After a morning of writing, I had no concrete plans. Thankfully, I have some standby venues that I hit when I’m at SXSW: Canada House and Ireland House. I’ve had good luck with both in my three years at SXSW, so I seek them out now. This particular morning, I headed to Friends Bar to catch some Canadian acts.
The great thing about Canada’s presence at SXSW is that they take great care to make their venue welcoming. I got a free well drink ticket and food just for walking in the door, and every member of Team Canada was enthusiastic about my presence in their venue. You can see good music in a lot of places at SXSW; you can’t get great hospitality much of anywhere. Viva la Canadians.
I walked in just as singer/songwriter Ben Caplan went on, and I was charmed by his energetic, quirky tunes. Caplan has a flair for sweeping, wordless melodies (which often sound vaguely Russian, oddly) to accent his insightful lyrics. His low voice can grow to a giant, booming call, which is always fun to hear. Also fun was his stage banter, which was genuinely hilarious. At one point Caplan noted, “I know you are all music industry professionals, but you were once people who liked to clap along and participate.” I subsequently clapped. If you’re a fan of dramatic, entertaining singer/songwriters, Caplan should be on your team.
One of my favorite Canadian songwriters is John K. Samson, whether he’s solo or with The Weakerthans. His power-pop hits the sweet spot between clever and winsome, both in music and lyric. I was pleased to hear that Dusted, although a bit darker in their moods, captured a similar vibe. After humorously noting that they would be shortening their set by cutting all the guitar solos from their songs to help out the venue on time constraints, the duo launched into a tight set of power-pop.
The tunes relied heavily on the interactions between the guitar, vocals and drums; the rhythms and melodies don’t stand alone in Dusted tunes. The whole thing works together to create the vibe. I totally didn’t know this until right now, but Brian Borcherdt of Holy Fuck is actually in the band. I can assure you, nothing even remotely gives an electronica vibe: this is a straight-up power-pop band. Dusted’s set was one of my favorite from the festival: instead of being ostentatious or dramatic, it simply got down to business and delivered the goods. Excellent stuff.
I left Friends to go join some friends over at Paste/HGTV’s stage, where Lissie was about to go on. Her pop-rock material was solid, with some interesting new songs. The highlight was her cover of Kid Cudi’s “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which was transformed from a drunken rumination on debauchery into a howling treatise on happiness and its often difficult pursuit. It’s always impressive to me when a band reveals a new side of a song simply by putting their own voice to it, so I loved hearing Lissie’s take on the tune.
What would you do if your first introduction to a band was, “I’M ABOUT TO GET HIT WITH A PIE IN THE FACE! COME SEE OUR SHOW! IT HAPPENS RIGHT NOW!”? If you’re various passersby on Sixth Street yesterday, you watch Cobalt and The Hired Guns pie themselves in the face, then walk into Bourbon Girl to watch their show. This pleased me greatly, as I had slotted Cobalt as my top must-see band for SXSW. Their pop-punk-rock tunes were some of my favorite in 2012, and their live renditions were everything I hoped they’d be. The Chicago quartet barreled through a half-hour of songs just crammed to the gills with clever lyrics and singalong melodies. It was hard for me to not be thrilled while watching Cobalt, as their tunes were just too perky and fun to be dour-faced. If you take the storytelling sensibility of The Hold Steady, filter it through the exuberance of a pop-punk band, and add a liberal amount of cello and glockenspiel, you’ve got Cobalt. If you’re not intrigued by this, I don’t know if this blog can help you. Seriously. Cobalt and the Hired Guns’ set was one of the most fun I’ve seen at SXSW so far.
After shooting the breeze with Tomlinson of Cobalt, I stepped next door to the Canada House at Friends Bar. Canada House is one of my favorite stops at SXSW, as they always have stellar lineups; Friends is impressed upon my soul forever, since I covered two years of The Buffalo Lounge there. Putting the two together was just a joy to my soul. That joy was compounded when Royal Canoe stepped up to the stage with their army of keyboards and guitars. By my best count, the Manitoba band had six keyboards, five guitars, and a nigh on uncountable amount of pedals at their disposal. The fact that the set started almost exactly on time was pretty much a miracle in my mind.
They used their vast store of musical instruments to create incredibly intricate indie-pop tunes that sounded like a progression from The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin: great pop hooks were filtered through unusual rhythms, quirky sounds, pitch-shifted vocals, and an unpredictable songwriting sense. In many bands, it’s easy to tell where the genesis of a song came from: with Royal Canoe’s tunes, it was impossible to discern the main riff or melody. Instead, the whole song had to be taken at face value, with each new part being enjoyed for its own discrete joys. This sounds like it would be a very disjointed listening experience, but it was actually an astonishingly coherent one; even though I couldn’t tell what was holding the tunes together, the sextet knew exactly what was going on when. The sound was confident, assured, and intoxicating. Royal Canoe’s set was unlike any I’ve seen so far at SXSW, and that’s impressive. Definitely one of my best finds of the fest so far.
During Cobalt’s set, I realized that I had lost my SD card on my camera, so there are no pictures for any further bands. That’s sad, because I really wanted to get a picture of the tattoo that the lead singer of Imaginary Cities had. Being the Manitoba Music showcase and all, it isn’t completely surprising that a tattoo of Manitoba was chilling on his arm. But it was still impressive and endearing, especially since Manitoba and my home state of Oklahoma have a lot in common (both are far from mountains and water, both are largely plains, both have a Tornado Alley, both have vast swaths of rural areas, both have a city named Winnipeg – just kidding). Also impressive was Imaginary Cities’ music, the sort that blends guitar-pop, folk and singer/songwriter seamlessly. Male and female vocalists split time, creating a diverse, beautiful range of sounds. The sound was eminently listenable: I sat back and relaxed on a chair and just took it in for the first time at SXSW. After running around like a chicken with my head cut off, hearing an audio invitation to relax and let things happen was wonderful. I look forward to hearing their new album, which comes out in May.