SXSW 2011: Day 1 brings Esben & the Witch


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The scope of the SXSW 2011 music conference is relatively easy to quantify. There are 2,000 bands playing over five days in Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest. Harder to define, however, would be the music business in 2011.

Breaking from tradition, SXSW music performances began Tuesday evening, allowing the first day of SXSW music to overlap with the SXSW interactive conference. Yet with only nine clubs hosting bands -- 10 if one counts the multiple rooms of Emo’s as two venues -- one may have expected a relatively low-key evening.


Heck, even the once-hefty bags of swag given to each registrant contained nothing more than official SXSW programs and schedules. Gone were the CDs of unsigned artists and the fluorescent earplag, as well as the dozens of magazines and fliers that littered hotel rooms.

Welcome to a leaner SXSW music festival? Not quite, as Night 1 contained one not-so-secret show (the Foo Fighters), multiple street closures, a bounty of drunk twentysomethings and an occasional overflowing club. Not all SXSW traditions are dying, of course, but priorities are noticeably shifting. Paid registration for SXSW Interactive, for instance, continues to swell and last year topped that of SXSW Music.

An influx in recent years of mainstream artists -- this year brings appearances by the Strokes and Duran Duran, among others -- continues to draw media attention away from the unknown to the more predictable and also puts a greater emphasis on promotion rather than artistic self-preservation. Yet, for now at least, the underground still dominates SXSW, and some weird and noteworthy artists could be found just two hours into the event.

English three-piece Esben & the Witch was one such act. Their beautiful gloom took over what is normally a top-40 dance bar. Rock ‘n’ roll may not have been the music of choice at Spill, which seemed evident after band leader Rachel Davies spent about 10 minutes slowly thwacking a bass drum till the noise suited her, yet Esben & the Witch seemed the ideal band to fill unexpected crevices.

Alternating moments of grandeur with explosions of fury, with all three members occasionally breaking from a swelling guitar crescendo to put the music on militaristic alert by simultaneously pounding away at the single drum that stood at the front of the stage, Esben & the Witch were gothic artisans. Songs were built from the drip-drip-drip of paranoid electronics, but guitarists Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher attacked the fear with brooding guitars that managed to be equally loud and calming.

Davies, however, works the stage as something of a possessed force. Rarely without a pair of drumsticks in her hands, she is ready to strike, regardless of what is or isn’t in her way. At times, she just settled for pounding her thigh. Yet often when she sang, she wasn’t an aggressor and instead worked the lyrics as if seeking atonement.

Other notes from Night 1 of SXSW 2011:

Oh, Canada:
A pair of acts from Montreal gave impressive opening-night sets. The first was Grimes, which is essentially the moniker of Claire Boucher. She brews a darkly intoxicating mix of electronics and lulling vocals -- sometimes going so far as to bow her head and look as if she burying herself in the microphone. An easy reference point may be Bjork, but Boucher uses her vocals to bring a level of warmth to her sometimes art-damaged soundscanpes. Performing at the same time as Grimes and appearing down the street was co-ed four-piece No Joy, who also go for an enveloping sound, albeit a much louder one. The churning guitars recalls the alt-rock era, but No Joy knows how to create drama within a time-tested formula. Songs evolve into cascades of rhythms -- or devolve, rather -- and the vocals are cooly calm amid the racket. Indeed, it’s as if the song’s very arrangements exist to keep singer-guitarist Jasmine White-Glutz from drifting off into her own world.

Cover your ears with a towel: OK, that was too harsh, but Brooklyn’s much-buzzed Beach Fossils hop around the stage like schoolboys at recess but offer little else in the way of excitement or hooks. Granted, there’s nothing particularly offensive about the group’s jangly and twee retro ‘80s pop, but it felt undercooked, like a band assembled solely for the house-party scene in a movie. Expect TV music supervisors to dig it.

But did they hear the songs? Cera mania! Sub Pop’s pleasingly offbeat Mister Heavenly drew perhaps the biggest non-Foo Fighter crowd of the night, yet it seemed doubtful anyone was there for the music. A packed crowd gathered in and around Bat Bar, with passers-by swarming around the club’s open window, struggling to grab a picture of actor-bassist Michael Cera.

-- Todd Martens

Photos, from top: 6th Street in Austin, Texas, on March 16, 2011, at 1:30 a.m. Esben & the Witch. No Joy. Credit: Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times

Daniel Copeman and Thomas Fisher