What It Was Like: Pete Tong, Late of the Pier, Peter Bjorn & John, Angus & Julia Stone, School of Seven Bells, Zee Avi

The first night of SXSW saw four pretty major draws around town--Echo and the Bunnymen at Emo's; The Decembrists at Stubbs; St. Vincent, Department of Eagles and M. Ward at the Central Presbyterian Church; Peter Bjorn & John and Glasvegas at Vice--and a whole bunch of other worthwhile draws...

Act: Pete Tong, the world-renowned British DJ.
Where: La Zona Rosa
What It Was Like: Like watching a bunch of people wanting to be hip, but, mostly, having no clue what what going on. Various swag reps were out and about at La Zona Rosa, handing out mini flashlights to anyone who'd take them. And surely, the aim there was to give La Zona Rosa a danceclub feel to match the techno beats Pete Tong offered up the audience at this, his "Pete Tong Presents: Insider Music Series" at the venue. The results on that, though, were somewhat mixed. For instance, it took most of the revelers--and let's be clear, these were more scenester revelers than music fans--about half an hour to notice that Tong was spinning records from behind the sound booth and not on stage. And it wasn't exactly subtle: "We're having a party," Tong finally announced over the PA, before adding, "over here!" and emphasizing his location in the venue. At that point, the energy picked up substantially. "I'm Pete Tong and I'm from England," Tong said. "Welcome to Insiders." With those words, the crowd was his, and, as such, the attendees encircled the sound booth, dancing and pogoing with reckless abandon.
Verdict: At a festival of live music, a DJ set comes off a bit dry. Tong's musical selection, however--a mixture of catchy house beats and more radio-friendly dance tracks (read: Fatboy Slim)--was accessible enough to keep the crowd involved. And to Tong's credit, he was dancing every bit as emphatically as his audience. An easy way to transition into the festival? Sure. A memorable performance? Not terribly.
Random Note: This was without a doubt a dance crowd--as evidenced by the guy in the crowd who carried around one of those erector set balls that he expanded to the beat.

Act: Late of the Pier, a shizophrenic dance-rock act from England.
Where: La Zona Rosa
What It Was Like: Like watching a group of unknowns totally win over a crowd. With DJs Pete Tong and Deadmau5 on this La Zona Rosa bill, the crowd wasn't necessarily prepared to watch a group of musicians actually performing music. Yet that's what Late of the Pier provided. Granted, it's performance was every bit as spastic and unpredicatble as a good DJ set should be, filled with obscure time changes, various, insanely catching beats and synth melodies and alluring, if oddball, vocals.
Verdict: After night one, Late of the Pier is looking like an early candidate for SXSW '09 find. The band's music lies somewhere between the dancability of The Faint and the electro-pop of MGMT, only where as MGMT focuses on the psychedelic, Late of the Pier pushes a more glammed out agenda.
Random Note: Like any good glammed up English act, yes, the boys of Late of the Pier oozed with androgeny.

Act: Peter, Bjorn & John, the Swedish pop geniuses.
Where: Vice
What It Was Like: Like seeing a major SXSW buzz band two years two late--and, surprisingly, no one giving a damn. Vice was packed to the gills--uncomfortably so--as all standing room in the stage room at the venue was taken up long before PB&J launched into its set. Still that didn't keep crowds from continually ushering into the spot, squeezing into the bar area and craning their necks to see the tops of the band members' heads through the doorways into the main room.
Verdict: Focusing largely on the tracks from their new release, PB&J had the crowd bopping along to its unquestionably impeccable pop sensibilities last night. But, honestly, I think the uncomfortable nature of the room--being so crowded, and, as a result, so incredibly hot--kept the crowd a little removed from the performance. It didn't help either when a guitar amp blew toward the end of the set, leaving the band standing around and waiting for a stage hand to remedy the situation. At that point, predictably, the venue started becoming a little less crowded... and rightfully so.

Act: Angus & Julia Stone, a brother-sister folk act from Sydney, Australia.
Where: Buffalo Billiards
What It Was Like: Very pleasing stuff, albeit a little toned down, apparently, for a good chunk of the crowd's taste: Many audience members chatted with their nearby neighbors during a large part of the set.
Verdict: There was something very Texan, I thought, about the poppy folk from this duo and their backing band. And it really was very pleasant, even if it was tough to completely become engaged in the performance. Though this is a brother-sister duo, it does appear as if Julia is the bigger and more talented star here; she twirled about the stage like a hippie amped on flower power and boasted a voice similar to what you'd expect to hear if Bosque Brown's Mara Lee Miller were Australian and a little more quirky, rather than rural and drawl-y.

Act: School of Seven Bells, the Brooklyn-based dreampop act featuring Dallas' Benjamin Curtis, formerly of The Secret Machines.
Where: Bufflao Billiards
What It Was Like: Like being overcome by an ocean of dream soundscapes set to dance beats. There's something quite alluring about SVIIB's sound, thanks in large part to Curtis' reverb-heavy guitar prowess and to the fragile vocals of his bandmates, identical twins Ally and Claudia Deheza, whose vocal harmonies come off an incredibly interesting, real-life double-trackings.
Verdict: There were some sound issues at the beginning of the set, delaying the start of SVIIB's performance and, in the end, cutting it short, too. But, in all, it was an impressive display, quite true to the phenomenal late 2008-released Alipinism's lush on-record sound.
Random Note: I spoke with Curtis briefly after the set. He's a super nice guy--and, rightfully, he's quite excited about this new project. The band stops through Denton in a few months as the band will tour with Black Moth Super Rainbow, so keep an eye out for that. As for Ben's brother, Brandon Curtis, Ben said he was busy recording the new BLK JKS record.

Act: Zee Avi, an adorable Malaysian singer-songwriter signed to Jack Johnson's Burshfire Records.
Where: Buffalo Billiards
What It Was Like: Like doing the best with what you've got. Originally, Ida Maria was scheduled to perform in this slot, but, because of visa issues, she never even made it into the country.
Verdict: Avi's cutesy Starbucks-ready fare wasn't enough to keep the audience that had come to see Ida Maria too interested. But, actually, it wasn't terrible--y'know as cutesy, singer-songwriter fare goes. Sure, it was a little bland, but the small performer did boast quite the range last night. And, true to Brushfire's sound, it very much evoked a beach-y, summer-y feel. With all the outlets for this type of music--Starbucks, VH1, Grey's Anatomy, etc.--it wouldn't be surprising at all to see Avi break out in the soccer mom circuit in '09. Obviously it won't hurt her that she's super cute and boasts a 1,000-watt smile.

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman