowed through barricades at 10th Street and Red River, killing two people and injuring as many as 10 others. At the time of this writing, there is still a cluster of police vehicles lining the street, lights flashing. Details remain vague, but the mood of the evening is dark. It’s difficult to know how the incident will impact the remainder of the festival, but there’s a palpable sense of sadness and unease cast long and dark over everything.
The accident, sadly, came at the end of a day that was mostly defined by the notion of rebirth. While South by Southwest is commonly considered a place for young artists to establish their identity, it can also be a place for older artists to re-establish it. It’s a common maneuver for fading commercial acts to play the festival as a way of re-asserting a kind of credibility, but just as often it can help ease generally respectable artists from one phase of their career to the next. This was the case for Ex-Hex, the band fronted by Mary Timony, previously known for her work in Helium and, more recently, Wild Flag. Timony’s own work has been defined by a sense of mysticism; her lyrics frequently invoke the kind of characters more common to roleplaying games than rock songs, and her music is typically full of acute guitars that prod and poke and often veer off into unlikely directions. So it was alarming — and invigorating — to hear how direct Ex-Hex was. Their songs were short, straight shots of white-hot pop-punk, a batch of barreling chords that were bright and potent and arresting. At times, the group sounded like some lost, rough demo the Bangles recorded for Goner Records, the growling guitars offset by Timony’s cherubic vocals. Other times, they recalled Cheap Trick, densely-layered, immediately-singable vocal harmonies piled atop a batch of silvery riffing. Their set was a bright blast of euphoria, rambunctious punk rock that was cheery and winning. Their set-closing cover of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” only served to further place them as part of a long, loud, ragged lineage.
The members of Sylvan Esso are also attempting a bit of a reinvention. Its singer, Amelia Meath, was a member of the Appalachian folk group Mountain Man and Nick Sanborn, the man responsible for its music, belongs to the similarly oaky combo Megafaun. Together, however, they have concocted a particularly propulsive strain of electronic music, defined by Meath’s odd, otherworldly voice. Indeed, the group is unthinkable without her: Sanborn’s productions thump and shimmer and glisten but, for the most part, they wisely stay out of her way. Meath’s voice sounds beamed in from another century entirely — it’s full of crags and ridges and recalls nothing so much as the smoky coo of a ’30s jazz singer. Set against Sanborn’s throbbing instrumentation, the effect is jarring, like superimposing a silent film over a video game. If the reception they received was any indication, they are on the short path to enormous success; the audience at Holy Mountain greeted their music rapturously, and the group repaid the enthusiasm with music that felt both visceral and mysterious.
There was, sadly, little mystery to the set delivered by Kelis, only confusion. Kelis is also in the midst of a reinvention, one of several she’s undergone in the last few years. Her 2010 album Fleshtone presented her as a singer of neon-bright electropop, moving away from the minimalist R&B of her previous work. The attempt didn’t take; the album barely cracked the Billboard Top 50 and disappeared from conversation almost immediately. The Kelis who appeared in Austin seems to have forgotten it as well. Her set at the NPR showcase at Stubb’s sought to recast her as a singer with an eye to the distant past. Supplemented by a full band and a small brass section, she opened with the chorus of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” — a piece of music she would return to several times throughout her set — before pinballing between smoky jazz and dusky blues and ’60s soul. Occasionally, candidly harnessing the past can yield great artistic dividends but, in the case of Kelis, she just seemed adrift. Her deep-set alto was no match for the music’s dips and crescendos, and an attempt to infuse her hit “Milkshake” with cumbia-derived percussion and brass ended up sounding uncomfortably close to Miami Sound Machine. It was a performance that felt forced and unfocused.
A late-afternoon set by DJ Rashad also hopscotched through countless styles, but the results were manic and energizing. Thousands of genres flash through his songs in the space of a single minute: bits of old hip-hop, blinding dance music, even the darker end of electropop. Grounded in the same depth charge bass drop that defines dubstep, Rashad’s set played like a cultural Cuisinart, scrambling hundreds of unrelated source texts — at one point, the piano line from Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” appeared seconds before the signature instrumental phrase from Joe Jackson’s “Stepping Out” — then detonating all of them with a single, deafening bass boom. It was a dense, dizzying array of sound, crackling with a kind of tangible kinetic energy.
The same could be said of St. Vincent, whose riveting, late-night performance at Stubb’s seemed to combine elements of Warholian performance art with touches of Kabuki theater. Annie Clark is herself an arresting visual presence — impossibly tall, sporting shock of white hair vaguely recalling Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. Throughout the set, which drew heavily on material from her recent, self-titled album, she tilted and swiveled with robotic precision, ruthlessly stripping any trace of humanity from her performance. Songs like the grinding “Birth in Reverse” and the psychic dancehall “Digital Witness” were models of precision, their sections locking effortlessly into place, Clark punctuating the ends of phrases with dramatic eye-rolls or sudden lurches forward. The songs were lit up by Clark’s stunning, frantic guitar solos. Her style is a marvel to witness — she doesn’t so much play the guitar as converse with it, delivering long, frantic, complex phrases without so much as batting an eyelash.
The music of Speedy Ortiz is simpler, but no less affecting. They’re louder in person than they are on record, their songs defined by thick chords submerged in distortion, bashing up against Sadie Dupuis’s rich alto. There’s a recklessness to their music that recalls early-’90s acts like Bettie Serveert, but Speedy Ortiz are noisier than that band, and more prone to giddy fits of distortion. It was music as obstinate as it was irresistible.