SXSW — Friday Recap

Despite it being the first full week of Daylight Saving Time, the days here at SXSW are getting progressively shorter while the nights grow much, much longer. The Austin sunshine wasn’t doing much to help my throbbing headache yesterday, so I ducked into the Alamo theatre for a screening of the new Foo Fighters documentary. I must admit, I was a huge fan of this band when I was 16, but lost interest after their first album. I had absolutely no clue they had grown into one of the biggest bands in the world (the clips of their Wembley Stadium concert are borderline ridiculous). Dave Grohl comes across at times very charming and sincere, but I left the film with the prevailing feeling that this is a guy that made cutthroat decisions against, perhaps, his own moral compass in the pursuit of mega-stardom.

For the majority of the afternoon I decided to take care of myself and get a proper, decent meal (I realized after the movie that I had been subsisting almost exclusively on street vendor foodstuffs). After my siesta, evening showcases were well underway. I made my way for Antone’s, just in time to catch Yellow Ostrich. I had only heard the single, Whale, before checking out their set, but my curiosity paid off. Alex Schaaf (of The Chairs) made heavy use of looped vocals as the basis for his syrupy, melancholic melodies, while Michael Tapper’s (Fools’ Gold, We Are Scientists) powerful, understated drumming and Jon Natchez’s (Beirut, The Antlers, etc, etc) bass and horn work thoroughly blew the crowd away.

I hurried over to The Parish for the Merge Records showcase, where Wye Oak and Wild Flag were set to wrap up the night. Wye Oak’s sound blended beautiful, lullaby verses with noisy, atmospheric choruses. Jenn Wasner’s intricate guitar work was complemented on every bar by drummer Andy Stack, who managed to play keyboard with this left hand while pounding out rhythms with his right hand.

Wild Flag took the stage for their only evening performance during SXSW. After already seeing them twice before, I thought I knew what I was in for, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Perhaps it was that they’d had a few gigs to warm up at prior to this, or maybe their exhaustion had manifested itself as raw energy. Either way, they absolutely killed. Song after song … they killed. Mary Timony and Carrie Brownstein exchanged some of the coolest riffs anyone will hear in Austin this week, while Rebecca Cole’s whimsical keyboard work and Janet Weiss’s expert drumming filled out the already huge sound. (If I’m not being clear, Wild Flag is a great band.)

After such a mind-blowing show, I couldn’t face the long walk home, so I decided to instead head east to the other SXSW. I wandered and wandered, and wasn’t too impressed with much of anything, so I began the journey home. I was nearly to the highway underpass when a thunderous sound caught my ear. I followed it to a modified, hippied-out school bus parked behind a Wendy’s, where Portland duo Brainstorm were going strong. Think Hella-inspired drumbeats, Gastr del Sol-ish vocal hooks and a nice helping of guitar and, occasionally, tuba (yes, tuba!). This last bastion of unsanctioned, Friday night fun was a perfect cap to another amazing night.

Just as they finished their last song, a bicycle cop arrived on the scene and promptly asked “Who’s in charge here?”.

Indeed, who IS in charge here?

Austin, TX — 3/19/11

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