Tonight began with one of those wake-up calls that made me realize how disconnected I am from whatever’s making a buzzing noise in the music world. I showed up at the Chimera Music showcase at the Elysium early with nothing better to do and was shocked to find it packed to the gills. The stage was occupied by a trio I’d never heard of called the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. Why in the world, I thought, has this group attracted such a crowd? Yoko Ono was headlining later; I figured maybe all these folks had arrived early to make sure they had a spot in the club for her appearance five hours later.
Then I got closer to the stage and realized why there were so many people: the bearded, bespectacled dude with the acoustic guitar and the high-hat was Sean Lennon. The GoaSTT is his collaboration with his multi-instrumentalist partner Charlotte Kemp Muhl, augmented for this performance by a trumpet/flugelhorn player. The band’s acoustic pop bordered on preciousness, but the memorable melodies (with a touch, but only a touch, of the Beatlesque), lush harmonies and brass solos kept the appeal higher than the irritation. This is the first time I’ve ever heard any music Lennon’s been involved with and it makes me wonder what else I might have missed.
Next up was the band I came to see: If By Yes. Begun as a songwriting collaboration betwixt singer Petra Haden (that dog, tons of collaborations.) and Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto, Floored By Four), the project has expanded into a band with an excellent forthcoming debut LP called Salt On Sea Glass. The SXSW lineup included guitarist Nels Cline (a guest on the album), Mr. Bungle bassist *Trevor Dunn and singer Courtney Kaiser, as well as stalwart guitarist Hirotaka Shimizu and drummer Yuko Araki from Cornelius. All this talent was brought to bear on a suite of grooving, atmospheric pop songs that fold jazz and bossa nova into elegiac melodies without being showy or obvious about it. Haden’s voice shines whether she’s crooning or speaking in tongues, even with a cough plaguing her, and no matter whether the song was slow and sensual (“Lightening in Your Eyes”) or soaring and shimmering (“Still Breathing”), she and the band hit the pocket and stayed for dinner. Best of all was “Shadow Blind,” a marvelous piece of jazzy pop confectionery that would make Everything But the Girl proud.
As the Chimera showcase was running behind, Mark Eitzel was already halfway through his show when I arrived at Bethel Hall, essentially the fellowship hall of St. David’s, Austin’s downtown Catholic church. Accompanied only by American Music Club guitarist Vudi and keyboardist Marc Capelle, Eitzel indulged in his lounge lizard side a bit, leaning on the grand piano and crooning a straightforward “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” But otherwise it was a typical Eitzel experience, from the rambling, self-loathing commentary and direct audience contact to the off-mic vocals and emotional catharsis. He put a Kurt Weill spin on AMC’s “Patriot’s Heart,” but sang “The Nightwatchman” and “Why I’m Bullshit” with his usual unadorned directness. Ending with “The Thorn in My Side is Gone,” Eitzel barely let the last notes settle in the air before he quit the room. Non-fans probably wondered what the hell just happened, but the rest accepted this odd performance as a matter of Eitzel course.
When I walked in the hall, I wondered how The Soundtrack of Our Lives was going to translate its high-energy rock & roll to this big, wooden room. The answer was obvious, of course: by playing an acoustic show. This allowed the Swedish sextet to put on a TSOOL concert unlike any other I’ve seen (and that’s plenty). With guitarists Mättias Barjed and Ian Person turned so far down, keyboardist Martin Hederos took full advantage, with rippling, almost classical piano lines on the grand and organ parts that didn’t get lost in the band’s usual shuffle. The group’s sixties influences came out more prominently as well, something singer Ebbot Lundberg acknowledged by introducing “The Fan Who Wasn’t There” as a tune inspired by the Love reunion with the late Arthur Lee. And that choice of song highlighted the special nature of this show – the band really dug deep into its catalog, playing tunes it rarely performs, from the lovely “In Your Veins” and “Jehovah Sunrise” to the more epic “Century Child” and “Four Ages (Part 1).” After closing with that last, the band thought it was done, filing out of the room. But Lundberg wasn’t fast enough, exclaiming “Martin!” as Hederos began playing the pretty riff to “Tonight” – and the singer obliged, giving the crowd one last ballad to send them out into the night.
The final band I saw this SXSW couldn’t have been a bigger contrast to everything else from this evening. Slough Feg took the tiny stage at Valhalla (which hosted many a Small Stone showcase back when it was called Room 710) louder than any act I saw this year. The San Francisco quartet’s brand of heavy metal eschews death, thrash or any of the other influences on metal over the last 25 years, going right back to the early 80s and the days of Angel Witch and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. That means galloping rhythms, soaring melodies (with a bit of a Celtic folk influence), guitar fills and solos cramming nearly every otherwise empty space and harmony guitar parts that sometimes even included the bass. Leader Mike Scalzi boasts one of the best voices in metal, with a midrange bellow somewhere between a growl and a wail, and his frequent trips to raised surfaces for singing and soloing lent a sense of pure fun not often found in po-faced metal these days. The band’s high energy/volume onslaught obscured the subtleties that make Slough Feg stand out in a crowded field, but arguably live metal works best as a visceral attack anyway. Ending SXSW 2011 with ears ringing ain’t a bad way to bring a terrific festival to a close.