News of the death of Alex Chilton cast a pall over the first night of showcases at the South by Southwest Music Festival, with word spreading instantaneously via Twitter and cell phone text messages. But the music went on, as it always does.
My plan had been to start the night with Plastic Crimewave Sound. Though I usually make a rule of avoiding Chicago bands in Austin, since I can see them at home any time, Steve "Galactic Zoo Dossier" Krakow never fails to deliver a splendid psychedelic bacchanal, and I figured he'd really rise to the occasion for SXSW. Alas, writing up the news about Chilton caused me to miss their set at a club called Rusty Spurs (how very Texas), but I did see the group that followed them, the San Diego quintet Blessure Grave.
The group's mournful, synthesizer-driven dirges seemed appropriately funereal at the moment, and their hypnotic trance grooves proved that it isn't only bands from Brooklyn that are mining the Joy Division sound. (SXSW posts sound clips from almost every band playing the festival; sample Blessure Grave here.)
My next stop was the much-buzzed showcase for Broken Bells at Stubb's. Irresistible on their recent self-titled album, I was curious to see if the gorgeous melodies created by unlikely collaborators James Mercer of the Shins and superstar producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. DJ Danger Mouse, would translate in concert.
Hiding in dark, moody lighting beneath impressionistic video projections, the duo and a drummer expertly recreated the lush pop of "Sailing to Nowhere" and "The Ghost Inside." But Stubb's hardly was the ideal venue for the group. The sound was excellent, but the venue--really a fenced-in sloping dirt bowl behind a barbecue joint, open to the elements and supremely uncomfortable--didn't allow listeners to really lose themselves in the cascading waves of sound. (The club is run by Charles Attal, one of the "three Charlies" behind Austin-based Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents.)
From there I hit a lovably dumpy dive called Elysium (apparently a goth dance club when SXSW hasn't taken it over) to catch up with old favorites the Muffs.
Powerhouse frontwoman Kim Shattuck formed the group in 1991, and it had a brief moment as a buzz band when it was signed to Warner Bros. during the alternative-rock feeding frenzy. But the Muffs' ultra-melodic yet raw and raunchy garage rock always was too good for mainstream consumption, to say nothing of modern rock radio play.
Now a trio, the Muffs are gearing up to release a new album. And as evidenced by a rollicking SXSW performance, nearly two decades on, they remain an undeniable grungy good time.
Finally, the word of mouth about the West Palm Beach, Fla. quintet Surfer Blood compelled me to end the night at their showcase at a truly dreadful, cramped and poor-sounding joint called Wave Rooftop.
Blame it on my poor choice of which venue to see the band at--they reportedly hold this year's record for the most showcases by any band at the festival: an astounding 12 at different times and in different clubs, including sanctioned and unofficial gigs--but live even more than on their recent debut album "Astro Coast," Surfer Blood came off as yet another generic indie noise-rock band desperately wishing it could be the Pixies. (Hear for yourself here.)
Overall, a less than overwhelming start for this year's musical experiences. But there are three more days and nights and at least three dozen more bands to go.