The exponential growth of South by Southwest over the past 25 years has been simply stunning. In honor of this, and just in time for SXSW's silver anniversary, the festival's organizers opted to extend the music portion of the festival by offering up a few sanctioned showcases the night before the whole shebang is officially underway, and it paved 6th Street with more than a few surprises.
Of course there was the big "secret" Foo Fighters show at Stubb's (in this town, and in this Twitter age, it was practically old news by sundown), which sprang up to coincide with a screening of a new documentary about the band, Back and Forth, for the film portion of the festival. By all reports , the show was fantastic -- the 1800-capacity filled up fast, and the band treated the crowd to a front-to-back performance of their new album, Wasting Light , in addition to a set of hits -- but I opted to roam the streets and see what kind of other trouble I could get into on opening night.
This may sound like an exaggeration, but it's not, I swear: Within 10 minutes of leaving the press check-in at the convention center and walking into downtown Austin, I ran into five different people from the Twin Cities, including most of the Burlesque of North America troop and music writer Cyn Collins. And the next time I took to the streets to head to another venue, I ran into about a dozen locals, including half of Gayngs. I jokingly titled the SXSW preview in last week's City Pages "Minnesota Invasion," but it's turning out to be a very real thing. By the end of the night, I stopped counting how many Twin Citians I had encountered, but it was easily two dozen. We may be in a different city, but this city is ours.
To wit: After waiting in line to get into the at-capacity ART DISASTER party to see Dearling Physique's only SXSW performance of the year, I high-tailed it down 6th Street and waded through a mob of shrieking gawkers to watch Michael Cera play bass in Mister Heavenly -- and get this, they were opening for Trampled by Turtles.
Dearling Physique's set at the Beauty Bar made quite the impression on attendees, as lead singer Dom Davis emerged wearing a barely-there shredded minidress, a jagged black wig, and white Bowie face paint. Unfortunately, the beginning of the band's set was sidetracked by some sound problems, but once Davis's vocals were mixed properly he seemed to loosen up and started dancing dramatically around the stage. Dearling Physique's brooding electro-glam songs meshed well with another promising act on the bill, Social Studies, who started off dancey and then droned out into a pretty psychedelic pop that was reminiscent of Beach House.
Photos by Stacy Schwartz
And then there was the Michael Cera affair. It was obvious that a large portion (maybe all?) of the crowd that engulfed the Bat Bar and a slice of the street out in front of the venue were there for one thing, and one thing only: To catch a glimpse of Cera in action. But once the thrill of celebrity wore off, the focus turned to the band itself, and they put on a really impressive show.
Mister Heavenly sports two lead vocalists, Honus Honus of Man Man and Nick Diamonds of Islands, plus Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse on drums. The trio invited Cera to join in on bass last year, and I couldn't help but wonder what kind of odd dynamic this group must have off-stage. The star power of Cera makes the band immediately appealing to people, if only temporarily, but also, well, he's Michael Cera, and therefore manages to have zero stage presence and be totally fucking charming in the most awkward way possible, simultaneously.
Mister Heavenly's Diamonds and Cera
Photos by Stacy Schwartz
For the most part, though, Cera hung to the side, looking down at his bass guitar as he played and occasionally stepping up to the mic to sing breathy backing vocals. The heavy lifting was done mostly by Diamonds, who led the band through a set of '50s throwback songs in a style he has dubbed "doom-wop." Decked out in a blue sport coast, Diamonds looked and acted the part of an old-school lounge singer, alternately crooning melodies and kneeling down onto the ground to wail away over the band's blues progressions on his electric guitar. When it was Honus's turn to sing, the songs sounded more reminiscent of Elvis Costello, equally classic-sounding but with a slightly different feel.
Photos by Stacy Schwartz
A few other highlights of the evening: The first band I caught, Lost in the Trees, was really beautiful, with two cellos and a violin filling out the band's intricately composed, orchestral indie-folk ballads; and the last band of the night, the Sounds, reminded me of a more basic, balls-out version of Metric.
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