SXSW Music: Thursday
Thursday at SXSW was something of an embarrassment of riches for female musicians who bring their A-game in performance. There may have been a queue snaking around Central Presbyterian to see of-the-moment electronic artist James Blake, but many people left pleasantly surprised by what kind of a show Canadian singer/arranger Cameron Mesirow, who records under the alias Glasser, can put on.
In anticipation of the clamor to see Blake, I got to the gig a bit early. Also, I wanted to make sure I got a good seat for Julianna Barwick, who opened the Pitchfork showcase. I've been a fan since I read a Dusted review that led to stumbling on "Dancing With Friends" on her MySpace page. I think her new record The Magic Place is a major artistic step forward. Once situated, I took in Barwick's singular voice-based ambient music. Accompanied by only a looper, Barwick builds upon a variety of (usually pre-verbal) vocal lines usually improvised during recording until they accumulate into transcendent layers of sound. What I like the most about Barwick's music, apart from it being built almost entirely around the female voice, is its vastness. It's pretty remarkable that one person can fill up a space so acoustically rich. Barwick was certainly up to the task, and gave the audience mental room to contemplate and take in the majesty of the venue.
Following Cults, Glasser very much made an event of taking the stage. Ring was a substantial debut, and having seen her recent performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, I knew we had a potential crossover artist on our hands. Common reference points have been Kate Bush, Björk, and Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan, but I think this minimizes each woman's substantial musical contributions. But if we are lumping eccentric female artists together, I think Mesirow is capable of forging a path similar to the Knife's Karin Andersson, as she could totally stage an opera or a ballet. While many contemporary female artists are building on atmospheric synth pop, Mesirow sets herself apart as an arranger, lyricist, vocalist, and performer. She seems especially interested in creating drama, wowing the audience in equal measure with her clarion voice, avant-garde costuming, and wild dancing. Everything about this performance radiated star power. I don't throw around the word "genius" very often, but I think future generations of female artists may be called "the next Glasser." Mesirow has given them quite an act to follow.
The next act I was anticipating was Those Darlins, a quartet from Murfreesboro, Tennessee who party as hard as they plow through their set of ribald, wickedly catchy punkabilly. I'm firmly of the mind that southerners are simply more punk rock than most people, and anyone who pairs gold sequined bodysuits with armpit hair and requests shots on stage proves my rule. They also seemed to transform the venue. Perhaps this has more to do with the toll SXSW takes on all of us, but it was interesting that when I went to Swan Dive the night before to catch Sharon Van Etten, the venue seemed like a classy establishment. When I walked in for this show, the space was packed with sweaty bodies and the floors were sticky. In other words, the space accomodated Those Darlins perfectly. Jessi Darlin snarled like Wanda Jackson's unholy granddaughter as she wailed on her guitar, and guitarists Nikki and Kelley Darlin and drummer Linwood Regensberg also gave as good as they got. As the announcer said before their set started, see this band now so in six months you'll seem cool. Or just see them because rock is always saved by guitar-wielding bad girls.
I ended the night with a great set by Khaira Arby and her band. I didn't know anything about the Malian singer before happening on her SXSW profile, but I'm so glad I saw her. For one, as Ann Powers noted in NPR's recent reflection on the '90s, we get fewer international touring artists as a result of tightened airport security following 9/11. So catching a Malian female singer perform in the states is far more exceptional now than it once would have been. For another, there's really no denying Arby's powerful voice. Her band was perfectly in sync as well. She was accompanied by two guitarists, a bassist, and drummer, and two saxaphone players guested on a few tracks. In addition to dazzling the audience with her joyous whoop of an alto, Arby also pounded out rhythms on two different percussive instruments and led us in a few dances. Despite having to venture out into a downtown peopled with reeling St. Patrick's Day imbibers, I was filled with joy from this show. An absolute delight.
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