While much of the music action goes down with the sun at SXSW -- when fans fill the streets and hustle from bar to bar, bathed in the light of neon signs -- there are plenty of afternoon gigs and showcases in the sun, too, and some are well worth braving the possible heat fatigue.
Two such examples are the Scion Showcase and the Sesac Day Stage Cafe in the Austin Convention Center.
The Scion Showcase, which took place on Thursday, March 15 from noon to 4 p.m. at Stubbs Bar BQ, wasn't listed in the SXSW Pocket Guide (very few daytime shows are). But the fliers for it were everywhere, announcing, "Meet The Melvins!" (DJ Haul, Boris, Panthers, and Pelican shared the showcase with the legendary bottom-heavy band).
Brooklyn-based Panthers were on the stage outside when we meandered through the crowd at Stubbs. Although they were finishing up their set, the last three songs Panthers played were hard-driving metal with a retro edge, reminiscent of bands like Wolfmother and Priestess, who are reminiscent of each other and Black Sabbath.
By the time Chicago band Pelican got on stage, the sun-scorched crowd outside numbered in the hundreds, including some guy who looked exactly like Lenny Kaye and could have easily been the rock critic/icon. (He wasn't; we asked).
Pelican's music is very heavy, built around intricate instrumentals that soar and lurch like a plane in a rain storm. Their sound is akin to intellectual metalheads Isis, minus the unintelligible lyrics (or any lyrics at all, for that matter). 15 minutes into their set, nobody in Pelican got anywhere near a microphone. But the audience ate up the epic instrumentals -- bouncing, screaming, and nodding their heads along to each new timing change. Pelican shows that a band doesn't need tightly packaged pop songs (or even lyrics) to pull in an audience and keep them there.
But the highlight of the Thursday afternoon shows was L.A.'s Busdriver , who performed at the Sesac Day Stage Cafe. An underground hip-hop MC with a biting wit and quick spits, Busdriver's high-energy performance was nothing short of extraordinary, considering his plane had landed in Austin just a couple of hours before he was scheduled to play.
I caught a couple of acts on the Day Stage Cafe before Busdriver went on. The first was St. Vincent -- one woman with an electric guitar who had not only PJ Harvey's warped blues-twang guitar stylings and whisper-to-a-wail vocal histrionics, but also Harvey's hairdo and wardrobe taste. Using two microphones to create a harmonic, psychedelic echo and a stomp board for rhythms, St. Vincent showed she's got some serious songwriting chops, even if she lacks the instruments to dress up her compositions to keep them from sounding like naked demos. Give this woman a band, and she might be on to something great.
Oakley Hall played a whopping four songs after St. Vincent, and the brevity was good. The six-piece band had some great harmonies, but the music was so low-pulse as to be almost dead -- a very mellow hippie/Americana vibe, or as the guy sitting next to us remarked, "Riders of the Purple Sage meets Neil Young" (although the latter comparison may be too generous). The group's set ended with a smattering of applause from the 20 or so people in the room.
Busdriver, on the other hand, came out to a packed house, looking exhausted and experiencing technical difficulties with his DJ's equipment. A rock star or hip-hop honcho might've bemoaned the circumstances and delivered a half-assed performance. Busdriver did neither. He just grabbed a microphone and started freelancing while his DJ sorted out the sound snafus.
At the end of the freestyle, Busdriver was greeted with a roar of applause, and busted right into another rap, with his DJ finally plugged in behind him.
One of the things that makes Busdriver a hip-hop anomaly is that his songs don't have hip-hop "hooks." There are no riffs ripped from The Police, no melodic choruses sung by sexy female singers, no catchy synthesizer sequences. Busdriver's sound is as organic as it can be without a live band behind him. He uses multiple microphones to effect harmony and moves the mic around his mouth while singing to simulate breaks and fades.
The socially-conscious MC looked ready to lapse into a coma before this show, but once onstage, he looked like he was ready to ride a rocket. He never stopped moving, dancing, and gesturing. His dizzying rhymes and witty wordplay poured out like the sweat that drenched his RUN-DMC shirt. The atmosphere inside the room was electric, and at the end of his 20-minute set, the audience gave Busdriver a standing ovation.
Those who missed Busdriver's amazing performance on Thursday afternoon will have another chance to see the hip-hop buzz boy on Friday, March 16, when he plays at Zero Degrees. They'll have to stay up late for the 1:15 a.m. show, but if its anything like Busdriver's day trip today, it'll be well worth it.