Hiromi and Robert Glasper are two of the most exciting pianists on the scene — and they’re pulling jazz in almost entirely different directions. Glasper often tows a line between jazz and hip-hop, having acted as the music director for many of Mos Def’s live-band shows. And Hiromi is a confluence of a prodigious skill set and a knack for breaking rules.
The Robert Glasper Experiment opened the show Saturday night. Glasper played a Rhodes and a piano, sometimes both at once. But there was another keyboard on stage: Multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin, who backed up Q-Tip at last summer’s Outside Lands festival, piped his voice through a keytar/vocoder setup for the latter half of the set.
In addition to the 45 or so Bay Area acts in Austin last week, there was another 1,650 or so bands that occasionally one might want to see. Screw Stone Temple Pilots, Courtney Love's icky Hole, or even Wu-Tang's GZA; the true champ among them was Smokey Robinson — the Smokey Robinson — opening up for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, a band whose name you should know by now. Many in the crowd hadn't, and Sharon knocked their socks off.
Subdued San Francisco New Wave act Tamaryn at Klub Krucial Friday was a far cry from Mistah F.A.B. in the same building the night before, and security could pretty much take the night off unless one of their smoke machines got out of line. The San Francisco/New York duo channels the Cure and the Smiths right down to the massive black hairdos; its songs are full of aching, processed guitars and cooing vocals. Single “Mild Confusion” came out drenched in reverb and smoke, as lead singer Tamaryn writhed in front of the mic, locks of black hair obscuring her face. Guitarist Rex John Shelverton cooly set off peels of trebly distortion, warbling slightly with expert use of the tremelo arm. He sometimes proved slower solos are the harder ones, because you can't afford to miss a single note. None of the band smiled or thanked the crowd or interacted at all and it was all adorably emo. If there's a hole in your heart and all the Smiths and the Cure in the world can't fill it, surely you'll be able to make room for a little Tamaryn. Its debut LP on label Mexican Summer is coming soon.
Thirteen-year-old independent Oakland label Anticon continued its string of annual showcases at SXSW with a small party at Barbarella Friday night. Amid a lineup that included Dosh and Themselves, Georgia's Serengeti debuted new material to longtime Anticon fans. Dense verbal flow met trippy breakbeat and sparse instrumentals — like a Southern Themselves — with that talkative focus on relationships and family over braggadocio and bling.
Label operator Adam Drucker says he and fellow Anticonian Jel saw Serengeti play a show, cold-called him, and offered to put out his album. “He said, 'Fuck yeah'.” The storied Oakland indie label with a proclivity for cerebral hip-hop — and now indie — has acts all over the country, and Austin proved a great midpoint, even if Drucker detests SXSW's spring break vibe. Something about thousands of bros getting drunk and horny apparently doesn't sit right with the sensitive artiste, who was selling killer handmade art pieces for $15 near the front door.
Friday night, things got a little hardcore in Austin. The crowd tripled with the weekend rush and quadrupled in drunkenness, perfectly matching the vibe inside crusty Encore. There, a band named Speedwolf was drinking from the audience’s beers while ferociously covering Venom inside the Aquarius Records showcase. The San Francisco-based Aquarius Records is legendary for their 50,000-word e-mail blasts of detailed CD reviews every month, and an intense obsession with Norwegian black metal making them pretty much the reigning music nerds of the Bay. Their fourteen band lineup, co-sponsored by WMFU, included SF's Moon Duo, Pierced Arrows, and Dengue Fever. As Speedwolf closed out on the patio, a similar scene played out inside, where the lead singer of Brooklyn hardcore band Drunkdriver howled with the microphone in his mouth while simultaneously moshing in the audience. That's just unsafe.
Animals in Bloom (self-released)
It’s no surprise that Big Light is getting the chance to play SXSW this year. Animals in Bloom is light and sparkly, with an airy sound and charmingly imperfect vocals, full of the kind of songs that would fit easily into any alternative radio station’s format.
Who knew Oakland’s Mistah F.A.B. would be the most charismatic performer in a town full of more than 1,700 of them during day two of SXSW? Three years after hyphy failed to detonate, sweat pouring from his face, stripped down to his white T-shirt, big gold “FAB” chain swinging from his neck, the veteran Yay Area all-star had all of Klub Krucial going stupid, going dumb, and getting quite hyphy Thursday night. Speaking in slang bordering on glossolalia, dancing as hard as the punk kids mosh, Mistah F.A.B. created an enthusiasm for life exploding from the 200 or so fans in the sparse two-story club that a Southern Baptist revival couldn't compete with. East Coast, West Coast, the Midwest and the South had a de facto rap convention up in the Klub, with Philadelphia rapper Freeway jumping in on San Francisco's The Jacka's set, and Berkeley's The Pack networking like lil’ executives.
