It was, to say the least, alarming when a series of frantic Tweets began to interrupt the steady flow of praise that had, for the last hour or so, greeted St. Vincent’s midnight set at the NPR Music Showcase at Stubb’s last night. The singer and guitar goddess, her shock of white-blond hair nearly set aflame by dramatic foot lighting to look like an electrocuted Helena Bonham Carter, held the packed crowd in a state of rapture while, just a block north of the venue, an allegedly drunk man in a stolen car careened down Red River Avenue, killing two and injuring 23 festivalgoers. The tragedy cast a discernable pall over the previously celebratory crowds flocking through the Red River district, home to a concentration of bars, clubs, and pop-up music venues that showcase hundreds of bands into the wee hours during SXSW.
It’s hard to call to mind another contemporary artist who so deftly employs both thoughtful performance decisions and sheer balls-out guitar skill as St. Vincent. From the Warholian hair to the way she tiptoes around the stage and holds certain poses, every aspect of her performance style seems calculated to create an on-stage persona falling somewhere between prima ballerina and a pre-programmed cyborg. Unlike many of today’s heavily processed pop starlets, however, there’s a lot more to the act than just the theatrics; I was seized by an impulse to pour a beer on a nearby audience member who, midway through the set, yelled (ironically, I presume), “We love you, Lady Gaga!” With all due respect to the Artpop singer, it’s tough to match Annie Clark’s ability to shred a crystalline guitar solo while lying flat on her back.
The NPR Showcase also included a ribcage-rattling onslaught of hardcore punk noise provided by Perfect Pussy, fronted by Meredith Graves, whose somewhat twee pixie cut and sailor-cut black overalls belied an ability to scream so loud that her bulging neck arteries were visible from fairly far back in the crowd. Nondescript dude rockers the Eagulls paved the way for R&B diva Kelis. Nestled in the set between a fabulous cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and singles from her upcoming album, Food, the singer’s synth-funk earworm “Milkshake” was pleasantly transformed by Kelis’s 10-piece backing band and a rollicking horn solo.
The Paste Magazine day party at Swan Dive provided a satisfying afternoon cocktail of bands, from up-and-coming Brit rockers Thumpers, whose upbeat, slightly punky offerings lived up to the band’s name. Portland’s lo-fi act Pure Bathing Culture, cashing in on the current vogue for Fleetwood Mac-style retro pop (see: HAIM, Dum Dum Girls, Arthur Beatrice), covered the outdoor stage in dreamy swaths of drum-machine loops and gorgeous pitch-shifted vocal harmonies as nose-ringed young ladies devotedly sang along. Later in the afternoon, Rodney Crowell summoned a slightly more diverse age range with his energetic folk rock. “I’ve been promoting my new record [Tarpaper Sky] anywhere they’ll let me stand,” he informed the crowd. “It comes out on Tax Day so, you know, you get your tax rebate, you get my record…” Looking like a cleaned-up Keith Richards in wayfarers, a liberally unbuttoned black shirt, and a jaunty felt hat over silver locks, Crowell’s set ranged from Elvis-like rockabilly jams to more traditional Americana fare, pleasing audience members young and old alike.
While Stantana-esque chill rockers Spanish Gold played the indoor stage, swarms of Swan Dive customers flocked outside to secure a coveted square foot or two of breathing room to see Lucius close out the day party. Matching, as always, in round sunglasses, wool capes, and identical hairstyles, vocalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig belted airtight, intricately arranged harmonies and banged drums and woodblocks while their backing band generated crazy swells of slide distortion on standout kiss-off song “Go Home,” among others. The band made its way through most of the tracks off of its warmly received debut, Wildewoman, as fanboys and -girls respectfully slam-danced against one another in the front rows.
Finally, the much buzzed-about all-female post-punk act Warpaint got off to a late start at Maggie Mae’s, where a glitchy sound check left enough time for merely a handful of songs before the bar started to shut down. Eager crowd members, many of them sporting and generously proffering face paint in tribute to the band’s name, were dismayed when three burly bar workers rushed the stage at 2:05 am, literally removing instruments from the band members’ hands in some frantic effort to enforce its closing time. City ordinances aside, the gesture could have been accomplished more respectfully, so Warpaint’s interrupted set made for a sobering end to an already sobering night.
SXSW runs March 7—16.