Seeing such immense Oklahoma talent at The Buffalo Lounge in South by Southwest reminds me that it’s time again for The Woody Awards.
I'd spent most of my week on or near E. Sixth St., as it's the hub of SXSW music action. But for the last show of the evening, I had to book it to W. 6th St and Rio Grande (also known as the intersection of "Oh My Gosh" and "You've Got To Be Kidding Me"). It's the only set I had to run to catch, but it was worth it, because I'm still humming Givers tunes twelve hours later.
Givers is a band of five far-too-young-looking boys and a girl from Lafayette, La. They employ acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, electronic beats, ukelele, flute, synthesizers, a secondary drum set and more enthusiasm than I've ever witnessed in a show to make their songs. Some bands have standing as their basic position, with some passionate modification to jumping. Givers has jumping as their standard position, with standing when absolutely necessary.
Seriously, it was harder to tell whether the band or the audience was more excited that Givers was playing. The band's calypso-inspired bubbly indie-pop tunes careened off the walls of the venue, whipping the audience into a fervor. (I always worry when people start pogoing at upstairs venues. I'm afraid it's going to collapse. Thankfully, it did not.) The dual female and male vocals created exuberant harmonies, which the audience ate up. When the girl put down her ukelele and started mashing her half drum set, the room could barely get more electric.
Lots of bands are capable of whipping people into a frenzy, but to do with it technically difficult but incredibly appealing music is something that not many bands can do. Each of the members of Givers were excellent at their instruments, making things that other bands would have played simply even better by embellishing them with unique flourishes. The bass player is to be especially commended in this regard.
All in all, I left Givers' set in a far better mood than I went in, and that's after a full, tiring day of walking all over Austin. And was still humming "I Saw You First" when I woke up. Awesome. You will hear more from Givers; their album comes out later this year. You must buy it, if you like happiness. I'm not even kidding. It's that good. I don't care what genre you usually listen to.
Although I didn’t end up in a riot at SXSW, my body thinks I did. I’m not sure how bands do SXSW and then continue to tour, but many of these apparently superhuman musicians are doing just that.
Miriam’s Well is one of them, and they’re hitting The Blue Note tonight at 8 p.m. The band is fronted by Miriam herself, delivering vocals that sit ably atop the Counting Crows-esque alt-pop they churn out. Whirring organs, snappy strumming and gritty melodies call up the ‘90s fondly; if you were or still are into the alt-pop scene from that era, you need to check out Miriam’s Well. Cover is $5.
Pop/rockers Crown Point are on their way west after SXSW, and they’ll be stopping in at JJ’s Alley before kicking it out to Colorado, Wyoming and other points over the edge of the world. Their pop/rock would fit in neatly with Lifehouse’s sound, so if you’re still “Hanging by a Moment” (oh, yes, I went there), you should check Crown Point out tonight.
Morose Portland folksters Dolorean are headed back home after their SXSW jaunt, and they’re stopping at The Conservatory with Castanets and Holy Sons tonight. The really pretty music comes from their new album “The Unfazed." If something’s got you down, well, these guys can be the soundtrack to that sadness.
And, finally, rapper Sims is headed east, via Minneapolis, from SXSW. His raps call up comparisons to Eminem, but his funky beats are much more full and melodic than the most prominent white rapper ever. Also Sims’ raps are dramatically more positive than the aforementioned. He’s hitting up The Conservatory with Astronautilus tomorrow.
If you didn’t make it out to SXSW, or you’re already missing the live music smorgasbord, its effects are still being felt here in the metro. Head on out.
Heading back to Sixth street, I grabbed a Philly cheese steak (my second of the fest from the same vendor; I am pretty enthused about these sandwiches) and caught the last few songs of Oberhofer's set. I'm always on the lookout for great pop songwriters, and I definitely saw one in this set. Whether in an electronic medium or a guitar-based one, his melodies are infectious and memorable. His cheery tone helps, too. I'm not sure why a great many geniuses look like scruffy young ruffians, but Oberhofer certainly fits the description. His band went nuts on stage with him, and the songs had a festive air. I expect big, big things from the band, and the set only reinforced that opinion.
I stuck around to hear Lord Huron, another cheery pop band that I've been digging. Their sound pulls a lot from Calypso music, which is the most bubbly of all music genres, but the band still had the songwriting skills to ground the melodies with a overarching sense of seriousness that lent a credibility to the tunes. They went from being carefree pop songs to hard-won happy songs, as you could hear the sadness and seriousness creeping in the margins. It's not often that upbeat pop songs can be truly powerful, but Lord Huron takes after "Graceland"-era Paul Simon in being able to create depth out of unusual forms not known for their emotional resonance. I was sad that technical difficulties cut their set short, but glad that I was able to hear it at all.
