by Eric Harvey
Yesterday, while standing in the back of the room at Emo’s watching a typically stunning performance by Brooklyn’s The Dirty Projectors, I noticed out of the corner of my eye an especially short girl standing right behind me, leaning up against the wall. I’m an especially tall guy by most measures, so I quickly turned around to ask her if she’d like to swap places. As she was replying to me with something along the lines of “No thanks, I prefer to lean against the wall,” I realized that the exceedingly short girl was in fact Janeane Garofalo.
I know this is a bit fawny and celebrity-worshippy of me, but let me have my moment: After all, this is South By Southwest we’re talking about here. Differing valences of celebrity worship are the currency by which this thing survives. Janeane Garofalo was my first celebrity crush ever, hitting her stride right when Alternative Nation was coming into full bloom in the early 90s. Not only was she wry and hilarious (and by all accounts, still is), but she broke into the boy’s club of stand-up comedy by calling them on their BS, much in the same way that Liz Phair, Kathleen Hanna, Mary Timony and, a bit later, Sleater-Kinney (um, I also stood next to Carrie Brownstein yesterday) were doing in indie rock at the time. Counter to yesterday, when I saw bands named Women and Girls which contained no ladies whatsoever, Friday’s highlights for me, both in terms of music being played and famous people being stood next to (or in front of) most certainly came from the distaff side of the gender divide. Oh, and Janeane Garofalo totally waved bye to me after the set ended. Swoon.
I’ve got my own theories as to why women are typically marginalized in pop music, and especially within the indie real these days, but I’ll leave that diatribe for another time. Instead, back to that aforementioned show. The Dirty Projectors is primarily the vehicle of Dave Longstreth, but I doubt that anyone who saw the band's set at Emo’s on Friday afternoon was paying much attention to him. Fanning out around him were three female vocalists (Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and a new third member whose name I didn’t catch), one each playing guitar and bass, who navigated his labyrinthine vocal arrangements exceedingly well, creating a sound something like three choir girls practicing different songs. Several of the numbers came from the Projectors’ 2007 album Rise Above, on which Longstreth composed songs based on memories of Black Flag’s foundational hardcore album, Damaged. The music’s certainly art-damaged, that’s for sure, but so much more rewarding in a live setting than that hardcore group with avant leanings from Thursday, No Age.
A bit later, I caught School of Seven Bells, who released one of my favorite records from 2008, on the patio behind the recently-renovated Radio Room (the inside is barely finished, and all the exposed wood inside creates the smell of Home Depot). The trio—twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza with Benjamin Curtis—struggled with its sound quite a bit. They actually had to pause for a few minutes to straighten things out. I suppose that's what can happen when most of your sound comes from samplers, which Curtis manipulated while playing guitar. Curtis was standing in the center of the stage, a bit recessed from the Deheza sisters, but like the Dirty Projectors show, the two women were the highlights. Their voices aren’t anything close to the Projectors in terms of style or complexity, but that’s not their shtick, either. They sing languorous harmonies around sampled drum machines and heavily-treated guitars that aren’t too distant from Depeche Mode’s Violator or the Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas. On record, they have the luxury of crafting a self-contained sound-world, but on a patio with a crowd standing in gravel, the songs ("Connjur" and "Half Asleep," especially) lacked a lot of the force they need (though the crowd was certainly enraptured). They’re making big-budget music on a small-budget, and the disconnect was clear last night.
I closed out my evening by trucking over to Antone’s—which, compared to some of the clubs I’ve been seeing shows in, looked the size of a basketball fieldhouse—to see St. Vincent, who I missed Wednesday night. She was playing at the 4AD showcase, and I got there a little too late. Even with a badge, the line was entirely too long. This is to say that St. Vincent is popular, at least by the standards of South By Southwest. She’s pedigreed, too, the daughter of guitarist Tuck Andress and a graduate of Berklee College of Music who played the vast majority of the instruments on her assured 2007 debut album, Marry Me. She’s tiny, but her stage presence is undeniable. She ripped up new songs “An Actor Out of Work” and “The Strangers,” which allowed her to shred on the guitar a bit, and slightly rearranged “Jesus Saves, I Spend” and “Marry Me,” which incorporated a violin and saxophone. She and her band are consummate pros, and her set was a perfect way to end the day. I’m a little sad that I didn’t get over to see Solange Knowles (Beyonce’s sister, who released a great debut last year), but who knows?
Maybe I’ll be able to catch Erykah Badu tonight. With Janeane Garofalo. As my date?