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The Mohawk has what seems, on paper, like a really interesting juxtaposition. On the patio, a heavy dose of R&B and soul, inside, the experimental hip-hop and electronic of Anticon and Ghostly labels. Nothing doing on the hipster side when I get there, but NeckBone, an Austin based funk and hip-hop band has taken over the patio stage, so I watch for a little bit. Neckbone has got three singers, a couple of keyboard players, a drummer a guitarist and one hell of a bass player, digging in for funky slap and pop. During a break, the singer, who has a little chip on his shoulder about musical popularity, says that his bass player, who is blind, plays 17 instruments. “If a guy who can play 17 instruments without seeing them, can’t get paid in this industry,” he says, “We’ve got to take it back.” Good point, Neckbone’s slow, funk grooves are exactly the kind of thing that crate diggers are always borrowing beats from, but which never seem to get much respect on their own. I’m looking for backpack hip-hop types in the audience, out looking for another breakbeat, but the audiences at the two venues seem to be sharply separated.

Restiform Bodies

Restiform Bodies

Inside, Restiform Bodies, has gotten going. David Bryant, in sunglasses inside at night, is spitting out long, complicated strings of verbiage, wading out into the crowd as far as the mic cord will allow, and bobbing up and down, side to side, swinging his arms like a track athlete. Behind him, Matt Valerio hovers over an array of electronic keyboards, laptops and synthesizers, huge blots of sub bass overlaid by percolating, synth popcorn. “It’s all too much, it’s all too much,” Bryant chants, leaning in and away from the audience, before launching into another pop-culture redolent tirade that speeds along recklessly, somehow hitting the rhymes in all the right spots. Later, Valerio straps on a tom tom and pulls out a snare, adding an organic layer of percussion to the synth wavery beat. Sweat is pouring off both Bryant and Valerio, as this is clearly not just, or even primarily, an intellectual exercise. There is a physical stress and strain to making big beats and twisted rhymes, heavy lifting alongside mental gymnastics.




Michna next, out of Brooklyn, has the most complicated set-up I’ll see all night, three television sets and a big screen, a turntable, a drum set, two electronic deck/keyboards, a trombone, a saxophone, a fog machine and laser lights. The band, and it really is a band, is led by DJ Adrian Michna, plays an intriguing blend of hip-hop, jazz, downtempo, and rock, always blurring the lines between organic and electronic instrumentation, between sampled recordings and live improvisation. Everything is anchored by a steady rock beat, a live sound that meshes in interesting ways with the glitches and bleeps of synthetic instruments. Occasionally, Michna breaks off from his deck to hold up the trombone, coaxing out long, jazzy crescendos, and his partner does the same with sax. The show is quite visual, with a stream of images feeding into the television sets and green and white laser beams striking through the fog. Towards the end, Michna asks if anyone wants to play the video game Pole Position, and for the next few minutes, his band’s trippy, half-free, half-locked in music is accompanied by the visual of a car driving through videogame curves, occasionally crashing. It’s a fitting metaphor, I think, for the element of the unexpected, of human choice, within the boundaries of electronic space.



The NPR Showcase definitely stands as one of the festival’s marquee events. There’s been some grumbling here and there that NPR is like an old man trying to act hip to what the kids are into, when all it really wants to do is scream, a la Abe Simpson, “I’m an old man. I hate everything but Matlock!” But whatever their motives, you can’t argue with the results…

I thought Ladyhawke‘s performance was fairly revelatory. From the moment the dance beats began pummeling us, Ladyhawke’s set was a vibrant mix of skeleton-rattling bass, skittery funk chords, and washes of keyboards. To my ears, the band did a much better job of connecting than they have on record. 

If Ladyhawke represented the crowd’s chance to dance and get down (when they weren’t heads-down twittering or updating their Facebook statuses), then the Heartless Bastards were all business with loud, grinding alt-country/garage rock. Songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Erika Wennerstrom led the band through songs from their recent record, The Mountain and seemed right at home on the stage at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q.


One thing about Stubb’s. The stage is set in this large earthen hollow. Boxed in by the venue’s large wrought-iron gate and a ring of walls and outer buildings, it looks like a giant chicken-yard where the chickens have scratched away everything living. When civilization falls, the Stubb’s amphitheatre will be where the rulers of Austin hold their mutant gladiator fights. The Avett Brothers seemed right at home (granted, though, you could put those four in an Intel clean room and they’d manage to stomp dust out of the floor). Playing an abbreviated set that mixed new songs with old, the band was reasonably subdued. With their set clocking in at roughly thirty minutes, they wouldn’t have had much time to get into full-flight punk/bluegrass mode, anyway. The new songs, from their upcoming Rick Rubin-produced major label debut, sounded strong and even added a piano into the mix. It should at least comfort fans who were afraid the band would lose their “Avettness” (apart from Seth Avett losing his hillbilly beard).


If the surroundings weren’t quite where you’d expect to find the Decemberists, they quickly grabbed the night as their own by performing their new record, The Hazards of Love, in its entirety. Hazards is a concept album in the classic sense, telling the tale of Margaret, a young girl who must face rakish men, treacherous plants, and devious woodland royalty. It’s a beast of an album, and lead singer Colin Meloy commits to it fully, swinging from fey British folk to heavy metal roar as his story demands, exhibiting a willingness to include a forest queen that would make 2112-era Rush blush. This is drama on a grand scale, sounding like it takes place in the woods outside of Sweeney Todd’s neighborhood. The seven-piece band of multi-instrumentalists did a fantastic job of replicating the record. Meloy’s backup singers—one dressed in a white diaphonous robe for the role of Margaret, the other in a tight black dress in the role of the Queen—roared through their parts, and “The Rake’s Song” became an instant highlight when five members of the band attacked it with synchronized drumming.



Former Hüsker Dü member Grant Hart took the small deck/stage at Creekside Lounge to deliver a short set consisting of just him and an electric guitar. Quite frankly, he didn’t look well, with a bandanna over his head and an ashen complexion. But that’s just idle speculation, and his songs were as strong as they ever were, displaying Hart’s longtime fondness for ‘50s and ‘60s style rock hooks and making you remember what a vital contribution he made to Hüsker Dü’s legacy. The crowd was of a decent size, and devoted, and Hart seemed to recognize the bond between himself and his fans, even taking a couple of requests.



Joe Pug’s making some waves right now in singer-songwriter circles with soaring, confessional fare like “I Do My Father’s Drugs”. Live, his mix of Dylanesque singing, John Prine-style finger-picking, and Springsteen-like guitar movements, made for an interesting folk performance. The room was a little echoey, despite being full of people downing free beer, but Pug held his own, maintaining the forcefulness that makes his debut EP such a strong listen.



I’m always a little suspicious of any songwriter with a “wounded bird” persona, but it’s part of the territory in the world of singer-songwriters, many of whom are truly wearing their hearts on their sleeves and exorcising their demons. So it was definitely endearing when Furman, who seemed like a skittish rabbit when talking to the crowd, defended the sincerity of all of the bands playing SXSW and declared, “This is our band and we’re the best band here”. Under the shadows of the lone sycamore tree that shades the Creekside Lounge deck, Furman and his band, the Harpoons, offered an infectious blend of sensitive singer-songwriting with straightforward Modern Lovers-style punk pop.



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