Tuesday night at the South by Southwest Music Conference – always the soft opening of the five-night live music marathon -- is a lot like what the festival used to be like before the internet took hold. A lot of bands without a whole lot of cache are spread out between a manageable swath of clubs. Instead of feeling like a hyperactive beehive, Austin’s main nightlife thoroughfare Sixth Street is actually kind of a pleasant, leisurely stroll. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any overcrowding issues on Night 1 – what’s SXSW without a fire marshal making the news –but it was definitely low-key in a good way. Here were some of the highlights.
BEST OF THE NIGHT: Anybody hoping to start out SXSW on a rowdy, happy note might’ve felt let down by Torres. Performing at the far-off Rainey Street hangout Javelina, the Brooklyn-based, Georgia-reared indie songstress – real name: Mackenzie Scott, age 23 --- played an intense, darkly tinged, sometimes frenzied brand of distorted purr-to-roar rock. Her bellowing voice showing traces of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith. In one song, “Jealousy and I,” her brow was furrowed heavier than the actual, taxidermied javelinas hanging on the wall behind the stage.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: With the showcase name “K-Pop,” I expected the South Korean music showcase at the goth-flavored dance club Elysium to be more along the lines of “Gangnam Style.” Instead, we walked in on Hollow Jan, a scorching screamo band with Nirvana-like bombast and a frontman who prowled around and exploded on stage like a half-pint Henry Rollins. I couldn’t tell you what the songs were about, but the anger in them translated well.
BIGGEST LETDOWN: Chicago’s “acid rap” wiz-kid Chance the Rapper was the one big name for the night I had hoped to catch, but the line outside was snaked around the corner. In fact, it was there two hours before his showcase, when fellow Chicagoans Autumn Defense were playing (with John and Pat of Wilco). It seems Chance fans who lined up early bought tickets and stayed the whole night. According to Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot, the rapper’s set was shut down after 18 minutes by the fire marshal for being too packed.
I was also bummed not to catch a single Minnesotan act on opening night. Wiry rappers Sean Anonymous and Ecid were playing early in the night back-to-back at the Nook Amphitheater on Sixth Street -- aka the burned-down Black Cat Lounge -- but we didn’t get to town in time. Maybe tomorrow (or the next day, or…). We also got in too late to pick up the media tickets to the Coldplay/Imagine Dragons double-header that kicked off the iTunes Fest at SXSW, but we honestly didn't try very hard to make it.
REST OF THE NIGHT: Anybody from the northern climate who endured the winter we Minnesotans just escaped would not fault us for picking a few showcases simply based on the fact that the shows were on outdoor stages. The first was by one of Austin’s own new buzz bands, the Sour Notes, who came off like a more shoegazery and poppy Silversun Pickups at Cheer Up Charlie’s (the former Club DeVille).
Then came one of Austin’s best-loved vets, thunder-voiced blues-rocker Carolyn Wonderland at the Main (the former Emo’s; you may notice a trend here). Headed to Minneapolis on March 27 to play the Dakota, Wonderland was joined Tuesday by a seemingly unlikely collaborator, James Williamson, the “Raw Power”-era guitarist in the Stooges. They played the songs from a 7-inch single they made for Record Store Day, April 19, including the gritty epic “Open Up & Bleed.” The songs are part of a broader all-star project reviving some old Stooges songs that were never recorded.
On a reverse trajectory from Wonderland, former Verbow bandleader Jason Narducy was just in Minneapolis a week ago Tuesday playing guitar and bass with Bob Mould, which he will do again later this week in Austin. First up, though, the Chicago utility man -- who has also played with Robert Pollard -- hit the Javelina stage with his new band Split Single, which packed more of a pop/rock, GBV-style punch than Verbow. On record, the trio features Spoon’s Brit Daniel on bass and Superchunk (and Mould) drummer Jon Wurster, but Tuesday’s lineup featured a couple equally capable guys . “This is my first South by Southwest,” Narducy casually commented as the clock neared 2 a.m., but nobody took the bait. “Actually, I’ve been coming for 20 years.”
The vets know to come early and make a full week of it.
Stay tuned for five days of SXSW reports and photo galleries at startribune.com/sxsw.