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SXSW: A Weekend Recap

Posted by Michael Brodeur  March 21, 2011 11:55 PM

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Das Racist performs at SXSW 2011. Photo by Rahav Segev.

After a Thursday night jam-packed with heavyweights like B.o.B., TV on the Radio and the Strokes, a more subdued Friday evening allowed for some much-needed musical off-roading.

Seeking a quieter place and slower pace than the city's crowded bars and clubs, I headed to the Central Presbyterian Church, a spectacular space that put every other Austin venue's sound mix to shame. I took a shot in the dark and checked out Lanterns on the Lake, an English sextet that created grandiose rock soundscapes from the simple sounds of bowed guitar, flittering violin and lead singer Hazel Wilde's wispy vocals. The music's triumphant swoops and ascents were made all the more dramatic by the church's glorious acoustics – by the time the band tore through the tension and release of set-closer "I Love You, Sleepyhead," it was pure goosebumps.

An entirely different demographic soaked in rap group Das Racist's set at Emo's. An Indian-American and a half-black kid who met at Wesleyan University, Himanshu Suri and Victor Vazquez have built serious buzz through recent mixtapes "Shut Up, Dude" and "Sit Down, Man" (not to mention their abrasively witty Q&A with the New York Times' Deborah Solomon in December). The duo delivered a dizzying display of stream-of-consciousness rhymes that referenced everything from U.S. race relations to Pat Sajak and Danny DeVito. They mixed political barbs and social commentary with a slapdash attitude and even a goofy rendition of Usher's "You Make Me Wanna."

[After the jump, photos and video from SXSW 2011.]


Twin Shadow perform at SXSW 2011. Photo by Rahav Segev.

A few blocks away at Maggie Mae's, Twin Shadow split the difference between Morrisey's lovelorn baritone and more contemporary, dancier indie-rock stylings. Band mastermind George Lewis Jr., who spent several years gigging around in Boston, mixed sugar and spice with his uber-smooth synth lines overlapping with piercing sheets of guitar feedback. With his gelled-up poof of a haircut, Lewis looked like some crazed scientist testing out sounds and noises, but the experiments worked more often than not.

Earlier in the evening, the Fader Fort – which had notched just north of 29,000 online RSVPs for its 2,300-capacity tent – showcased a jarring mix of acts, including a back-to-back bill of the deranged shock-rappers Odd Future and the chipper piano-punk duo Matt & Kim. Oddly enough, Odd Future brought more punk-rock energy than any other SXSW act I've seen, jumping into the audience, sprinting across the stage and throwing out the all-purpose exclamation "swag" at every possible occasion. (Confused? Ask your teenage son in about six months.)

The London twee-poppers Noah and the Whale kept things upbeat at Lustre Pearl, with the main highlight being "5 Years Time," the breeziest little ditty that you never heard on the radio. No disrespect to fellow ukelele utilizers Train and Jason Mraz, but why were “Hey, Soul Sister” and “I'm Yours” hits, but not this earworm of a melody about sun, fun and drinking wine?

After about a dozen shows, with the hour nearing 2 a.m., I dragged my weary feet down the bustling main drag of downtown Austin only to glance up and witness the icing on the evening's cake: a rooftop performance of "Young Blood," an anthemic slice of MGMT-style synth pop by New Zealand band The Naked and Famous. Ten strides later, a metal act's tone-deaf screams hijacked my ears' attention. Ten more, and a busker was riffing on The Band's "The Weight."


In marathon terms, Saturday afternoon is the Heartbreak Hill of the South by Southwest music festival, and – not unlike that home stretch in Newton – some semblance of fatigue has set in for the swarms of revelers who have been standing in lines and at shows for most of the past 96 hours.

Ryan Spaulding is feeling it. The writer behind the Boston blog Ryan’s Smashing Life curated today’s Smoke & Sand showcase, which registered just north of 8,000 RSVPs for its line-up of hometown heavies like McAlister Drive and The Gallery. The relatively tiny country bar Rusty Spurs quickly filled to capacity, and it was clear that the insanity of coordinating three stages' worth of concerts was taking its toll on Spaulding and his crew.

