Best Off-the-Grid Campfire Benediction: Vivian Girls at Todd P's Party
This acoustic event, concocted by New York underground punk-club illusionist Todd P, consisted of a patch of grass in a dusty parking lot out past I-35, two plastic chairs under a large tree (to which the lineup of 20-plus groups, written on cardboard, was duct-taped), and a smattering of kids sitting Indian-style on the ground, raptly attentive. And when Brooklyn's fuzz-buzz girl group Vivian Girls played a hushed version of "Walking Alone at Night," with more-lovely-than-you-might-expect harmonies at 2:30 A.M., the flurry of networking and boozing and human trafficking that constitutes SXSW suddenly faded to, well, dust. -- Charles Aaron
Best New Shape of Punk to Come: Micachu and the Shapes
"That was something about neurosis," said Mica Levi, leader of Micachu and the Shapes, introducing a tune early in her band's set. And considering how her debut Jewellery is constructed -- jittery naïf-punk fits and plucks and beeps -- you could imagine that as a blanket summation of her music. But the trio's performance was as giddy (and intense) as a gaggle of teens fleeing high school on the last day of class. Levi, a polymath prodigy of sorts, who has MC'd and DJ'd on the U.K. grime scene, and was commissioned to write a piece for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, speed-strums a tautly strung, half-size guitar and speak-warbles and shouts in a deep, grainy voice that doesn't match her slight, androgynous frame, which was almost swallowed up by a t-shirt, and topped by a curly thatch of hair.
Her well-rehearsed mates -- the adorably winsome Marc Pell on drums and Raisa Khan (it was her birthday, she's 22!) on keyboards/ laptop/ snare/ cowbell, etc. -- bash and click and rattle along with Levi, not quite prodding her, but more than keeping up. "Lips" was a highlight, as a recording of tweeting birds was subsumed by Levi's gnarly guitar chop, recalling Dutch punks the Ex; then, later on, she emerged from a noisily askew patch, plainly crooning, "I'm standing in the pouring rain," like a doleful Scottish indie-popper. For the finale, "Hardcore," Levi played an electric guitar, while Khan grabbed the half-size, and they artfully scraped strings and oh-oh-oh'd at each other -- Khan grinning, Levi squinting like a wily pirate -- as the music lurched and crescendo'd, a blissfully abrasive whoosh. -- CA
Best Frat Rock Exotica: Garotas Suecas
When we Yanks think about Brazilian music -- from Tom Jobim's bossa nova seductions to Caetano Veloso's swooning samba/rock poetics to Os Mutantes psychedelic fantasias to Tom Ze's art-pop conundrums to the booty-beat siren songs of favela funk carioca -- we usually think in terms of startling innovative twists and turns. So who are these cool-but-nerdy, sorta skater-looking Brazilian kids playing effortlessly soulful rave-up '60s garage rock and covering "Respect"? They're called Garotas Suecas (which translates to "Swedish Girls," for no particular reason), and they should be your new favorite backyard BBQ beer-bust party planners. They ain't innovating a damn thing, but I could watch 'em play every night for the next month and never get tired of (pseudo) frugging like a loon. -- CA
Best Unexpected, Possibly Unintentional Tribute: Meat Puppets
Somewhere Kurt Cobain is smiling. Meat Puppets, the Phoenix, AZ, trio Cobain liked and invited onstage at Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance, closed out their set at Stubb's with a furious punk rendition of "Lake of Fire." Its Melvins-like electric guitar chugs and sped-up tempo was a giant fuck-you-I'll-do-what-I-want to the confused crowd, who didn't even recognize the tune until its first morbid verse.And the song-ending send off of dentist-drill guitar distortion and Who-style drum crashes seemed tailor made for the ever-rebellious rock god. -- WILLIAM GOODMAN
Best Flashback to U.S. History Class: Songs for Presidents Showcase
The folks who put together last year's Of Great and Mortal Men compilation organized a gig at Habana Calle 6 that paid homage to those 43 pre-Obama Presidents in song. Tunes that inspire a conversation about the merits of the Monroe Doctrine at SXSW? Highly unexpected, to say the least. -- PETER GASTON
Best Eardrum-Crushing Sound: No Age
Thanks to Los Angeles duo No Age, bumming earplugs is the new bumming a cigarette. "Do you have any earplugs or tissue I can have!?!" screamed one concertgoer DIRECTLY into my ear, desperate to dampen Randy Randall's spiky electric guitar and Dean Spunt's clattering drums and low-register vocal at the Sub Pop showcase.
No Age played a few new tunes (all nameless -- more poppy, less noisy), and despite not releasing any material since conquering SXSW in '08 by playing roughly 1,213 shows, the boys' unbridled energy and combination of catchy hooks and dissonant screeches is still ringing memorably in my ears. -- WG
CONTINUE: THE WORST AND THE REST FROM SXSW DAY 2.
Worst Performance: Peter Bjorn and John
Peter Bjorn and John's beat-heavy new album, Living Thing, is a welcome departure from the indie-pop sound that made them famous -- their live performance, however, is not. Relying largely on recorded backing tracks instead of instruments, the songs left frontman Peter Moren hopping around aimlessly sans guitar. And the hip-hop banger "Nothing to Worry About" rendered drummer John Eriksson motionless, as Moren spat short rhymes over a thick track of break beats and young children singing. Moren's energy is still there, but in a live setting the new tunes just don't show it. -- WG
Fan Appreciation Award: Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band
There's no better way to thank your loyal followers than by launching tennis balls at their faces -- which is exactly what Seattle quintet Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band did during their spunky and upbeat set at the Mohawk. Percussionist Traci-Eggleston-Verdoes picked up a bass drum and her husband/ singer Benjamin Verdoeshurled tennis balls at it, sending a barrage of speeding bullets into the crowd -- one of which hit me in the face. No worries, songs like "Cheer for Fate" made up for the slight swelling. -- WG
Bridge Parties: Not Just for No Age
Something in the air here (or maybe it's in the beer) makes a person do things s/he wouldn't ever, ever do at home. Like befriending nine strangers on the street and piling into a band's windowless, seatbelt-less cargo van to check out a DIY party on one of Austin's many bridges.
Philadelphia rockers Drink Up Buttercup made the offer, and after said strangers helpied them haul gear halfway across the Colorado River, they belted out three acoustic jams for about 70 folks, who drank in the show with the urgency of panhandlers begging for whiskey money. Brooklyn's So So Glos followed with a plugged-in, three-song set. No, it wasn't the massively attended, damned-if-you-missed-it No Age show from 2008, but it's comforting to see some dedicated peeps keeping the DIY flag flying high in the Lone Star State. -- PG
BACK TO THE BEST FROM SXSW DAY 2.