Best & Worst Moments of SXSW: Day 2

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Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew / Photo by Matt Kiser
WRITTEN BY
SPIN Staff

BEST WARM AND FUZZY FEELINGS: BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE
"Good luck, America," BSS frontman Kevin Drew told a late-night crowd at Stubb's, "I believe in you through all this shit, I really do." Tell you what, Mr. Drew, with an attitude like that -- and songs like your sextet played -- SXSW believes in you, too. On Thursday night, the Canadian collective gave a giddy crowd a taste of the songs from their forthcoming Forgiveness Rock Record, due May 4, and a few big gulps of all-around optimism. A cameo four-piece horn section beefed up one sprawling jam, and Metric's Emily Haines guested on the lovely "Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl." -- KEVIN BRONSON

BEST GET UR FREAK ON: ESTELLE
The saucy U.K. vet sure knows how to throw a wicked nasty dance party. Between rapping about motherf**ckin' cheating boyfriends, grinding against a hunky dude from the audience, giving her female fans tips on straying without getting caught, and repeatedly warning everyone to get their hands up in the air cuz she's watching (and she was), Estelle also managed to sing a breathtaking soul version of Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready," do a call-and-response take on her hit "American Boy," cover Coldplay, and bring Gym Class Heroes leader Travis McCoy onstage to rap. Whew! Girl packs a lot into 45slim minutes. -- MARK BAUTZ

BEST FLANNEL-CLAD CROWD-PLEASERS: BAND OF HORSES
From the moment Ben Bridwell and bandmates hit the first notes of the echoing, hypnotic "Is There a Ghost," the South Carolina stars had the capacity crowd at Stubb's in the pocket of their flannel shirts. Even between songs Bridwell was nothing less than buoyant, joking of his trip to Austin, "They gotta start abbreviating South by Southwest to just By Southwest." Meanwhile, the band's 45 minutes of lightly psychedelic Southern-fried roots-rock -- highlighted by a grand singalong on "The Great Salt Lake" -- included three songs from their forthcoming album Infinite Arms, out May 18, including a scorching finisher filled out with some rapturous guitar solos. -- KB

BEST FEMME FATALE: NICOLE ATKINS
Currently working on the full-length follow-up to 2007's Neptune City, Nicole Atkins' sexy early evening set at La Zona Rosa had me checking for the album's release date (there isn't one yet -- dammit) as tough and twangy tearjerkers like the new "Civil War" mixed moody keyb-and-guitar interplay with dusky vocals. Every lovesick song Atkins sang (with a special nod to the languidly rocking, cheekily titled "Oh Canada") made it sound as if she'd spent roughly equal time breaking hearts and being burned. The noirish music almost made me want to go order a Scotch on the rocks and call an old girlfriend just to tell her a lie about love. Almost. -- DAVID MARCHESE

BEST NOT SO VULGAR DISPLAY OF POWER: MIDLAKE
The Courage of Others, the most recent album from Denton, Texas' Midlake, is a cryptic collection of songs that sound as if designed to accompany druids dancing the quadrille -- it's also a bit of a slog. But live, when the drums hit heavy, the guitars crackle, and the bass rattles in your chest, the eight-piece band becomes an altogether woollier and more impressive beast. (And they still hit all their intricate, spooky harmonies with uncanny accuracy.) Midlake would absolutely kill at Stonehenge. Someone make it happen. -- DM

BEST BID AT THE BIG TIME: POMEGRANATES
Few feelings are as awesome as seeing a band you like live for the first time, and leaving liking 'em even more. Such was the case with this Cincinnati, OH, quartet, who've refined their sound since first popping on SPIN's radar in 2008. They've added a glossy polish to their art-pop and punk with reverb-y, anthemic yet meandering guitar lines that'd raise the eyebrows of both Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock and Coldplay's Chris Martin. On their set-closer, "Cakin," a demo for their next album, thrift store boys Joey Cook and Isaac Karns -- who split guitar and keyboard duties -- traded vocals, Cook's a low mutter and Karns' a high-pitched squawk, and created the kind of electrifying melodic charge that might be enough to push this band out of obscurity. -- WILLIAM GOODMAN

BEST DRESSED: A CLASSIC EDUCATON
While these Italians don't hail from the boutique-clogged streets of Milan, they certainly know how to fill out a suit. Jammed into the front window of 6th Street gin mill Friends, the sextet looked far classier than the club's regular clientele -- flat-screen TVs on the walls cycled through photos of buxom beauties in low-cut tops -- and had chops to match. The tightly wound, mandolin-led "What My Life Could Have Been" closed the set with panache, a spazzy college rock romp (think SXSW 2009 breakout band Pains of Being Pure at Heart) adorned with Old World orchestral touches. -- PETER GASTONRead More From SXSW Day 2 On Page 2 >>

