Stages come alive at SXSW Day 1

Beirut has chops, Pipettes need oomph, Allen promising

Minimalist alt-rock band Spoon unveiled songs from its new album, ramshackle folk-pop collective Beirut flashed some accordion prowess, and modern girl group the Pipettes set out to prove that its old-fashioned pop transcends shtick status. So began the opening night at the annual South by Southwest music conference.

The Pipettes, performing an early 8 p.m. set at La Zona Rosa, is an act worth rooting for, even if the group's retro-styled songs often place second to its costumed stage show. Despite a rather contemporary lyrical approach, the British group's music sticks too closely to its '60s pop influences (Phil Spector, the Shangri-Las), and the end result is a set that almost borders on imitation.

The three female vocalists, accompanied by a four-man band (aka the Cassettes), would benefit from a little more oomph from its backing crew. Such songs as "Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me" and "One Night Stand" pack more sass than the light arrangements could support. The set effortlessly drifted along, and with retro fashions and choreographed stage moves, the Pipettes were compelling to watch, but it's an act that has a ways to go before its hooks are more memorable than its theatrics.

At Stubbs BBQ, British sensation Lily Allen didn't do much to fully grab our attention either, though a three-piece horn section was a nice touch, as was her admission that "I'm a little bit drunk, because it's 11 o'clock." OK then. "LDN" had some funny rhymes, and "Smile" remains a fun slice of ska-tinged pop worthy of its hit status. Her repeated jabs at U.K. music magazine NME also were amusing, considering it was sponsoring the show. But the young Allen bears keeping an eye on, even if she can't yet command a 5,000-strong audience.

Holding a more fascinating stage presence at Emo's was the odd Beirut. "We've been practicing at bar mitzvahs," Beirut orchestrator Zach Condon said, and one could be forgiven for taking him seriously. An accordion played give-and-take with a mini horn section, and sometimes multiple banjos found inspiration in European folk and Southwestern grooves. Condon performed much of the set covered in recording tape and seemed largely unprepared and unaware of how much time the act was allotted. Yet it mattered little, as Condon, who alternated singing with playing the clarinet, led his artsy seven-piece collective as if he were fronting a jazz improvisation group.

Local rockers Spoon closed out the Merge Records showcase with four new songs, tentatively titled "Eddie's Raga," "Don't You Ever," "Rhythm & Soul" and "Don't Make Me a Target." The songs see the band expanding on the soulful keyboard work of "Gimme Fiction," doing so with a little more guitar edge. "Target" featured some impressive chopped-up guitar work and a full-out, rock 'n' breakdown in its second half, and "Rhythm & Soul" took a lighter approach, with the guitar and keyboard trading melodic lines. "Raga" was reggae channeled through the Clash, and "Don't You Ever" disintegrated into a wash of guitar noise. The new album is due in July.

Our evening wound down at a Blender-sponsored afterparty. Nellie McKay was an odd choice for this post-1 a.m. slot; she dashed onto the stage and began banging away at a rented grand piano, to the general indifference of the crowd. McKay might wow in a cabaret setting, but she's probably not the best entertainment at that hour for a room full of people who have been drinking and listening to rock 'n' roll all day.

But acts that are missed in the evening likely can be heard throughout the afternoon at one of the unofficial SXSW day parties. The noontime fun began at Emo's, with the Hush Sound pounding out energetic indie pop on the strength of a drummer rocking an argyle sweater. At Red 7, Panthers unleashed methodical Black Sabbath riffs on songs like "Listen to Me," while in a tent outside Beauty Bar, indie rock buzz trio Menomena played material from its new Barsuk album, "Friend and Foe," including "Wet and Rusting" and "Weird," making use of synths, live and keyboard bass and even saxophone for a sound not unlike Mercury Rev or a less jovial Flaming Lips.

Elsewhere, British band Foals failed to impress over at the Fader house; the jerky sound was way too reminiscent of Bloc Party and the Cure. "If it sounds like Spinal Tap out there, it's not intentional," singer Yannis told the crowd. We did get a good tip from Secretly Canadian honcho Chris Swanson, who enthused, "If I had to pick one favorite, it'd be David Vandervelde." He was set to perform at the label's Thursday night showcase.

Also of note: Merge's Rosebuds have morphed from indie rockers into an Erasure-inspired dance pop act, and their forthcoming album "Night of the Furies" should be a breakout. Single "Get Up Get Out" was a thrilling wash of disco grooves, triumphant keyboard and energetic guitars. Chicago's Maps & Atlases injected its angular indie rock with a compelling dose of prog rock, and the Windy City's power-pop crew Office have grown into a formidable New Pornographers-influenced group, full of dancey hooks, shout-out choruses and hand-clap-worthy moments.

SXSW, which showcases hundreds of acts on more than 50 stages, wraps Sunday.

Jonathan Cohen is senior editor at Billboard; Todd Martens is a correspondent for Billboard.