Photos by Amy Phillips; Above: Frankie Rose and the Outs
Club 1808 is a dive bar located in a kinda sketchy neighborhood far off the beaten path, a good mile and a half or so away from the epicenter of SXSW. After Frankie Rose and the Outs’ set last night, I found myself stuck there without a cab and not a whole lot of time before Signals’ set at Beauty Bar, back on the main drag. So I started hoofing it through the semi-deserted streets, hoping that a cab would randomly appear. One did, but it zoomed right past me and picked up a bunch of dudes standing on the corner. I continued walking, but the next thing I knew, that cab pulled up and the dudes offered me a ride. Hooray! So, shout out to the fine gentlemen in the band Tempo No Tempo (and Eddie the cab driver). You guys rule.
Frankie Rose and the Outs [Club 1808; 8:00 p.m.]
There’s reverb, and then there’s reverb. The effects used during Frankie Rose’s set turned the aforementioned sketchy dive bar Club 1808 into a cavernous womb of sound, seeming to physically stretch the walls to accommodate all that noise. But somehow, the songs didn‘t suffer all that much. The reverb made the music spookier, more goth.
Rose can usually be found behind the drum kit, formerly with Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts and currently with Dum Dum Girls, but for her own band she straps on a guitar and sings. I personally prefer the Outs to Rose’s other projects; I think she’s a gifted melodicist and a charismatic tough cookie as a frontwoman. Backed by a group of ladies in vintage fashions, Rose exhibited the exact right combination of sexy and kickass throughout her 20-minute set. One comic moment: at the end, as she thanked the crowd for coming, Rose stomped on her reverb pedal mid-sentence, and all of a sudden, her words were clear for the first time all evening.
Signals [Beauty Bar; 8:50 p.m.]
Following an ugly split with their underrated former band the Mae Shi, Jon Gray, Bill Gray, and Jacob Cooper have re-emerged as Signals. And they pretty much picked up where they left off, with spastic, day-glo digi-punk performed with enough energy to charge a small village’s power supply. (Though they lacked the Mae Shi‘s wacky performance tricks, like the sheet the band would pull over the audience.) Vocalist Jon Gray looked and sounded like he snorted a pack of Pixy Stix in the bathroom right before the set, shrieking and pogo-ing around the stage and, at one point, leaping into the crowd to writhe on the floor. Covers of the Germs’ “Richie Dagger’s Crime” and Sparks’ “Angst in My Pants” brought wide grins to the band members’ faces.
Julianna Barwick [Beauty Bar Backyard; 9:50]
“I’m Julianna and I’m gonna sing some sweet, soothing songs for you tonight,” Julianna Barwick announced to open her set. And there are few worse places to experience those sweet, soothing songs than in a tent in a parking lot full of drunk industry networkers with a metal band playing next door. (The middle of a construction site? An airport runway?) Going into this performance, I guessed that Barwick’s gorgeous vocal manipulations are best heard in solitude, on headphones or in a quiet room where you can be alone with your thoughts. And this confirmed it. The music may be beautiful, but in addition to not being able to hear it very well, there isn‘t much to look at. Barwick stands stock still, singing and fiddling with knobs. The metal band playing next door sounded pretty good, though.
Telephoned [Malverde; 11:20]
It really shouldn‘t work. A nerdy DJ and super hot singer doing blog-house versions of popular R&B hits? That seems like an awful idea. But oh man, does it work, especially at this performance at the Fool’s Gold showcase, which was the most fun thing I’ve seen at SXSW so far. Producer/DJ Sammy Bananas, a wimpy dude in a suit and tie and bushy mustache, looked like the president of the Math Club who lucked into taking the most popular girl at school to the prom. Singer Maggie Horn, a vision in a skintight dress and chunky plastic jewelry (with big plastic telephones on her necklace!), seductively rocked stripper moves with confidence and ease… until, at one point, she fell flat on her face. And then, later on, dropped her mic mid-lyric.
But Horn can really sing, too. She brought unexpected heft to takes on songs like Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On”, The-Dream’s “Rockin‘ That Thang“, and T-Pain’s “Can’t Believe It”, and held her own against vocal powerhouses like Alicia Keys (“Empire State of Mind”) and Whitney Houston (“Million Dollar Bill”). During a brief alt-rock section, Horn sang the shit out of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Runaway” (which Sammy Bananas mashed up with the T.I./Justin Timberlake track “Dead and Gone”) and Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody”. During Kyla’s “Do You Mind”, Fool’s Gold label head A-Trak wandered through the crowd blowing a whistle.
The xx [Central Presbyterian Church; 12:30]
The xx’s debut was one of my favorite albums of 2009, but when the British band played the Bottom Lounge in Chicago in December, I hated it. Their spare, intimate music is not meant to be heard in a crowded club. It demands silence, reverence, complete concentration. In other words, the xx should play only in churches.
The xx’s set at the Central Presbyterian Church was nothing short of magical. The bass rumbled through the cavernous space, the minimal guitar pings echoed off of the rafters. With a quiet, seated audience taking it all in with awe, the voices of guitarist Romy Madley Croft (wearing a Lady Gaga t-shirt) and bassist Oliver Sim were free to be hushed and close, recreating the under-the-sheets immediacy of the album. The placement of the band’s double-x logo on producer Jamie Smith’s speaker cabinets fell directly in line with the big wooden cross on the church’s back wall, creating a juxtaposition of the spiritual and the carnal.
At the close of a set that was all tension and no release, the xx ended with “Infinity”, punctuated by live cymbal crashes. The trio locked into an extended groove for a powerful coda that found Sim pounding away at the cymbal. You could feel the reverberations in the pews, stirring the body to impure thoughts.