SXSW, Day 3: Friday, 3/14
Yes, it's Friday! And that means: It's the weekend! And that means: The Vampire watch begins!
But first, in order to guarantee that I'm inside the famous club Antone's when VW takes the stage at 11 p.m., I need to get there for the first act and stay put. Will I be lucky with the three unknown-to-me bands leading up to the main attraction? Ken Richardson here, yet again, inviting you to read on.
Bear in Heaven
Oh, dear - unlucky with this one. In fact, I am most assuredly not in heaven when I hear this quartet unleash its decidedly turgid sonics. Worst of all: the lead singer (who doubles as keyboardist) has an unpleasantly thin, high voice that is processed through a thick smog of reverb. At one point, the band does launch into a mildly interesting slow-prog march . . . but that echoey wailing just ruins it. Talk about sound over any notion of vision! Someday, this Bear should learn how to play unadorned.
Ooooo - I'm way lucky here, and almost in love.
Onstage come three lasses, with autoharp, ukulele, and fiddle. The Canuck Chicks? As it turns out, Basia Bulat isn't the name of the band; it's the name of the person you see here, who's the autoharp player, as well as an acoustic guitarist - and, above all, an enchanting singer.
Backed by the other two gals plus a coupla guys on keyboards and drums, Bulat is an eye-opener. It's not just that, in a dress and heels, she goes on to pound those heels to the wooden floorboards. It's also that, from her relatively diminutive frame, we hear a voice that's both sweet (in its main tone) and soulful (in its edgy vibrato). She opens the gig with an a cappella number that immediately impresses the Vampire groupies. From there, she and her band take us on quite the heartland tour, both north and south of the Canadian border.
If the front line comes across as the Canuck Chicks, then Bulat is certainly their Natalie Maines. Yet when she leaves the stage, she's just an awestruck little girl. I overhear her say, referring to the audience: "They were really listening!" We were indeed. Word of advice: The two guys are capable but not much more, such that the entire fivesome still needs practice as a band.
Not to be confused with Lyrics Born, from (dare I say it?) Oakland! Help! (What the hell am I on about? Scroll to Gowns and KIT in yesterday's post.)
Am I still lucky? You betcha! Remember that unadorned band I was hoping for above. Well, here they are: bass, drums, and two guitars, playing simple but not simplistic rock & roll. It's not simplistic because the lead guitarist has a nice habit of adorning verses with chiming lines. And the rhythm section actually stands out for having a superior sense of rhythm. And the singer actually sings! Geez, do they really make bands like this anymore?
Apparently, they do. And it's especially welcome when the style of the band often resembles, um, jigs from L.A.? That's the closest I can nail it, but the impressive thing is how the excellent bass grooves lock into the drums for some serious undertow. And under the undertow? Hooks aplenty. Nice job, guys, especially in the unenviable job of opening directly for:
By now, the club is packed, body to body. Anticipation is high. The band takes the stage to genuine cheers, which almost never happens at hip SXSW. Are there still cheers 40 minutes later?
Oh, yes. Vampire Weekend meets its hype head-on and comes out triumphant.
If you saw the band on Saturday Night Live, you got a taste. For the rest of you, note these touchpoints: Squeeze. The Police. A bit o' the Cars. All blended with (it has to be said) Paul Simon's Graceland. In fact, the band calls its sound "Upper-West-Side Soweto." You see, they're all graduates of Columbia University. And some observers have been known to call them "preppy rockers." Not for nothing, I guess, seeing that the singer/guitarist arrived at sweaty Antone's in his Lacoste sweater.
That singer/guitarist is Ezra Koenig, and he's a wonder. Glenn Tilbrook? Sting? Yes and yes. Or, if you prefer another onetime preppy: David Byrne (without the angular extremes). And it's a perfect match for the music he makes with the band's keyboardist, bassist, and drummer, who play with such elasticity and arty-punk/pop sunniness that it reminds me of musical scores from cartoons - and I mean that as the highest compliment. Basically, the bass and drums are the heart of the band, above which the keys lay irresistible lines, and the hollow-body guitar skitters and punctuates. What a mesh. And you can definitely dance this mesh around! Thankfully, the sound at Antone's is ideal for the band's miniatures: well balanced among all four instruments, and not too loud.
At the end of the gig, the lasting image is of handsome Ezra wearing his eternally bemused look: "What? Me Rock Star?" Yes, you is, even if you do wear loafers onstage.
After that musical highpoint of SXSW (so far - one more night to go!), it was tough to find the energy to scout for bands at midnight, let alone 1 a.m. But I tried.
(Vancouver, British Columbia)
Maybe I shouldn't have tried.
Oh, okay, these four girls aren't that bad. But after VW, it's difficult to take their Donnas-in-training act. Keep at it, ladies. -Ken Richardson