Saturday, April 2, 2011

Defying Gravity: Two SXSW Shows

Just for perspective, the last time I went to see anyone at SXSW, it was this “new thing” that a few clubs were doing.  I got a wristband from Blockbuster Music (where I worked) and I saw Jellyfish and Blues Traveler at Liberty Lunch.  These days, it’s a different story.  It’s like a freaking orgy of hobnobbing and one-upmanship.  In the brief time I spent in the throngs, I saw a guy sympathetically pick up a live mustard-covered crawfish off the street and sincerely apologize to it, and as I waited in line at the Gingerman to get in to see LITE, a dramatic diva preened and obsessed on her cell phone to her girlfriend about meeting Jack White.  I choked back the urge to get all Frank Booth and bark “JACK WHITE? MAN, EFF JACK WHITE!”

As satisfying as that might have been, I chose to focus on my agenda.  I find that it is far more interesting, and financially feasible, to troll for lesser-known (and often free) bands that are caught in the intense gravity of popular culture that surrounds SXSW than it is to be blinded by media-synthesized star power.  

I carved out the time to see two bands during the festivities.  On Thursday, after eating lunch at Whole Foods (my favorite lunch spot), I casually strolled across the street to Waterloo Records to see the Royal Bangs promoting their new release.  I got Let it Beep last year, and although it had a couple of fantastic tracks on it, the entire album seemed a little uneven.  At the time, they were playing as a five-piece, so I was surprised to see them perform as a guitar, drum, and (mostly) keys trio.  Bass parts were sometimes sequenced, sometimes synth, and sometimes a guitar effect.  Synths play a large role in the Royal Bangs, but despite this, they retain a kind of punky DIY feel.  I would not really call them songwriters, but they write good psudeo-prog instrumentals that happen to have vocals.  The first part of this clip is from that lunchtime show.

I liked the Royal Bangs’ set, but it was, ultimately, an outpatient procedure.  After it was over, I went about my day as if nothing had happened.  When I leave a really great show, I almost feel like a different person when I walk away.  The last time that happened was in January 2010 when I saw the Dead Kenny G’s at Momo’s.  This year, I seriously doubt I am going to see another show that will beat out LITE.  Where I felt satisfied with the Royal Bang’s thirty minute set (which is the standard set length during SXSW), I would have gladly listened to LITE play all night long, and I walked away stunned and invigorated. 

When I got to the show on Friday evening, there was an appreciable line at the Gingerman, but the majority of this line was there to see punk/DIY legend Mike Watt, who was touring with LITE.  Several years ago, a friend of mine game me a copy of Mike Watt’s The Secondman’s Middle Stand.  I did not really get the album at the time, but after seeing him live, I have a much greater appreciation for his work.  He put on a great show, but after he was done, the crowd thinned considerably.  I immediately shot to the front and watched LITE set up.  I ended up right by the stage, and when they began playing, I was this close (picture from LITE's tour blog).    

Gingerman’s site described Lite as “instrumental virtuosos from Japan,” and granted, LITE’s music is technical.  Unquestionably, though, they rock.  They exploded on stage with an intense precision that made my hairs literally stand on end and shattered my usual statuesque demeanor.  LITE’s performance expresses the passion that is both the cause and the result of cultivating musical mastery, which is, to me, far more moving than cleverness or public visibility.  Despite being purely instrumental, they captivated both me and, the crowd, it seemed.  The band clearly enjoys playing what they are playing, and this joy is infectious.  Fortunately, there was a person beside me who filmed the show, and I have waited on this footage to arise to post my ramblings on SXSW.  It is pretty much their entire set, so go get a cup of coffee and check it out.

One of LITE’s strongest attributes is their attention to composition above individual technical ability, but they also know when to just to get out of the way.  For example, at the climax of their flawlessly executed version of Image Game (my fight song), the band brought the audience to the edge of their proverbial seats as they counted off several seconds of impenetrable silence, to incredible effect.

Additionally, it was nice to see a real live bass player.   It seems like increasingly, I see bands sequence bass parts and drummers playing to click tracks.  I think it’s funny that, when drum machines came along in the 80s, there was some apprehension that drummers would become obsolete.  Today, it seems like drummers are doing fine – its bassists that should be looking over their shoulders for the axe!  Judging by the studious group crowded around the bassist (one of which had a bass clef tattooed on his forearm), we should all be sticking together, too.

Finally, just for kicks, I thanked each of the members of LITE in my halting Japanese, and they seemed pleased, if not surprised, to hear that pop out of a tall white boy while on tour in Texas.  To keep my enthusiasm in check, though, I promptly left before I reverted too far into goofy teenage fanboy mode and let the sound and feeling of LITE’s set recede into memory.  I promise I'll stop talking about them for a little while.

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