What an ironic and all-out disingenuous lyric to hear on opening night of the 27th annual South by Southwest Music Conference: “Wish that I was in Minneapolis.” So sang Britt Daniel, frontman of the Austin’s own SXSW mainstay band Spoon. In this case, though, Daniel was pining for the great city on the other end of I-35 with his new side band, Divine Fits.
At least on Tuesday, when Austin was spring-fresh and clean and not bursting at the seams with hipsters, you’d have to be crazy to not want to be down in Texas for SXSW vs. the city where the ice on the sidewalk is as voluminous as vomit will be on Sixth Street come Saturday night. Opening night harked back to the SXSW's of lore, when a few big names – but only a few – rounded out the showcase lineups amid a sea of Austin bands and lesser-knowns from as far away as Chile and Ireland. Lines to get into the venues weren’t bad, either, except for the Jim James/Japandroids pairing (duh) and young sister act Haim’s first of several shows in a woefully undersized venue. Here’s what we saw outside the lines.
BEST NON-SURPRISE OF THE NIGHT: Divine Fits had one of the more infectious rock albums of last year, with repetitious grooves and melodic hooks that sink in deeply. The band’s New Wavey bop-rock proved to be even more intoxicating live at the new “Austin City Limits” TV studio (the Moody Theater). Co-led by Spoon’s singer and Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner, the quartet swapped instruments regularly but maintained the same tight, danceable tempo. “Would That Not Be Nice,” the single with the nod to Minneapolis, came only two songs into the set, but no worries of things peaking too early. Boeckner made for a convincing Bryan Ferry-ish romantic stud in “Baby Got Worse,” and Daniel closed off the set with the slower grooving but highly powered gem “Shivers.” Let’s hope we’re not still shivering when the band makes it up to the city it loves on April 4 for a sold-out Varsity Theater gig.
BEST SURPRISE OF THE NIGHT: It would’ve seemed like any other hip-hop show by a tattooed, semi-machismo, Scarface-loving Southern rapper. There was even a noticeable amount of weed smoke in the air. In Lecrae’s case, though, the songs all serve one purpose: Spreading God’s good word and will. The new star from nearby Houston is a Christian artist, and he became the first rapper to win a Grammy for best gospel album last month. His showcase Tuesday at Club 119 demonstrated why. He raps as hard as any rapper who has done hard time, except in songs like “Church Clothes” and “Violence” the edge of the music is pointed in another direction. Before the latter song, he ranted about Chicago’s murderous streak, and in numerous songs he repeated a call for peace on the streets. Which all seemingly would’ve come off as very vanilla, but it never did.
REST OF THE FEST: Irish band Little Green Cars -- whose single “The John Wayne,” has been in steady rotation at 89.3 the Current – indeed came off a little green as a live act, with some off-pitch vocals. However, the startlingly young-looking quintet’s songs sounded golden during their showcase at the tacky promotional venue Hype Hotel, with Arcade Fire-ish drama blended with Of Monsters and Men’s folky charm. We took our chances on a couple lesser-known acts, including a Chilean dance-pop-hip-hop singer and a moody soul-rock band from Chicago, but the music was less impressive than just the sheer randomness SXSW offers when you’re not tied up in the bigger names. And speaking of…
BITTEREST-SWEETEST NEWS OF THE DAY: Prince has officially confirmed to perform a SXSW closing-night party on Saturday at La Zona Rosa. However, the shindig is a promo event for Samsung, which must really want to move up in the mobile-phone market to pay the price tag no doubt required in this case (whereas many other SXSW acts work on the cheap). Even the music critic from Prince’s hometown is sweating his chances of getting what is widely being called the hottest ticket of this year’s fest, and maybe of all the fests that have come before, too.
Look for our full South by Southwest coverage all week at www.startribune.com/sxsw.