Night two at SXSW 2009 very much encapsulated everything I love about SXSW: Writing down a schedule of shows to see, throwing it out the window and catching a whole different lineup of acts that were probably better than any of the ones you'd originally planned to see.
Act: These United States, an alt-country five-piece from Washington, D.C.
What It Was Like: Like watching a group of kids who'd grown up on the Ryan Adams and punk records. For my money, this was pretty much the definition of cow-punk: at times, it was gritty and fast, and, at others, it was very much traditional Americana-inspired.
Verdict: I really liked these guys' set. It was hokey when it needed to be, rocking at will, and, overall, a boozy, boot-skootin', good time. I'd originally planned to see England's Aqualung, which was following These United States at Elysium, but because These United States' set ran long--something no one really seemed to mind--I didn't even end up sticking around for Aqualung; there were other good shows coming, and, honestly, after truly enjoying These United States' set, I didn't think Aqualung's performance would be as entertaining.
Act: Phosphorescent, the well-regarded Brooklyn-based folk crooner.
Where: Mohawk's Patio
What It Was Like: A lot louder, and much more Americana-influenced, than I'd expected. The latter was likely a reflection of Phosphorescent's new Willie Nelson covers release, To Willie, and the former, well, was probably a result of the same. When I'd seen Phosphorescent last, he was playing extended folk jams by himself, with a loop machine, at a Good Records in-store.
Verdict: Pretty great, actually. Backed by four other musicians, Phosphorescent's set at Mohawk continued the Americana/alt-country theme the beginning of my evening had started. And though it wasn't the quiet, heartbreakeningly beautiful set I was anticipating, the loud, somewhat rowdy one, was more than a capable replacement. Probably better.
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Act: Foreign Born, a group of riff-heavy pop rockers from L.A.
Where: Mohawk Indoors
What It Was Like: Like watching any number of the sunny, beach-y pop-rockers coming out of California these days.
Verdict: To their credit--even though their sound is everywhere these days--the six members of Foreign Born did offer up some truly ear-catching riffs atop their subdued backing sound. This band's the rare six-piece that doesn't use its strength in numbers to offer up a brawny sound. It might want to look into that, though. It was a little forgettable.
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Act: BLK JKS, a Brandon Curtis-produced South African rock act that is trying to blend its African and Western world rock influences into a new sound.
Where: Mohawk's Patio
What It Was Like: Like watching a band have a blast on stage, and truly enjoying its performance. But also like seeing something not live up to the hype.
Verdict: We've got a great review of BLK JKS' debut EP in either this or next week's paper (losing sense of time, sorry) that calls the disc a major step forward for both the South African rock artists and the new world/rock scene. I dunno if I heard that on this night, though. The sound mix was heavy on the rhythm section, which definitely emphasized the African influence on the band's sound. But the two guitars--both of which were being played pretty feverishly by their players--didn't have the same kick, thus not giving the performance the dissonance I'd expected to hear. Still, it seemed interesting enough; still really looking forward to hearing the band's record.
Act: Akron/Family, the world/folk rockers from Pennsylvania
Where: Mohawk's Patio
What It Was Like: Probably the most engaging performance I've seen so far this week. The band and its audience both gushed with energy during this set--which also featured the first stage-dive I've seen at this year's festival.
Verdict: I'd never seen Akron/Family live before. Now I think I want to see them live every day for the rest of my life. You know when you see a show and there comes a point where you just give in and commit to the fact that you're really enjoying yourself? For me, that came during the band's performance of the chant-y and high-energy "Ed Is A Portal". From there on out, I was pretty much puddy in the hands of the band's freak-y, worldly, frenetic, folk- and world-influenced sound.
Act: Dinosaur Jr, the loudest thing to ever come from sleepy Amherst, Massachusetts.
Where: Mohawk's Patio
What It Was Like: Intimidation. You know how many full stack amps J. Mascis had behind him on stage? Four. Oh, and there was a combo amp, too, in case that wasn't loud enough for this relatively small outside stage. I feel bad for anyone who lives within a mile of the Mohawk and was trying to sleep any time between 12 and 1 a.m. last night. Wasn't. Gonna. Happen. Also: I feel bad for those in attendance who didn't have earplugs.
Verdict: Completely awesome. And a little unexpected. There was no official announcement that Dinosaur Jr was playing this show. In the SXSW schedule simply listed "Special Guests (l'mlikeso, HI)". Considering that a) this was a Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans and Youtube showcase, b) Dino Jr. just signed to Jagjaguwar and c) there's no artist on any of those labels' rosters from Hawaii, then yeah, you probably could've guessed that Dino Jr was playing this show. Well, them or someone from Youtube fame. Thankfully, it was Dino Jr, who played a set of old hits to a highly entertained audience for a good hour and five minutes--which makes it also the longest SXSW I've seen so far this year. Just a great, great show. And a great surprise, since I don't have to check out Dino's official showcase performance tonight.
Random Note: Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew joined the band on stage, taking over the lead vocals on the song "The Wagon". Very cool.