SXSW 2011: Tuesday night with Grimes and Esben and the Witch

March 16, 2011

AUSTIN—As usual, the mix of overwhelming dread and undeniable excitement that characterize South by Southwest hit me at the gate at O’Hare on Tuesday morning as I climbed aboard a flight dominated by iPhone-obsessed hipsters dressed in black and with moods to match, all heading to America’s biggest annual gathering of whatever it is that passes for a music industry in 2011.

The dread is a result of knowing that it will be hard to escape these throngs for the next six days and to maintain some semblance of health and sanity amid the nearly 24-hour-a-day assault of frantic music and hyperbolic buzz.

The excitement stems from pretty much the same places: It always is inspiring to reconnect with so many people from around the world who believe and truly care about music, and to hear so much that invariably thrills and surprises. (And those aren’t always the acts that “everyone is talking about,” which is the reason why I never bother to make any pre-SXSW predictions or compile a list of must-sees.)

With the music festival in its 25th year, the interactive festival threatening to overshadow it, and the film festival running strong, some SXSW veterans spend much of the time here grumbling about how the whole thing was so much better before it got so big and corporate. (And Michael Corcoran of the Austin-American Statesman has a nice run-down of many of the last quarter-century’s highlights and lowlights here.)
 
But for this veteran, now at his 20th festival, the dread often is quickly eclipsed by the excitement. And so it was soon after the badge pickup and the first Mexican meal of the week, when the relatively sparse schedule of official opening-night music showcases (filling a mere 10 venues on Tuesday night, compared to 87 starting on Wednesday) nonetheless yielded two strong acts to get things rolling (and both are playing several more official showcases and parties, in addition to non-sanctioned events in the days to come).
 
Grimes/Claire Boucher
 
Grimes, a.k.a. 18-year-old electronica musician Claire Boucher of Montreal, brings together a weird mix of influences ranging from Bjork to “witch house” purveyors Salem. She sometimes performs with a backing band, but at a bland Sixth Street bar called Spill that clearly caters to frat boys when SXSW isn’t in town, she took the stage alone, hovered over a keyboard, and layered rhythms, synthesizer melodies, and otherworldly vocals in increasingly complicated loops and ever more dynamic walls of sound, creating a mood that almost (but not quite) overcame the surroundings.
 
Esben and the Witch in action; they sounded as blurry as this looks, honest.
 
Hailing from Brighton, England, signed to Matador Records, and shaping up to be the sort of hipster buzz I’d generally try to avoid, Esben and the Witch was even more successful at making the wannabe Coyote Ugly less so. There’s some witch house in this trio, too, with vocalist Rachel Davies intoning somber gothic melodies as bandmates Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher churn out wonderful shoegazer drones and blasts of feedback. But there’s also an early Jesus and Mary Chain level of aggression, with Davies hammering away on a cymbal during some tunes, and all three musicians physically throwing themselves into their maelstroms of sound.
 
I ducked into a few other clubs on Sixth Street afterwards, but nothing else came close to either of those first two acts of the night, so I soon decided it’d be better to pace myself anyway and quit while I was ahead.
 
What else am I looking forward to in the days to come? As I said, I really try to maximize the time spent wandering and being open to surprises, as opposed to waiting on lines at the most-hyped showcases or parties. But there is one panel session I’m eager to attend: According to the L.A. Times’ ace music blogger Todd Martens, Nathan Hubbard, one of the top executives at monopolistic concert giant Ticketmaster/Live Nation, has agreed to appear on a panel on Friday stacked with some of his biggest critics--including Andrew Kaplan of Chicago’s Jam Productions, a company Live Nation once expressed a desire to "crush, kill and destroy." Now that should be fun.
 
Also worth reading:
 
CNET: Deal with it: SXSW has changed (on the interactive fest exploding)