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St. Vincent at church (photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern)

Department of Eagles, St. Vincent, The Week That Was, Camera Obscura

SXSW 2009 Day 1, March 18th, 2009

Mar 28, 2009 Web Exclusive Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

Jarvis Cocker

SXSW is a guessing game. There are many hundreds of bands playing at so many different venues, that you can have a fantastic or a lousy time depending on who you see and how well you second guess how long it will take to get into each venue. The goal is to spend most of your time seeing as many great bands as possible, and as little time possible waiting in line or sitting through sets from bands you don’t want to see just to make sure you’re in the venue in time to see the bands you do want to see. Your enemies are late set times and the varying degrees of sound quality at Austin’s many venues.

This was my fifth trip to SXSW, and each year I get more and more used to the slog and less and less wide-eyed about how many wonderful bands there are to be seen over the course of five days. The seasoned SXSW attendee can easily grow jaded, but there’s no denying the joys of being blown away by a new band after seeing them for the very first time in some dark and dingy Austin venue at one in the morning. Alas, 2009 contained less such moments for me than previous years did. For starters, the lineup didn’t feel quite as spectacular this year; there were lots of new bands I was curious to see, a few established bands I was excited to see, but the festival was short on artists I was truly passionate about. The world economic crisis is partly to blame for this, as a lot of artists from overseas skipped SXSW this year for financial reasons. SXSW has a solid reputation for being the American launching pad for new European bands, and while there was certainly no shortage of foreign accents behind the mics, a lot of the new European artists who I would’ve been excited to see this year talked about coming to Austin, but then opted out. But this is not to say that there wasn’t plenty on offer each night and there were still several Sophie’s Choice-type moments of deciding between which favorite artists playing at the same time we would see. As with every SXSW, I’ve left Austin with a list of bands that I wish I’d had a chance to see, and pangs of regret that maybe I didn’t make the best choices about who to see and when.

Our SXSW began on Wednesday afternoon, with a fantastic lecture from Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker about the importance of lyrics in pop music. It was the only time I’ve actually taken the time to watch a lecture or panel at SXSW and I doubt any will top Cocker’s, especially considering that he played a version of Pulp’s “Babies” on acoustic guitar to the rapt audience in the small conference hall. You can read all about the lecture on our website here.

The Week That Was

One British band who did make the trip over was The Week That Was, although I’m not sure if they should’ve bothered. The band, which is the project of Field Music’s Peter Brewis, only seemed to play one set at SXSW and it was at 8 P.M. on the first night of the festival. They played to a small crowd in Friends Bar, and actually seemed eager to end their set early, mainly because the band’s regular keyboard was either broken or MIA, so they had to borrow one off of Post War Years, who were playing later at the same the venue. “It’s a bit weird, but it’s better than nothing,” remarked Brewis of playing someone else’s keyboard. The Week That Was didn’t seem to have enough songs to fill their playing time; someone from the band joked that they could extend their guitar solos. Brewis eventually decided that he’d gotten comfortable enough with the keyboard that they could play one extra song. The group was able to somewhat faithfully recreate the sounds of their excellent self-titled debut live, although in a live setting it became clearer that many of the band’s songs sound similar and easily blend into one another. Still, both The Week That Was and School of Language (the project from Brewis’ brother/fellow Field Music member David Brewis) encouraged me to investigate the back catalogue of Field Music, a band I wasn’t previously impressed by. As The Week That Was was performing, I saw a man walk by outside wearing a T-shirt that read, “I love music, but the music industry sucks.”

Department of Eagles

Our next stop was the 4AD showcase at the Central Presbyterian Church, a beautiful, traditional-looking place of worship that for the last few years has also doubled as a SXSW venue. Unfortunately, by deciding to see The Week That Was at 8 P.M., instead of going directly to the Central Presbyterian Church, we ruined our chances of catching M. Ward at 9 P.M., as the church was at capacity by the time we showed up at around 8:45. We spent the next hour waiting in the badge line and feeling sorry for those in the wristband line who probably weren’t getting into the venue anytime soon (badges get in before wristbands and the poor people with neither, who were hoping to buy tickets on the night, were shit out of luck). We were admitted into the venue in time to catch Department of Eagles’ 10 P.M. set. I wasn’t as impressed by 2008’s In Ear Park as many other critics were. To me, it sounded too close to Daniel Rossen’s other band, Grizzly Bear, kind of like Grizzly Bear’s less interesting cousin. In Ear Park was certainly a pleasant record, but I would’ve preferred it if Rossen had branched off into areas less Grizzly Bear-esque. However, live, in a church with wonderful acoustics, Department of Eagles were captivating. The audience sat in pews. The Bibles may have been removed, but no one stood and there was no dancing in the aisle. Their set began and ended with Rossen playing solo, his haunting vocals echoing around the chamber as his Grizzly Bear bandmate Ed Droste watched on from the audience. During one song, Rossen sampled and looped himself, so that there was a choir of Rossens. In between the solo songs, the full Department band played, filling up the church with their graceful swells.

