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SXSW Day One: Anders Smith Lindall reports

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Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

Wed., 12:25 p.m.: It used to be that South by Southwest didn't really get rolling until Thursday. Wednesday's sparser schedule of official evening showcases and unofficial day parties made it a transition day; this was the time to arrive and get settled, maybe catch a few bands, dip your toe in the pool before diving right in.

No more. With the success of SXSW expansion into film and interactive portions that precede the music conference and festival, the city is already jammed when us rockers arrive. My flight touched down shortly after 10 on Tuesday night; by 11 I'd encountered my first block-long line outside a downtown venue. The circus is always in town.

I did manage to navigate that line in time to catch the first-ever performance from Jakob Dylan and Three Legs, the rock scion's new band that features Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, and Case's sidemen Barry Mirochnick (drums), Jon Rauhouse (steel), Tom Ray (bass) and Paul Rigby (guitar).

SEE INSIDE FOR MORE -- UPDATED 4:20 P.M.

Their set emphasized new tunes from Dylan's forthcoming album Women and Country (due April 6). They were mostly soft-spoken ballads and dusky dirges, more of a piece with his recent solo material (like "Something Good This Way Comes" and "Evil Is Alive and Well," which they played late in the set) than older Wallflowers radio fare (a shambling "Three Marlenas" was the closer).

Due to very poor sound--a wise guy next to me said the venue, dubbed the Pure Volume House, might be better named the No Volume House--I'll withhold further comment on the subtleties of the songs. But I can say that using Case and Hogan exclusively to sing harmonies is a little like buying a Ferrari and then only driving it to the store.

SXSW-goers will get another chance to catch this crew at a party hosted by celebrity chef Rachael Ray on Saturday; Chicagoans can see them at the Park West on April 26.

Now we leap into SXSW proper, with unofficial shows cranking up already at downtown clubs, and panel discussions underway at the convention center. Jim DeRogatis and his Sound Opinions partner Greg Kot will moderate a group interview with the members of Cheap Trick in one such session later today.

Check back regularly over the coming days for updates from me and Jim on what we're seeing, hearing and digging from the music world's Spring Break.

Update 4:20 p.m.: With hundreds upon hundreds of showcasing performers in town, surely some of them--many of them--must be lame. But I haven't seen any yet.

My afternoon started with Anni Rossi. She's a Chicagoan, but just as Tom Waits once said he never saw his hometown until he stayed away too long, sometimes you see local bands afresh when your perspective is shifted just by being in another place.

In Rossi's case, I've liked her recordings well enough before now, but this set was a barn burner. Playing at a little bar called the Mohawk, she held her viola slung over her shoulder like a guitar and strummed it hard, squeezing from four usually refined strings a nasty snarl worthy of any garage band's six-string attack.

This squalor meshed and mingled with a brawny, stomping rhythm section and often a keyboard playing an array of plasticky blips and bloops straight out of Super Mario Brothers. And over it all she sang, in an unhurried midrange, the sort of smartly barbed lyrics heard on her '09 record Rockwell.

Rossi has a new album coming from the 4AD label later this spring, and if this gig is any indication, it holds the promise of pushing her to a well-deserved new level of notoriety.

Next up was the Morning Benders, a fresh-faced five-piece from Berkeley that's fronted by the brothers Chris and Jonathan Chu. That Chris sang an unaccompanied bit of the Zombies nugget "The Way I Feel Inside" as an impromptu vocal check gives you a sense of where they're coming from, though without the diamond-cut concision. With its doo-wop harmonies, looped passages and culminating guitar-fuzz freakout, a song like "Excuses"--the first cut on the band's just-released album Big Echo (Rough Trade), and the last one they played on the outdoor stage at Emo's--shows that their roots run even deeper, while their cut-and-paste approach is thoroughly post-modern. (They'll be at Schubas April 12.)

Though I neglected to note it in my initial post, I'd be remiss to mention a fine set I caught late last night by Eisley. They followed Jakob Dylan, Neko Case & Co. to the stage at the Pure Volume House, and their signature multi-part harmonies suffered as a result of the very sketchy sound (see notes on Dylan above). But on the instrumental side, with beats crackling and twin guitars tangling, the DuPree family's brainy rock was in midseason form.

Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago freelance writer and longtime contributor to the Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on March 17, 2010 4:19 PM.

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