Best & Worst Moments of SXSW 2011: Day 3

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Little Dragon / Photo: Ian Witlen
WRITTEN BY
SPIN Staff

BEST RIDDIMS: LITTLE DRAGON
Backed by her chopsy wrecking crew of stone-cold Swedes, Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano was the perfect musical muse and master of ceremonies, vamping and vogueing to the band's unerring mix of live drumming and arty electro pulse. When she wasn't lending her ghostly crooning to audience favorites like "A New" and "Never Never," she had a heavy hand in the beat, working woodblocks, tambourines, and a set of strange plastic gongs rigged to a digital signal. But her best trick came during "Blinking Pigs," when she grabbed a stick and got behind the kit alongside drummer Erik Bodin, dancing and smashing cymbals while he soloed through the end of the song. -- CHRIS MARTINS

BEST BAND TO SAVE YOU FROM BURNING IN HELL: THE HEAD AND THE HEART
Turns out the buzziest of all the buzzing newcomers at SXSW this year are like the prototypical house band for a Young Christians Group. The six sporty, good-looking members of Seattle's folksy the Head and the Heart met during an open mic night at a Seattle coffee shop, and onstage at Red 7 they exuded a strong family vibe. But above all, they're downright earnest; each of their three leaders -- songwriters Jonathan Russell, Josiah Johnson, and violinist/vocalist Charity Rose Thielen -- turned a simple "check one, check two" during the sound check into a virtual solo set, and later Russell, with the conviction of a pastor saving a sinner, crooned, "Oh my brother" and"I'm not walking away / I'm just hearing what you're saying for the first time / Sounds like hallelujah." Their Civil War chic sound (think: the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, et al.) is a catchy mix of saloon piano, acoustic guitar, and violin that serves as a platform for their group vocals. So is their Sub Pop debut worth buying? Sure. Why not? It's good for campfire sing-alongs. It'll probably be available at Starbucks. -- WILLIAM GOODMAN.

BEST DEVOTIONAL SINGER-SONGWRITER: JOHN GRANT
On his 2010 album Queen of Denmark -- which was critically acclaimed in England but made hardly a stir in the U.S. -- Colorado native John Grant, former frontman for relatively innocuous '90s alt-rockers the Czars, comes off as a man desperately sweeping through an abandoned mansion of baroque emotions, aguy left bereft by a rock lifestyle that bled him dry who's now gonna sit at hispiano and croon songs about the endless bittersweetness of childhood, adulthood,and beyond until the goddamned building is condemned. Which is why it wasso refreshing to see Grant -- who now could pass for a mild-mannered suburbannext-door neighbor (or at least a skinnier version of Cam on Modern Family) --standing confidently in front of a packed house at Central Presbyterian Church,singing his still startlingly beautiful songs mostly unadorned, quietly backedby Midlake's soothing folk-rock. Considering the setting, "JC Hates Faggots,"Grant's tale of growing up gay in a religious household, should've felt at leastvaguely blasphemous, but it was so honestly tender that you felt like turning toyour neighbor and giving him or her a bless-you hug. -- CHARLES AARON

MOST SURPRISING IN THE FACE OF ALREADY RIDICULOUS EXPECTATIONS: WILD FLAG
Wild Flag come with a couple chapters of indie-rock history's worth of promise and expectations already in tow, thanks to Helium and Sleater-Kinney's legacies. So it's no small feat that they manage to surpass that somehow. Their sixth SXSW show -- after playing about that many total in their career before that -- found them as steady as any band in Austin. It's easy to look up and see Mary Timony trading guitar lines and vocals with Carrie Brownstein and think she's a Corin Tucker stand-in, but the differences go deeper than merely replacing Tucker's distinctive yelpiness with Timony's huskiness. The songs just feel less jagged, but no less powerful. The end of "Glass Tambourine" explodes and stops short of chaos, powered by Janet Weiss' pounding, and if anything, it's reminiscent of the longer, more explorative direction of The Woods, but even, better, it's not totally reminiscent of anybody. They sound familiar and completely fresh at the same time, which can't be easy to do. August's debut album can't come soon enough. -- STEVE KANDELL

BEST EIGHTIES THROWBACK: TWIN SHADOW
Everything about this quartet was steeped in Reagan Era weirdness, from frontman George Lewis Jr.'s unkempt mohawk and hair-metal-era Kramer guitar to their synth-pop-on-steroids sound, which came on like a ballsier version of New Romantic bands like Duran Duran. Lewis Jr. has an annoying hang-up with those lo-fi, bedroom production values also used by acts like Washed Out and Toro Y Moi. But in concert, his songs are bright and funky, particularly the nimble grooves of "Shooting Holes." The band looked physically and emotionally drained after playing over a half-dozen shows at SXSW -- "We are excited this is our second to last show," said Lewis Jr. -- but when they launched into the heart-wrenching anthem "When We're Dancing," it was as if they'd only arrived in Austin that afternoon. -- KEVIN O'DONNELL

