I started out the final day of SXSW at the SX Seattle Party, over at the Palm Door, a cool room I’d never seen before. THROW ME THE STATUE played a strong set of tunes from its debut album Moonbeams, which recently came out on Secretly Canadian. I interviewed the band’s singer-songwriter, Scott Reitherman, for the February issue of Paste magazine. It’s a really good record, but the one thing I was wondering about was how it would translate in concert. Throw Me the Statue started out as a one-man home-recording project, with Reitherman playing almost everything, but now he’s formed an actual band. It was an unqualified success at this show, with a loose, hard-rocking sound that didn’t obscure the lively, smart nature of Reitherman’s songs. PHOTOS / Download “About to Walk.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon at the French Legation Museum, where the Press Here publicity firm was hosting a “garden party” with a stellar lineup. The first act I caught was NOAH AND THE WHALE, whom I had seen a little bit the other night. Seeing them a second time confirmed my sense that this is a band to watch, with some nice folk influences outside of the usual kind of folk you hear in rock. Lead singer Charlie Fink recounted running into Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. He was amused by the fact that Gibbons carries around a stack of photographs of himself, to hand out to autograph seekers. English singer-songwriter LAURA MARLING sang harmony vocals with Noah and the Whale, and then she played a set of her own. Marling performs with an oddly blank expression and little obvious emotion, but her songs were pretty. PHOTOS
I’m not sure what to make of LIGHTSPEED CHAMPION, aka Dev Hynes, who played next. I do like his debut album better than the music of his old band, Test Icicles (which his press material accurately describes as “aggro-punk/electro-noise thrashings”), but so far, the songs aren’t really sticking with me. In concert, Hynes played his songs with an acoustic guitar, giving them a bit of a folk-pop flavor, but with a meandering quality that sounded more like Stephen Malkmus. It wasn’t bad, but I felt ready for the set to end by the time it did. PHOTOS
Next up was another great set by SONS AND DAUGHTERS (PHOTOS), followed by J MASCIS bending strings and shaking his acoustic guitar with impressive force. (I had the unusual vantage point of watching Mascis over the top of his amplifier, which was facing toward him, with the tubes on the back facing out toward me and the audience.) PHOTOS
The next set was a rare opportunity to hear THURSTON MOORE AND THE NEW WAVE BANDITS play songs from Moore’s excellent 2007 solo album, Trees Outside the Academy. Like the album, this performance showed how strong Moore’s songwriting and guitar playing are even when you turn down the feedback and put it in more of an acoustic format. His band included Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, guitarist Chris Brokaw, violinist Samara Lubelski and bassist Matt Heyner, and Moore showed a good-natured sense of humor as the band set up and he dealt with a drooping microphone stand. He jokingly did an impression of Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmeister, singing up into the mike – “We’re doing this one Lemmy-style.” And he introduced the band as “Bromance,” defining the term as two dudes who really like each other. PHOTOS
I’m a huge fan of M. Ward, so I was looking forward to seeing and hearing his collaboration with actress Zooey Deschanel in the band SHE & HIM, who were next on the Garden Party bill. Deschanel’s good looks and movie-starlet status drew a lot of attention at SXSW. I hadn’t yet heard their album when I saw the show on Saturday, and I came away with the impression that the ballads were a little too simple or sleepy while the more retro-rock numbers featuring more prominent guitar licks from Ward were cool. Deschanel has a good voice, with a crystal-clear tone, not much in the way of vibrato. Now that I’ve listened to She & Him’s Vol. 1 a grand total of one time, I like what I’ve heard. Deschanel’s understated music with Ward reminded me of Dusty Springfield’s classics. It remains to be seen whether this album will merely be a pleasant diversion or something that grows on me with repeated listens, but I’m sure I will be listening. PHOTOS
