Here’s my SXSW strategy: See bands you love but arrive early (or late) to catch the buzzless. Or choose venues with more than one stage so you can wander. Take The Velvet Spade, for instance. Their patio featured Chicago’s The Reputation (a band I love) but downstairs had The Strange Boys from Dallas (buzzless). Reputation lead singer/guitarist Elizabeth Elmore, formerly of the equally lovable Sarge, is a forceful personality who has left a lot of friends and lovers in her dust, probably rightfully so. Like Ani DiFranco (in temperament not sound), she’s always asking too much. Trouble is, even on record her personality comes through strongest in her lyrics. The music sits at the meeting point of indie rock and bar-band and live, it simply asked too little of us. After fifteen minutes of reliable-for-now guitar-bass-drums support, you didn’t care that there was one helluva writer on stage.
The Strange Boys, however, are poised to become the future useless friends of the Elizabeth Elmores of the world. Barely legal brothers Ryan (guitar/vocals) and Philip Sambol (bass) with barely drinking age Matt Hammer (drums) played a cranky set that incorporated hardcore plate throwers, vaguely country plaints and Stooge-y suburban blues. Ryan (see photo below courtesy of steady-handed Tiny Mix Tapes reviewer Dave Gurney) whined through each song as if it were keeping him up three more minutes past his bedtime. Indeed, he could barely keep his eyes open while singing. It was unspeakably adorable and most likely an affectation as Gurney found him rather alert milling about after the show.
Gurney had a wristband so haves and have lesses had to part ways. The wristband line at Stubb’s for the hot Matador showcase wound around one side of the building. But my badge allowed me to whisk by and into the large, open air venue to wait for The New Pornographers. Seconds after arriving, I saw a chap that looked remarkably like head Pornographer Carl Newman. I slyly moved closer and witnessed someone kiss him goodbye with a “See you on stage.” Bingo! I made like I was shooting the venue as a whole and snapped him mere minutes before he hit the stage.
Currently the greatest English-singing band on the planet, Vancouver’s The New Pornographers epitomize that compelling non-oppositional quality of the Canadian psyche. In this respect, it’s misleading at best that “New!” flashes out from their name (and distressing that my two other favorite bands of the past 30 years advertise the same word: The New York Dolls and New Order). “New” suggests some sort of formal innovation, some stormy secession from the era immediately preceding. But to paraphrase my Canadian Idol Will Straw, The New Pornographers matter less for the significant marking of historical change provided by any single song or album than because their ongoing existence serves to maintain relationships across space.
Here is a supergroup comprised of an American alt.country gal and members of much lesser bands and they all come together every so often for a music that maximizes their relationships with polyphonies, harmonies and collage songwriting. So the central drama of this music is how they’ll maintain these relationships in a world of useless friends. Thus each part has a fragile connection to the other such that it could easily waft away out of the mix, befitting for a band that still feels like a side project. But that fragility has paradoxically lent them a history marking authority with critics and some career longevity as a result. It’s a lesson for the leaders of the free world who try to insure their dynastic longevity by forcing authority.
Unfortunately, Carl Newman fosters this hope largely via meticulous studio production. So the harmonies last night were tentative and ragged. The guitars rocked with less freakish vividness. And Neko Case sang like she’s still not quite sure that this is a once-in-a-lifetime gig. New Order wasn’t so hot live either and for similar reasons. Still, the memory of the Technicolor versions on record was enough to choke me up in spots, namely when Case finally got religion during the coda of “The Bleeding Heart Show.”
Glasgow’s Belle and Sebastian closed out the Matador showcase for me and suffered the same brainy fate as The Reputation. Stuart Murdoch may be the premier songwriter of his generation. But he’s most profitably enjoyed page by CD booklet page with a cognac at home. And even at its rockingest, the music is too light and porous for a live setting. Conversations many feet away from me were perfectly audible throughout the set.