BEST REASON TO RELOCATE: PAPERCUTS
The idea, usually, is to position yourself as close to the band as possible, trampling toes and jostling beers to claim the best vantage point, though usually sacrificing sound quality with each step toward the stage. With this San Francisco quintet, the opposite applies: The quintet have zero stage presence, instead perfecting the textured and hazy dreamy-pop sound of tracks from their latest release Fading Parade. So head to the soundboard, where the music will sound the clearest. "Do What You Will" and its combo of Jason Robert Quever's high-pitched wail and layers of twinkling guitar and keyboard sailed. -- W.G.Read More From SXSW Day 3 on Page 2 >>

BEST STAGE IMAGE: HUNX AND HIS PUNX
Ten minutes before San Francisco retro-punk outfit Hunx and His Punx go onstage at Red 7, I'm introduced to its flamboyantly boy-crazy frontman Hunx, a John Waters-look-alike with a pencil-thin moustache who gives me an intense stare. "He's making love to you with his eyes," our mutual friend says to me. But I'm not special. For the next hour, as he prances the stage dressed in a sequined ascot, lace leggings and show-girl bottoms, and a see-through blouse, he eye-fucks each member of the 300-plus crowd. This, while his all-girl backing quartet puts a punk-y fun twist on '50s teeny-bopper rock -- think "Earth Angel" or "My Boyfriend's Back" played at a LGBTA prom. It's an en vogue sound -- Vivian Girls, Best Coast, et al. -- but Hunx and His Punx's musical chops are as well-rehearsed as the singer's shtick. -- W.G.

MOST APTLY NAMED BAND: THE JOY FORMIDABLE
These freelance Wales... people... have been SPIN favorites for a while now, but nothing quite prepares for the command that Ritzy Bryan had over her band and an entire large, crowded room upstairs at Buffalo Billiards. She seems half the size of bassist Rhydian Daffyd, but she generates a metric ton of sound and presence, while even a touch as simple as drummer Matt Thomas sitting facing his bandmates gives the sense that these guys are playing to each other as much as to an audience. "Whirring" (also aptly named) is about as perfect and powerful a rock song as anyone will need to experience this week. -- S.K.

MOST ADORABLE DEDICATION: LA SERA
Katy Goodman, best known as the bassist for lo-fi rockers Vivian Girls, is downright adorable. She's all smiley and tall, redheaded and freckled, and wears vintage sundresses onstage, swaying and twirling with her bass like a child without a care in the world, blowing dandelions in the wind on the playground of life. Her nickname is even "Kickball Katy," and she has a tattoo of a friggin' ice-cream sundae. Then, at Red 7 during a set from her new solo project La Sera, she dropped this on us: "This is dedicated to Hardly Art," she said of the label that recently released her debut. "I love you!" With three boys backing her up, she sang the Shirelles' 1961 song "Dedicated to the One I Love," as the hearts of nerdy indie rock boys melted like vanilla ice cream in a sweaty rock club. -- W.G.

BEST USE OF CAGES MADE FOR DANCIN' LADIES: JEFF THE BROTHERHOOD
Like many bands at SXSW, the Nashville garage rock duo ofJake and Jamin Orrall played Friday night in a venue that's not normally used for rock'n'roll shows, in this case, Kiss n Fly, a gay disco. But JEFF adapted, with Jake demanding, "I wanna see some dudes in those cages!" And while a wet undies contest didn"t ensue, two tiny t-shirted hipsters obliged, clothed, and shimmied away to JEFF's fuzzy, overdriven jams. Later, in the midst of a cacophonous instrumental closer, Jake carved a line through the crowd, walking through the sweaty throng while continuing to shred on his three-stringed guitar, with adorers of all genders headbanging alongside him in salute. -- PETER GASTON

BEST LATE NIGHT RAVE: MOUNT KIMBIE
For their first time in Texas, this London duo kicked out tricky dubstep and jungle-y grooves spiced with enveloping swaths of bloops and whistles and squeaks and squeals. But Dominic Maker and Kai Campos are more than just party-starting laptop whizzes and they seamlessly switched between playing guitar, drums, or futzing around with whatever effects they had laid out on their table top. The PureVolume House was sort of a weird location for these arty pals of James Blake to play -- the cavernous warehouse space was crammed with all manner of drunks looking to extend the party past the city's 2 A.M. last call -- but Mount Kimbie's overwhelming, bass-heavy grooves were enough to drown out any boozed-up loudmouths. -- K.O.

BEST MUSIC TO DRINK TO: OBITS
Booze and live music have long gone hand in hand, but at SXSW imbibing often rivals the band onstage, and sometimes those Tequila shots are the headliner. With over 1,800 performers the urgency varies greatly. But then there are bands like Brooklyn's Obits that play music to drink to. These four indie rock vets, led by ex-Drive Like Jehu/Hot Snakes frontdude Rick Froberg and Edsel's Sohrab Habibion, played gritty and kick-ass rock'n'roll -- as found on their new album Moody, Standard, Poor -- with interlocking twin guitars, a no-bullshit rhythm section, and lots of 'tude. It's music for a fist-pumping, headbanging, beer sloshing, high-fiving, sweaty sing-along having good time. -- W.G.