But it was Mistah F.A.B.'s deeply grateful, unifying set — which spanned Notorious BIG's “Juicy” to Mac Dre's “Thizzle Dance” — that owned the night. F.A.B. barely had to rap It was all a dream/I used to read word up magazine; the audience knew all the words. He could've just sat back and handled the transitions between the unapologetic covers. Instead, he went on to freestyle and worked the crowd up so hard he was literally cut off mid-song by the promoter. F.A.B. had the audience taunting “Kick me out” to the venue operators, as he cut into The Pack's 1 a.m. set time. The four-man Berkeley show — still rocking some rather dusty pairs of “Vans” — mopped up after as best they could, but FAB had already put it all out there. The harder he went, the more the crowd gave it back to him — it’s an equation too many artists tend to ignore.
Thursday night in downtown Austin and the town heaved with bodies jostling for position at the next free, buzz show. Outside club Red 7, the $8 cover deterred the music-saturated crowd and thinned the audience for Oakland modern rock act the Heavenly States. Which is a shame, because The States debuted some bombastic and haunted new material from an upcoming EP to a small crowd of critics and fans of the eight-year-old act. Veterans of multiple grueling, three-day road trips to Austin, the States flew to SXSW this year and were the better for it. Charismatic lead singer Ted Nesseth seems to have found an Isaac Brock-like warble during Modest Mouse-esque segments of States material, and he remained magnetic on songs off of 2008's Delayer. Genevieve Gagon was rocking her fiddle to great effect, evoking Titus Andronicus, their sonic cousins from New Jersey. Drummer Jeremy Gagon seems to have gotten progressively better over the last few years in proportion to his hair’s wildness, and his mop is quite long and crazy now. Bassist Masanori Christianson is ever the rhythmic Gibraltar: get a piece of the rock. The States closed with a cover of the Violent Femmes’ “Prove My Love,” and relaxed until more gigs Friday.
Two-dollar pints of Dos Equis and ample sunshine on the rooftop of a bar named Cheers accompanied the short but refreshing set from San Francisco classic rockers The Mother Hips. The grizzled, blue-collar four-piece traverses territory commonly ceded to the Rolling Stones, Dire Straits, and Tom Petty, yet the band remains untouchable. With twenty years under their belt and about a dozen studio and live albums, the most recent being 2009’s Pacific Dust, the Hips are veterans of American music, masters of meting out bluesy, rootsy, Southern rock-inspired diddies like “Magazine.” Tim Bluhm's solos are so confident while fellow guitarist vocalist Greg Loiacono and bassist Paul Hoaglin seem like stoic hardliners, laying down interlocking grooves. Drummer John Hofer is a straightaway old-school basher. Full of die-hard fans, the free show on the small rooftop of a dingy shot bar represents the best of Austin: no covers, no lines, sunny skies, and some rock. Their show in Big Sur at the end of April seems like their most natural element.
Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop — with its ample track bikes, room for hundreds, and serene name — turned into the perfect venue Thursday for San Francisco’s famed indie rockers Rogue Wave. Warm midday light streamed down through big bay windows onto the quintet during its hour-long afternoon set playing new songs from just-released album Permalight. The album took a battering on Pitchfork.com with a 5.1 out of 10 review, and you can see where critics might be irked over smiling Zach Rogue and his soft and breathy vocal styling, which fit snugly into three- and four-part harmonies over loud, clean guitar. Whatever, the kids liked it. The start-stop structure of the songs, combined with their mournful, resigned tone even evoked Grandaddy — full of oblique references to domestic turmoil, yet radio-ready acoustic pop nonetheless. The problem is that the field is quite crowded with acts like Jason Mraz. Still, the vocal harmonies and pop structure had Rogue Wave sounding like some roughened-up Beach Boys, and they even went the anthemic route with a song that could have easily been the melody of Scorpions’ “Rock You Like A Hurricane” with just a touch of grunge and Blue Oyster Cult. The band closed its AOL Spinner “pop-up” party — announced just hours prior on twitter — with title track “Permalight” and long list of shows in front of them.