TV on the Radio, Stromae + Shamir Keep Austin Weird
Courtney Barnett's Wednesday night set (March 18) wound up being our favorite from all of the day's offerings, but the NPR Music SXSW Showcase at Stubb's, where she played, was pretty stacked all the way through. Here's how it shook out, in order from "the greatest" all the way down to ... well, "really great still."
SXSW's most whispered-about artist played her unreleased album front to back for the first time Wednesday night. The name of Courtney Barnett's intensely buzzing debut LP? Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. But if you've seen the Australian singer and guitarist do her thing live, you know that her style isn't the least bit sedentary. The set's opener salvo, "Elevator Operator" was three ripping minutes of searing, full-band country rock — save the pedal steel. Barnett prefers a power trio, and they make more than enough noise to get the job done. To wit, second song "Pedestrian at Best," sounded even grungier and more disturbed than it does on record, gushing from the stage with all the off-kilter intensity of a Patti Smith verse set to In Utero-era Nirvana. She spit dryly funny poems all night — like "Depreston," a song about house-hunting (in a town called Preston) that includes a gag about a recently purchased percolator ("Now we're saving $23 a week!") — while the two dudes backing her leant support to her shouts, sneers, and shred. It was over too soon, leaving us with ringing ears and a head full of weird and witty lines to contemplate. Perfectly, her final words: "All I want to say is..."
TV on the Radio
It began with a wash of warm feedback, picked up a few looped "oohs," and soon became a rising wall of gorgeous purple sound. TV on the Radio opened with "Young Liars," playing up the din as the guitar arpeggios piled up and Smoota (look him up, seriously) blew his mighty trombone. The first half of the set played hot: The high-speed New Wave punk of "Lazerray" was next, and "Golden Age" followed, trading in its on-album future-funk for a whole lot of loud. The group's music is so heady and particular that it's all too easy to assume they're simply studio geeks, but TVOTR live is practically a different band. After tearing through "Wolf Like Me" (and inspiring a mad rush to the front of the stage), they dipped us in the atmospheric cool of "Love Dog." A rogue audience member had been throwing glitter into the air and as the last flecks fluttered to the filthy floor, they eased us out with the mellow Seeds number, "Trouble." Tunde Adebimpe doffed his hat for a well-timed line — "It's the ending of the show" — before promising, in that liquid coo, "Everything's gonna be okay."
Do you know Stromae? If you don't, you're in the minority, globally speaking, but right on time for a stateside introduction. The band, at least last night, is peopled by a handful of sharp-dressed, able-handed Belgian men who use real instruments (we swear, even if your ears deceive you) to create a lively fusion of dance music, folksy rumba, and, like, cabaret. But as impressive as those guys and their bowties are, the man at the center of the project, Paul Van Haver, is the main event. He's only one of the most charismatic frontmen ever to grace a stage, plus blessed with a voice that vacillates between Brazilian great Jorge Ben Jor (c. África Brasil), his own country's beloved chanteur Jacques Brel, and, um, Shakira (really, it's in that elastic quaver). All of which is to say, if you get the chance, see Stromae. We were put off at first by an initial explosion of Eurodance, but won over in minutes by the players' dexterity and Van Haver's charm — he bounds around the stage, vamps and flexes, stands with the poise of a president or makes like a marionette, and works the crowd between songs. Also, we don't speak French, but we hear the lyrics are très sharp.
Stromae had competition, however, in Shamir — a young Las Vegan with an entrancing countertenor voice and enough bubbly energy to carbonate a flat Lone Star keg. He showed up with a drummer, a keyboardist and a backup singer/hype babe/percussionist and led the whole crowd in a bacchanalian, cowbell-friendly disco-funk dance party. Imagine Prince scraping together a band from LCD Soundsystem's most tertiary members and you're about halfway there. Shamir waded into the audience during closer "Head in the Clouds," and was giving out hugs long after the music stopped.