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SXSW Day 3 report: Silversun Pickups, Metallica and an unexpected discovery

March 21, 2009 |  1:26 am


The Silversun Pickups certainly lucked out Friday night in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest music festival and conference. Here's a way to guarantee that not only your show will be packed, but kids also will be watching from the parking garage rooftop across the street: Play the opening set on a not-so-secret show by Metallica.

Unveiling five of 10 songs from its forthcoming April disc "Swoon," the Silver Lake-based rockers more than held the attention of the crowd, arriving in Austin with a fiercer, more atmospheric sound. It was good news for the band when its hit 2007 single, "Lazy Eye," felt like the set's lightest, most undemanding cut, hopefully foreshadowing a bit of a growth spurt for the band.

New single "Panic Button" had more life on stage than it does on the radio, with Nikki Monninger's bass playing the steady but spirited counter to the swirl of fuzz-drenched guitars that threaten to engulf everything in sight. Brian Aubert's muted, scratched vocals are echoed by the guitar line, which seems to gradually drift from the melody, giving the band a grander, more spacious sound.

But even better was set closer "Growing Old is Getting Old," a murkier, slower and far more mysterious song. It's a cut that's all atmosphere, with a night-crawling bass that swamps its way through the keyboard mist, and a guitar riff that teasingly feels leashed in. It was an exercise in tension. More important, it revealed a band that isn't afraid to challenge itself.

More notes from Night 3 of South by Southwest:

Discovery of the night: Oklahoma City's Uglysuit, perhaps one of the last acts signed to Chicago's Touch & Go, which recently laid off 21 of its 23 employees. The six-piece act had some of the lushest songs I've seen at the fest, and songs such as "... And We Became the Sunshine" and "Chicago" are built around luxuriant keyboards and the soft vocals of Israel Hindman. There are anthems in this band's future, as guitars sparkle, harmonies soar and arrangements elegantly evolve. After the set, I briefly spoke with Hindman and guitarist Kyle Mayfield. They said the recent news of Touch & Go's troubles caught them completely by surprise. Hindman noted that Touch & Go was "so good to us" that when a major label recently offered the band a deal, it opted to stay with the Chicago indie.

Metallica at Stubbs in Austin for SXSW

And then there was Metallica: There's plenty of mainstream artists down at South by Southwest here promoting new projects, or in the case of Metallica, a video game. Singer James Hetfield seemed cognizant of the fact that the band was a bit out of place. In a mock Norwegian accent, he joked, "We're a young struggling band from Norway ... and we want get signed!" He added: "Maybe we're from China." He spared the audience the fake Chinese accent. But Metallica isn't paid to be politically correct. In a set slightly longer than an hour, Metallica focused largely on "Death Magnetic" but mixed in a number of old favorites, including opener "Creeping Death" and "Master of Puppets." Those who couldn't get in the 2,000-or-so-capacity Stubb's cheered from the sidewalk outside the gates of the outdoor venue. The smaller venue suited the band well, as the band's often pummeling midsong thematic changes are more instantly felt up close. The band's SXSW date was just three months removed from when Metallica performed in Los Angeles.

Randoms: Devo was the other main headlining act at South by Southwest on Friday night, but with Kanye West coming to town today, I used the evening to club-hop rather than watch another established act. The results here were mixed. Saddle Creek's O+S was a delight, the latest project from Azure Ray's Orenda Fink. With dual vocalists, O+S did haunting easily, employing a slight echo to great effect. On record, O+S comes across as electronic-enhanced pop, but in the live setting at SXSW, the act's Western influence had a greater --  and welcome -- presence. A far less productive trip was to check out England's Esser, a glam-ish pop artist who isn't afraid to sample Lil Wayne, but my night ended on high notes with the rhythm and blues of King Khan & the Shrines and the country rock of Deer Tick. King Khan was a rollicking throwback to rock 'n' roll's early days, and Deer Tick had a bit of a vintage fetish as well. But if King Khan was so over the top that the set sometimes bordered on parody, Deer Tick struck a more romantic chord. At times, the act's country rock referenced Buddy Holly, but there was plenty of swing in the scrappy arrangements.

-- Todd Martens

Silverssun Pickups press photo courtesy Dangerbird Records / Metallica by Tony Pierce / LA Times