BEST UNDERCARD DISCOVERY: RADAR BROS.
SXSW so often seems about foaming at the mouth over the next big thing that the subtleties of an artist's career arc can get swallowed faster than a dollar shot. It'd be optimistic to think that many among the She & Him faithful at the Merge Records showcase had more than a passing knowledge of Radar Bros., the L.A. quintet whose sixth album, The Illustrated Garden, comes out next week. At 42, songwriter Jim Putnam, now surrounded by a young new cast of bandmates, may look like your eccentric uncle, but he crafts pop songs with the childlike wonderment of someone half his age. It took some doing, but his captive audience was eventually similarly smitten. -- KB

BEST OUT OF THE SHADOWS SET: THE CANDLES
Josh Lattanzi has done well for himself as a sideman, acting as hotshot guitarist for folks like the Lemonheads, Ben Kweller, and Albert Hammond Jr. But if his sparkling, carefully laidback performance fronting New York City folk-rockers the Candles was any indication, he might do even better in the spotlight. Singing sweet melodies in three-part harmony over ambling rhythms and laconic guitar, Lattanzi and his band crafted a sound heavily indebted to the golden charms of '70s singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Harvest-era Neil Young. It's a vibe we've heard resurrected before, but when executed with Lattanzi's emotional precision and sure sense of craft it still holds the power to be as moving as watching the sun set over Topanga Canyon. -- DM

BEST ROCK'N'ROLL REVIVAL: THE JIM JONES REVUE
These high energy Londoners put on a show that's one part history of rock from Little Richard to the Ramones and one part fire-and-brimstone sermon. They are so tight and loud, so insistent on their retro sound, and so sharp in their dandy outfits, that it almost reads like parody. Which it is -- I think. Frontman Jim Jones mugs for the crowd, gets down on his knees and wails, then pushes to the edge of the stage as if possessed. Luckily, his evangelism has found a faithful flock. Even Patti Smith's guitarist Lenny Kaye, watching from the tiny club's bar, seemed transported. -- MB

BEST RETURNING INDIE VETS: QUASI
It's not every day a group of indie rock's most lauded vets play a dusty parking lot for free, which made Quasi's slot at the Kill Rock Stars showcase even more awesome. Formed in '93, members of the Portland, Oregon, trio are friends and ex-bandmates of Elliot Smith and have played in Heatmister, Sleater-Kinney, and Stephen Malkmus's the Jicks. They brought their melodic, high energy guitar rock -- including "Repulsion" and others from their eighth album American Gong, out last month -- to Cheer Up Charlie's, SXSWs 6th Street DIY home base. A mix of middle-aged hipsters and underage faces rocked out in bliss. -- JENN PELLY

BEST BREVITY: PEASANT
For many bands, SXSW is a test of logistical efficiency: Can they set up, quickly line check, and play a quality set within the space of a slim timeslot? For Pennsylvania-based solo performer Peasant, a.k.a. Damien DeRose, who performs simply with his tearjerking soprano and an acoustic guitar, there was no hurry whatsoever. "Do I have time for two more songs?" he asked the sound man. "You've got 30 more minutes," the sound man replied. DeRose considered the situation for a moment, then addressed the crowd: "No, it's okay. Just two more. It's what I planned for." And that was just fine. He cooed a stirring, heart-melting song called "We're Good," and proved that quality triumphs over quantity, even at SXSW. -- PG

NOT BEST, NOT WORST -- MOST MIDDLE-OF-THE-ROAD SET: THE MOONDOGGIES
This Seattle roots-rock quartet ride the line between loping Southern and the Fleet Foxes' nouveau, harmony-rich folk. Unfortunately, they also blur another boundary: the one between bland and boring and comfy and familiar. Their gritty guitar lines, straight drum beats, and gothic electric Rhodes piano parts would be great background music for a camping trip but there's absolutely nothing exceptional about them. They don't demand anything of the listener and, in turn, get nothing in return. At least not from me. -- WG

BEST USE OF NON-HUMAN BANDMATES: DAN BLACK
The London-bred, Paris-based electropop artist Dan Black is making waves by having broken through to rock radio with his single "Symphonies," which appropriates Jack Nitzsche's sweeping theme to the 1984 movie "Starman." At the SXSW Throwdown day party, Black delivered something in the way of a disco afternoon, performing with a bassist, guitarist, and a pair of glowing touchscreens he uses to control his samplers. Not only do the controllers look sci-fi cool, they make for great bandmates. "I never have to worry about them bringing groupies to the back of the bus," admitted Black from the stage. -- KBRead More From SXSW Day 2 On Page 3 >>

BEST HIDDEN SHOW: TWIN SISTER
Take Chelsea Girl-era Nico and inject equal doses of Bjork's oddball energy and late downtown New York icon Arthur Russell's experimental pop and you get Brooklyn quintet Twin Sister -- tiny, tattoo-covered frontgirl Andrea Estella, whose dreamy pipes lead four dudes jamming on guitars, bass, and keys. Their hazy, alluring "I Want A House" -- a recent blogosphere hit -- sounded particularly appropriate at a sunny (and unofficial SXSW) set in the yard of an East Austin house; the fuzzy ode to domesticity offered a reprieve from the chaos on 6th street, while doubling as a testament to the show's home-y locale. -- JP

