AUSTIN, Tx—The best-laid plans tend to quickly go awry at South by Southwest, especially with these epic crowds. Yet if I missed catching a few acts I’d hoped to see on night one—Merchandise, the Black Angels, Guards—I did have a couple of great surprises in the clubs.
The first of these was a Brooklyn singer-songwriter named Laura Stevenson, who performed with her band the Cans under a tent outside a club called Holy Mountain off Seventh Street. Think of a less intense, sweeter-voiced Sharon Van Etten, but with a two-guitar, bass, drums and accordion lineup capable of unexpected eruptions of noise a la the Velvet Underground or Neil Young with Crazy Horse.
Music is in Stevenson’s blood: Her grandfather was a composer who made key early recordings of the Christmas standards “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” while her grandmother sang with Benny Goodman. But Stevenson has a voice all her own, honed over the course of three indie albums including the latest, Wheel, released on Don Giovanni, the label that brought us Screaming Females. Hopefully she and the Cans will make just as much noise.
I was heading out the door after Stevenson’s set when another band playing on the smaller indoor stage at the same club stopped me dead in my tracks. The Holydrug Couple is a duo from the apparently burgeoning psychedelic-rock scene in Santiago, Chile. Ives Sepúlveda and Manuel Parra expanded to a trio for this gig, showcasing a sound that force-feeds that mellow ’70s West Coast folk-rock sound newly resurgent in some circles (a primary culprit: Dawes) through a freaky and evil psychotropic blender, with striking results.
Most impressive was a stunning track called “Follow Your Way” that began as a rough cover deconstructing Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” and became a full-on interstellar-overdrive freak-out.
Most of the rest of the night consisted of unremarkable mediocrities, plus one truly dreadful act, Alabama-reared, Brooklyn-based EDM/folk-rock hybrid Phosphorescent, a.k.a. Matthew Houck, whose set was all the more painful for taking place in a big, uncomfortable, corporate-sponsored temporary party space called Hype Hotel, and for starting 40 minutes late, thereby screwing up the schedule for everything that followed.
I stayed put because I was eager to see Foxygen, no matter the delay or the unwelcoming surroundings. And the core Los Angeles duo of vocalist Sam France and guitarist-keyboardist Jonathan Rado plus assorted friends did not disappoint as they rendered onstage the brilliant tunes from We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic.
To be sure, the acoustics of the cavernous concrete space worked against the band’s intricate and sometimes delicate arrangements, as did the scent of the foul fast food being handed out by Taco Bell, one of the corporate sponsors. (Taco Bell—in a Texas city with another great mom-and-pop taco joint every 15 yards!) But if Foxygen could deliver in circumstances like that, no doubt it can do infinitely better anywhere else.
My complete coverage of SXSW 2013