SXSW Report: The Best of the Rest of the Fest

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In this week's paper, I cover the stuff that impressed me most (or least) at South by Southwest, including a couple exciting discoveries. Here's what I couldn't cram into the print edition.

After Thee Satisfaction's knockout set , a Seattle friend persuaded me to stay another half hour to catch Shabazz Palaces, another upstart act from his city. Shabazz Palaces isn't exactly unknown—it's the fledgling solo project of Ishmael "Butterfly" Butler from Digable Planets. The band sounded artfully psychedelic, but I wasn't sure if that was just because of all the reverb on the PA. The music was loose and angular—someone next to me compared it to Anti-Pop Consortium, but it was softer and warmer than that, more like an underproduced, jammy Sa-Ra Creative Partners. Butler was accompanied by a live percussionist, who played shakers, gourds, and hand drums and even plinked on a kalimba while Butler tapped out beats on his electronics rig.

Thursday night, I only saw one act and it was Icelandic folk singer Olof Arnalds, whose new record on One Little Indian I like. I think she's kind of the Joanna Newsom of Iceland—except her voice is so high and pristine that she makes Newsom sound like James Earl Jones voicing Darth Vader. She played in the Driskill Hotel's tearoom, which is small but very fancy, and everyone sat on the floor and paid rapt attention. Accompanied by her friend David Thor on guitar and piano, Arnalds played what I initially thought was a mandolin with an armadillo hide duct-taped to the back. Turns out it's a kind of South American lute called a charango (here's a clip of her explaining it).

She sang most of her songs in Icelandic, including what seemed to be a bawdy cabaret number. She also did a few in English, and though she's fluent her lyrics were a little weird—at one point she made the audience sing along to an epic bridge whose only words were something like "Don't get into that horrible car," repeated over and over for at least a minute. It made me rethink what she might be saying in Icelandic, because up till that point I'd imagined her lyrics to be very poetic, perhaps about moss or sea foam or lost love or frolicking in the heather—afterward I thought they must be banal at best. She also pressed us into singing the drawn-out hoots and whoops in the outro during her cover of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire". The audience was really game, despite being filled with product managers and marketing-department underlings and bloggers—folks you wouldn't assume would be enthusiastic about gang vocals or even able to carry a tune.

Friday night I caught True Widow at the Aquarius Records showcase, despite having already had my fill of music for the day. After about ten bands, you get to a point where you have no generosity or patience—bands have about 30 seconds to impress you or you're splitting, or at least standing at the bar kvetching loudly with your friends. Anyhow, True Widow held my attention and interest for the duration of their set. They're much heavier live than on record; they reminded me a bit of a sludgier Eleventh Dream Day, with a little hesher wickedness to them (A Minor Forest fans take note). True Widow are also recommended if you've ever wished Yo La Tengo were a stoned, slowcore bummer band.

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