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With more than 2,000 bands playing multiple shows at South By Southwest, that magic onstage spark can seem elusive. Then again, when something special happens, you know it. Here, five gigs from the past week that stood out from the pack:
Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (Friday, 4 p.m., Red Scoot Inn)
Perhaps it was the East-of-downtown location — swarming with fans hours before their set — or maybe it was the skate-friendly group’s passion for the party’s sponsor, Thrasher magazine. No matter the attribution, this show from SXSW’s most-hyped hip-hop collective was electric, inspired, and aggressive. The all-ages audience — chanting “Wolf-Gang-Wolf-Gang” for minutes before they took the stage, responded with never-ending punk-rock righteousness for the show’s full 40 minutes (25 minutes more than their Billboard showcase, which ended with the group cursing out the crowd), from the opener, “Sandwitches,” to the closer, “Fuck The Police.” During one rap, incredibly charismatic founder Tyler The Creator climbed a shaking speaker stand and crowd-dived, only to be upstaged by his partner-in-rhyme Hodgy Beats, who scaled the venue’s tin roof, rapped a verse, and flung himself into the throng. Tyler The Creator seemed uncharacteristically thankful given the caustic nature of his lyrics, bringing onstage a fan who’d broken his nose at the gig and telling the crowd, “I love you” at the end of the show, before turning around and telling off the promoter-type lookie-loos who hadd crowded the stage with them. “None of ya’ll…are in Odd Future,” he said. Of course, if every gig’s like this, he’d better get used to annoying hangers-on.
Fitz and the Tantrums (Tuesday, 11 p.m., Stubbs)
In perhaps one of the most difficult time slots of this year’s SXSW, Fitz and The Tantrums had the unenviable task of following a career-spanning surprise performance from the Foo Fighters, themselves in top-form after the theatrical debut of their new VH1 documentary. But the LA retro-funk band wasn’t going to let that kind of pressure get to them: instead, they rose to the occasion, with singer Noelle Scaggs wailing on “Breaking The Chains of Love” like a woman possessed, and frontman Michael Fitzpatrick breaking out can’t-stop-won’t-stop dance moves through the whole set. Closing with their current hit, “Moneygrabber,” almost seemed like an afterthought: though the Foos had eaten into their set time, by then, everyone in the venue’s heads — and feet — were totally onboard.
Little Comets (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Latitude 30)
One of the joys of SXSW is discovering a brand new band through ears alone, each venue’s open window giving even the most obscure of groups a moment to grab a passerby’s ear and build their fanbase, wanderer by wanderer. Such was the case for Little Comets, a totally-unknown-in-the-states UK four-piece playing only their second US show (the first was, of course, earlier in the week); as they started, the small venue was only about half-full; by the end, it was totally packed. That’s thanks to charming, Kooks-ish pop rock abetted by unusual percussion (clackers, tambourines, and more were dangled in front of the band on a DIY-strung string) and frontman Robert Coles, cheery-dispositioned and beautifully voiced, but still dynamic and expressive — this is radio-friendly rock music that’s instantly, perkily accessible without being cloy or coy, a surprisingly unusual combo that suggests, hopefully, that their next trip to the states will be far more productive.
The Head and the Heart (Friday, 8 p.m., Antone’s)
Just signed to Sub Pop, the folksy, co-ed roots-rockers The Head and the Heart were already one of the most-hyped bands of the festival before it even started, a position that’s actually far more dangerous than it sounds (witness Smith Westerns: hailed before the conference started and nearly universally reviled by its end). Therefore, it was a little bit of magic to watch The Head and the Heart deliver, in a nearly hour-long set both heartbreakingly moving and hand-clappingly interactive. Comparisons to everyone from Fleet Foxes to Wilco are deserved; vocalists Jon Russell, Josaiah Johnson, and Charity Thielen share the former’s gorgeous knack for harmony — and the latter’s ability to deliver that beauty with a raw, connecting rare emotion.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (Wednesday, 9 p.m., The Phoenix)
You’ve got to be good — nay, great — to recover from the stupidity of naming your band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. After all, the absurdity alone is enough to turn off all but the most dedicated fans. The passive ones are missing out: at this show (presented by Los Angeles radio station KCRW) the Detroit-based three-piece made direct, Beatles-inspired pop-rock-for-people-that-hate-pop-rock that begs for audience interactivity and contained just the right amount of weird to appeal to fans of genre leaders like Dr. Dog and Jon Brion. Add to that DIY lighting with bright whites bopping in and out in time to the music and illuminating both the audience and the band, and you’ve got a show that drives hard and fast above the competition, a metaphor at least as dumb as the name it was referencing.
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