by Eric Harvey
As Scottish indie pop band Camera Obscura were tuning up in advance of a 5 p.m. set, covered from the blazing sun by a huge canopy, lead singer Tracyanne Campbell asked the audience: “Are you hot, and freaky? A bunch of hot freaks?” The crowd yelled in approval, but not because they were anticipating the sort of sweaty dance party that question might imply or from the temperature outside, either. It’s because they were attending the second day of the Hot Freaks day party, curated by six of the best and most hardworking music bloggers (MOKB, Gorilla Vs. Bear, Aquarium Drunkard, Largehearted Boy, Chromewaves, You Ain’t No Picasso).
Writing about my Wednesday activities, I noted that skipping between South by Southwest shows was akin to clicking through iTunes—eclectic, somewhat random, fast-paced. To say that Hot Freaks was a bit like taking a Tron-esque trip inside Hype Machine, the aggregating website that culls together and streams mp3s from thousands of music blogs around the world, would not be untrue, but only a bit shortsighted. That’s because the entire festival, more or less, is a of course its own living, breathing, promotion engine.
One panel session here at the festival was called “Bloggers are in Charge” (to the great dismay of a few panelists), which is only partially true. True: Bloggers are influential to the shape of music culture (not nearly to the degree that they are to politics and celebrity culture, though). But they’re only reflective and supportive of larger trends that have solidified over the past decade. Just like SXSW, really, which has exponentially expanded along with music’s presence online, and infiltration to every corner of our lives. It’s appropriate, then, that I left immediately after Camera Obscura played their two best songs back-to-back in the middle of their set. As in my everyday life, I got easy access to the songs I wanted to hear, right then, because I’d convinced myself that I needed to hear dozens more songs very, very soon.
Then there’s the Vivian Girls, a lo-fi Brooklyn trio playing simplistic, narcotic, pop-punk. They played Hot Freaks because they played roughly 3,629 shows during South by Southwest. They’re the latest example of the hard-to-quantify effect of the Internet on up-and-coming bands. It can seem like a huge groundswell of support is emerging when a few dozen well-trafficked blogs write about a group. Critics (and more bloggers), forced to cover an emerging trend, hold the group’s music to a perhaps-unfair standard of quality-through-popularity, leading to what’s frequently called “backlash.” Like Wavves (a kid who didn’t play Hot Freaks, but was also all over SxSW and whose concert was recently covered by The New York Times before his first album came out), the Vivian Girls are far from a great band, but they’ve already received more press than some groups receive in a career (including the wonderful Viva Voce, who followed the Girls). Under the magnifying glass to which they've been subjected, their music—and their personalities—crack . I hope for the best for the Vivian Girls, but I also worry about the unfair expectations that have been created for them.
Then there’s PJ Harvey, who transcends blogs, predates the Web, moves mountains and slays untrue men with her voice alone. She’s touring for her new album with John Parish, with whom she also collaborated on 1996’s underappreciated Dance Hall at Louise Point. She came onstage in all white—a strapless, tight dress with buckles and an Art-Deco style mini-headdress—surrounded by a band of grayed men (Parish to her left) in black suits and fedoras, and played a set of all-new songs from A Woman A Man Walked By, to be released a week from Tuesday.
Harvey’s been releasing stunning music under a variety of guises since 1992’s raw and unflinching Dry, and it seemed as if they were all on display Saturday night. The album’s title track and closer “Pig Will Not” showcased her take-no-prisoners attitude toward being scorned. Describing a man with “a chicken liver heart,” she sent the crowd into a frenzy when she screamed, “I want his fucking ass!”
Though she’s prone to bits of hysteria amidst calmer sections of her music, Harvey was always in full control of her body and emotions, never just flailing around pointlessly, as so many of her followers do. She seems to make no distinction between live music performance and a one-woman monologue staged for theater patrons. “Cracks in the Canvas” was a nearly spoken-word number suggesting some of Kim Gordon’s Sonic Youth compositions, while “Leaving California” was positively Old Hollywood, moving from Harvey’s gorgeous high soprano swathed in echo to a creaky waltz-time ending that suggested a film projector on its last leg.
But what Harvey’s always done best is scare the life out of us, and her ghost-story narratives were in full force Saturday. She opened with the record’s first single, a brooding, full-bodied guitar piece called “Black-Hearted Love,” which is lucky enough to be summed up with its video. Yes, that's a Moon Bounce in the middle of a dark forest, and yes, the concept works. Next was “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen,” which was as ominous as that title suggests, Harvey’s wail accompanied by rumbling malleted drums and Parish’s creepily strummed banjo. The countdown fades into what sounds like a distressing childhood memory, or possibly nightmare, as the music drops low and Harvey intones, “There is no laughter in the garden.”
Nothing quite matched “The Soldier,” however, a song so quiet that, even with the stunning sound of Stubb’s, the chatter of the crowd on the fringes of the venue threatened to drown it out at a few points. The audience was rapt, though, as Harvey’s vocals were hushed to a crystalline whisper, perfectly offset by Parish’s ukelele and the humid wheeze of a melodica. The set was too short, of course, and I’m certain that the majority of the audience would have stayed put for another couple hours, instead of making way for the Indigo Girls and, um, Third Eye Blind, two groups who share nothing but a history of alt-rock radio play with Polly Jean.
It’s a festival, of course, and if I’ve learned nothing else over the last four days, it’s that I should expect plenty of great with not-so-great, with the emphasis on “plenty.” And though I’ve been comparing South by Southwest to other technologized forms of music enjoyment, PJ Harvey’s set reminded me of that harsh truth with live music: I can’t click a button and play it again.