Damon Albarn + ST Vincent + Kelis
+ Perfect Pussy + Eagulls
Even before this year’s SXSW Festival started, NPR’s showcase was already one of the It shows. Boasting an ambitious lineup –to call the lineup diverse would be an understatement – the showcase seemed meant to illustrate the varied demographic of the NPR audience. Located in the gravel lot of Stubb’s BBQ, which felt in many ways like someone’s large backyard, the evening started off with a snarl with the very buzzed-about Perfect Pussy.
Eagulls harked back to a more driving take on early–80s Cure mixed with a bit of Misfits and Killing Joke for good measure. The group combined phased out guitars, with driving post-punk atmospheres and feature George Mitchell’s caterwauling vocals, only pausing for a few moments before launching back into another song. The band, from Leeds, UK, might be more famous for a letter they wrote about SXSW last year in which they criticized the festival’s industry-focused bands, who put shoulder-rubbing ahead of musical ambition.
The evening took an 180o turn when Kelis took the stage. And the style of the singer’s set may have surprised listeners only familiar with hits like “Milkshake”. Onstage, the singer wasn’t accompanied by loads of electronics or a DJ but rather a band that looked, for all intents and purposes, like a proper soul band. Horns, percussion, backing singers – they were all there. Her voice was in fine, if gruff shape, swinging between a sultry, guttural vocal styling to the occasional, and impressive high octave acrobatics.
Stylistically, it felt like a “back to her roots” set. It wasn’t about impressing with the latest producer’s tricks but rather about getting back to substance and heart. That meant alternating between swinging jazz to Afro beat infected passages, to shuffling soul and fiery ballads. Late in her set, she did include “Milkshake” and the live rendition combined surprise and familiarity in equal measure, making sure no one was left unhappy.
The shifts continued with St Vincent. The brainchild of Annie Clark provided theatrical pop music. Amplified pop with eccentric stylings, Clark and her 2 piece band (drums and guitar/ synthesizer) created the evening’s most dramatic performance, at times finding Clark falling to the floor and flailing and moving in choreographed moves with here guitar/synth player. Drawing primarily on the nouveau New Wave stylings of her recent eponymous album, her group chugged through the night’s cooling air. Driven by backing electronic sequences, the trio was able to create a supremely polished sound, backed also with a stroboscopic lighting installation and step-like sculpture. The effect was both a minimal/maximal and mind-altering.
Following Clark, after nearly an hour’s delay transitioning stage gear, Damon Albarn took the stage an hour later than scheduled, around 1:20am. After the success of Blur, Albarn has been something of a pop star happy to do his work in the shadows – as producer of the immensely successful supergroups Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad, And The Queen and with his excellent record imprint Honest Jon’s, not to mention numerous other pet projects, including a recent trip to Africa with Brian Eno. Tonight’s show pulled primarily from his forthcoming album Everyday Robots but then took a turn through a great part through his illustrious, varied 25 year music career. From Gorillaz, he included “Tomorrow Comes Today.” He performed “Kingdom of Doom” from The Good, The Bad, And The Queen as well as “On Melancholy Hill” from Plastic Beach. Everyone wondered if he’d pull from the very fine and very varied Blur catalog. He did, but with restraint. “All Your Life” is a far cry from hits like “Song 2” or even “Beetlebum” - in fact, it was the B-side to the latter song’s single. All in all, rather than act as a tour through his career, the songs seemed selected to work with his new solo material, and they did. The set’s closer was “Mr. Tembo,” from Everyday Robots. If it wasn’t the epic finale that a song like “Tender” might’ve offered, it seemed appropriate on this evening where artists and crowd alike had to roll with it.