SXSW 2009: Getting Off on the Good Foot with Marnie Stern and Heartless Bastards


Heartless Bastards (Radio Room)
Marnie Stern (Club De Ville)
SXSW Wednesday Afternoon, March 18

Erika Wennerstrom’s bandmates give her a tremendously wide berth onstage, three grizzled gentlemen crowding demurely to our far right as she holds court on the left, the sort of blast radius you’d give an M-80 or a mountain lion. The Heartless Bastards leader is a bellower indeed; “Can’t do the things I used to do/’Cause I feel old,” she demurely howls at the onset of the Austin-by-way-of-Ohio band’s 2:30 p.m. set at Paste magazine’s afternoon fete (say what you will, but that mag is fuckin’ resilient), and she sounds old too, or wiser, wearier, more wizened — Beth Ditto with less grandstanding, PJ Harvey with even more Southern discomfort.

Her band’s gnarled, rumbling roots rock is fairly straightforward, a flat, dependable terrain across which her moans can carry for miles, possibly into neighboring counties. The imagery is elemental and overwhelming: tornadoes, endless oceans, etc. (See their latest, The Mountain.) Toward the end the Bastards get a bit rowdier and trickier, toying with dynamics and time signatures, but mostly this is a brutally straightforward, gale-force wind it’s an honor to stagger into. They’re at Stubb’s tonight opening for the Decemberists, a comparison that can only exacerbate the intensity and make those guys look even meeker, writing sonnets and shit about natural disasters in lieu of resoundingly embodying them.

NYC’s own finger-tapping ingenue, Marnie Stern, is also audible from several blocks away — both her alarmingly childlike wail and the manic, endless deedly deedly deedly guitar-shredding that defines her. You know that line of praise for minimalist bands that goes “they never waste a note”? Generally 70 percent of Marnie’s notes are in a sense “wasted,” just a torrent of technically precise but melodically/rhythmically wobbly exuberance, like filling a shot glass with a fire hose. Backed by bass and drums that ain’t exactly demure themselves, she takes some getting used to — we’re talking more treble than you can probably imagine — but the goofiness and absurdity of it all is winsome to say the least, as is the stage banter. “It’s my birthday, oh my goodness!” “Everyone please clap.” “Alrriiiiggght!”