Thursday, March 13, 2014

SXSW 2014: Day One [NPR Showcase at Stubb's]

Posted By on Thu, Mar 13, 2014 at 12:55 PM

Sadly, the biggest news of SXSW Wednesday was a terrible late-night car accident that reportedly left two dead and 23 injured near The Mohawk on Red River. Thankfully, Team Cream and all of our Nashvillian associates remain safe and sound, but our thoughts are with those affected.

NPR's showcase at Stubb's on Wednesday night served as a sort of a de facto kickoff for the week's big-name events, with a bill that would seem curiously incongruous were it not for the fact that all five acts have one thing in common: NPR loves to sing their praises. Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, art-pop star St. Vincent, R&B songstress/erstwhile chart-topper Kelis, post-punk Brits Eagulls and noise punks Perfect Pussy graced the Stubb's outdoor stage before a Lone Star-swilling crowd, some of whom were wearing hats and scarves in the face of 50-degree weather.

Random Austin street weirdo
I entered Stubb’s to the punishingly loud and squelching chaos of recent Freakin’ Weekend vets Perfect Pussy. The unlikely NPR darlings’ throbbing madness is more suited for The End’s stage than the subdued environment of an outdoor Stubb’s showcase, but the looks on the NPR acolytes' faces was well worth it.

Well, I say NPR acolytes, but truth be told, it didn't seem like a particularly well-read, news-wonk type of crowd. I encountered one young man who wasn't sure whether or not Russia and Ukraine are different countries, and another who compared Kelis to Paul Simon (though the young man couldn't recall Simon's name without some assistance). But we'll get to Kelis shortly. Up next were Eagulls, all the way from Leeds, England, who will play Nashville's very own Mercy Lounge in May. Like, say, Joy Division, Eagulls have a name that implies mirth despite a somewhat dour post-punk sound — sturdy, straight-ahead bass grooves under-girding washy guitars. Nowhere near as silly as their name, and recommended for fans of Public Image Ltd. and the like.

With a 10-piece band behind her, Kelis opened with a snippet of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," likely bringing most of the crowd to think, "Wait ... this is the 'Milkshake' lady?" Indeed, Kelis has serious soul power, and she delivered her far-out R&B tunes from beneath a luxurious pile of hair in a low, Toni Braxton-esque alto. Her band was as tight as can be, and yes, she did indeed deliver "Milkshake" mid-set (complete with disjointed riffing from her horn section) between songs that sported stretched-out Latin grooves and assists from two big-voiced backup singers.

Thanks to The Spin's recent appraisal and my chat with Annie Clark, I was somewhat prepared for St. Vinny's multimedia onslaught. Indeed, the live show is what brings St. Vincent's brand-new, eponymous fourth LP into focus. Hearing the songs in context — with Clark's carefully choreographed stage moves and mad-scientist locks — put all of those aesthetic reference points the singer likes to talk about (Jodorowsky, the Memphis design movement, et al.) into context.

Though Clark's delivery and even her stage banter (like a bit about how we all loved to make fire with a magnifying glass when we were young) seemed carefully calculated and almost musical-theater-esque in their stone-faced delivery, the show is obviously delivered exactly as Clark wants it to be. I certainly appreciate the attention to detail and genuinely impressive production and execution, but it's pre-St. Vincent songs like "Cruel" and "Cheerleader" I find the most satisfying and infectious. Clark ended with the 2012 Record Store Day single "Krokodil," an awesome, busy, intense rave-up, and exited rather unceremoniously. A nearby attendee said he thought thanking the crowd was a part of the social contract when it comes to concerts, but I'm not sure I agree — and anyway, Clark has clearly crafted an image for herself, and perhaps an insincere "Thank you so much!" just isn't part of that image.

Damon Albarn at Stubbs
In true rock star fashion, Blur/Gorillaz bro Damon Albarn took the stage nearly an hour late, and paid the price when a hard 2 a.m. curfew forced the singer to cut his set short after an all-too-brief nine songs. Which is not very rock star. This motherfucker has headlined Coachella!

Decked out in a dark leather jacket, Albarn looked great and sounded even better, singing pleasantly dream-poppy songs off his stab at solo career-dom Everyday Robots, trying to sell a new product to a fairly indifferent crowd of bleary-eyed late-night small-talkers in the back and eager super fans congregated at the front. I'd say a couple of the tunes sounded like Radiohead if I didn't know better.

Luckily for longtime fans in the by-then-dwindling crowd, four of nine set-list selections were from Albarn's back catalog, including the super-glammy, uber Bowie-esque Blur "Beetlebum" B-side "All Your Life"; The Good, the Bad and the Queen baroque-pop cut "Kingdom of Doom"; and Gorillaz' "On Melancholy Hill" and "Tomorrow Comes Today" — choice selections all around. Taking in the chilled-out show under the stars, we were blissfully unaware of the horror happening outside The Mohawk just two blocks away.

This article features additional reporting by Adam Gold.

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