SXSW Recap: Friday, March 14

For me, Friday started with a noontime show by MAGIC BULLETS, which I just happened to walk into at the Red Eyed Fly while killing time before the Spin party down the street. The band, from San Francisco, was pretty entertaining, with the gangly lead singer jumping around the stage with unabashedly geeky moves. PHOTOS

The Spin party at Stubb’s had a strong lineup – except for those first two bands. I won’t dwell long on how much I hated SWITCHES and BEN JELEN, other than saying both acts seemed like complete musical dreck as far as I could hear. The free food and beer alleviated my pain somewhat. The rest of the afternoon was excellent, starting with THE WHIGS, whom I’ve written about here before. The Whigs whipped through their songs with all of their usual vigor and closed with “Half a World Away,” a quieter, keyboard-based song that reveals their ’60s influences clearer than the loud rock numbers. Good show. PHOTOS

THE RAVEONETTES followed, playing their trademark feedback-drenched chilly pop. I like the Raveonettes pretty well, but they aren’t the most dynamic band onstage. They do a decent job of duplicating the records, but they don’t elevate the music to a higher level. At least, that’s my experience after seeing them twice. It was nice to actually see them in bright light this time, aiding my photographic efforts, though they are really a band meant for the darkness. PHOTOS

VAMPIRE WEEKEND are one of the buzz bands of the moment. I guess I should have seen them back when they were playing a small venue like Schubas in December, before they landed on the cover of Spin magazine with the headline “THE YEAR’S BEST NEW BAND…ALREADY!?” The answer to that question is clearly no, in my opinion. It’s not that I don’t like Vampire Weekend, but they’re merely a good band getting hype more fitting for a great band. I enjoyed their set at the Spin party, but it just confirmed my feelings from the record. Vampire Weekend is doing some interesting things, taking African-style guitar figures and incorporating them into pop music. That’s not a completely original idea, of course, but it’s refreshing to hear these influences emerging in a new indie-rock band – expanding the palette, so to speak. But Vampire Weekend does not exactly make exciting music. It comes out pleasant, but a little bland. Young musicians often deliver the most impassioned and creative performances, but in this case, these guys seem a little too young and inexperienced to make everything that they could out of this music. There’s just not enough roughness or passion in it. Give them time, and they may eventually become a great band, if the hype doesn’t kill them first. PHOTOS

The Spin party closed with a searing set by L.A. punk-rockers X, who played their classic tunes at full blast and never let up. These oldsters showed the youngsters how it should be done. PHOTOS

PAUL METZGER started the evening at Spiro’s with a mesmerizing set of his experimental banjo music, bowing and plucking a banjo with 12 strings plus who knows how many drone strings. It was unusual and enticing music, and there was something surreal about watching Metzger play while bathed in green light, with sunlight and sidewalk noise coming in from the door just a few feet away. Download “Bright Red Stone.”

KELLEY STOLTZ took the stage after Metzger, playing a terrific set of songs from his superb new Sub Pop album, Circular Sounds, plus at least one older track. Stoltz draws on a lot of influences (Syd Barrett, Kinks, Beach Boys, Thunderclap Newman, to name a few) but puts them together in a style that’s distinctly his own. The songs rocked live, and Stolz demonstrated a sharp sense of humor in his between-song comments. The set (which could have gone on much longer with any protest from me) closed with a Velvet Underground/Feelies-style rave-up. This was another one of my favorite SXSW shows. PHOTOS

The Creekside EMC, a room at the Hilton Garden Inn, was the location for one of the strangest shows I saw at last year’s SXSW (Brute Force and Daughter of Force), and I got a weird feeling as I entered the room again. There were no chairs set up this time, just high tables decorated with candles. It felt more like some corporate meet-and-greet than a SXSW show. Despite the odd atmosphere, the room hosted a good show by the Brooklyn folk-rock duo KAISERCARTEL. Courtney Kaiser and Benjamin Cartel switched instruments a few times, with Kaiser handling most of the guitar and Cartel spending most of the set behind drums. Their music felt honest and direct, a little bit like Ida at times. I was thinking that the show was merely pretty good until they got to “Season Song”, the lovely song I’d heard on And then the two of them closed their set with one of the entire festival’s most remarkable moments. They walked out into the crowd and serenaded us with their last song, unamplified, approaching individual audience members (including me) and looking straight into our eyes as they sang. Other musicians have done this sort of thing before, but there was something so intimate about the way KaiserCartel pulled it off that I felt myself on the verge of crying. PHOTOS

Back at Spiro’s, EVANGELISTA was taking the stage. I admit that I really didn’t do my homework in investigating what I was about to witness. I had merely heard the song “Evangelista I” on and liked it, thinking it reminded me of God Speed You, Black Emperor or Silver Mt. Zion. As it happens, musicians from those bands have played with Evangelista, though I’m not sure who all of the players were at the Spiro’s show. All that really mattered was the woman in the middle of the stage, Carla Bozulich, former member of The Geraldine Fibbers. (Nels Cline used to be her guitarist before he joined Wilco.) The show by Evangelista was more of performance art piece than a rock concert, including Bozulich singing into some sort of toy microphone, Bozulich jumping up and down a lot, and the cellist using his instrument as a drum. There were some good songs, too, but I feel like I did not get the full picture of what Evangelista is capable of. The way Bozulich introduced the last piece was telling: “This is out last thing that is like a song.” PHOTOS

Like the Ruby Suns on Thursday, England’s FANFARLO suffered through difficult conditions Friday night at the Wave Rooftop, earning another medal for performing well in a bad situation. I was drawn to this show by the song “Fire Escape”, and there was a lot of positive buzz in the crowd when I showed up. Some people who had seen Fanfarlo playing at a party earlier in the day said they were one of the festival’s best bands. But at this moment, the band could not get its keyboard to work. It may have been their own equipment failing, or maybe the venue’s, but in any case, the show got started 15 minutes late in a short time slot, and then the band gamely decided to play whatever it could despite the lack of a crucial instrument. It did not help that one of the sound guys continued fiddling with the keyboard throughout most of the set. The lead singer wryly remarked, “We’re getting your keyboard fixed while we’re playing, which is a little like getting your car fixed while you’re driving.” And so the set was a little rough, but thankfully, Fanfarlo’s keyboardist also plays violin. I liked what I heard, and the band was nice enough to hand out free copies of a CD featuring their recordings to date – EPs available only in Britain, I believe. I’ve had a chance to listen to the CD several times since, and it’s growing on me. I don’t know that Fanfarlo is doing anything especially groundbreaking with its music, but it’s great stuff, very melodic and upbeat. And I get the impression that the songs would really take off in concert – if the equipment is working. PHOTOS

A little while later, FLEET FOXES played over at the Sub Pop showcase at Bourbon Rocks. The group’s most distinguishing feature is the four-part harmony vocals. I wouldn’t confuse Fleet Foxes with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but they have a similar theory at work behind the way their songs are arranged. It was nice, and I suspect this is a group that I’m going to like. PHOTOS

I ended the night at the Light Bar, a peculiar venue that seems more like part of the Austin singles scene than a SXSW showcase. Anyway, a cool band from Athens, Georgia, KING OF PRUSSIA, was playing at the back of the room, with violin and female harmonies giving the songs a bright sound that reminded me a bit of Headlights. The band’s own description compares King of Prussia to The Who, Magnetic Fields, Belle & Sebastian and The Lilys. I’ll have to reserve judgment on how valid those comparisons are, but I look forward to hearing more. PHOTOS / Download “Misadventures of the Campaign Kids.”

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