Two highlights from day two of the music portion of South by Southwest were Devendra Banhart playing an intimate indoor show at the KCRW Showcase and Jim James whipping a sardine-packed crowd at Hype Hotel into a midnight frenzy. Banhart, whose Mala dropped on Tuesday, forewent the album’s instrumental layers and synth beats in favor of a stripped-down one-man approach. Perched atop a stool with nothing but an electric guitar, he interspersed songs from the new album with old favorites such as “The Body Breaks.” About 20 seconds into the song, Banhart stopped playing, smiled sheepishly, and admitted, “Jesus, okay…I don’t remember how to play this!” With typical aplomb, he pointed out, “Hey, this is good, you guys don’t see this too often,” and then re-launched the song. Banhart’s stage presence can come off precious, but his frequent non-sequiturs—wishing the audience a “happy Halloween,” musing about Audrey Hepburn’s emotive abilities—landed with such winsome glee that they somehow never felt contrived. Banhart dropped the occasional note during his intricate solos, but these quirks only add to the DIY, rough-hewn vibe that made him famous in the first place.
By contrast, and from a totally different musical universe, Jim James strode onto the Hype Hotel stage at midnight accompanied by a full band and a striking backdrop of huge, multi-colored light bulbs. Clad in a natty pinstriped suit, James spent much of the show pitched as close to the audience as possible, actually dismounting the stage to stand on a precarious row of speakers mere inches from front-row fans. The band mainly played tracks from James’s recent Regions of Light and Sound of God, with the frontman regularly dropping the mic to launch into galactic guitar solos. When not playing an instrument, James towered over the crowd like a druid priest, gesturing theatrically and whipping his voluminous curly mane to and fro. The show was simply massive in scale, well worth being squished on all sides by hundreds of rowdy, sweaty humans.
Three surprises of the day were experimental pop duo Foxygen, 19-year-old British wunderkind Jake Bugg, and a showcase of New Zealand bands that included Die!Die!Die! and No. Foxygen’s Sam France and Jonathan Rado jockeyed with impressive fluidity between instruments, creating a hybrid of classic-rock guitar lines with contemporary electro-pop touches. Bugg is an artist to keep on your radar; his baby-faced schoolboy aesthetic belies truly impressive guitar chops and a mature facility at writing fresh-sounding alt-country songs. No, meanwhile, delighted festival-goers who wandered into the New Zealand showcase in pursuit of free Kiwi wine. Wielding three guitars and nailing multi-part harmonies, the band echoed U2 minus some of that band’s maudlin strokes. (No’s frontman looks like a cross between John Lennon and Russell Crowe; his vocal talent, mercifully, far surpasses Crowe’s.)