Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:
It's been a day and a half in the SXSW zoo. I haven't been run over by a pedicab, doused in patchouli, arrested, sunburned or succumbed to gout. In other words, in the big picture, all is well.
On the music front, as always here, you win some and lose some. I wasted 40 minutes on Denmark's Choir of Young Believers without catching a single song; instead I stood around through the end of the act before them--a petite Parisienne named Seko who played ukulele, sang about loving you as much as peanut butter, and was just as deadly twee as you imagine--and was treated to 20 minutes of the Young Believers tuning and checking sound before I split. On the plus side, I'd never come across Austin's Strange Boys but liked their woolly jangle, all sloppy, scrawled Chuck Berry riffs, ragtag guy-girl vocals and even a chugging sax.
In short, when trying to grasp and enjoy an event of such daunting scale, plenty of hoary tropes apply: Go with the flow. Follow your nose. Be in the moment. So an overflow crowd kept me from catching Nas with Damian Marley, and a few songs of Spoon seen from the back of a dense, milling throng left me cold. That only meant I lucked into hearing a last few songs from Via Tania, the buzzing art-pop project of adopted Chicagoan Tania Bowers. Shutouts at jam-packed gigs by Surfer Blood and Billy Bragg found me ending the night with Flying Lotus, nom de turntable of Steven Ellison, whose rolling blend of warm funk, hip hop and spongy dub stoked and chilled onlookers in a low room hung with red velvet and lit only by flickering images--outstretched arms, foliage, a drill bit entering a skull--projected on an overhanging screen.
Among other notable acts I saw later Wednesday:
Ezra Furman. It wouldn't be technically wrong to say this young Evanston-raised songwriter and his band the Harpoons continue to refine their sound, but it would give you the wrong idea: There's nothing refined about Furman's strangled yawp and his backers's sound that's commonly compared to the Violent Femmes. The band is best just when it seems ready to run clear off the rails; playing a late-afternoon party gig, they frequently toed the line between chaos and control. And the bratty brainiac songwriter keeps turning out funny, snotty, confounding lyrics: What seemed to be just another song about a lovers' spat turned out to be a philosophical manifesto on reasons for living; conversely, a tune he said was about manifest destiny was really just a jam on chasing a girl.
Everybody Was in the French Resistance ... Now! Eddie Argos's main gig, Art Brut, is a joke band only in the same sense as the Ramones: they tweak everything and take nothing too seriously, most assuredly including themselves. Playing its first U.S. gig, the same did not hold true for this new Argos side project, which he called "a concept band" that writes answer songs to pop hits. Trouble is, since the French Resistance responses bore no evident resemblance to the Kanye West, Michael Jackson and other songs they answer, each required a tedious spoken set-up. Worse, their components are nothing but rudimentary keys and guitar, a cheap-sounding drum machine and mountains of snarky attitude. I have loved Art Brut live, but this was a stinker.
Freddie Gibbs. For hip-hop fans, this year's SXSW schedule is heavy on established names like DJ Quik and Chamillionaire, but with the exception of the Gary-born MC Gibbs, I'm not hearing much buzz around new rap talent. Though fighting a sketchy mix that muddied his rhymes and watered down what should have been punishing bass, Gibbs's his wit still sparkled. I caught rapid-fire references to Boondocks and the Boston Celtics on one track; another incorporated a sped-up, squeaky sample of Sufjan Stevens's "All Things Go." It worked without a hint of novelty or smugness.
Basia Bulat. The Toronto singer, songwriter and guitarist's new disc Heart of My Own (Rough Trade) has already scored at least one TV commercial, but don't write her off as mere ad wallpaper. Playing the inside room at Emo's with a drummer and violist, she brought traces of Cape Breton and Irish sounds to her sturdy folk-rock, and the soulful vibrato vocal she wields on album stood up to live scrutiny too.
Bomba Estereo. This Colombian quartet was all about the beat. Its rhythm section pumped up Afro-Latin cumbia with dance-floor urgency and rock power; an effects box gobbled guitar lines, spitting them back as space-laser screams. At the center of this storm was Liliana Saumet, a relentless piston in a sparkling silver pants, pink jacket and shining grin who rapped, sang, shouted, bounced, kicked, danced and dominated the stage with sheer charisma and force of will.
Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago freelance writer and longtime contributor to the Sun-Times.