BEST INTERPRETATIVE DANCING: SCALA & KOLACNY BROTHERS
Did you see the trailer for The Social Network? If so, you've heard this 22-member all-girls Belgian choir, which became a bonafide internet sensation with their angelic cover of Radiohead's "Creep," racking up over 25 million YouTube views and a lucrative recording contract. During their U.S. debut at Stubb's, the choir -- under the direction of Stijn Kolacny and accompanied by pianist Steven Kolacny -- also covered Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People," Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody," and Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know." Their voices were breathtaking, but Stijn put on a show of his own. While a classical symphony conductor waves a baton, Stijn -- a dead ringer for actor Stanley Tucci (Lovely Bones) -- interpreted the songs in his booty shakin', hip-twisting, and dramatic body theatrics. -- W.G.

MOST UNEXPECTED CHARLIE SHEEN REFERENCE: AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB
Yes, of course, we're all tiger blooded out and the word "winning" has been ruined forever, but for some reason, when Mark Eitzel waxes sympathetic because Charlie Sheen simply reminds him of a lot of his fucked-up friends who went through similar manic phases, it's just the bit of humanization this nonsense so sorely needs. Which is perfect because Eitzel and American Music Club have made a long career out of humanizing these kinds of assholes. His trademark porkpie hat and suit now complemented by a bushy beard that would make Kyp Malone proud, Eitzel seems to have grown into his songs, making even the Parish, right in the thick of the 6th Street circus, feel like a distant, smoky lounge. -- S.K.

WORST PLACE TO BE A WALLFLOWER: SKRILLEX
The unmistakable Skrillex -- long black hair, thick wide glasses, white ear gauges, big freaking smile -- took to Emo's amidst huge cheers. Dubstep producer 12th Planet was close behind in the role of hype-man, egging on the audience even if they didn't need it. After some minor technical difficulties, Skrillex's rig came to life with a speaker-smashing blast of "Rock n Roll," which kicked off a continuous mix of ever-shifting, pitched-up dance jams, from his own "Scary Monsters and Sprites" to Benni Benassi's "Cinema." In response to his ADHD-addled style, the crowd cycled through a different dance every few moments. They raved, pop-locked, grinded, moshed, jumped, jittered and head-banged their way to a collective, Skrillex-induced bliss. -- C.M.

BEST POTENTIAL STAR OF A CREEPY '50s-STYLE INDIE FILM: DIRTY BEACHES

When the immaculately coiffed enigma known as Dirty Beaches, a.k.a. Chinese-Canadian singer-guitarist Alex Zhang Hungtai, took the stage at Kiss and Fly -- Austin's premier upscale gay go-go club (yep, there are suspended cages for dancers) -- it either drained some of the morbid mystery from his faux-rockabilly mise en scene, or isimply added another fascinating level of absurdity. Since Hungtai's act is more like a one-man independent study in the History of American Cool As Cultural Narrative than a rock band, maybe the homoerotic subtext is an obvious next step for him to explore.

Either way, he looked devastating, cutting striking poses (or striking cutting poses) in tight white t-shirt, jeans, boots, thin mustache, and that utterly essential lank of jet-black hair dangling over his forehead. The show had its own irregular pace, with Hungtai triggering pre-recorded tracks of surf-noir reverb by bending over after every song and fiddling with his gizmos rather than just using his feet, then playing along with those tracks on a white Stratocaster, or looping new riffs, but mostly declaiming cryptic lyrics into a handheld mic about white Cadillacs and being on the run and not letting the devil take you over with a series of leering sneers, scene-chewing howls, and sincere half-croons (drawing from the spooky roadtrip theme of his new album Badlands).

As music, it's DIY performance art, and as performance art, it's a DIY basement fuck-off. Dirty Beaches exists in a quixotic, fascinating place as an artist. Because of Hungtai's naturally charismatic aura, if he became a bit more efficient or ambitious with his songwriting or stage show -- say, actually incorporating films rather than just evoking them (David Lynch and Wong Kar-Wai are obvious touchstones) -- he could develop into a captivating live act with broad appeal. Still, his real gift is creating this intentionally half-assed yet pretentious, exotically unsettling yet completely overplayed (an Elvis lip curl, really?) pile-up of resituated nostalgia that's inherently off-putting to most people. You know how you feel watching that YouTube video of the Japanese biker gang, with their sculptured dyed-black greaser-punk hair, and they suddenly bust into a ridiculously elaborate breakdance routine? It's cool and dizzying and you send the link to your friends, but it's also funny and maybe even a little pathetic, and you're not sure if there's a joke or who it's on. That feeling is exactly where Dirty Beaches lives. And if he moves an inch either way, his blue-velvet myth might unravel. -- C.A.

IN BRIEF:
Underneath Interstate 35 at 6th Street, a punk band named Cunto performed to a small crowd which include a proselytizing bum who suggested they should be praising God instead. So they did, in an improvised thrasher lyrically devoted to the Lord. -- C.M.

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon made like an indie rock T-Pain at Gayngs Friday night's Lustre Pearl gig, using two different microphones to add Auto-Tune-styled hooks throughout the Minneapolis super-posse's funk-steeped set. -- C.M.

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