SXSW Day 1: Marnie Stern Will Not Stop Talking About Her Vagina
[This week, All Shook Down will be bringing you coverage of the overheated Austin confab known as South By Southwest, where hype, beer, and fame are the only currencies. (Just kidding -- sorta.) We'll covering both Bay Area artists and other interesting acts. If you're a local musician in Austin this week and want to tell us your SXSW story or invite us to your show, email us or Tweet at us -- we'd love to hear from you.]
Christopher Victorio Marnie Stern at SXSW last night.
SXSW Day 1: Marnie Stern, Social Studies, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers
Marnie Stern is onstage at the utterly packed Tuesday night Pitchfork showcase talking about her vagina. At first it seems like a brief aside: While checking her microphone, Stern, the fiery New York City guitar player, goes, "barbecue, one, two, check," then, "vaginas, one, two, check." Then, "Which is better?" (She doesn't answer the question.)
While the sound guys are setting up, she goes on something of a vagina rant, mentioning that her female parts could stretch from her microphone to her bass player's. Most people in the crowd greet this quizzically, giggling a bit, anticipating that she'll get serious when the music starts. But she doesn't.
Stern, accompanied only by a bass player and drummer, launches into "The Chronicles of Marnia," a perfect example of her her odd, DIY hard rock: she loops complex, often finger-tapped guitar melodies, then plays more chords and serpentine melodies over them. Her voice, which sounds sirenesque on her records, is nasal and snarly and girlish live. Her presence is utterly disarming, and after about the first two songs, we're enthralled. People in the crowd are singing along with her soaring melodies. The guitar playing is technically fantastic, but never flashy (insofar as finger-tapping can be unflashy). Marnie Stern's records often sound like they were made by a small army of angry fairies, so watching her reproduce that music onstage with only two other people is quite impressive.
Also impressive is her commitment to talking about her vagina. Her demeanor did not get more serious when the music started. Not at all. As soon as the first song ended, she goes, "Should we talk about my vagina again, or?" Between following songs, she teases her bandmates for being so quiet. But it's not like Stern has to be so goofy to get attention -- her music says plenty on its own.
Social Studies: The five members of San Francisco indie-pop outfit Social Studies are cramped onto the stage at Valhalla, playing songs off their new album, Developer. The music part of this conference hasn't officially started yet, but there's a sizable crowd here. Ann Powers, the well-known pop music critic for NPR, just tweeted about the Blank Tapes, another Bay Area rock band the preceded Social Studies on this very stage.
Cutest band so far: Blank Tapes yfrog.com/h41fvfbvj— annkpowers (@annkpowers) March 13, 2013
Social Studies is the kind of proficient, unflashy pop-rock band that unfortunately doesn't grab lots of attention at an overstimulation orgy like SXSW. Having just come off a tour with Ramona Falls, the group is sharp tonight, and their new songs get the ample crowd dancing and swaying. Ramona Falls' Brent Knopf is actually in the crowd, dancing and swaying and cheering on his former tourmates. Social Studies don't do loud rock too well, but their quiet, soulful tunes are exquisite. They close with "Terracur," a highlight off the new record, which builds slowly, finally arriving at a powerful climax. The band members double over with energy; Knopf is practically headbanging in front of us. The song closes with more far energy than its recorded version, and the applause is hearty and sustained. Not bad for a Tuesday night.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers: It's 1:15 a.m., and Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers' set hasn't even started yet. We're in a dirt yard behind an old house that's been turned into a bar, and this Bay Area blues-rock outfit is setting up in what looks like the remnants of an old shack. Behind that, across a small creek, the lights of downtown Austin skyscrapers rise into the sky, seemingly far off in another era.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers
When the music does start, it contributes to the sense of timewarp. Bluhm wears a long, black dress that goes all the way to the tip of her cowboy boots. She's surrounded by a band of musicians who are playing in ridiculous sync with one another, having honed their show over the last year in seemingly every bar and club on the West Coast. The grooves are mid-tempo shuffles with Rhodes electric piano, acoustic chords, and searing electric guitar solos; Bluhm's voice is the warm, immaculate cap to it all. "Ravenous" arrives second in the set and feels like a lovely '70s throwback, a Fleetwood Mac hit that never got released. This is classic rock like it should be: bluesy, folky, unfussy, and expertly played. The dirt yard seemed empty a few moments ago, but now it seems full: There's a guy in flip-flops pulling hard on a booze drink and dancing -- maybe more hopping and flopping, actually -- around the crowd with a cigarette. Many people are moving and smiling. Bluhm and the band keep playing until almost 2. The party lasts as long as they do.
If you're a Bay Area artist in Austin this week and want to get covered, email us or Tweet at us.