Wild Flag @ SxSW 2011
When, last Saturday afternoon, Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein remarked mid-set, “This is our seventh of eight shows at South by Southwest,” it was difficult not to hear some sense of relief in her voice. There is an inherently numbing effect to the South by Southwest experience; at some point, I think, both the body and mind, additionally encumbered by the baggage of Tex-Mex and beer, begin to reject new musical experiences.

This year’s South by was, we have been told, the biggest festival yet. For those of us rooted in indie culture, however, bigger doesn’t always mean better, and there was definitely a weirdness to how the sprawling variety of official and unofficial events at all hours of day and night meant that plenty of great shows and parties felt oddly underattended. No line to see the only Deerhunter appearance at a free show? Cass McCombs and others playing to tiny crowds at a Pitchfork day party?

That strangeness aside, SXSW 2011 confirmed that which didn’t need confirmation, that despite it becoming increasingly unprofitable to be a musician, there remains a wealth of great young indie rock bands out there. Does SXSW ultimately break bands? Probably not, but does anything, really? If no single event is as important as repeated, persistent attempts to get noticed by critics and fans, South by definitely gives bands an opportunity to feel ubiquitous, if only for a few days.

Eleven Performances I am a Better Person for Having Seen at South by Southwest 2011

Early Saturday evening, we ran into tUnE-yArDs, who were on their way to Yoko Ono’s performance so that Merrill could join Yoko onstage (at Yoko’s personal request). If that isn’t just another in a long list of signs of this band’s ascent, then I don’t know what is. The group’s Central Presbyterian Church performance was nothing short of revelatory; when Merrill told us to stand up, the entire church did, and her band proceeded to blow everyone away.

Braids‘ prog-pop album Native Speaker is a really great, intricate record, and it was more than satisfying to see the quartet preserve their nuances in a live setting. Raphaelle Standell-Preston is a compelling frontwoman, impressive on the guitar and in possession of an extremely emotive voice.

Braids – “Lemonade”

Cloud Nothings kicked off my SXSW with a great set of punchy indie pop that, given the band’s youth, felt like it came straight out of the basement and onto the stage at Red 7. When the lead singer held up the giant “X” marks on both of his hands at one point and said, “It sucks being 19,” I considered throwing myself into traffic. Youth is wasted on the young!

Lost in the Trees and Typhoon are two loud, joyful chamber folk-pop bands with a bunch of members, swelling sounds, and earnest, multi-instrumental charm. I’m a sucker for that sound, so both groups are now on my radar. The Trees came off as a bit more polished, but I also dug Typhoon’s more ramshackle approach. Can a group with twelve members not sound ramshackle? Maybe only if they’re an orchestra.

Typhoon – “CPR/Claws Pt. 2”

More highlights and a photo gallery below!

Yes, Edwyn Collins is the guy from the Empire Records soundtrack, but he was also a member of Orange Juice, one of those great bands that too many people find easier to namedrop than listen to. I’m still not sure exactly what inspired Pitchfork to have him perform at the dust bowl called the East Side Drive-In, but Collins and his band were game, delivering tight renditions of OJ classics and newer songs that served as a nice reminder that when artists have a little experience under their belts, they can shed their sloppiness along with their youth. I didn’t expect Collins to close with “A Girl Like You,” but he did, and it sounded awesome.

As much as I’ve grown to like Yuck, the comparison to seeing Yuck live is the difference between drinking from a bottle and smashing it on the ground. Picking at the lineages of a series of nineties indie legends, I suspect that the band’s most insistent jams are ahead of them. This is exciting.

Yuck – “Rubber”

Glasser was the perfect compliment to tUnE-yArDs at the church. Massive layered sounds and Cameron Mesirow’s soaring vocals were a steamroller. I mentioned to someone that it reminded me of the early melodic pop of Bjork, which I was told was a period known as “before the swan dress.”

James Blake has the sort of skyrocketing buzz that must drive long-term under-appreciated musicians crazy. I’ve been told repeatedly that he is influenced by dubstep, although I remain a little unclear on what dubstep actually means. To me, his set of skittering, vocoder-assisted R&B felt like Antony meets Dirty Projectors singing R. Kelly songs. If you’re looking for an intense electronica experience, this isn’t it, but sitting in a church, it felt understated and sublimely rewarding.

I missed the boat on Sleater-Kinney, so my impressions of Wild Flag aren’t encumbered by preexisting expectations of greatness. But if I keep seeing this group perform, those expectations are going to be there soon enough. For a band that doesn’t have any records out yet, it sure felt like Wild Flag was playing a collection of hits. Anthemic, great guitar tones, everybody sings. What more could you want?

Glass Tambourine by Wild Flag by Timedoor

Finally, on a non-musical note, comedian Brody Stevens had been assigned the task of MCing on the outside stage at Thursday’s Brooklyn Vegan day party between performances. Normally, I’ve seen party MCs maybe do a brief joke or two while introducing the next act, but Stevens took it upon himself to work the crowd for the duration of the time between the previous band’s completion and the next band’s start. If you’re keeping score, that’s roughly 20-30 minutes every hour, a length of time in which you’d expect his energy to flag and things to get dull. This was not the case. In Mr. Stevens’ own words, “Enjoy it!”

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