SXSW 2011: The Strokes cause gridlock, Austra makes an entrance and Le Butcherettes go on the attack
Midway through a 90-minute set to open the third night of showcases at the South by Southwest festival and conference, Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas took a pause between songs. For a band with meticulous determination, even a brief between-song hesitation feels suddenly off-script. The singer, performing to an Austin, Texas, crowd that was estimated by SXSW organizers to top 10,000, looked down at the setlist and said, "Just checking off the list."
Passion has never been the Strokes' strong suit. Tension, however, the band can master, Strokes songs aren't written to be tinkered with in a live setting. They are pieces of work, expertly crafted arrangements in which a note shall never be out of place. The no-frills band can be surprisingly commanding in a major, non-club setting. Casablancas isn't one for movement, but he holds on to the microphone stand as if it's the only thing that can save his life, and his backing band stays close, teasing to go off the rails but never actually doing so.
It's been five years between Strokes albums, and when the band locks in and takes aim, it's riveting. The multi-tiered aggression of "New York City Cops" and the anxious groove of "You Only Live Once" are enough to illustrate why the band is adored. A new album, "Angles," arrives Tuesday, and there's no telling how big the Strokes could be if they hadn't have taken a lengthy hiatus.
Make no mistake, the Strokes have headliner status. Fans began lining up at noon for Thursday's outdoor free show, and traffic snarled to a halt anywhere near the Austin park in which the band performed. With such a large crowd swamping Austin's bridges near the stage's riverfront locale, SXSW organizers had a brief panic. Gates opened at 5 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show, and three songs into the band's set, the crowd was still slowly piling in. On a whole, however, the crowd appeared to be well-behaved and a crisis was avoided.
With a festival-like atmosphere, the band unveiled five tracks from "Angles" during its 19-song set, tentatively spacing them apart. Single "Under Cover of Darkness" went over strongly, thanks to its criss-crossing guitar build and shout-along chorus. Others, however, felt like they were taking just a slight dip into the experimental pool. "Life is Simple in the Moonlight" was a curious mix of styles, with guitar handiwork that felt more Steely Dan than rock 'n' roll. Yet moments like new cut "Taken for a Fool," which plays out like a study in momentum, already seem perfectly familiar.
An industry- and media-centered event such as SXSW could have been the prime opportunity for the band to play "Angles" from start to finish. Instead, the band offered up a set that could easily be the same one it performs at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival next month. It was the move of a band carefully reasserting itself rather than attempting to seize the moment.
Other nights from Day 3 of SXSW:
And there will be pop: New Domino Records signee Austra already has the visual component in the can. The Toronto-based act, led by Katie Stelmanis, who sings and sways as if she's conjuring spells, is flanked by a pair of backup singers who twist, stare and harmonize in robotic synchronization. There's lots of glitter, and the movement falls somewhere between sexy and scary. A fellow critic I admire called it shtick, but I enjoyed the show and the big-beat-backed electro-pop. The world certainly doesn't need more keyboard-based acts at the moment (enough!), but Austra is worth making room for. The textures aren't as detailed as, say, a Stereolab, but the ambition is there, and Stelmanis has a way of gliding with the atmospheres.
Later, Denmark's Oh Land (real name: Nanna Øland Fabricius) closed out my evening, and her "Son of A Gun" is handcrafted pop confection. She's performed it on late-night television, and seems groomed for stardom. Yet I was surprised, pleasantly, that much of her set didn't strive for the club-ruling tempo of "Son of A Gun." Fabricius is an enchanting singer, carrying a voice that seems fit for an animated Disney fairy tale. It's enough to make one look past the somewhat simple lyrics, but the electronic soundscapes are all starry-eyed wonder. At times, I felt it a little too celestial for my liking, but the effervescence of it all makes it easy to take.
[For the record, 3:01 p.m.: Oh boy, here's an embarrassing mistake. The paragraph below initially was posted as a short review of Theophilus London ... except London is not the artist I saw. Instead, it was young blues virtuoso Gary Clark Jr. So how does such a boneheaded mishap happen? London was to perform at 11:30 p.m., and I arrived at the venue at 11:45 p.m. I was able to catch only three songs, and then it was a rush to see another act. As for how I mixed up the two artists, I had only heard one London song coming into SXSW and did not have the ability to look at a publicity photo to make sure I was seeing the right act. Though I did wonder why this sounded so different from the London song I had earlier heard, I couldn't find any Warner Bros. reps. Therefore, I went by what was on the schedule and learned later that the venue was running behind. It's a stupid error, and I apologize. I will attempt to rectify it by catching London on Friday night. The text below has been corrected to reflect that it was Gary Clark Jr. who was performing. But hey, it happens to even the best of critics here in Austin.]
Everyone's a critic: Warner Bros. has a virtuosic new act in Gary Clark Jr. This is blues-based rock with an eye toward a groove, and Clark effortlessly wields his guitar into and out of solos. There's an undercurrent of funk, which could have been brought to the fore more often, as at times the music felt as if it were thought up in some sort of NPR think tank. The songs are strong, and I think the photographer behind me was selling the Clark approach a little short when he offered this review: "This is what Austin should sound like -- like Stevie Ray and just all-out blues." Stylistically, Clark has genre-crossing ambitions, but if a Southern city is in need of a band, my vote would be on the one below.
Resistence is futile: To get right to the point, Le Butcherette singer Teri Gender Bender is something of a stunner. She can howl, she can yell, she can growl the letter 'r' into multi-syllables, and she needs little more than one ferocious drum beat to have her way with a song. When she repeatedly shouts "take my dress off," it doesn't feel so much like an order as it does a threat. She isn't trying to seduce; she's letting you know who's in control. The Mexican punk rock trio has but one album to its name -- the forthcoming "Sin Sin Sin" -- yet already has an arsenal of throat-grabbing songs. And just in case you're not paying attention when Teri sings that she's sick of you, she'll do a backward stage dive. Musically, the band is equally reckless and arresting, with guitar convulsions, a garage-rock keyboard and a rhythmic swamp. Le Butcherette's Thursday showcase was, thus far, the best performance I've seen this SXSW.
Be excited! There are now less than 24 hours before punk legends -- yes, the word "legends" was used -- Screeching Weasel perform at SXSW.
There's more! But the hour has passed 4 a.m. and early-morning industry panels await. A full SXSW recap will be posted Sunday.
-- Todd Martens in Austin, Texas
Photos: Julian Casablancas of the Strokes at South by Southwest. Credit: Joey Maloney / For The Times; Austra at South by Southwest / Todd Martens