When last I spoke of South By Southwest I was voicing my sort of frustration with Mancurian band The Answering Machine. I'm still trying to sort out exactly how I felt about them, but over all it was... sigh.
Friday started a bit late for me. Once I finally made it in to town I set about trying to figure out how to make my way to the Happy Happy Birthday to Me day party taking place in some remote location that seemed not terribly accessible to someone who didn't the bus system in Austin, at all. I resolved myself to spending the majority of the morning at CVS, and trying to sort out plans with a local friend for later that afternoon. I then resolved myself to checking out Frightened Rabbit for the second time during my trip, and drinking the ever popular $2 Dewars and Ginger much earlier in the day than anyone should probably be drinking Dewars and anything. Such is the spirit of South by Southwest though. And I should never use the phrase "resolve myself" to describe seeing Frightened Rabbit.
Frightened Rabbit are a band that I'd wanted to see since I read the way that my friend, and most trusted musical advisor, Eric J. Lawrence described them in his SXSW write up for KCRW last year. Fittingly they were the first band that I saw when I arrived in Austin, but I only caught the last three songs. On Friday I was in place for a full set. They were probably the best rock band that I saw during my trip. All of their songs have an unmatchable live energy. In fact there were a few songs, "Be Less Rude" is a perfect example, that I almost didn't recognize in the live setting as they were louder, more confident, and rocked much harder than they did on Frightened Rabbit's debut album The Greys. A few songs seemed to suggest that they are heading in a more epic direction, like friends and label mates The Twilight Sad. Both bands have enough other interesting elements, and well written lyrics to pull off that level of epicness so it was actually sort of pleasant to see them try those things. One of the songs may have even been a Twilight Sad cover, or perhaps an allusion. If my memory serves me correctly though, The Twilight Sad's drummer doesn't have any songs where he plays harmonica, and drums AT THE SAME TIME. Frightened Rabbit's drummer does that, and it may be on of the most impressive things that I have ever seen.
After Frightened Rabbit I decided to go in search of food, instead I found myself walking past Club Deville, and noticing that there was clearly something soulful going on inside. I also noticed that they had free beer, so I decided that food could wait for the moment. I walked in, and was able to catch almost all of Black Joe Lewis & the Honey Bears it was classic sounding blues/ soul with a six piece backing band, and a lead singer who was a natural entertainer. He covered Wilson Pickett's "Toe Hold," and ended his final song with a James Brown- esque "Please, please, please..." break down. Elsewhere his song lyrics reflected modern versions of the classic "I wronged my woman, and ended up locked out with all of my stuff on the lawn type stories." I can't think of many better ways to enjoy a warm afternoon outside in Austin, Texas.
Once the set was finished my need for food took over, and I decided to make my way over to where I was meeting up with my friend, and grab a slice of pizza on en route.
We headed way off the beaten path in attempt to check out a band called Toddle who were described to me as a sort of Japanese version of Superchunk with a female lead singer, perhaps one of the most promising descriptions of a band that I heard during my entire trip. However, by the time we made it to the venue where they were supposed to play it had been put on hold due to the fact that there was no set occupancy. This meant that even though there were only twenty or so people there, it could be seen as a fire hazard. Once we had the story, we decided to see what was going on over at the Happy Happy Birthday to Me party. Oh the sheer joy of finally having a car.
The Besties were on when we walked in. More free beer was consumed, and we were both seriously into the Besties high energy, double keyboard/guitar/drums/harmonies. The next performance of the afternoon came from multi- instrumentalist Karl Blau is always charming. While nothing can really top the first time you see his one man show that involves a number of different mics each set to give his voice several unique effects, and switching from various guitars (bass and otherwise;) seeing him playing in a garage added a certain new level of charm to the equation.
After that it was off to the Merge Records showcase. The night started with Portastatic which consisted solely of Mac and an acoustic guitar. I heard a few grumblings about this in the crowd, but for me Mac McCaughan is one of very few people that are compelling to listen to and/or watch with an acoustic guitar. His voice still sounds top notch, and his songs are all well written, and well, since I never got to see Superchunk I will take any performance from Mac that I can get. Plus hearing "I Wanna Know Girls" was a highlight of the evening. Wye Oak were next, and I wish that I had more to say about their perfectly pleasant countrydelic tinged, harmony heavy rock other than it was perfectly pleasant. Unfortunately, I don't find it too easy to get into the intricacies of that particular style. The Radar Brothers are a local band that I desperately need to spend more time with, absorbing the lyrical and musical intricacies that I know exist in their songs. So until that happens, once again I'm afraid I'm left with not much to offer on the performance. However, it was very nice to see Aaron Kyle from Le Switch as the new addition to the band. The Shout Out Louds were next and changed the mood in the room with their loud, upbeat, Swedish pop. "Tonight I Have to Leave It" is one of those perfect, radio friendly pop singles that I know I shouldn't fall for, but that I can never resist no matter how many times I hear it. Hearing it in the live setting was nice. They ended their set by covering Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now," somehow that seemed about right for them. She & Him followed. These were among the first shows from the M. Ward/ Zooey Deschanel Project so eveeryone in attendance seemed very eager to watch how it played out. It was quite good actually. It was a highly stylized performance that involved Deschanel taking center stage, and singing lead on all of the songs (she did write the majority of them) M. Ward sat off to the side making beautiful noises on his guitar and providing the occasional backing vocal. The show was set up as a sort of review like something you might have seen on the Grand Ole Opry many years ago. Another friend of mine pointed out that Deschanel's stage presence could stand to improve a bit, but I imagine it will. I've not yet heard the album, but I liked all of the songs that I heard so I'm certainly planning to spend more time with it very soon. We tried to last through Destroyer, but we lost all of our steam a little over half way through. Destroyer's albums are exquisite, but the live shows always seem to fall just short of that. Though I did get to hear one of my favorite tracks from This Night "Hey Snow White" which was pretty neat. We walked out back to the (lovely) car in a daze, and attempted to prepare for the next days festivities.