by Marc Masters
My favorite surprise about SXSW is that most of the live music booms out of the clubs and onto the streets with no complaining neighbors or disgruntled cops showing up. Apparently, this is somewhat routine in Austin even when SXSW isn’t happening, but it’s a bit of revelation for someone from D.C., where just one instance of noise blaring into the streets would likely result in a law against live music itself. They should probably mention this excellent benefit in Austin’s tourism ads.
Most of the time this phenomenon has just provided anonymous cacophony, which is fun enough by itself, but today it also gave me the chance to hear a little of the (reunited? off-hiatus?) American Analog Set, playing the entirety of its 1999 LP The Golden Band, and The Rosebuds, playing mostly stuff from last year’s excellent Life Like, both from the comfort of a calm, bright sidewalk instead of a sweaty neck-craning crowd. Both bands were typically relaxed and beatific—perfect for standing in the sun staring at nothing. If someone piped them around the streets of a city every day, I know where I’d spend my retirement.
So the day began a bit baked, but the highlights from then on were all about energy. At the Pitchfork party at Emo’s, hype-targets Wavves got by on the bouncing adrenaline of guitarist/singer Nathan Williams, whose jangly, solid songs seem undeserving of hype, backlash, or anything else but happy head-nodding. An hour later, at a party put on by NYC show-promoter/hero Todd P, the Vivian Girls were faster and tighter than I’ve ever seen them—maybe their endless SXSW schedule has sharpened them— while Ponytail just blew everyone away. The Baltimore quartet’s combo of Deerhoof-like angles, Boredoms-style shriek, and contagious positivity—singer Molly Siegel, clad in a Ray Lewis Ravens jersey, ended the set by hugging the hypnotized guys up front who had followed her every move—stayed impressively high-speed for 30 dizzying minutes.
The fever pitch continued into the best stuff I saw after the sun went down: Despite lots of gray hair and the need to read lyrics off a music stand, Seattle’s legendary garage heroes the Sonics turned what might otherwise sound like generic bar-band blues into time-defiant rock and roll. Similarly, the younger-but-not-exactly-young Obits generated some nice heat from their post-Drive Like Jehu/Hot Snakes angular-chord action, though surprisingly it seemed like the Sonics had more left in the tank by the end of their set than the Obits did only half way through.
The best two bands of the night were so pumped full of energy they almost made me forget everything that had come before. San Francisco’s Mi Ami felt like the alien resurrection of No Wave legends DNA, as guitarist/singer Daniel Martin-McCormick channeled Arto Lindsay with his trebly wails and scratchy guitar blasts. Bassist Jacob Long and drummer Damon Palermo ground out an awesomely dark, sub-dub rhythm. At times the band’s cacophony even reminded me of Mouthus and Sightings, but it was Martin-McCormick’s histrionics on Flamingo Cantina’s awesome in-the-round-ish stage that made Mi Ami so mesmerizing.
A few blocks away at the Not Not Fun showcase, L.A.’s Robedoor unveiled a new direction: a trio version with a drummer whose slow, earth-bound beats turn the band’s dense, lurching sound-scapes into swaying hard-rock drone. I’ve been in love with this band’s records for a while and have never seen the beat-less duo version play live, but the way that noisemakers Alex Brown and Britt Brown (no relation) seemed super-charged by their newfound sense of structure and rhythm left me with no regrets. Robedoor have always been a massive force, and it looks like their sonic expansion has made them even more massive.