A singer about as far away from Zooey Deschanel as you can imagine is the legendary JANDEK, who released dozens of homemade recordings in obscurity and built a cult reputation as one of rock’s most reclusive eccentrics. He has played a few concerts in the last few years, but my first time seeing him was this SXSW gig at Central Presbyterian Church, part of a showcase for Signal to Noise, a magazine where I’m a contributor. Standing at an angle from the audience, Jandek took his position in front of a music stand, a tall, thin figure dressed in a dark suit and hat. A group of several musicians (who were apparently given only vague instructions about what to play) built an amorphous and improvised swell of banjo, pedal steel, violin, guitar, drums, upright bass and female backup vocals to accompany Jandek’s singing, which drifted along in quasi-country dirges. I did not realize until after the concert was over that the drummer, who was wearing a straw hat and occasionally using fly swatters for drumsticks, was none other than Will Johnson, the lead singer of Centro-matic. At the end, when the audience gave Jandek a resounding round of applause, he continued facing away from the crowd and after pausing for a moment, disappeared. I walked outside, thinking I might try to see an M. Ward show down the street, only to see that the line was long, and walked back to Central Presbyterian for the next show. While I was out on the street, I overheard a guy talking about the Jandek show he had just witnessed. “That was amazing,” he told his friends. “There were parts where it was like I was on mushrooms.” PHOTOS
The next set at Central Presbyterian was by CHRISTINA CARTER & SHAWN DAVID McMILLEN. Earlier in the day, Thurston Moore had dedicated a song to Carter, an old friend of his who is best known as the singer for Charalambides, and sure enough, Moore and some of his bandmates were in a balcony at the church now, watching Carter play with McMillen. I find Carter’s music mesmerizing, though I can imagine that many listeners would be impatient with its slowly drifting melodies. There’s a stillness at the heart of her music, which I could feel very strongly at this performance, probably the best one I saw Saturday night. But while I normally associate stillness with peace, I also feel something unsettling in Carter’s quiet musical meditations. PHOTOS
I spent the next hour wandering in search of something. I ended up for a time at the Soho Lounge, where the Get Hip showcase featured a lineup of garage bands. I liked the energy of the two bands I saw, MONDO TOPLESS and THE UGLYBEATS, and under other circumstances, I might have stuck around to hear more. PHOTOS Back on the quest, I stopped into the Dirty Dog Bar to see NEVA DINOVA, a band on the Saddle Creek label. Unfortunately, the two or three songs I heard seemed pretty generic (not a quality I normally associate with Saddle Creek) and possibly even boring.
So I ended up in the final part of the hour over at the Park the Van/Daytrotter showcase at Emo’s Annex. I stayed put for the rest of the night, noticing how the last three bands, THE TEETH, THE SPINTO BAND and DR. DOG, all shared a similar sense of joy and energy. All three bands had a tendency to cartwheel around on the stage during their shows. I’m not so familiar with the music of The Teeth, but their performance was pretty impressive. The Spinto Band’s album never really clicked with me, but they have a few outstanding songs, and their set was very lively. PHOTOS OF THE THE TEETH AND THE SPINTO BAND.
Dr. Dog have been one of my favorite live bands since I saw them open for M. Ward a few years ago at Schubas, and they were my top band of SXSW 2006. I still don’t think they’ve released a studio recording that reaches their full potential, but their records are filled with some wonderful songs featuring sophisticated harmonies and chord changes that remind me of late-period Beatles as well as the Faces and Beach Boys. In concert, the band raves it up by cavorting across the stage, but it never loses sight of the little melodic subtleties that make its songs so attractive. Bassist Toby Leaman seemed distracted or even angry at some problems with hearing his monitor, but he never let that get in the way of putting on a smashing performance. The members of Delta Spirit joined them onstage for the clarion call of the final song, “Wake Up.” Singing a song with that title at the end of the night (and end of the festival) may sound paradoxical, but I couldn’t think of a more apt way to end the week. PHOTOS
OK, that wraps up my SXSW recaps – though I’ll probably have some other random thoughts trickling out of my brain. And I do plan to follow up on some of the bands I saw or heard about.