SXSW 2013: Day 4: Game Boys, cellos, and ancient cities

Anamanaguchi, Murder by Death, The Devil Makes Three, Lemuria, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears

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First up for Friday at South by Southwest was Buffalo's own Lemuria (Upstate New York, represent!). I feel like I've been trying for years to get into this band, mostly because I really really dig its name (It was in "Golden Sun!") and yet I've never quite been able to make the jump. I wanted to give the group the opportunity to convince me live, to hopefully push me over that ledge into fandom. But sadly, it just wasn't so.

For a group that has been playing and touring this long (it formed in 2004) the live offering at SXSW just wasn't that impressive. I don't care what type of rock band you consider yourself, but if after three songs into your set people are just standing around slightly bobbing their heads, something is amiss. Lead singer and guitar player Sheena Ozzella's vocals softly layered themselves over the rest of the band, but were laid back and floaty. I wasn't impressed. But at least I tried, and I'll have to start looking up bands called Atlantis, I suppose.

Next up was Austin's Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears. Two saxophones and a trumpet rounded out the brass/reed end of this sextet, with Joe Lewis himself taking lead guitar and vocals, and drums and bass completing the bears.

The group had several problems. The horn section, which was woefully underused, was overpowered and hard to hear for almost all of the set, drowned out by the electric guitar and rhythm section. They also seemed to be sticking around for small flourishes here and there, and what resulted was a trio- albeit a solid trio- on one side of the stage (guitar/vocals, bass, drums), while the others felt like a whole other band just standing there. It wasn't cohesive in performance or style; like two puzzle pieces that weren't fitting together.

Lewis's guitar playing was the highlight, along with the quite tight bass playing. But the very, very funk-inspired sound was far, far away from the punk-inspired blues-meets-rock sound the band's bio led me to believe the group would sound like, so things ended on a sour, not honey-sweet, note.

I'm not sure what it is about Indiana, but the second Indiana-based band I've hit this week also stands as one of the best sets of the festival: Bloomington Indiana's Murder By Death. The dark, gritty, folk-rock band shares home-state status with Reverend Peyton, to the point where I might have to just start telling upcoming musicians to drink water from Indiana.

I was a little worried about its set though, as the band was playing in the same warehouse I saw Fidlar earlier in the festival. The space is a giant, empty, echo-ridden chamber of sonic death for anybody hoping to play any kind of musical sound and have it be enjoyed.

My fears were pretty much unfounded, though, as every part of this brooding, dark, melodic group sounded amazing. I've seen the group before a few years back, but either my memory is off, or the group has improved significantly: I don't remember it being this damned good. Everything sounded great live, and even the cello was cutting through the din and audible almost every time I focused on it. That's a hard frequency range from which to stand out. The group has even added a new key/mandolin/accordion player since I saw it last, which hits even more near and dear to my instrumental heart. Several of the members were playing with borrowed gear (instruments didn't arrive on time, it seemed), so it really was an up-against-the-odds set. But it didn't stop the band any, and you couldn't notice at all.

Murder by Death performed as part of the 2013 SXSW music festival. - WILLIE CLARK
  • Willie Clark
  • Murder by Death performed as part of the 2013 SXSW music festival.

As if being down instruments wasn't enough drama, before Murder By Death's last song, a stage-crew member came out and told the band it was over time, and then attempted to start dismantling the drum mics. Frontman Adam Turla asked for a few minutes to finish the set, before the sound guy came over the PA and started yelling - obscenely - to the crew to get off the stage and let the band finish. He didn't seem intent to, but Turla started hitting the chords of the final song and went about playing anyways. Can't stop death, people. You just can't.

From death and decay I then headed to dance on the devil's dance floor with Santa Cruz, California-based The Devil Makes Three. This was some old-timey saloon music, and guitarist Pete Bernhard has a voice that acted like a time machine: it transported the listener into a modern country-western tale.

The sparse instrumentation (guitar, string bass, banjo) did lead to the songs bleeding into each other a bit, and they all tended to follow that boom-chank recipe a little too closely (and all were a little under the tempo I would have liked for a live performance). But it sounded great, and the band has a lock on the sonic palette on which it's working. Bernhard's vocals felt like a perfectly bottled-up example of period singing, to the point where anytime he passed the mic, it paled in comparison.

I had to cut my time with the Devil short, though, as overlapping sets were crazy Friday and I wanted to at least catch a bit of chiptune band Anamanaguchi. For some reason, even given my huge Nintendo nerddom, I've never hitched on to the chiptune wagon, but perhaps it's finally time for me to pay attention.

It's funny, because the first comparison that came to mind listening to these guys was, "Think 'Scott Pilgrim' rock music." And it turns out the group actually did do the soundtrack for the "Pilgrim" graphic novels. Who knew? (It also did work on the "Bit.Trip Runner" soundtrack, for you gaming nerds out there). Anamanaguchi also takes home the award for being the first band at SXSW I've seen all week to have people crowd surf during its set. It was an even more impressive feat given that it was a small room, and a large portion of the crowd had to hold up the few surfers.

I tried to figure exactly out how the band was pulling off everything live. I know it uses synthesizers and runs stuff through old NES systems and Game Boys, but one song featured a vocal track that nobody was singing, and I couldn't figure out if the band was sampling, or using a backing track or what. I also couldn't see a Game Boy from where I was standing, so anybody that wants to help me out and help explain the complexities of live chip-tune performance at some point, I'm all ears. I hope as much of it as possible was done live, but it still got people up and moving, so maybe the how isn't as important. When you think about it, chiptune could very well turn out to be my generation's classical or jazz: the genre is less about the lyrics and more about the melody and composition. And I mean, hey, who can say no to rocking out on a Game Boy?

Phew. Busy night with a lot of great stuff. Believe it or not, we've reached the penultimate page of our journey -- there's only one night left for SXSW, and it's a string of some of the artists I've been most looking forward to this whole festival. One last night, one last blog, so away we go!

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