My first day ever at SXSW was only a half day really, or even less depending on what you’d call running around from 6PM-2AM. I arrived in Austin late in the afternoon and by the time I’d checked into my hotel and picked up my registration materials from the Conference Center, it was already 6. Have no fear though, that left plenty of time to do a little exploring, get a grasp of the land, and wait in a long line. Here’s a quick summary of what I saw during the evening’s excursions. It should be noted I also took some photos, but forgot to bring my camera cord with me to get them onto my laptop. I’ll have a complete photo wrap-up for you next week then. In the meantime, continue reading.
Originally I had planned to see Santigold perform at the Fader Fort, however I was still getting my bearings and failed to realize where the Fader Fort was located. For the record, it’s about 4 blocks away from most everything else, on the opposite side of the highway. By the time I’d figured that out, Santigold’s set would have been nearly over by the time I got there. Plus, who knows what kind of line there was to get in? The line outside Stubb’s for NPR’s showcase was tremendously long. That’s where I headed after giving up on the Fader Fort (for now). But I was drawn to the NPR showcase thanks to the presence of Fiona Apple and Sharon Van Etten. If I were a less motivated person, I would have stuck around there all night to see sets from Dan Deacon, Alabama Shakes and Andrew Bird. What a great overall lineup. But first, Fiona. I barely made it in the doors before she went on, and so many were excited to see her first major performance in quite awhile. She started her set with “Fast As You Can”, and not seated behind a piano but with a full backing band, she writhed like a woman possessed behind the microphone. There were oh so many highlights from her set, including 3 new songs and positively visceral renditions of “Paper Bag”, “Sleep to Dream”, “Carrion” and “Criminal”. There were a couple moments where she appeared to put a little to much force behind her vocals, causing her to sound just a touch hoarse, but a warm cup of tea was there to help remedy that situation. She got better as the set went on. There were a couple of brief moments of stage banter in which she admitted she’d forgotten whether she’d already sung the second verse of “Paper Bag” because her mind had started to wander before snapping back into place upon remembering she was in the middle of a performance. In all it was a great “comeback” set for Fiona Apple, and one I hope I’ll get to see repeated tomorrow night at Pitchfork’s showcase, assuming I get in.
I stuck around Stubb’s after Fiona Apple because I wanted to catch up with Sharon Van Etten. The last time I saw her live was a couple years ago before her album Epic had been released. Her new full length Tramp is another smart step forwards for her, so I was interested in hearing those new songs performed. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that almost her entire set was Tramp material, and boy does it sound great. She’s got a backing band now, which wasn’t the case when I saw her last, and they do a stellar job both adding to the melodies and filling in vocal harmonies. Particularly affecting were “Warsaw” and “Kevin’s”. While part of me longed to hear “Peace Signs” off Epic, a wish that wasn’t granted, I still walked away very satisfied.
Not to discount Dan Deacon’s live show, but I wanted to do a little exploring after Sharon Van Etten, so I took to the streets in search of sets from Friends at the Hype Hotel or Tennis at Red 7. When I approached both locations, the lines were super long and I didn’t want to have to wait. So luckily I stumbled over to the IFC Crossroads House for some Youth Lagoon. I’ve been wanting to see Trevor Powers for quite some time, and now turned out to be as good of a time as any. He hit all the necessary marks from his debut album The Year of Hibernation, including “Cannons”, “July”, and “Posters”. Color me impressed with his live show, even if he had to pause mid-set when his keyboard’s batteries went dead. Yes, one of his keyboards runs on AA batteries. He tried to joke around about it, but the crowd wasn’t quite laughing. I was amused because they weren’t amused. Dead batteries aside, everything else went swimmingly.
Speaking of swimmingly, things were not going so well over at Kimbra‘s performance at Haven. She was set to go on at midnight, however there were soundcheck issues that delayed its start by 25 minutes. When they finally got things to a level of satisfaction, the band began to play yet there was still no sign of Kimbra. They held a note for a few seconds and she quickly ran on and began to sing. If you’re familiar with Kimbra only through her duet with Gotye on his hit song “Somebody I Used to Know”, now’s the time to get to know her on her own. Wednesday marked her first ever performances in the U.S., and from every indication she’s going to be a star. She was fun, energetic, and possesses an incredible singing voice. She was pitch perfect through the entire set made up of songs from an EP that came out earlier this year along with her debut full length which will be out in May. The old songs are good, and so are the new ones. I commented on my Twitter feed that Kimbra is everything that Lana Del Rey isn’t. To clarify in more than 140 characters, Kimbra has a supreme stage presence, smiles a whole lot, and makes songs that are more compelling than most of Del Rey’s debut. Yet something about Kimbra’s songs left me bored, and I think it was the lack of anything new or innovative about them. They’re pop songs performed with guitars and drums instead of samples and beats. Don’t expect her to earn a big indie following, but do expect her to pick up some serious mainstream heat before the end of 2012.
I thought I’d end my night by keeping the trend of female artists going. Youth Lagoon was an exception, but otherwise it was an all female evening. MNDR was scheduled for a 1AM set, and I was intrigued to see her live for the first time. Her pop songs aren’t entirely my cup of tea, but SXSW is about expanding horizons and finding new talents. Upon arriving at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room where the show was supposed to be, I was shocked to see the venue nearly empty. I was arriving late because Kimbra started and finished late, but it appeared things at Maggie Mae’s were also a bit behind. In a venue that appeared to fit a couple hundred, there were only about 30 people there total, and they were mostly at the bar or sitting at tables. They were frantically setting up the stage for what I assumed would be MNDR, and at about 1:30 things were officially underway. I’m no MNDR expert, but I could have sworn Amanda Warner was blonder and less strange than the brunette singing these songs. Okay, they were less actual songs and more sonic experiments, complete with vocal echo effects that turned deciphering lyrics into a fruitless endeavor. I’m going to go ahead and clarify now that while I thought it may have been MNDR performing, I found out afterwards it was not. MNDR didn’t show up for her set. The duo known as Tearist took her time slot. Yasmine Kittles fronts Tearist, and they consider themselves to be avant-pop. That’s an accurate description of what they do. I also suspect she was either on something, incredibly drunk, or simply angry at the small crowd watching the performance. Either way, she had a scowl on her face most of the time, thrashed around like she was being tortured, and stumbled and fell into the back wall behind the stage once or twice. She took a sip of beer at one point, and it looked like she was having trouble swallowing it. Towards the end of the set she brought out a metal beam and a lead pipe, beating and scraping them against one another in the most grating ways possible. Her bandmate William Menchaca stood on the side the whole time, putting together the beats and synths for the songs but looking just a touch embarrassed by the whole thing. Crazy and weird as the whole thing was, part of me thinks that’s what every Tearist performance is like. If so, it’s a shitshow to behold. They’re taking performance art to Bradford Cox and “My Sharona” sort of levels. Part of me wants to go and see another of their shows to see if it’s any different than the one late Wednesday night. Part of me is also turned off by it. Which side will win? Let’s find out together as this crazy SXSW week continues.