SXSW 2011: Saturday night—and that’s a wrap

March 20, 2011

Wild Flag

AUSTIN—Though the energizing high of Thursday night’s set by Le Butcherettes still lingers, I feared the minute it was over that it would be difficult for anything else at SXSW 2011 to top it—and no, the sad spectacle of the altercation between Ben Weasel and two women Friday night certainly does not count.
 
The biggest musical rush I got in the last 36 hours of the festival came from parts of two sets I caught by Wild Flag, one at a club called the Parish after the Screeching Weasel show on Friday night, and the other at a club called Mohawk on Saturday afternoon.
 
This indie-rock supergroup brings together two veterans of Sleater Kinney, guitarist Carrie Brownstein (who also stars with former Chicagoan Fred Armisen in the gonzo comedy series “Portlandia”) and hard-hitting drummer Janet Weiss, with keyboardist Rebecca Cole, formerly of the Minders, and Mary Timony, best known for her work with Helium, but also a solo artist and a previous collaborator with Brownstein in a side project called the Spells.
 
The attraction for many Sleater Kinney fans is the chance to once again see Brownstein and Weiss rocking out. Yet while I appreciated that influential band’s intensity, I thought it always was lacking in the songwriting department. On the other hand, I have long been a major fan of Timony, though on occasion I’ve wished her music was presented in a more powerful setting. Though the quartet has yet to record its debut album for Merge Records, it already has honed a focused and surprisingly mature sound with the Sleater Kinney aggression nicely balanced by a new and welcome pop sensibility and just enough of Timony’s trademark ethereal/witchy shoegazer vibe to add an enticing aura of mystery and intrigue.
 
 
My batting average was a lot lower the rest of Saturday. The Holidays were an annoyingly twee quartet from Sydney that seemed to be shooting for a sort of Vampire Weekend global poptimism. But, for me, the group merely underscored the truism that the only band in rock history that hasn’t sucked while employing congas was T. Rex.
 
 
Next up on the bill at a showcase in a rented warehouse sponsored by Chicago’s Windish Agency was 18-year-old Tampa rapper Dominique Young Unique, who showed considerable charisma and unbridled energy as she attacked the mic, but whose charms ultimately were overpowered by two incredibly annoying backing musicians straight out of central casting circa 1986. These goobers drowned her sassy tales in horribly outdated synth squiggles and cheesy drum-machine grooves. She might have real potential with better backing tracks, though I think I’d still prefer Kid Sister.
 
 
Farther up Sixth Street at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop, the musical reputation of Sydney was redeemed by Cloud Control, a dream-pop quartet that made its full-length debut with “Bliss Release,” an apt description of its swirling sound. But even better, and the final highlight of the night and my festival, was Washington, the abbreviated stage name of Papua, New Guinea-born singer and songwriter Megan Washington. Her sophisticated, layered, and personal tunes brought to mind current indie rave Sharon Van Etten, but her backing band hit harder and played with much more conviction, mirroring the front woman’s winning self-assurance.
 
 
As for some general observations to close out the overall SXSW experience, for the first time in 20 years, I have to agree with all of the other veterans complaining that the festival was a lot more fun when it was smaller. But the fact that it has grown to the point of being nearly unmanageable seemed undeniable, and stories about that issue filled the local Austin news, from the problem of the city no longer having enough hotel rooms to accommodate everyone, to the festival causing epic traffic and safety concerns. (See also: KXAN: "SXSW considers limiting free events.")
 
As in years past, the first impulse of SXSW organizers is to say they’ll work with the city to crack down on the unsanctioned parties—which, coincidentally, do not give them a piece of the action. But the parties have become an inextricable part of the festival’s draw, and trying too aggressively to stamp them out could backfire with paying attendees deciding they’ll just skip the whole thing.
 
So what’s the solution? I’m not sure I can say; you can’t roll back the clock. Maybe the pressure would be relieved if there was a second, similar event at the opposite mid point of the year, in September or October. For all the talk of the recorded music industry withering and dying, there certainly seems to be enough live music lovers to support two such events. The only problem would be where to hold it.