I started the day at the café stage in the Austin Convention Center, where Hyperpotamus from Madrid was using looping pedals to create layered, a cappella music, including an elaborate cover of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields.”
He was followed by one of the Mexican acts I wanted to catch at sxsw… Twitter, 12:51 p.m.: Watching Natalia Lafourcade: nice Mexican folk rock w/touch of tropicalia. She started with a cover of “Blackbird” (what is this, a Beatles tribute stage?) and continued with some cool original songs.
1:22 p.m.: Sweden’s Marching Band playing bright melodic pop. Definitely worth seeing.
This was one of the bands I’d wanted to see at SXSW. I enjoyed their tuneful record from last year, Spark Large, and they did not disappoint as a live act. Here’s their song “Make No Plans.”
I went down the street to Red-Eyed Fly, where I impatiently waited for a late-starting gig by the Whispertown 2000. The best part: hearing the two female vocalists sing Gillian Welch’s “Miss Ohio” during the sound check. Once the band actually started playing, it seemed like pretty good country rock, but I couldn’t get too excited over it.
I skipped that scene and went back to Emo’s Annex, where I caught a decent show by Brooklyn’s the Phenomenal Handclap Band, two female singers performing dance rock without a lot of the usual electronic sounds that come with dance music. I later saw someone else on Twitter calling this band “unreal.” Hmmm, well, they were fun enough, and they had some good dance grooves, but they’ve got a long way to go before I’d call them unreal.
Twitter, 2:57 p.m.: Taking a break from music to see Jarvis Cocker gab on “Saying the Unsayable.” … Jarvis Cocker was brilliant. Guy could be a pop-music prof… (See Part 2 of my diary for a separate write-up about Cocker’s lecture.)
6:27 p.m.: Montreal’s Beast was intriguing: Shirley Bassey-style vox, hip-hop + rock.
I’m not sure this band, which was playing at the Canadian Blast Barbecue at Brush Square Park, was really my thing, but I liked it for what it was. The vocalist, Betty Bonifassi, sang on the soundtrack for the great French animated film The Triplets of Belleville, and now she’s based in Montreal along with the other members of Beast, which is spearheaded by drummer/composer Jean-Phi Goncalves. She really puts a lot of muscle and passion into her singing. I also heard a couple of songs by Mother Mother when I first walked into the party. And afterward, I caught just a couple of songs by Beach House at another party.
I started the evening by walking all the way over to the west end of the SXSW scene, the tent behind Opal Divine’s Freehouse, where the Icelandic band Sprengjuhöllin was getting ready to play. This was one of the acts I was anticipating the most, since I really like the mix of pop, folk and psychedelia on the group’s self-titled album, which I discovered through e-music. Plus, this is one of those bands from a distant (and bankrupt) land that may or may not show up again on these shores anytime soon. The band was still playing when I sent a tweet in past tense — 8:39 p.m.: Sprengjuhöllin was really great. And they have that weird Icelandic sense of humor. They really did deliver everything I was hoping.
In addition to playing excellent music, Sprengjuhöllin had some of the most entertaining stage banter I heard all week. The people of Iceland do seem to have an odd sense of humor. Near the end of the show, one of the guys in Sprengjuhöllin said, “We’re going to play a few more numbers.” Another member of the band interjected, “We mean mathematical numbers, not songs.” We also received a lesson in Icelandic pronunciation, as one of the musicians broke down Sprengjuhöllin syllable by syllable and led the audience in a chant of his band’s name. Here’s the Sprengjuhöllin song “Worry Till Spring.”
9:38 p.m.: My first Melodica sighting of this year’s sxsw: Johnny Goudie.
I didn’t see that one coming. I was keeping an eye open for Melodicas, wondering if those little keyboards you blow into had fallen out of fashion yet in the world of indie rock. Apparently not. But Goudie, who was playing with his backup band, the Little Champions, seemed like an unlikely Melodica guy. He’s a little too adult contemporary for such a twee instrument. I liked the song I’d heard by Goudie, “Battlescar,” but the rest of the songs I heard during his live performance at the Tap at 6 were a little too mundane for my tastes. He’s got a good voice, though.
10:34 p.m.: Loch Lomond is doing a nice set of folk rock: 7 players, violas & such, soft harmonies.
This was one of many large ensembles playing at SXSW this year. I like these groups with lots of fiddles, horns and drumming in addition to the traditional rock instruments. In the case of Loch Lomond, from Portland, Ore., the sound is more toward the mellow folk-rock end of the spectrum. This was beautiful music I plan to listen to more in the future. Here’s the Loch Lomond song “Blue Lead Fences.”
11:02 p.m.: Ugh. A venue where the bar is between the stage and audience: Aces Lounge. Not good. … 11:17 p.m.: Yes, Aces is a horrible venue but worth visiting just now to see Grant Hart.
This was a chance to finally see former Hüsker Dü member Grant Hart, who has been a lot less visible in the music world than his ex-bandmate Bob Mould. Playing alone with an electric guitar in the middle of this hideous bar, as bartenders rang up orders at his feet, Hart performed strong versions of some of his best songs from Hüsker Dü, including “No Promise Have I Made,” “Don’t Want to Know If You’re Lonely” and “Green Eyes” as well as his solo song “2541.” In between songs, Hart tossed out some bitter, sarcastic comments, criticizing BMI, sympathizing with Austinites who have to put up with SXSW and suggesting that the audience should build a bonfire in the middle of Sixth Street.
12:57 a.m.: Mark David Ashworth just played beautiful acoustic music at Austin’s Hideout.
This singer-songwriter from San Francisco (a former Austin resident) has a terrific voice and good songs. I really enjoyed his performance, which I put on my list after hearing his songs at www.myspace.com/markdavidashworth.
2:12 a.m.: Finished the night w/Mumford & Sons, lively bunch of Brit folkies, then a bit of Mexico City’s Los Fancy Free, who seemed a bit nuts.
Mumford & Sons are from London, but they are stepped in the sounds of acoustic American music. As one of the remarked during Wednesday’s show at Friends, “We’re not saying we can play bluegrass better than you, but it’s fun to play.” The jetlagged band was missing its keyboard player (some sort of travel delay), and playing without having slept in 23 hours, but it still sounded sprightly and melodic. And it wasn’t a pure imitation of American folk and country music — I also picked up an English drinking-hall songs vibe.
& Sons finished a little after 1:30 a.m., which gave me enough to time to wander off in search of another band finishing up. I ended up watching a few songs by Los Fancy Free from Mexico City at the Habana Bar Backyard. The band was putting on a very lively show of psychedelic punk rock, prompting a small but enthusiastic crowd to shout “¡Otra!” (Although I did not get to hear it on this occasion, this is the same band that does a 10-minute “psych-out” version of Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.” You can hear that on myspace.)