Six (unexpected) great performances from SXSW 2011
On my first visit to the world's largest music festival in Austin, TX, I learned that the best shows are sometimes the ones you didn’t plan on seeing. While I was lucky enough to catch some of my favorites (Low, Gayngs, and Glasser among them), some of the most memorable performances came from artists I didn’t know well. In no special order, here are a half-dozen of those unexpected standouts:
1) Julianna Barwick
Composer Julianna Barwick started with the odds against her: The church where she opened a Pitchfork showcase was sweltering due to a broken air conditioner, and the crowded pews were full of people impatient to see Twin Shadow and James Blake. She was also alone on stage, as her abstract songs--mainly consisting of her ethereal voice folded over and multiplied—don’t lend themselves to a group performance. Then she picked up the mic and let the first otherworldly notes drift up through the sanctuary. Suddenly, the heat didn't seem so bad, and the complainers fell silent. There was an element of bravery in Barwick’s performance, and an element of the sacred as well, lit perfectly by the golden sunset slanting through the stained glass windows.
2) Shabazz Palaces
Besides the quality of the music, an artist’s onstage charisma can make or break a live show. Palaceer Lazaro, of the avant-garde hip-hop act Shabazz Palaces, has both to spare. Performing with a live drummer and various electronic doodads, Lazaro crackled with energy, spitting out complex, challenging rhymes over eerie and captivating samples (just listen to "An Echo From the Hosts That Profess Infinitum"). In fact, he might have been too good, dominating the Gorilla vs. Bear showcase at Klub Krucial with such ease that the bands before him seemed lackluster by comparison.
3) Esben and the Witch
By contrast, the young members of the British band Esben and the Witch (pictured above) are sort of anti-charisma. They performed at a late-night club showcase with their heads down, bathed in dim red light, faces often hidden behind curtains of hair. Still, I was captivated by the band's sound, which merged a jagged-edged modern primitivism with songs reminiscent of the best dark 4AD bands of the '80s. When the singer banged her drumsticks together with a clack like dry bones, or the percussionist ran into the crowd to tap out a rhythm, it felt like we were all joining them in a mysterious, potent rite.
4) Khaira Arby
Mali is one of those places that seems to export an incredible amount of great music, so I was glad to see the country represented at SXSW 2011 in the form of singer Khaira Arby and her band. Their fusion sound livened up a sleepy afternoon Pop Montreal showcase on Sixth Street, blending Arby’s bold and sinuous vocals, waves of hazy guitars, and start-and-stop rhythms into a heady and blissful combination. I hope their standout SXSW performance will help Arby’s band gain a bigger audience here in the US. Despite the language barrier, their music defies classification as "African" or "Malian" and simply sounds amazing.
5) Edwyn Collins
I confess I wasn’t planning to see Scottish singer/guitarist Edwyn Collins at a "lawn party" outside Austin's French Legation Museum. After all, I only knew Collins from his omnipresent '90s hit "A Girl Like You." But when a friend dragged me over to see Collins perform--lecturing all the while about the post-punk influence of Orange Juice--I didn’t regret it. The outdoor setting was a perfect place for Collins' band and their catchy, fuzzed-out, summer-afternoon rock. Collins, whose musical future was in question after he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 2005, sounded great on vocals; and when his teenaged son joined him onstage for a duet, I couldn’t help but smile.
Of all the strange venues where I saw bands perform at SXSW, the weirdest was probably the parking lot outside of an auto repair garage—complete with grease-stained pavement, piles of empty Lone Star cans, and surly festival-goers crowding into the few patches of mid-afternoon shade. But when the Montreal-based Braids took the stage and released the first looping notes of "Lemonade," I forgot everything but the music. Braids build their experimental songs around twitchy rhythms and soaring female vocals, reminding me at times of Blonde Redhead, but they also bring a dream-like, exquisite quality all their own. With that unexpectedly powerful performance, they became one of my new favorite artists.
More by this writer:
Sin Fang - Interview
Asobi Seksu - Fluorescence
jj - Kills