With my handy dandy SXSW app, I was alerted to the fact that King Charles was playing just down the street from my location in fifteen minutes. I rushed over and took up residence to hear his afrobeat/classic rock/pop. Yes, all of that happened in his nearly hour-long set, from AC/DC-worthy guitar noodling to tunes heavy on pop moods and vocal harmony with detours into world music. King Charles (the person) got more and more into the set as it went on, going from reserved at the beginning to headbanging with his incredibly long dreads (down to the small of his back!) and breaking the head clean off a guitar by slamming it against cymbals and other stuff. Hilariously, the guitar-smashing came at the end of the second-to-last song; file the closer under "anti-climactic." The set was much heavier and grittier than I expected, but the quick vocals and charming harmonies of the quieter songs were exactly what I was looking for. And who doesn't like seeing a guitar get smashed?
Just as SXSW-curated Speed Sets banged out a lot of music quickly, I’m going to do a Speed Set to bang out a lot of information quickly.
Danish electro-pop diva Oh Land played a very solid set. You may have heard the infectious single “Son of a Gun,” which she closed with. The rest of her set was nice, but not anything especially fantastic.
Versus played a similarly solid set of guitar-based indie rock. They’re a Merge Records band that has been around in various forms since 1990, so that should tell you a lot about the quality and content of the set. It ain’t trendy, but it’s consistent, strong music.
Dance-punk phenomenon !!! (aka Chk-chk-chk) turns its myriad of instrumentalists into one funky, fast-paced machine live. Their lead singer is an absolute wonder, as he prances, dances, makes eyes at the crowd, wanders into the audience, hollers, sings and generally goes ballistic. He put his hand on my head and sung into my face from several inches away for a line. I am not unique in this treatment. Yes. You must see them live.
Malajube’s rock was equal parts Muse and The Bravery. It was fun, but I keep wondering how long the hat-snare dance-rock beat is going to last.
Little Scream’s epic-leaning indie rock included a bass flute, group vocals (primarily led by a female vocalist) and great songwriting. They’re also from Montreal. Has Arcade Fire asked them to tour together yet? Please say “yes” when they do, Little Scream.
Owen Pallett’s looped violin and piano lines create polyphonic, mind-blowing, mini-symphonies. The fact that you can sing along to them is just a bonus. His energetic tunes had the impressed audience smiling. Pallett proves that string virtuosos can be cool.
Braids laid down a mesmerizing set. Starting off with highlight track “Glass Deers” off their album “Native Speaker,” they entranced the audience with their ambient, fuzzy indie rock. I got lost in the sound; it’s like listening to a warm blanket. They thoroughly impressed me, and I can’t wait to see them again.
Erin McLaughlin played a quick but beautiful folk show. Her poignant, acoustic-based songs speak for themselves. I was so moved that I bought her EP (the only music I bought in the entire SXSW week). You must check it out.
Slije Nes’ gentle and ethereal tunes so affected me that I was tearing up during the set. The Norwegian woman spent much of her time sitting on the ground playing, and she turned all the lights off, except for one tiny strand of Christmas lights piled next to her foot pedals. It created an intimate, immersive experience, as her gentle voice and hushed accompaniment (how quiet? One of the songs features the percussionist scratching his arm into a microphone — and we could hear it) created an absolutely fascinating performance. Beautiful, beautiful music, even when she ratcheted up the electric guitar volume for one track.
Sharon Van Etten’s speaking voice was hoarse, but her singing one was not, as she filled Central Presbyterian Church with her mournful voice and somber harmonium. It was gorgeous.
With horns, strings, four percussionists (two with drumsets, two with auxiliary percussion) augmenting your average guitars and such, Typhoon’s sound filled an entire church. When all twelve of them sang, it became a revelatory experience. The songs are brilliant in their recorded format, but they become something else entirely when played live. It was easily the best set I saw at SXSW. If you haven’t heard of Typhoon yet, you will. (That's as many of them as I could fit in a frame, up there at the top of the post)
The Rural Alberta Advantage’s “Departing” just came out, and I found it to be a lot different than their previous work. Live, however, the new tunes fit in neatly with the older ones. The set was fun, with a nice mix of old and new songs. The highlight was the encore/closer, which had the three members of RAA come down from the stage to the audience for an acoustic version of “Good Night,” the somber closer of “Departing.” It was an incredibly fitting end to a massive week of music.
In previous years, Norman Music Festival has done an incredible job of bringing acts to town that would rarely, if ever, come here. Of Montreal, Dirty Projectors and The Polyphonic Spree are were headliners that sparked an “oh, man, I can’t believe that they got them” excitement.
