Saturday, March 27, 2010

SXSW Roundup

Now that my head has cleared a bit after being back in New York for a few days, I've had a chance to look through my camera and my scattered memories of the festival. Here are some of my favorite performances by bands I hadn't heard before.
The very first day in Austin I saw a band from Denmark called Slarrafenland, which means "the land of milk and honey." They were awesome! Great musicians, multi-instrumentalists, they had great vocal harmonies reminiscent of Brian Eno, and cool horn parts. Their music had a lot of sonic variety, which I am always drawn to.
Almost immediately after I saw a band called Mount Righteous which was a sort of punk/thrash/marching band thing. The singers sang through megaphones, and their performance was very joyous and strange, I loved it.
Later in the week the Silent League played at a party held by the Hometapes record label. It was a great time, despite the temperature dropping to 38 degrees! (the show was outside, mostly). The first performance was by Sharon Van Ettan, who played solo at 11am while a small but attentive audience had a pancake breakfast. Her songs were hauntingly beautiful, she has the kind of voice that stays in your memory, the feeling of it.
Yacht from Portand, Oregon also blew my mind, they brought the party more than any band I saw that week. So good! More on them in the next post...

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Rise of the Machines: Pre-Recorded Tracks in Live Performance

I wanted to share my impressions of the trend I observed at SXSW of bands using pre-recorded backing tracks in their sets. I was really taken aback by how many bands were playing along with samplers. I'm sure that I have a different perspective on all this since I'm a musician myself. The joy of playing music for me is interacting with other musicians in real time, whether in a rock band playing the same songs night after night, or playing jazz or free improvisation. I'm interested in music with a human warmth and I can't help but be a little concerned about what the rise of pre-recorded tracks means for the future of live music. Maybe I'm also worried about losing my gigs to a machine!

A staple of the festival was the dance-disco-electronica duo with a live drummer and a singer who played keyboards or guitar. The band Memory Tapes is a duo with an excellent drummer who played along with the backing tracks with real fire and a strong groove. The singer also played guitar, but the huge pulsing sound of the band was coming from the pre-recorded synth tracks and electronic dance beats on the samplers. By the end of their set almost everyone in the crowd was moving. I enjoyed the music but I couldn't stop thinking that the performance would be so much more alive if there was a full band. But on the other hand, these guys made those tracks exactly the way they wanted them to sound and were now able to reproduce them perfectly at every show. Maybe some of these bands see the use of backing tracks as a way to fully realize their musical vision.

I saw a few bands whose records I was familiar with using pre-recorded tracks and they sounded exactly like their albums, which to me is a little unsatisfying. I like to see bands create their music from scratch in a live setting, reacting to things on a human scale like the mood of each person in the band, the crowd, and the sound of the venue. All these factors should make for a unique experience and a special representation of the music. I feel like this becomes less of a possibility when bands play to backing tracks. As an audience member I enjoy seeing the chemistry of a band. "Chemistry" in the true sense of combining different elements and watching them blow up, dissolve, or turn a strange color.

Another consideration is that it's very expensive to tour with a full band. If you can cut things down to 2 or 3 people touring can become a little more financially viable (meaning you might lose less money!). I saw a few solo acts as well, some only pushing buttons on the sampler to cue the next song and occasionally singing.

It was very telling to me that the last instrument to be replaced was always a live drummer. It's long been my belief that the drummer is the most important part of a band. Many of the bands I saw had a live drummer in addition to electronic drum tracks and I think a big reason for this is the visual impact. There is nothing as captivating as watching a great drummer embodying the band's rhythm with the choreography of their limbs in motion. I think when you take that away the performance crosses over entirely into another kind of experience.

All of these concerns aside, I really believe that it doesn't matter what the means are in creating music as long as the end product is something compelling enough to move people. Paradoxically, one of my favorite shows was the band YACHT who played along to backing tracks that were so loud I couldn't tell if the rest of the band was doing anything at all. Their set instantly took on the energy of a big party fueled by the two extremely charismatic singers who danced and mimed the lyrics to the songs and exuded pure style. The music was heavily indebted to the Talking Heads but the songs were infectious and really fun. The humans playing in the band wore tuxedos. The invisible machines pulsed along into the night.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Letters from the road

I intended to blog more consistently from the Silent League tour, but things have been pretty hectic and I've fallen way behind! It's now our 4th day at SXSW and I've seen many many bands, played 4 shows, and had some great barbecue and breakfast tacos.
I thought I would try to document a little of what's happened on our way down to Austin, and I'll try to do a SXSW roundup at a later date. I've been taking short videos of my favorite bands, and I'll try to put them up later.
Our first show was in Charlottesville, VA, a very nice college town, a lot of the buildings on campus were designed by Benjamin Franklin. There was also an amazing potato donut place called Spudnuts. Highly recommended!
Then we played in Greensboro, NC at the Blind Tiger, as part of a music series called Monkey Whale. To my surprise, the Brooklyn band Pearl and the Beard was also playing and they sounded great! I had met and played with their cellist, Emily Hope Price before with Abby Payne, and it was great to catch their set.
Then we had an epic drive to New Orleans and played at a very interesting venue called the Pearl. It's an old mansion that's been putting on shows for almost 20 years, a very bohemian setting. I wish I had taken more pictures, the place was really unbelievable! It was my first time to New Orleans, and I wish I had more time to explore the city, which was beautiful.
OK, back to indie-rock summer camp!