Down the street, at the Beauty Bar, I catch the very end of Fol Chen (masks, droning beats), and then wait for a while outside before Desolation Wilderness starts. It’s the K Records showcase, so no surprise that the band plays soft, coy lo-fi pop… or that they’re from Olympia, Washington. It’s an unstable combination, the nervy, wiry guitars, the flourish-y, glam-ish pop vocals, and it probably works better on a record than here, on another concrete-floored stage with heavy metal filtering in from next door. Not terrible, but not very memorable either.
Tara Jane O’Neil is next. She’s really the reason I’ve come. Her new album, A Ways Away, due out on K in early May, is a shimmering, golden-toned thing, full of guitar notes that hang in the air and lingering eerie slides, reminding me, a little, of Loren Mazzacane Connors. She’s playing mostly from this new album with just a drummer, and, while I think she, too, would do better in a smaller, more enclosed space, her songs are very beautiful nonetheless. I spoke to O’Neil a couple of weeks ago, and she told me that this album’s songs evolved out of live performance, rather than, as usual, her working them out alone. Still, they are quite inward looking, as is O’Neil’s performance. She has a hat pulled low, her hair spilling over the brim, so that all you can see of her face is a bit of nose and mouth, and that’s when she’s looking up. She begins, as the album begins, with “Dig In”, a slide-haunted, slow-building mist of a song, that clears only for O’Neil’s soft, strong, not-quite sweet voice. Towards the end, she beats with her fingers on the body of her guitar, looping the sound into an echoey drum-like beat, before adding the scratch of clamped guitar for another rhythmic element. A pile of tambourines is handed out to audience members, and, for such a reticent, shy performer, it is quite a communal moment, shimmering, evanescent, lovely… and you can only hear the metal bands outside a little through it.
Parenthetical Girls begin their complicated set-up almost immediately, hooking up Rhodes, Farfisa, drums, an artfully shattered cymbal, toy pianos, violin, xylophones, guitars, and bass, arranging stations for the band’s four instrument-switching members. Yet after all this effort, when the band starts, you can’t really focus on anyone, or anything but Parenthetical Girls’ charismatic frontman Zac Pennington. He’s the kind of rock personality that you recognize immediately, that you see, in the bar, having a drink, with more verve than most singers can muster on stage. Slight, pale, a red slash of curly hair falling over his eyes, a wide, emotion-carrying mouth and razory cheekbones, he looks like a lost boy (and a little like a lost girl). On stage, and often off it and trailing a mic cord, he marches military style, forwards and backwards, leans over the stage for the photo, all the while crooning, belting, shouting, flirting in a voice so flowery and elaborate, he might have borrowed it from Morrissey’s closet. In any other band, lovely Rachael Jensen in Mad Men-era vintage, swilling a PBR with a violin under her arm, would command attention. Here she simply fades into the background, all spotlights focused on Pennington. Parenthetical Girls have been on the road lately, with the Evangelicals, and apparently spending a lot of time playing gender bending “Marry/Fuck/Kill” games in the van. Tori Amos? Marry her. Fiona Apple? Fuck her. Regina Spektor? Kill her, says Pennington. A couple of songs later, it’s the guys’ turn, and Pennington opts for lust with Morrissey, wedded bliss with Michael Stipe, and homicide towards Lou Reed. Weirdly, you can imagine Penniman doing all that with any of them, his appeal theatrically pansexual and also weirdly vulnerable and touching. A great set, including “Young Eucharists”, “Here’s to Forgetting”, and closing with the Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark cover “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)”, Pennington urging everyone to turn his band’s Judy Garland T-shirts into this year’s No Age tee, the SXSW memento of choice.