The first few years I attended South by Southwest, I treated the whole affair mostly as if I were a Boy Scout. I’d bind the official nighttime schedule in a notebook with a few guides to the hundreds of day parties sponsored by magazines, beer companies, Web sites and whatever product you’d imagine might make even a little sense marketing itself here. I'd go through with a highlighter and ink pen, prioritizing my must-sees and second options, taking care to ensure that the walk between clubs was feasible. This year, though, I decided to forego the meticulous planning in favor of a pocket schedule, a short list of day parties, and the notion that I’d just let things happen. Yesterday, the strategy paid its strongest dividends yet.
Last night, I bailed early on a set by Brooklyn’s Soft Circle (the solo guise of ex-Black Dice/Lightning Bolt bro Hisham Bharoocha). Soft Circle’s debut, 2007’s Full Bloom, remains one of my favorite albums of the decade, its wonderful sense of musical plunder gathering elements of drone, noise and the Nonesuch Explorer Series beneath one expansive, hyper-rhythmic roof. But last night’s set—which featured Bharoocha on drums, bass and vocals via a headset microphone—felt like watching an ’80s workout video that mixed New Age meditation and martial arts precision. The set’s ideas and themes seemed to hold more sway for Bharoocha as he swung from bass to drums, making loops and stacking more music above them, than they did for the largely nonplussed crowd. Soft Circle once reminded me of an envelope, but last night’s set was more of a page splattered frantically with ink, no room left for anything or anybody else.
I arrived at Akron/Family’s Dead Oceans showcase set early then in hopes of seeing the whole thing. But due to the technical demands of Dinosaur Jr.—the bill’s unannounced guests from “I’mlikeso, HI,” according to the official festival schedule—Akron/Family started early and ended even earlier, playing a 33-minute set that ended before it gathered a modicum of steam. The shortest set of the band’s career did manage to spotlight its forthcoming album, Set ’em Wild, Set ’em Free, though, ending with a segue from the record’s funk-and-wah opener to the album’s closer, a gentle harmony number about making it count in the new year.
Not long after the music ended, I bounded down Red River towards Emo’s Jr. with Akron’s sound engineer and its producer, Detroit veteran Chris Koltay. Koltay’s hoping to work with The Intelligence, a co-ed quartet from Portland, Ore., that recalls The Modern Lovers finding better dynamics, bigger punch and adding keyboards for bass. Headed down the road, though, Koltay heard a familiar sound, so we ducked into Headhunter’s, a proudly dingy bar a few blocks away from Emo’s. Inside, Human Eye—the legendary Detroit riot-in-the-ready act that mixes mind-fucking stunts, proto-boogie and sleazy throb and infuses it all with loud, visceral playing—was ripping through its set. Koltay produces the band’s records, and he pumped along with the songs deliriously from steps overlooking the stage. Below, the crowd writhed in waves. Finally, we caught the final half of The Intelligence’s set. The band’s released a handful of decent singles over the last decade on In the Red, Narnack and a few other imprints, but last night their pop songs seemed baited with a wiry antagonism that those short-run singles missed. “Remember to vote for us for SXSW,” quipped frontman Lars Finberg, joking the small but resilient crowd and the popularity contest/ election (complete with bribes) that comprises the unfortunate part of SXSW.
When their set had finished, Human Eye was still going at it, pushing the festival’s curfew by doing its best to storm the crowd, unload confetti and break its keyboards. Frontman Tim Vulgar sported a giant Cyclops mask and a jacket covered in blood-and-organs graffiti. He rolled into the dirty floor and in to the sweaty audience, turning the small club melee into what felt like a tiny kitchen party. For such a gigantic event, a stark shot of intimacy means a lot. When the music’s an overwhelming latenight raze, it means so much more.
There were other surprises and a few stand-bys I rarely skip: Efterklang’s set outside at the French Legation was as mesmerizing and as magnetic as previously mentioned, while the first ever SXSW set from All Tiny Creatures—the new quartet led by Collections of Colonies of Bees multi-instrumentalist Thomas Wincek—was more charged than what I’d expected from the band’s forthcoming EP. Of late, Collections has aimed for dynamic grandeur, steadily building shimmering strongholds of rock sounds before letting them burst and burn, an orchestra racing into bedlam. Last night, both Creatures’ sonics and insistence recalled Collections, but the dynamic range was more focused, forcing the band to develop rich textural ideas beneath pieces that found their themes and assaulted themes.
Elsewhere: The Hold Steady launched into the beautiful “Cheyenne Sunrise” during an outdoors set just as the sun started to subside in Austin; I need to see a full set by Micachu before I leave town, as the two songs I caught last night were fascinating pop fragments; Baptist Generals, playing unplugged in the floor of a cavernous hall called Radio Room, referred to themselves as “the best dude-rock band on 6th Street.” Lulz.; Red Red Meat played a song from the newly finished Califone record, and it sounded fantastic; Harvey’s right: No Age really did sound that bad yesterday; Obits strangling guitars and huge bass parts sounded much better, though.