SXSW Day 1: On a somber night, a discovery from Australia
The annual party and celebration of pop music that is the South by Southwest music festival has carried on just fine under tough climates in recent years. The music industry has suffered year-to-year declines in sales, but there's been minimal evidence of such direness once the day has turned to night and the bars that line the streets of Austin, Texas, are overrun with artists.
This year's edition, however, is off on an especially sour note, as news spread down Sixth Street early Wednesday that Big Star founder Alex Chilton had died. My colleague and chief pop critic Ann Powers spent much of the first night of SXSW holed up in her hotel room writing an appreciation, and the passing of the influential musician will no doubt shift the direction and tone of this year's event. Big Star was scheduled to be highlighted with a showcase and panel this weekend, and it's now expected that some sort of tribute will take place.
But as SXSW registrants processed the news, bands played on. Austin residents flooded the streets to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, and the overall mood was as jovial as ever. All told, I took in eight acts Wednesday, seeing some for as little as a song or two. Initial highlights, surprises and thoughts are below, at least as much as can be remembered as the hour approaches 4:30 a.m.
Discovery of the night: Australia's Beaches were in many ways a throwback, the band's blast of sometimes slow-moving melodic noise recalling the indie underground scene of the '80s. Yet there's plenty of nuance here, as glistening melodies and back-and-forth harmonies gradually emerge out of the initial drone. The five-piece can make a racket, no doubt, but Beaches are far from reckless, as the band delivered tightly constructed, densely layered and intricately detailed songs, all of them packing riffs the size of glaciers. That also says nothing of the band's versatility, as '60s pop melodies were given adventurously drawn-out arrangements.
Cover of the night: There's no place better to see minimalistic indie rock heroes Spoon than their hometown, and the band was rewarded in 2010 with a midnight gig at the airy and massive outdoor venue/barbecue joint Stubb's. Though the band first unveiled a cover of the Damned's "Love Song" for a coffee company, the live take on the gothic-punk original showed Spoon bringing out a darker side of personality. Draped in red, the band doubled up on the rhythms and filled the song with a smattering of synth clanks and rattles. The rest of the set was Spoon at its jagged and efficient best, although it could have leaned a bit heavier on new album "Transference."
Comeback of the night: Back in 2007, the line to see the then-hyped Pipettes, a sort of modern take on the classic girl group, stretched around the block. The band fizzled in the marketplace, but former member Rose Elinor Dougall returned to Austin in 2010 with a new outfit and a new look. Gone is the vintage polka dot dress; in its place is a leather jacket and a tougher, rock 'n' roll look. Musically, Dougall gives pop-friendly melodies to thick keyboard textures. Guitars claw their way out from under the synth- laden sounds, giving Dougall's post-Pipette songs a surprising -- and welcome -- sharp edge.
The jury is still out: Danish act the Choir of Young Believers scored a KCRW-sponsored gig, and there's no wonder as to why. On record, the band's songs are epic builds with sometimes dizzying, left-of-center harmonies. It hasn't fully translated to the live show, which feels too pared down and, at least at Wednesday evening's performance, significantly less cinematic than it should.
More, please. As the clock was rolling past 2 a.m., work obligations were preventing me from seeing a full set from Norway's Serena-Maneesh. What a shame, as the melodic experimentalists married wind chimes with techno beats, gothic textures and crushing waves of guitar. And that was only in the opening moments of the first song. The band has a gig on March 22 at the Troubadour. Those in L.A.: Go.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Beaches. Credit: Lauren Bamford