SXSW 2011, Day 2: Nite Jewel and Toro y Moi at the Force Field/Terrorbird Party
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Two years ago at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, Nite Jewel played a rambling and ostensibly ad hoc set at a backyard party sponsored by New York party impresario Todd P. Seemingly everyone was dressed with the shrill flouresence of an equatorial fruit, and frontwoman Ramona Gonzalez hid behind a pair of comically oversized glasses you’d expect to see on Chloë Sevigny.
At the time, it was just Gonzalez and her bandmate Emily Kuntz, who played keyboards and triggered samples when the sampler was working. It was a charmingly ramshackle performance befitting of a young woman who had only begun taking music semi-seriously 12 months prior. Playing songs that had initially been recorded on eight-track, she relied heavily on the amethyst tint of her keyboards, her gauzy levitative voice and a caustic mocking stage presence that seemed to treat the crowd with the absurdity of its outfits.
That iteration of Nite Jewel is dead. Onstage at the Force Field PR/Terrorbird day party Wednesday was a professional and polished outfit befitting the gemstone in the band’s name. Gonzalez’s songs have a casual burnish to them -- they drift along hazily but inculcate a sort of narcotic demand. They’re the sort of things you go back to and detect a form you initially overlooked. They’re powerful, lithe and straight-up funky. After all, Dam-Funk, the messiah of modern funk, doesn’t work with you if you aren’t.
Backed by a three-piece band (live drummer, guitarist and keyboardist), Gonzalez revealed how fluidly she’s distilled her influences: New wave, Italo-disco, funk and perhaps a little Patrice Rushen and Stevie Nicks. Twenty-four months ago, she was a college student masking awkwardness with sardonic banter. Now she was almost swaggering, offering opoid hymns that possessed a bewitching beauty and power.
When the band members detonated into quasi-hit ‘What Did He Say,’ they brought thunderous snares and baleful black tar funk. It was the sort of performance you’d expect to see after turning a candelabra and being thrust into a room where everyone’s wearing gorgeous antique designer outfits and smoking unfiltered Gauloises laced with hash. Except they were unpretentiously clad in T-shirts, jeans and hoodies. The music had mystery but lacked pretension. Noirish tension and corruscating light. Nite Jewel.
The flip side was South Carolina’s Toro y Moi, nee Chaz Bundick, who followed Gonzalez and company at Red 7’s outdoor patio. Lamely lumped onto the chillwave beach towel, last month’s ‘Underneath the Pine’ found him testing the waters of disco, funk, sotto voce guitar pop and psychedelia. Last year in Austin, I saw him play a ho-hum solo acoustic set at the French Legation that was as pleasant as it was utterly unmemorable.
But over the last year and a change, he’s formed a legit band and worked up a dilated groove and melted disco that land him closer to Nite Jewel than Neon Indian. Admittedly, there’s something mildly faceless about his music. So it goes when your album title invokes lying underneath a tree. That’s fairly chill.
But his skills as a composer are practically peerless in the sub-25 set. They boast a catamaran float: gorgeous, pleasant and slightly otherworldly. As a performer, Bundick is diffident to the point of anonymity, crafting a blurred but danceable sound. He’s unassuming but unbelievably talented -- the epitome of what Biggie said when he mentioned that bad boys move in silence. He was dressed in a collared white shirt and non-fitted baseball cap. His frame as frail as his vocals. But the music was sturdy and seraphic. Toro y Moi makes music to lamp blissfully underneath the pine, but you can’t go to sleep.
-- Jeff Weiss at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas
Photo of Nite Jewel’s Ramona Gonzalez by Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times