As mentioned by my comrades here in Austin, hanging your hat on a few must-see bands at festivals as large as SXSW is preferable to running yourself ragged trying to catch everything. I've done my best to keep my schedule loose and hope the wind takes me toward some new and interesting bands—one of which was the charming weird pop of Woods, who play a warped and loping brand of folk that's still wholly accessible and melodic, and another was Pictureplane, who I describe a little more below. But even the unofficial parties at SXSW seem dominated by acts who consistently tour nationally, and admittedly, the few must-sees I've picked are artists I'm going to be seeing again, possibly in a few months.
Max Tundra is a one-man show, live and on record, so setting up his gear in front of the empty drum risers and amps on Emo's outdoor stage seemed oddly appropriate. (In the interests of full disclosure, Tundra was part of a showcase organized in part by Pitchfork, to which I contribute.) Given the layered instrumentals he manipulated from the tables in front of him, it was as if all that extraneous equipment was part of a symphony at his command. Tundra is behind every painstaking pop, click,and riff on the backing track he played to, taken from records that take years to complete. If that's not enough, just hitting the right finger snap or charmingly klutzy dance at the right time over his sputtering, unpredictable rhythms is a feat. Tundra had assembled an island's worth of lost toys around him, and he seemed to be a virtuoso at all of them: fleet-fingered piano fills, elaborate drum programming, a riff on a melodica, a ripping thumb piano solo, and a small blow-tube pastel keyboard held above his head, marching like a drill instructor while tapping out house-like rhythms. It was that last bit where I realized this diminutive balding Brit was fully aware of the ridiculous appearance he strikes on stage and was clearly embracing it. If he's small, it's because he's dense with talent.
A few doors down, Future of the Left was playing the Radio Room as part of an AV Club showcase, and they were another tourhorse with an upcoming record that I couldn't keep myself away from.
Formed from members of Welsh bands Jarcrew and the mighty Mclusky, the band's lone album searched for new and unexpected ways to push out complex and confrontational rock. As a live act, they're a far more streamlined punch in the gut. Knotty distortion comes in precise bursts, and while Andrew Falkous does his best to enunciate his wordy and wickedly funny lyrics, sometimes all those syllables become one (ex: "Who put the brakes on courage?" vs. "yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaruugh."). The new songs they previewed went straight for the jugular, with riffs that suggest these guys think modern rock is still a genre worth upending. Their banter was priceless, from admonishing whomever pissed all over the men's room floor (Bassist Kevin Mathias: "I've got a hole in my shoe and now I'm squelching") or a tasteless Princess Diana joke—a valiant effort, but it's harder to offend Americans that way. They finished a breathless half-hour set with Mathias shimmying halfway into the crowd as Falkous finished with some choice drumstick-on-guitar grinding.
Later on, I arrived to Ms. Bea's later than I'd have liked, but the good fortune of a late performance saved me from missing another familiar band. Pterodactyl play catchy noise-punk smeared with wide-eyed psychedelia, sounding youthful and anxious and ready to crack. Aside from their powerful drumming and nervous riffing, they often lean on fragile falsetto harmonies, which they could not pull off for the life of them last night. A shame, because all the new material they were previewing that night sounded promising, the last song especially sounding like a more measured and complex revisit of their monstrous single "Polio," which they didn't play.
The stage was a back patio extended by girders and a broken glass awning, with people hanging from nearby trees and standing on the tops of cars in the parking lot and the roof of Ms. Bea's. It was the out-of-hand house party from every ’80s teen movie come to life. But aside from the tardy Pterodactyl and a last-minute cancellation by Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth, the party was a marvel of organization for being cobbled together DIY style. Marnie Stern set up to the right of the stage moments after Pterodactyl, and she was all business. Playing offstage, she was barely visible, but the precision between her manic guitar tapping and the rollicking drums was more than audible.
Pictureplane was a study in contradictions, or maybe he just subverted my (unfair) first impressions: He's one man, a young guy dressed like he fell out of an American Apparel ad behind a table of DJ toys, who went on to announce he's from Denver before adding fey, gentle vocals about boys wearing makeup to his patient but insistent electro while bobbing back and forth. The songs weren't "patient" in the way they'd move and transform from bar to bar, but in the slow and assured way they would build, asking you to move without underlining the question. The crowd had swelled to numbers large enough to freak out the organizers a little, but the audience's reactions were variant. Despite one gentleman imploring people to "fucking dance," and even leading by example on stage for a minute, people mostly kept to polite bobbing. Pictureplane himself hoped the crowd would "start jumping off shit," then immediately took it back, remembering the frailty of the makeshift stage.
I've seen HEALTH at other festivals, and while they're always as tight as they are exuberant, their controlled fury doesn't always go over well with big crowds. Putting them at the end of Todd P's all-ages apocalypse, however, was the perfect context: All the squealing noise of Pterodactyl, the exactitude of Stern, and even the rhythm of Pictureplane are in HEALTH's songs for seconds a time. Their concise blasts of spazz-rock blend tribal drumming, guitar skronk, static and ghostly vocals, the latter texture being a powerful counterpoint that carried remarkably well over the outdoor venue. Their songs only seem like random noise if you lose the beat. I'll see them again, but this time and place will be the most memorable.