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SXSW: Wanderings, discoveries, random notes

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AUSTIN, Texas -- If it's Sunday, that means my notes are full of jottings about a dozen other bands I saw and haven't written about yet in the mad rush that is SXSW. Deep breath, here's a wrap-up of the other tunes worth mentioning ...

Best brand-spanking-new band
CHVRCHES, barely a year old, impressed with a strong batch of electronic pop at several showcases, including a Friday day stage. The Scottish trio's debut album isn't due until September, but singer-synth players Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty bear all the hallmarks of a forceful, creative unit with a single mind -- perhaps the meaning of the beautiful current single, "The Mother We Share." Their newness is evident in the fact that they still have a ways to go before making their knob-twiddling something to watch on stage, but the songs are there. I haven't heard synth-driven pop this tight and tuneful since Robyn showed up.


Most hopeful feeling at end of showcase
No one really seems to have demanded this reunion of Chicago's Fall Out Boy, but the band's Friday night showcase -- back at SXSW after eight years -- at least showed off enough energy and chutzpah to suggest that the comeback is genuinely inspired. Their fans certainly remain adoring, singing along with practically every word that fell from singer Patrick Stump's lips, maybe even his stage banter. The 45-minute slot kept to singles old ("Sugar, We're Going Down," "Dance, Dance") and new ("My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark [Light 'Em Up]"). Stump flexed his own R&B muscles in a recent solo outing, and the new FOB is highlighting that strength. Even the cover of "Beat It" sounded more sincere and natural than one might expect. Definitely whetted the appetite for the new record.

Best stumbled-upon showcase
Field Report, a band led by Christopher Porterfield. Two bits of trivia: First, Field Report is an anagram of Porterfield. Second, Porterfield started out a decade ago in DeYarmond Edison, the band Justin Vernon fronted before creating Bon Iver. On his own, Porterfield is much warmer and far rootsier. At a Saturday SXSW showcase, his six-man band -- plenty of plaid shirts and trucker hats, neither of which seemed to be worn with much hipster irony -- delivers supple, textural Americana that fit right in with the venue's sponsorship by a home-improvement cable channel (as if his music was in itself an answer to the advertising banners hung around the bar, asking, "What does home mean to you?"). Singing well-written songs about New Mexico and a "bible school choir," Porterfield guided the band up and down various crescendos to achieve maximum emotional impact, all the while maintaining an appropriately pensive expression. "Is everyone drinking enough water?" he asked between songs. Bassist Travis Whitty chided him: "Concerned dad up here." Aw shucks.

Best return on investment in buzz
New York quartet Parquet Courts entered the festival with considerable, though understandably hesitant, buzz. The band's proper debut album, "Light Up Gold," out in January, is a complex chart of steady rhythms, snaking words and clean but often jarring guitars. It's not an album that immediately broadcasts "great stage show!" On stage Saturday night, the band lazed into action, blurring the line between hasty SXSW sound check and actual opening song. Driven by the rhythm section -- featuring bassist Sean Yeaton, who spends the show contributing occasional backing vocals with hilariously distended tongue, like a punk Loudon Wainwright III -- guitarists Andrew Savage and Austin Brown were free to work at their own pace and inspiration, pulsing their instruments to propel the song or torturing them a bit. The momentum of the Strokes, the late-night "Stoned and Starving" haze of the Dandy Warhols, plus occasional Sonic Youth squall. Adds up to a good time.

Best personal thrill with very little note-taking
A longtime Robyn Hitchcock fan, I wasn't going to miss perennial SXSW performer Robyn Hitchcock's early Saturday show, particularly since it was celebrating his 60th birthday (complete with tarantula-topped cake and red wine, which Hitchcock referred to as "lady petrol"). The British legend was supported by a number of pals -- Ken Stringfellow (Posies), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus 5), Bill Rieflin (R.E.M., Ministry, tons), Linda Pitmon (Steve Wynn) -- and for a moment, with Kelly Hogan on stage and Jon Langford in the wings, it seemed the band might turn into Robyn Hitchcock & the Chicagoans. Langford never materialized on stage with Hitchcock, though. Nor did R.E.M.'s Mike Mills (grinning, looking more content than I've seen him in years), who was at the bar and had played bass behind Stringfellow as the opening act. Nonetheless, Hitchcock told his usual bizarre stories and sang an impressively wide variety of songs -- newish ones (the beautiful "Dismal City"), old ones ("Queen Elvis," "Ole Tarantula," "Alright, Yeah") and covers ("Tangled Up in Blue," "Don't Let Me Down") -- as well as rapping a bit about the new pope.

Best delayed reaction
Lord Huron was highly recommended to me by friends at last year's SXSW, but I missed their showcase at a cramped little club. Fast forward one year and on Wednesday night they were filling the spacious ACL Live theater, ahead of Natalie Maines' comeback set, with some enchanting folksy harmonies and rhythms. Those harmonies have earned them far too many Fleet Foxes comparisons -- and they're sometimes a bit thinner and wispier than that -- but when those rhythms crank up they come alive. "Time to Run" does just that, and every band member is armed with some percussion instrument -- a shaker, maracas, singer and bandleader Ben Schneider with a small snare. Good tunes when they get up and go.

Best hangover showcase
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell played NPR's Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center. It was Friday morning, and the soft-spoken angel that is Emmylou strolled out in her boots -- cue the Janis Ian song -- and quipped that everyone here deserved a merit badge just for navigating through the festival. She meant the confusion and enormity of SXSW, but when she and Crowell played Kris Kristopherson's "Chase the Feeling" ("And you got loaded again / Ain't you handsome when you're high") many vacant-eyed attendees were nodding with understanding, not rhythm.

Worst showcase logistics
Foxygen was due to play a half hour set Wednesday night at the Hype Hotel, which they started a half hour late. (Out of all the shows I saw this week, two started on time. That's my main complaint about SXSW's rampant growth. They're starting to lose control of their production.) Foxygen is a great, brassy band that sounds superb on their latest record, "We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic," but that interesting sound was completely swallowed up in the ramshackle venue that was the Hype Hotel, an empty commercial cavern hemmed in with sound-eating drywall that appeared to have been nailed up this month. Bummer.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on March 17, 2013 12:00 PM.

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