by Jason Crock
No matter how I tried to pace myself, my Saturday became a gauntlet. By drifting to whatever show seemed semi-interesting and close enough to walk to, I somehow saw more bands than all previous days combined. Inevitable schedule delays meant I saw a lot more sets than I'd intended, and most of the time, that was a great thing.
I meandered over to the Mess With Texas party in Waterloo Park mid-day, where they'd set up two stages damn near next to each other, somehow without any sound bleeding over. Catching four or five bands was a cinch this way. There was the affable boogie of Vetiver, which started to catch more ears with less gentle acoustic plucking and more spooky Doors-like grooves. There was the spirited and powerfully obnoxious Death Set on the main stage, who play bratty day-glow keyboard-and-guitar punk while crowd surfing and swinging microphones from their teeth, making every moment their rockstar moment. If there were ever a band having more fun than their audiences are, it's them. I even caught some of the languid, almost lethargic folk of Jason Lytle (formerly of Grandaddy) in the comfort of the shade.
King Khan and the Shrines played one of their many sets this weekend on the main stage, and when they launched into "Land of the Freak" at the top of the set, Khan was sounding a little more Tom Waits than James Brown. But a ravaged voice didn't stop him from any of his usual antics, and the band augmented a more mid-tempo leaning set with some smooth stage shuffles and playful banter, as when Kahn implored the crowd to burn a dollar bill before they started "Welfare Bread." A few delays on the second stage let me catch a bigger chunk of Abe Vigoda's set, which was welcomed. As they stumbled through a soundcheck, the bassist big-upped his high school faves Cursive (playing the first stage simultaneously) going so far as to say "the album Domestica is transcendent." Abe Vigoda's set fell a little short of that, as further sound and equipment problems prevented material from new Reviver EP from bouncing or soaring as it should have.
The quizzically titled "Coffee! No Pants?" party at Red-Eyed Fly was a short stumble down the street from there. (It was hard to tell what exactly the singer from Chairlift exactly what she was wearing, but most everyone opted for pants.) I'd intended to catch Titus Andronicus before moving downtown, but more delays stranded me there for the full extent of a Loney, Dear set. I've sort of had it with bleaty acoustic indie that spends entire albums in the same distressed and urgent emotional state (see: Rural Alberta Advantage). But live, Loney, Dear are just too hard to hate. Singer Emil Svanangen's self-effacing charm is so deep and sincere he wins me over, and even if I never pick up their record, it makes their sets a lot more entertaining than my cranky Saturday-afternoon hungover self wanted to admit at the time. The first time I'd seen the band was a quiet, acoustic affair, but this time they'd brought backing tracks with more pronounced rhythms, triggered by a ZUNE (as in, "Oh, my shoe stepped on the ZUNE and I lost the music," per Svanangen when he stepped on his ZUNE and killed the backing track.) He even danced to the sound of the club across the street during the quiet parts of his own set. A little rhythm went a long way for these guys, but so did seeing them crack a smile.
Another great surprise was Chairlift, who play who play some of the deepest, swooniest throwback electro pop I've heard in a long time. Singer and keyboardist Caroline Polachek is a serious presence on even the smalles stage, bouncing (and playing) along to the house music before the set, singing seductively, cracking deadpan jokes and generally radiating charm. She even grinned like a child after finishing "Bruises," their song that's now an iPod commercial. She was seriously stoked to play it. And while I hate to diminish all that talent and appeal with something so trite... remember when every one used Portishead's Dummy as makeout music for a few years? Ladies and gentleman, your replacement is here.
What to say about Titus Andronicus? They mean it, they mean it harder than your favorite band, and they still mean it at a 5 p.m. Saturday after who knows how many other sets and one more high-profile performance looming at the close (more or less) of the festival. Even after their heartfelt thanks to Chairlift for letting them use their keyboard stand, I almost welled up a little. Paul Thompson was right that the band continues to get progressively tighter and more ferocious with time, whether from the enthusiastic reception to their debut, The Airing of Grievances, or just a lot of road time since for practice. The setlist included the band's theme song with the catchy chorus ("Your life is over!"), the one about Albert Camus, and the one about how the singer's anguish started the moment he left the womb and goes on from there. For now, their shows are routinely a blast, and their grandiose guitar-saturated songs are only more charming for the overreach. But there's gonna come a moment when the band's skills will catch up their enormous ambitions and they'll be absolutely fucking terrifying, and you'll be lying to your friends about how many times you caught them at SXSW in '09.
Between that showcase and the lengthy wait for PJ Harvey, I tried waiting in the enormous line for the city's free public performance with Cannaboids (ft. Erykah Badu for two tracks—sensing a theme yet?) and Explosions in the Sky until I got a tip for something crazy across town. I finally grabbed one of the city's omnipresent pedicabs (the only way to travel, if you like having the fear of God put back in you) to catch a round-robin style performance between four bands on four stages. Marc Masters will tell you more about it (SPOILER: Ponytail wins), but it was a fantastic idea executed smoothly, and those organizers deserve a lot of credit. It was just one of many examples of independent organizers stepping up their game for this week.
After a long wait—long enough that it included an excruciating Razorlight set, in the weirdest, most incongruous showcase lineup of the festival (Indigo Girls? Third Eye Blind are headlining?)—PJ Harvey and John Parish came out and delivered for a packed house at Stubb's. Since 2008's White Chalk, Harvey seems to have abandoned herself entirely to better inhabit new characters and ideas on her albums. Saturday's showcase with John Parish was limited entirely to material they'd recorded together (Dance Hall at Louse Point and an upcoming record this year). This just wasn't a "PJ Harvey" show.
That said, the performance was otherworldly. She looked halfway between a jazz chanteuse and a patient in a straightjacket (and pretty damned glamorous at that), which was perfectly appropriate for the material. Their new songs sounded pretty close to the aforementioned White Chalk, being more stately and sung in a higher voice. She seemed almost uncomfortable when revisiting her lower register, as when they played "Civil War Correspondent" (a shame, because it's one of the best songs she's ever done). But she attacked the creepier, theatrical material from Louse Point like "Taut" with incredible zeal. Some of the new tracks were even stranger: there's not much like seeing PJ Harvey shouting about chicken livers and evisceration before shaking a maraca with aplomb. She and Parish set up another universe on stage that night. (Eric Harvey on the same show here.)
What seemed like a sure bet to catch a Blank Dogs set before the festival's end (they seemed to have scheduling problems throughout the day, as Grayson Currin waited an hour for an early afternoon Fader Fort set that never happened) turned into catching the final few songs of a Zola Jesus set due to last-minute schedule changes. That's not a bad thing: the two-man girl/guy group held the Music Gym's tiny indoor room with their effects-heavy keyboard and the singer's reverberating howls. It was as good a comedown from the previous performance you could ask for, and it felt good to get back into a smaller space.
The scene down the street at the Independent was less intimate: Houston noise-mongers Indian Jewlery were playing the enormous warehouse with abstract video projections taking up the enormous side wall. By that time, my ankles were screaming at me louder than the band's yawning bass or droning vocals. In contrast to the deeply cynical between-song banter from Indian Jewlery, a reunited Six Finger Satellite closed the evening, who seem like far too nice a bunch of guys to be playing the vicious and visceral post-punk they're known for. But they did, switching from amiable banter to screaming, syncopated post punk like the flick of a switch, with J. Ryan's vocals and the metallic gnash of the guitars just as spiky as ever. By the time that was through, I was, too.
Bring on the work week: I can't take any more great performances.