SXSW Day 1: Blue Hawaii, Tegan & Sara, Ashley Monroe and More
The first person I see on a stage at SXSW 2013 is none other than Matt Pinfield, gravel-voiced MTV icon and Limp Bizkit album cameo veteran. Early on this Tuesday evening he is holding court at Empire Control Room and introducing an artist of just slightly different temperament: young trad-country starlet Ashley Monroe. Her new Like a Rose is an Album of the Year candidate (yes, already) for sweetly ribald lopes like the self-explanatory "Weed Instead of Roses," a marital S&M fantasia she performs here with a knowing wink and a crack band (upright bass!) and like 50 hot lights blaring down on her. (We're filming this for something, apparently.) "This wasn't the right gig for a leather dress," she notes cheerily. "At least there are holes in the side. You're welcome."
This is a fantastic way to begin this year's bacchanal -- as a near 10-year veteran I seem to recall a point when Tuesday was not a huge day for shows and such, but we are fully loaded tonight, huge lines and boisterous crowds and all that. So much so that at first I can't even lay eyes on my next target -- the young, moody, incendiary Nashville singer-songwriter Torres, who's way more PJ Harvey than Tammy Wynette. She's in a tiny room at the Mohawk for Pitchfork's big two-stage showcase, mobbed as you might imagine. So while she's moaning through cathartic early Song of the Year candidate "Honey," I'm in an adjacent room with no sightlines, instead resigned to watching a big-screen TV with the sound off that's showing a Netflix-supplied action movie called Ninja, starring a dude who my companion, an action-movie expert, raves is "the best kicker in contemporary cinema." I can't really argue with this. So: Listening to Torres, watching Ninja. The juxtaposition works incredibly well, actually. And her howling voice is the most violent thing about it.
The Pitchfork deal has many other fine acts: Marnie Stern doing her gleeful 700-notes-per-second noise-rock avalanche thing (plus her drummer, Kid Millions, is awesome); Local Natives pounding through muscular, harmony-drenched arena-indie jams; sugar-shock duo Icona Pop leading a quasi-dance party in another crowded room with a neon-drenched stage setup that looks like the ship from Prometheus, chanting in unison and complaining that there's not enough bass. But in the midst of this I sneak out to the Main (neé Emo's, or maybe it's still Emo's, I'm not an expert on Austin club politics) to take in the other early 2013 Album of the Year candidate: Tegan and Sara.
Yes. Tegan and Sara. Heartthrob is incredible. Go listen now. Synth-pop anthems for days. "It's like I'm in my own personal John Hughes movie," a friend raves. Tonight T&S open with a few old jams -- "Walking with a Ghost" and "Back in Your Head" -- but soon hit an even sweeter spot of Heartthrob highlights, from the Roxette-worthy ballad "I Was a Fool" to the triumphant "I’m Not Your Hero," a pure adrenaline rush that renders the title suspect. They seem pretty damn heroic to me. [Rob Harvilla]
"Are you guys scared to dance, or are you like sardines in a can?" Blue Hawaii's Raphaelle Standell-Preston asked the crowd at that same Pitchfork party, in the room so overstuffed it drove Rob to watch Ninja instead. The answer to her question: both. Give this Montreal dream pop duo credit, because by the end of their set they'd overcome such obstacles, eliciting enthusiastic fist-pumps and the occasional "Woot!" from a crowd that was still getting its South-by sea legs, this being only the second hour of the first official night of music. But woot we did, and with good reason: Blue Hawaii were shredding. Singing over a bed of thick, cerebral techno, Standell-Preston looped and relooped her vocal lines as partner Alex Cowan twisted knobs, building the beats out of percussive arpeggios and thick bass. The music was as intimate as a bedroom recording, but packed a punch that next door's headliner, Deadmau5, would've approved of. We had no choice but to dance. We're off to a good start. [Garrett Kamps]