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SXSW Day 1: The Best, the Worst, and the Rest



Best Melodrama: The Decemberists
Colin Meloy and the Decemberists wooed the capacity crowd at Stubb’s BBQ with their musical melodrama about a character named Margaret who embarks on a fantastical journey rife with villains and other hardships. Yes, they played their entire fifth album, The Hazards of Love, which opts for dark lyrics, hefty electric guitar crunch, and ornate arrangements that muddle the album’s dense narrative. Meloy was joined onstage by Lavender Diamond and My Brightest Diamond, who traded off as Margaret. Listen to the entire performance ofThe Hazards of Love at NPR. — Matt Kiser.

Best Alter Egos: Mariachi El Bronx
So it’s the Bronx, L.A.’s greatest current punk band, but in place of tautly melodic thrashing and Matt McCaughthran’s gritty anti-social bellow, you get a couple of acoustic guitars, a trumpet, stand-up drums, a big-ass guitarrón, and the band members all dressed up in full mariachi finery with studded charro outfits and ribbon ties — but, alas, no hats. Oh, and instead of screaming about your shitty future, dude’s singing (yes, singing!) about being stuck in prison, among other hard-luck scenarios. And it’s not a joke; it can’t be. They’re playing too well. The songs are too heartfelt. And McCaughthran’s mile-wide smile — and his own immodest acknowledgement of just how special it is for any band to attempt something like this nowadays — reveals a crew genuinely proud of what they’ve accomplished. Then they come back on stage three hours later as their Clark Kent selves and show just why they are L.A.’s greatest current punk band. — Doug Brod

Best Cover Song: The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as played by the Right Ons.
Five guys from Madrid, obviously weaned on the Stones and James Brown, and playing as if their lives (or visas) depended on it, speed up and funk up the thing to the point where you’re tempted to jump back and kiss yourself. Rarely has a song about scoring dope ever sounded so… rollicking. — DB

Best Reason to Shut Up and Dance: The Twelves
Their sexy house-inspired jam “Works for Me” landed this Brazilian electronic duo on our 9 Unknown Bands to Watch at SXSW list. At Rusty Spurs, the Twelves earned their SXSW stripes with an airtight, playful DJ mix of old school hip-hop (Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s failsafe “It Takes Two”), iconic house (Daft Punk’s Homework-era grooves), and present-day indie rock remixes (Black Kids’ “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You” really brought the house down). But it’s more than just two dudes and some records: They’re adding keyboard flourishes and drum machine loops to every track, making the already admired hits their own. — Peter Gaston

Best Circle Pit: Gallows
How do you get a crowd of tepid journalists, bloggers, and publicists to run in circles, toss half empty beers in the air, and body slam each other? You show them how to do it. “I want to see the craziest fucking industry circle pit down there!” demanded Frank Carter of Brit hardcore punk band Gallows, bleeding from the forehead after having leaped from the 12-foot-high roof at Emo’s. Carter is a hard man to please. Three bars into the full-on assault of “The Great Forgiver,” a tune that, he explained, is “fast as fuck and all about heaven and how fucked up it is,” he stopped the band, scolded the crowd for its passivity, then leapt onto the floor, punched fans, spat, and ran in a circle, lassoing the audience with the cord of his microphone. — William Goodman

Best Real Texas Experience: Austin Music Awards
While out-of-state hipsters chased the “next big thing” on Sixth Street, Austin’s cowboy hat sportin’ locals celebrated their own at the Austin Music Awards. There was a tribute to late country rocker Doug Sahm, starring his sons Shawn and Shandon, and Tex-Mex whiz Alejandro Escovedo, who won in the musician, songwriter, and album of the year categories. Local metal heads the Sword were commended, rapper Overlord won in the hip-hop category for the 10th year in a row, and Grupo Fantasma delivered their acceptance speech for Best Latin Act in Spanish. Austin’s psychedelic sons the Black Angels and Roky Erickson closed with a four-song set. It was an authentic taste of Austin. — WG



Worst Band to Pick a Fight With: Trash Talk
For most smartphone-toting SXSW fans, watching a hardcore show is pretty goddamned scary. The slam dancing, the circle pits, and the general overdose of testosterone aren’t selling points for most, and all three boiled over during Sacramento metal band Trash Talk’s gig at Emo’s Annex. It didn’t seem like a fight at first. Sure, audience members were bashing bodies in the pit and nearly missing each other with flailing, wannabe-ninja-style flying kicks. But when someone tried to grab the singer’s microphone from one of the band’s roadies, punches were thrown and a real ruckus broke out. The band’s bassist and guitarist — both beastly dudes who could hold their own in the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp — jumped offstage, instruments and all, and into the fray. Turns out, that, that wasn’t a good thing for the twerp who had started the brawl. — PG

Worst: The Biggest, Most Shameful Rip-Off: ATMs
Guess President Obama’s multi-billion-dollar bailout isn’t enough for most banks. How else to explain the $5.25 ATM surcharge at numerous ATMs on Sixth Street? — WG



Least Likely to Become a Stand-Up Comedian: Human Highway’s Nick Thorburn
Indie label Suicide Squeeze’s showcase at Red Eyed Fly was packed with booze-fueled folks insistent on buoyant chit-chat, making it tough for the delicate ’50s-inspired pop of Montreal’s Human Highway to carve out any breathing room. In an attempt to engage the throng, co-frontman Nick Thorburn lobbed a few poorly-executed one-liners that didn’t do much to help his cause. “Why are you wearing a suit?” Thorburn asked a sharply-dressed fellow up front. “Didn’t you just get fired?” Later on, he tried this tired line: “We are going to play a few more songs, and then we’re going to pass around a petition to get Billy Bob Thornton to stop playing South by Southwest.” — PG

Most Hipsterrific Band: Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head
Lanky dudes in ironic muscle tank tops and skinny pastel-colored jeans. A willowy blonde in a vintage, prom-style dress. Such is the stage attire of Seattle electro-pop young’uns Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head, whose sweetly conceived, tongue-in-cheek jams about dating and ponytails pleased the SXSW crowd. Great to see that their day-glo infused, all-smiles live show is beginning to outshine their attention-grabbing name. — PG

Holy Roller Award: M. Ward
Praise the lord! At SXSW, M. Ward transformed himself into a hip church camp counselor. Standing at the altar of a Presbyterian church turned rock venue, with a huge wooden crucifix behind him, Ward sang about innocent summer love (a piano rendition of “Hold Time”) and the power of faith (“You Still Believe in Me”). The hipsters seated in the pews applauded, while in the back a 50-something woman who belonged to the congregation who helped run the show, stood solemnly, hands clasped over her mouth, mesmerized. — WG

Heroic Lifesaver: Jeremy Jay
Just when the Morrissey-meets-Carrot-Top vocals of Parenthetical Girls’ androgynous singer Zac Pennington had lost the crowd’s interest, Jeremy Jay resuscitated the K Records/Asthmatic Kitty showcase. With his mop top, neatly tucked-in plaid shirt, and dorky lyrics about riding moonbeams and walking the beach, Jay seemed right out of the ’70s. It was almost as good as Lou Reed making a guest appearance on The Brady Bunch. — WG