First night of SXSW is generally a scramble, a visit to handful of clubs usually bunched close together with a single spot circled as the must-see band of the evening.
This year, I chose to ease in to the fest, stick with acts who arrive with some notoriety and familiarity with current projects to promote.
The big circles on the schedule went around the names Daryl Hall and Daniel Lanois while Lightspeed Champion and Freddie Stevenson were crossed off, no matter that both of the tyro acts appear poised for increased attention.
Long ago, one would have said increased music sales but that just is not the case – acts at SXSW want to get their names in more articles, increase website traffic, place more songs in media or possibly improve distribution on their local indie release. It’s only the first day and everyone is woindering only two things: How do I get into R.E.M. without waiting for hours and what act has any buzz.
Daniel Lanois is drumming up attention for his combination CD-DVD “Here Is What Is.” Backed at Pangaea by the ace Louisiana jazz drummer Brian Blade, who has his own album coming out in April, Lanois balanced the explosive and the sublime, rolling from the ethereal to the roadhouse in a vigorously executed 40-minute set.
He closed on an exquisite pedal steel tune he said was a tribute to the composer Samuel Barber; like his new album, the show represented a journey, albeit a quick trip around a block of churches and saloons.
Hall, who has created a Web series shot at his house in New York and most recently featured KT Tunstall, was sharp, soulful and even full of surprises as he romped through Hall & Oates material and solo tunes at DirecTV’s studio venue. He turned “Maneater” into a reggae groover – the way it was supposed to be played, he said – covered “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and gave tight yet informal delivery to all of the music. It was not all hits, just familiar tunes; the setting allowed Hall to alternate between keyboards and acoustic guitar, playing band leader rather than front man, a role he in which seems quite comfortable.
Day parties started with Joseph Arthur, who will release the first of four EPs planned for the year. Playing acoustic outside, many of Arthur’s tunes were open letters to departed lovers, his refrains often relying on Dylan-esque imagery to convey pain and hope.
Abigail Washburn and her Sparrow Quartet, which includes Bela Fleck, is a rare two banjo plus cello string music outfit.
Their music touches on gospel, classical and fiddle tunes, a meeting of Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning in the northern portion of the rural South.
Act has little flash and instead emphasizes ensemble work; one instrumental was an astonishing exercise in counterpoint, a sophistication in musicianship that seems too rare these days.
Slaraffenland, a quintet from Denmark that was one of my pleasant surprises last year, continues to dazzle as they sharpen a musical style that fits the broad term of noise pop. They operate off the aesthetics of Brian Eno and Albert Ayler, displaying remarkable control and precision within guitar-plus-electronics soundscapes until they reach a very specific point at which time free improvisation takes over.
Despite having only five members, they play like a 10-piece as musicians double on sax, trombone, clarinet, melodica and flute; they sing as a group, using three or four voices to get across a thought as simple as “You Better Watch Out.”
They continue to develop a strong sense of building tension and releasing it within each piece; one work was actually a three-piece movement that operated in a reverse order, opening with a trance like sequence before ramping up the intensity.