The first day at SXSW is mostly about (dis)orientation—you spend much of your time figuring out where you are, figuring out where everything else is, and figuring out how to get to it all while slamming into thousands of people who are doing the same. Even more disorienting is seeing bands perform in the middle of all this chaos, in contexts that you'd never see them otherwise.
That disorientation kicked in immediately for me, in the dark confines of Beerland, as Indiana's TV Ghost lurked frantically through a set of post-punk that would've made more sense at 1:30 a.m. than 1:30 p.m. Singer/ guitarist Tim Gick writhed on the floor in front of the stage like a caught fish begging not to be thrown back, and his bandmates' snaking, psychotic grooves were so entrancing that walking into the outdoor sun afterwards was like diving into scalding water. If context turned TV Ghost's crashing set into a horror-movie matinee, it turned Abe Vigoda's performance—at the Austin Convention Center, in front of a smattering of seated attendants presumably waiting for a panel discussion—into a wake. The band doled out its angled tropical-punk nicely, but it felt more like they were being examined by coroners than playing for a crowd.
Orientation at SXSW can also involve traveling through time. I hadn't seen Mark Edwards' My Dad is Dead in almost two decades, but it didn't take long to feel like I was back in 1990, watching him slam calmly through simple chords and catchy melodies. I've always associated Edwards with Cleveland, where he made his classic Homestead albums, but he moved to North Carolina a while ago, and the change seems to have made his music heavier and more forceful. He even sang a song about his move, "Carolina Blue," a plain-spoken summation of why wherever you are is the place to be.
My night ended with a pair of sensory disorientations. Stardeath and White Dwarfs played a set of arena-sized psych, with smoke machines and retina-searing lights, in a space that could barely contain their bombastic cacophony. They closed with a slow cover of Madonna's "Borderline" that came off like an apology to the walls they had just shaken. Later, Flying Lotus spun out his fractured hip-hop mix in front of strobing black-and-white video blips. It was pretty to look at, but most of his knotty set was stubbornly anti-climactic, never settling into a groove yet never building much tension toward one. Add an overdriven low-end flipping everyone's stomachs, and I left craving the context of Flying Lotus's excellent records, the magic of which he has a long way to go to ever capture live.