BEST AFTER HOUSE SHOW: THEE OH SEES' BRIDGE GIG
Despite a steady stream of Tweeted "secret show" confirmations and cancellations, around 100 hopeful fans headed to the Lamar Boulevard Bridge at 2:30 A.M. for a mind-blowingly high energy set from San Francisco outfit Thee Oh Sees. Fans huddled around the band, crowd-surfing and thrashing, shaking the bridge as the three-piece blew through their frenetic repertoire of garage rock and noise pop. The backdrop to the late-night spectacle -- which also included a set from New Jersey garage punks Home Blitz -- was the glowing downtown Austin skyline. Bliss. -- JP

BEST WUNDERKIND GUITARIST: AVI BUFFALO
His name is Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, and at 19 he plays as if he's been struck by a lightning bolt launched by a great unknown blues guitarist from decades past. Three-quarters of his Long Beach, Calif., quartet Avi Buffalo are still teenagers, but they were snapped up last year by Sub Pop, which will release their self-titled debut on April 27. At two shows on Thursday, Zahner-Isenberg wielded his falsetto and his axe to fantastic effect -- tender and painterly one minute and fast and furious the next, like on the hurricane that closes "Remember Last Time." -- KB

BEST SPAZZOUTS: CYMBALS EAT GUITARS
It's quite possible that Cymbals Eat Guitars frontman Joseph D'Agostino will someday write the hyper-emotional pitching-and-yawing spastic indie guitar jam that renders all others unnecessary. There's enough power in the feedbacking crescendos and coarsely charming melodies of songs like ". . . And the Hazy Sea" to make one hopeful, anyway. Right now, as the band's sometimes thrilling, sometimes painful set showed, the Staten Islanders spend the softer parts of their songs like they're bracing for a punch. When they learn better how to disguise the ones they're about to throw -- watch out. -- DM

WORST SENSE OF THE MOMENT: THE xx
The hipster nation's favorite lowercase minimalists (sorry, jj) might as well be wax figures onstage. Their purposefully undercooked hybrid of electro, pop, and soul relies on slow-building grooves and sparse beats, demanding that the listener fill in the blanks -- which meant that the Londoners' post-midnight set asked a lot of the audience at the Mohawk. Were the natives getting restless? Possibly. Would a light show have helped? Probably. Did I want to shout "giddyup?" You bet. -- KB

WORST CROWD: THE BLABBERMOUTHS AT THE OLOF ARNALDS SHOW
A bunch of folks sat cross-legged on the floor in silent wonder while listening to Iceland's Olof Arnalds play a hushed set of gorgeous folk in the opulent Victorian Room at the Driskill Hotel. But given that Arnalds, accompanied by the gentle sounds of her own warm fingerpicking and that of a second guitarist, sings like she's telling secrets, the few dozen people who stood by the bar yakking about "hydration" were loud enough to spoil the vibe. Annoying ambience aside, Arnalds delivered a subtly stirring set, her high, pure voice unwrapping gnomic melodies over drifting acoustic settings. -- DM

WORST ON-STAGE ENERGY: SHE & HIM
"Is this our old setlist?" Zooey Deschanel asked collaborator M. Ward near the end of She & Him's gig at the Merge Records showcase at the Cedar Street Courtyard. That was one of several discomfiting moments in a performance that could only be described as rote, despite a crack band that included the luminescent Chapin Sisters on backup vocals. Photographer control seemed to be a distracting concern (the band requested no photos be taken -- fat chance). It ultimately didn't matter, as the duo's lackadaisical folk-pop provided no Polaroid moments. -- KB

IN BRIEF:
Twitter was in a titter over news that Bill Murray was in town, as starstruck SXSWers traded sightings of the sad-eyed comedian. -- D.M.

Early arrivals rewarded: The special guest from "ShutUp, AK," billed in the early slot at the Merge Records showcase at Cedar Street Courtyard was none other than Superchunk, who did a rousing 20 minutes. -- KB

Even if you're a journo, it's easy to get caught up in the SXSW spirit. After Miles Kurosky asked for volunteers from the crowd to join him onstage to help sing a Beulah song, Jeff Miller, the editor of Thrillist Los Angeles, found himself onstage providing vocals on "Popular Mechanics." -- KB

U.K. quartet Banjo Or Freakout has to the band most unlike its name; there's no banjoing in its fuzzy, ambient pop, and not a lot of freaking out either. -- K.B.

Maybe he was calling mom or reconciling with his former Panic! at the Disco bandmates, but Young Veins ringleader Ryan Ross sat on a 6th street curb in his Beatle boots, drainpipe jeans, and white Oxford button up, surrounded by drunkards, jabbering on his cell and sending texts for well over an hour. -- WG

T-shirt of the day: "Kiss Me. No, really." -- KB

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