St. Vincent

Next up, the appropriately named St. Vincent performed the appropriately named “Jesus Saves, I Spend.” Singer Annie Clark had a 4-piece backing band, including a flautist and a violinist. They opened with “The Strangers,” the opening track to her slightly disappointing forthcoming sophomore album, Actor (which doesn’t reach the same sonic heights of her 2007 debut, Marry Me). “Tonight we’re kicking out all the new jams,” said Clark. The most unexpected thing about seeing St. Vincent for the first time, as I discovered a couple of years ago, is that Clark really shreds her electric guitar. St. Vincent’s albums are so controlled and produced, but live she really lets loose.

“It’s a pleasure to be back in Texas. I know most of you aren’t from here,” said Clark, who used to play in Texas collective The Polyphonic Spree. “I was excited coming down here. What’s up Whataburger? I haven’t seen you in awhile. What’s up old friend?” Clark joked about the Texas-based fast food chain.

Later Clark gave a familial shout-out. “I come from quite a big family, and I want to say hi to my 10-year-old brother and my 8-year-old brother, I mean sister, Rosie. Sorry, I promise you I’ll pay for the therapy,” she said to her sister, followed by audience laughter.

“Marry Me” featured more fitting biblical references, such as “Let’s do what Mary and Joseph did/Without the kid.” And after Clark killed another guitar solo, I was left wondering why Actor doesn’t rock more and whether that’ll be corrected with St. Vincent’s third album.

Camera Obscura

“Thanks for staying up well after midnight, maybe it feels like the Christmas service,” said Tracyanne Campbell, lead vocalist for Scottish indie-popsters Camera Obscura, as the headliners took the stage. The band, who recently left Merge for 4AD (and who said that this was their first time playing an official 4AD event), opened up with a selection of songs from their new record, My Maudlin Career, including “The Sweetest Thing.” Some of My Maudlin Career’s slower tracks took flight live. Having already heard My Maudlin Career, I was happy to hear the new songs, but many in the audience likely hadn’t heard the album yet, as it was a full month before its release date, and so they started to tire of the new songs and leave, much to the alarm of Campbell. “If anybody wants to run up here, don’t run out the door like some of you folks are doing, but run up here with a cough drop. Don’t run away, come back!” pleaded Campbell, who also seemed to be fighting a cold. At which point, the person sitting next to me got up and left. The band then pulled out fan favorite “Let’s Get Out of This Country.”

After someone brought Campbell a cough drop, she said, “I’ll take it after the next song. This one is called ‘French Navy,’ it’s the first single off the new record, so it’s probably the best song on there. We’ll see.” Campbell was right, “French Navy” probably IS My Maudlin Career’s highlight.

Campbell was very talkative between songs. “This is our first show in the States for quite a while; glad to see so many people.…This is our first gig in a church, in one that is working. Is that the right word?” she pondered. “Does this church work? I hope it does for some people.”

Campbell introduced Maudlin track “Forests and Sands” as such: “This was written touring the States…on Valentine’s night, I believe.”

But throughout her band’s after-midnight set, Campbell seemed most perturbed by the audience members leaving the church, at one point apologizing before playing the new song “James”: “We’re going to play another new song. I hope that’s all right. We need to try them out on somebody, might as well be you.” After performing Maudlin’s closer, and one of its highlights, “Honey in the Sun,” which features a fabulous trumpet crescendo, Campbell asked, “Is everybody holding up all right, considering it’s very late? Are you sure? Because I think some of the flock might have flown.” She later added, “So many people leaving and making us feel sad. I can’t even swear, because I’m in a church.” But Campbell needn’t have worried, there were still plenty in the audience and those who stuck around were treated to the first of several triumphant SXSW sets from Camera Obscura, including a rendition late in the set of “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken,” with its organ intro sounding transcendent in the church setting.

And so concluded day one of SXSW. Other bands we could’ve seen that night instead included: The Decemberists, School of Seven Bells, Port O’Brien, Echo and the Bunnymen, Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, Late of the Pier, Viva Voce, Peter Bjorn and John, Glasvegas, and Project Jenny, Project Jan. Did we make the right choices?

Check out a full gallery of SXSW 2009 day 1 photos here.


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January 10th 2011

The group was able to somewhat faithfully recreate the sounds of their excellent self-titled debut live, although in a live setting it became clearer that many of the band’s songs sound similar and easily blend into one another.”Rolex Prices