A funny thing happened to South By Southwest in the four years since I last attended: Wednesday night now looks like Saturday night used to. The venues weren’t necessarily more crowded than usual, but the street last night more closely resembled a frat party than a music festival. This was always the case by the time the weekend rolled around, but I find myself genuinely wondering how much crazier this can get for Friday and Saturday. And oh god, today we get the fantastically douchey 1-2 punch of St. Patrick’s Day and the start of the NCAA tournament. There is basically no possible way I won’t get punched in the face before leaving this place. One thing that hasn’t changed, though? Lone Star still costs $4 and is disgusting.
We got in pretty late yesterday, so by the time we got to our nice little house on the outskirts of town and then picked up our badges, the nighttime sessions were well underway, and most everyone seemed to be standing in line for James Blake at Stubb’s. His record is somewhat lost on me—I find it to be a little too much like Antony, only without the really beautiful, elaborate arrangements. The songs not just intimate to me, but small, which is a subtle but very important distinction. It makes sense, then, that so much of the Twitter love he’s been getting says something along the lines of “Wow, did not expect James Blake to be so powerful!” Rather than spending my entire first night here standing in line, with no guarantee that we’d get in (I think Duran Duran also played? Ha?), we went to see of-the-moment British band The Vaccines, who have a handful of strong songs but, to quote my tweet from last night, they have neither the charisma nor the capital-C cool to transcend the standard Brit band hype.
For the rest of the night, we set up camp at Sixth Street venue The Parish for the Frenchkiss Records showcase. I caught some of Young Man—a, yes, young band from Chicago that’s at its best during their instrumental passages, when they touch on the extremely technical post-rock sound that was so popular in their hometown in the 90s. Singer/guitarist Colin Caulfield, who was first discovered on YouTube after recording a cover of Deerhunter’s “Rainwater Cassette Exchange,” has what some would call an extremely expressive voice and what others would simply call nasally. In a live setting, the vocals function less as narrative and more as additional texture. Their set closed with a wild display of awkwardly timed, dizzying drumming—a strength it’d be nice to see them show off a bit more.
At this point, I went downstairs to what I thought was another bar inside the venue but what was actually a sports bar where the bartenders wore bikinis. It was strange. I went back to the show after one drink, because this one drunk guy tried to convince his drunk guy friend that, no joke, I had said I wanted to fight him. (Seriously, Austin, what has happened to you?) I’ll let Lauren take you through the rest of the night. Lauren?
Having heard so much about the emotional charge involved in The Antlers’ live show, I had expected it to be a two-way street between audience and performer. Last night’s set of almost entirely new material from their forthcoming album was primarily a one-way street, though. Granted, playing unreleased material is always tricky, especially to a tired, late-night crowd, but it just didn’t resonate the way I always imagined the material from Hospice would. They were engaged — singer Peter Silberman certainly seemed to care about the product he was putting forth — but the long, sprawling passages where nothing really happened other than bluesy beats with his falsetto hovering above just weren’t engaging. Almost adding salt to the wound, the last 45 seconds of “Two” to end the set showcased the lushness and emotional draw that I hoped to see.
It wasn’t a surprise to me that The Dodos put on the most invigorating show of the night, full of that raw guitar-drum ruckus that I talk about so much, but even they had trouble captivating the room. Frontman Meric Long maybe have been mumbling though his lyrics a bit, and, for as subtle as Neko Case’s backing vocals are on their new record, certain songs sounded empty without her, but it’s still rewarding to watch a band play songs that are so technically challenging. Simply put, Long’s fingers move awfully fast across his guitar; Logan Kroeber’s arms work double-time to make up for his kit’s lack of kick drum. But again, reverting back to old material to conclude the show — this time an electric guitar version of “The Season” from their breakthrough album Visiter — came off as the most dynamic. Seeing as they play eight or so more time in true SXSW fashion during the next few days, I have a feeling I’ll have more to say about them later. Stay tuned.