When all was said and done, though, the music made the whole ordeal worthwhile. Stereo Telescope, who also performed at a Berklee showcase on Friday, transcended the cliché of the guy-girl synth-pop duo with a propulsive set of yearning melodies that played like the Postal Service after a Red Bull. Later, Mean Creek harnessed its loud-soft dynamics with a raucous bunch of hard-hitting guitar-rock. And even though it's usually the big-name venues that manage to snag the higher-profile drop-ins, Smoke & Sand featured a surprise appearance from the Counting Crows' Adam Duritz, who sang the hooks for rapper Notar.

At an early afternoon show sponsored by the blog Brooklyn Vegan, Denmark's Oh Land – a striking blonde blessed with supermodel looks and heavenly chops – played tracks from her self-titled debut album, which came out last week on Epic Records. The singer stalked and strutted around the stage with a magnetic charisma and a voice half-way between Fiona Apple's soulful pop sensibilities and Bjork's quirky electrofied chirps.


TV on the Radio perform at SXSW 2011. Photo by Rahav Segel.

Elsewhere, a high-profile one-two punch of TV on the Radio and Outkast rapper Big Boi performed at the music site MOG's unofficial bash at the Mohawk. Big Boi rolled through tracks from both his recent solo album “Sir Luscious Left Foot” and the Outkast back catalog, setting the place on fire with his machine-gun delivery on the frenetic "B.O.B."

At the Fader Fort, Mali-born singer Khaira Arby got some well-deserved exposure thanks to her placement right before festival golden boy James Blake. Singing in three different languages, she nimbly melded quick-fingered blues-picking with West African rhythms and impassioned call-and-response vocals.


Fact: the lyric “no one man should have all this power” resonates much more deeply when one is performing at an actual power plant.

Even with a bounty of shows all over Austin to choose from, the final night of SXSW – for better or worse – belonged to Kanye West.

All week the buzz surrounding the concert grew and grew, reaching a fever pitch on Saturday as fans started camping out at the Seaholm Power Plant as early as 6:00 a.m. (For those keeping count at home, that's 18 hours before the scheduled start-time.)

No more than 2,500 fans officially made it inside (and I wasn't one of them), but the confirmed list of drop-in guests made the rounds – Mos Def, John Legend, Kid Cudi, Jay-Z and an entire marching band, among others.

The evening's other activities paled in scope but, fortunately, not in substance. Two nights after the Strokes' packed concert, the Auditorium Shores Stage proved a bit less frenzied, featuring country-rockers the Felice Brothers alongside the prolific yet erratic Bright Eyes.

Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes performed on the heels of the release of “The People's Key,” an Americana-tinged album widely considered to be his strongest in years. He sounded loose and confident with his new band, adding wheezy pedal-steel guitar and accordion to make even older tracks like "Cleanse Song" sound a bit more country. He seemed to be losing his voice, but that only accentuated his distinctively raspy enunciation as he barreled through new songs like "Shell Games."

Over at Perez Hilton's "One Night in Austin" bash, the entertainment switched off between live groups and DJ sets. The tunes were hit-or-miss: Frankmusik played some giddy, disposable dance-pop, but there were also misfires like the “Gossip Girl” grunge act The Pretty Reckless (also known as actress Taylor Momsen's vanity project). In a sea of more electronica-minded musicians, Liz Phair was an unorthodox choice, yet the audience seemed receptive to both her early-'90s indie-folk material and her poppier singles from recent years.

Concertgoers seemed eager to check out the reunion show for the defunct punk-metal duo Death From Above 1979: anxious fans waiting in line knocked down the chain-link fence outside Beauty Bar and crashed the party, prompting the deployment of riot police and the use of tasers and pepper spray on the mob. Things generally got sorted out, and the music, as had been the case all week, played on.

[Check out recaps from Thursday afternoon, Thursday night and Friday afternoon, as well as videos of Oh, Land, AgesandAges and Boston bands Kingsley Flood, Mystery Roar and David Wax Museum.]

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The latest news, commentary, and reviews on music in Boston and beyond.


Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

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Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.

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