This year’s main stage doesn’t feature an artist like that. With the exception of Ty Segall, four of the five national touring acts on the main stage have been in the metro before (two of them in Norman!) within the last two years:
• The Walkmen: Meacham Auditorium, October 2009
• Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears: Diamond Ballroom, June 2009
• Peelander-Z: The Conservatory, October 2010, among other concerts
• Foot Patrol: Opolis, May 2010
Here’s the full Saturday main stage schedule, in reverse:
9:30 p.m. — The Walkmen
8 p.m. — Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears
6:30 p.m. — PeeLander-Z
5 p.m. — Ty Segall
3:30 p.m. — The Fortune Tellers
2:30 p.m. — Foot Patrol
1:40 p.m. — The Non
12:50 p.m. — Penny Hill Party
Headliner letdown aside, I’m relentlessly stoked that The Non finally made it to the main stage, but I’m baffled that they’re opening for The Fortune Tellers on the bill. The Fortune Tellers are an on-again/off-again band based in the metro and, uh, Greece.
I’m also surprised in a good way that Penny Hill is opening the main stage (and a band, I’m assuming, as the “party” bit). Good for her!
Headlining other stages: jam band dude Keller Williams on the Jagermeister Stage, Mississippi indie-rockers Color Revolt (not to be confused with Colourmusic) on Sooner Theater Stage, and Austin indie-pop group White Denim at Opolis.
But the most exciting headliner of the entire festival is on Thursday night at Opolis, as Norman indie-rockers The Neighborhood are re-forming. Philip Rice (now of Visions of Choruses), Matt Duckworth (now of Stardeath and the White Dwarfs), Blake Studdard (also Visions of Choruses) and Eric Mai threw down some of the best rock that the metro has heard in recent years, and it was a shame that it fizzled out a couple years back. And now they’re back for at least one show, and perhaps more. This is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, headline of the festival.
NMF4 is scheduled for April 28-30. The Gazette will be there, tweeting and blogging away, just as at SXSW.
Norman Music Festival 4 is officially in the books. It came, it saw (metaphorically), it conquered (also metaphorically).
It had a lot of new things: a third day, more stages, new locations for old stages, a weird laser-tag thing, a Friday day stage and more. Many of these changes had pros and cons.
The addition of Thursday to the slate gives the fest the ability to grow into a heavy hitter, but this year, it made things spread a little thin on Friday and Saturday. It felt as if some of the bands were stacked toward Thursday to entice people to go to the new thing: Opolis blew it out with tons of talent on the first night, then had an abbreviated day on Saturday.
Still, despite this enticement, Thursday attendance only hit 3,500 (35,000 people attended Saturday, with 9,000 hitting up Friday). This could have been due to the distance between stages, lack of advertising (several people told me they didn't know it was on Thursday) or the fact that people are busy during the week, but only toward the end of the evening at Opolis did the night really feel festival-esque.
Still, I like the move, and I hope that people get adjusted to a Thursday/Friday/Saturday schedule. I think that as the fest grows in prominence, talent will fill out all three days. The same is true of the new stages; as the festival grows, stages will both be able to fill out their schedules and secure only the best of the best. I sincerely hope that there is at some point a cap to stages, however, lest NMF become like SXSW and get far, far too big to maintain quality.
On that note: Laser tag? What the heck?
The new location for the Main and Jägermeister stages was excellent planning. Main Street was much less crowded, which was necessary. Last year felt like human pinball, and it was quite uncomfortable. The new stage locations make a lot of sense and open the festival up. Super high-five for that.
Speaking of location, putting Dust Bowl Market across from Opolis was a neat move. I liked it there. Whether or not it's been there in the past, I have no idea; I've only recently been getting appreciative of crafts.
The one big complaint I have with the fest is that I still have no idea what it wants to be. There was an upsurge of Austin bands this year (Football, etc.; White Denim; Black Joe Lewis), which could have been due to money constraints or a decision to focus on regional and local talent. The Walkmen are from New York City, which doesn't help either theory. Is NMF a local music festival? Is it going to try to be full of national acts, like Austin City Limits? There has always been a huge amount of local acts, and the presence of Montu so late on the Jägermeister stage provides ammunition for the idea that this will be a continuously local thing.
This confusion is partly due to a lack of clarification in their ad campaigns, and partly because it's still being worked out. And really, I don't care which one it is; I'd love to see an all-local festival, and I'd love to see The Mountain Goats, Sufjan, Radiohead and the Pixies all kicking it in Norman. I doubt the fest will swing to either of those extremes, but it would be nice to know which direction it’s heading. This knowledge would make judging its success and growth easier: I tell a person that the local aspect is the big deal instead of the headliner, there will be less expectation placed on national headliners.
If the headliners are the deal, then NMF should take pains to get bands that would not ordinarily come to Oklahoma. If organizers want it to be a festival about exposing Oklahoma to the outside music world, we need to make a splash every year. This year's headliners weren't a splash: if you search "Norman" at Pitchfork.com, a listing of 2010's headliners comes up, but no 2011 lineup. Seeing as we don't really know if the headliners were intended to be a big deal or not, it's hard to judge the effectiveness of this year's fest.
It was a boatload of fun, however. That can't be knocked. I'm looking forward to NMF5. —Stephen Carradini