The cool thing abut SXSW is sometimes it helps put two and two together and that’s the bit of math that happened Friday at Cheer Up Charlie’s, a funky indoor/outdoor club on Austin’s hip east side.
After grabbing a cocktail and navigating through the venue, I decided to take a look at one of the band’s playing on the outdoor stage on the other side of the venue. It took me a few moments to realize that on stage was Brian Harding, who used to sing in a indie band Hymns.
New York-based Hymns became a favorite of mine, thanks to their hooky sound that incorporated 70s country rock, power-pop and indie guitar pop sensibilities. The band dissolved a few years ago, with guitarist Jason Roberts picking up sideman gigs including with Norah Jones. In fact, he joined Jones on stage in Omaha last year.
Harding, however, dropped off my radar. Now he’s fronting Ex Cops alongside Amalie Bruun and the two’s duo vocals play off each other in a classic sort of way. Dream pop lurks on their record, True Hallucinations, but Harding has always had too good of a knack for penning insistent, hummable melodies and that hasn’t changed with Ex Cops.
Friday’s shows started late, mostly due to a trip to Austin’s H&M location (Get with it, Omaha retail developers). After a spending spree, I made my way to Beerland, where Bass Drum of Death has grown to a three-piece, two-guitar lineup. Despite that, John Barrett and his guitar are at the forefront of this riff-fest. They were on fire, playing the Beerland patio. High hopes for his next release, because these dudes killed it Friday.
Merge Records’ signee Mikal Cronin knows about the almighty riff too. On the Hotel Vegas patio, he and his three-guitar lineup mastered the shred. Cronin and fellow San Franciscan garage rocker Ty Segall have played in each other’s line-ups and have rubbed off on each other in the best possible way. Segall was absent from Cronin’s SXSW line-up, but his and Cronin’s shared love for huge, fuzzy, surfy guitar sounds was evident. Cronin always came across more interested in power-pop than Segall and his material was pretty direct, placing it somewhere in the spectrum between Teenage Fanclub and Dinosaur Jr.
Viet Nam, who will play in Omaha this spring, also hit the right notes at Hotel Vegas, playing drug-addled street poet psych rock. Michael Gerner is all over the map, at one moment playing elegiac dirges, then switching up to driving songs with narrative lyrics tumbling from his mouth.
Once again, I also learned the lesson of trying to tap into a subtler performance, in midst of an event where bands with cathartic, edgy performances stick out easier. So while trying to take in John Hiatt’s solo set, it hit me that I’d rather see Hiatt on different terms. In a less packed room, Hiatt with a full band, with less people, seated, with a nice draft beer. I already know what to expect for Hiatt and SXSW is not the place to appreciate nuance and detail.