SXSW Diary: Thursday When Amy LaVere strode onto the stage at Antone's in Austin last night, clad in a low cut, ankle-length white dress and black heels, a guy behind me gasped, "Wow!" Two thirds of the way through her set, an opening slot on the Americana Music Association's SXSW showcase (which was headlined by Marcia Ball, James McMurtry, and Joe Ely), a woman behind me gave her an enthusiastic "Go on, girl!"
Needless the say, LaVere had control of the crowd. LaVere was backed by two of Memphis' finest musicians, drummer Paul Taylor and guitarist Steve Selvidge, the latter of whom found space to deploy plenty of his tricks -- skronk blues and Southern boogie riffs, speed-rock solos -- within the context of LaVere's eclectic roots sound.
But it was LaVere herself who was the real star, dancing a pas-de-deux with her upright bass, slapping back at Taylor in a musical call-and-response, and putting everything she had into each song in a performance that was as expressive as possible without veering into overt theatricality. She was at turns mischievous, flirtatious, and defiant, and gave the impression and thinking through each song's lyrics as the she sang them. Even when her songs aren't good-to-great (and they usually are), she exploits all the meaning and potential in them.
A couple of hours later, at The Rio, another Memphis-connected act, the Brooklyn-based buzz band MGMT, made their SXSW debut. The band -- which features White Station High School grad Andrew VanWyngarden [son of Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden] as frontman and touring guitarist Hank Sullivant [who graduated from MUS] -- was in fierce form.
An electronic/psychedelic outfit that echoes David Bowie and Prince at times, the band is only a few months out from their debut album, Oracular Spectacular, but when they launched into singles "Electric Feel" and "Time to Pretend," a ripple of excitement ran through an exuberant, overflow crowd that was akin to a stadium band finally playing their big hit. By the time the band took the stage, the club was so packed that people were hanging off railings and standing on stools at the back of the club to try to see the stage. Later that night (or morning) the band was set to perform at a Playboy party.
Outside of Jay Reatard's showcase at Vice (concurrent with MGMT -- I chose the latter with the promise of catching Reatard at a couple of day parties before the festival's over), those were the big local shows last night, so there was plenty of other Memphis activity swirling around. Third Man's Jeff Schmidtke and Snowglobe's Brad Postlethwaite were among the locals manning a Memphis music booth at the festival trade show. Rapper Lord T. (of Lord T. & Eloise) was visible throughout the day, checking out Chicago rappers the Cool Kids in the afternoon, swaying along (clad in powdered wig and sunglasses) to LaVere at Antone's, hustling his way into MGMT's show, and pausing for photo ops with several curious passers-by. At a Lou Reed tribute show earlier in the day, Snowglobe's Tim Regan got the honor of leading off the festivities (via his Austin-based band Oh No, Oh My!) by singing the Velvet Underground classic "Sunday Morning" with Velvets founder Reed in attendance.
When I wasn't following locals, I spent my time catching up with a couple of old favorites. Los Angeles indie MC Murs might be the most underrated rapper around and he gave a compelling performance on the convention-center day stage, one driven by an intense but comedic dissection (in both his songs and stage patter) of being a black rapper with a largely white fan base. We closed the night at the outdoor amphitheatre Stubbs where Texas native sons the Old 97s', a whipsmart semi-rootsy rock band, were back together after a brief hiatus.
The local fare today is overwhelming: An all-day, all-night Memphis showcase at Opal Divine's, Memphis-based Goner Records showcasing at Beerland, a comedy set that includes Flyer contributor Andrew Earles, and a closing showcase from local SXSW vets Lucero. In addition, we just scored passes to one of the festival's hottest tickets: A Spin magazine day party headlined by Vampire Weekend. We'll try to hit as much of this stuff as possible (which, given the logistics of space and crowds, won't be as much as we'd like). So look for more from Austin tomorrow. --Chris Herrington