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SXSW: Three bands. One hour. It's on.

March 18, 2009 |  7:16 pm

Tillmansmall "How much time do I have? Eight minutes?" Amanda Palmer uttered a startled expletive upon learning what remained of her set at the Paste Magazine day party early this afternoon. The untamed wit and better half of the Dresden Dolls then took to her keyboard to deliver another fractured cabaret tune from her growing solo oeuvre, and with one song left, took up her ukulele and led the crowd in a "Happy Birthday"-style singalong of Radiohead's "Creep." This is what talented folk must do in desperate circumstances. At South by Southwest, you have to execute your flashiest, funniest or most poignant moves without thinking twice.

Palmer's set was one of three I partially caught in an hour of wandering around and near Austin's Party Central, 6th Street, as this year's music festival began in earnest. This is how we do it in attention-deficit land: ingest a leisurely breakfast with friends at the Driskill Hotel, home of great biscuits and beautifully upholstered chairs, and then head out to jumble your brain with so much music that the experience feels like a form of torture used on James T. Kirk on the old "Star Trek." But in a good way! Overload is what pop is all about in the Shuffle Age.

My first SXSW shuffle this year consisted of Palmer's steamy, chatty mini-set, a little quiet time with Fleet Foxes member J. Tillman, and a chance encounter in between. The run-in pleased me most. As I walked by the Emo's Annex -- a big tent set up in an empty lot across the way from the celebrated indie rock club -- I heard a familiar, feminine drone. It was School of Seven Bells, the Brooklyn-based group that wraps Mamas and Papas-style sunniness around a dark center to create psychocandy pop for the less than dreamy youth of today.

The line was far too long to get in, but my vista on the sidewalk was excellent as Alejandra and Claudia Deheza busted subtle synchronized dance moves that complemented their sisterly harmonies, and Benjamin Curtis, on keyboards, led an expanded touring band through songs better suited to the moonlight than to a sunny afternoon. Still, it was a lovely little moment. But thousands of other bands awaited. I had to move on!

Up the road at the Mohawk club, I forced my way in to an overpacked room where J. Tillman was playing a solo set. The young Seattleite is the definition of a hot artist here in Austin: he's the member of a band that broke through last year, and prolific in his own right, with a slightly different kind of charisma than that exhibited by the Foxes' leader Robin Pecknold. Tillman is slightly gritty instead of honey-sweet, like Pecknold, though both share a sarcastic streak that's more representative of their Northwest roots than their '60s folk-rock fixation.

A few songs in to Tillman's hushed, candle-lit show, the delicately rugged singer-songwriter stopped to complain about the loud punk band playing on the patio just outside. "I'm a pretty precious artist type," he said. "I get pretty worked up. I could turn up my guitar; should I? I'll give you a sound bath... my girlfriend and I are going to take a sound bath in Joshua Tree in May; I think then I'll just start wearing turquoise."

Making jokes at the expense of hippie culture while playing lyrical ballads straight out of Laurel Canyon may be in questionable taste, but Tillman's music is undeniably beautiful. He's a subtle lyric writer and that dram of sand in his voice adds to his charm. But even this up-and-coming semi-star was getting rattled by the herd feel at South by Southwest.

After his next wistful number, he paused to reflect on the branding of the festival, calling the prevalence of advertising banners and swag "Orwellian. Like that one Levi's ad -- have you seen it? It says, deny apathy. It makes me think about the brutal realization I had, standing in line to register, about how unoriginal I am."

It wasn't quite clear how a righteous comment about indie rock's commercialization turned into a self-deprecating one about his own similarity to the other beardos wandering the streets. But it made me like Tillman a little bit more. South By Southwest is a wondrous immersion in music and an overwhelming one. That one participant had found time to reflect, even onstage in front of a roomful of sweaty people, was a tiny miracle.

-- Ann Powers

Photo of J. Tillman by Aja Pecknold