Now that the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference is done and gone for another year down Austin way, the usual mid-March stream of North Texas gigs by SXSW-bound musicians has slowed to a dribble. Frankly, we didn’t score all that many must-see shows up here – that’s probably a function of the economy as well as SXSW Music 2009’s relatively underwhelming but voluminous 1,900-act performer docket, at least until mega-acts such as Metallica, Kanye West and LL Cool J showed up – but Sunday night was a veritable folk-rock feast thanks to shows by Andrew Bird and Langhorne Slim.
Mr. Bird, a favorite of progressive indie followers since his solo career commenced in earnest with 2003’s Weather Systems, presented a fascinating 90-minute set at the Granada Theater. From the feedback-laced intro that preceded the opener, “The Master Swarm,” to the highlight: a gossamer and particularly dynamic turn through the oddly structured anthem “Armchairs,” Mr. Bird consistently spritzed the Granada’s air with tantalizing violin riffs (yes, riffs), his crisp Lyle Lovett-by-way-of-Chris Isaak voice, and his trademark whistling.
The fascination wasn’t wholly musical, though. The show had been sold out for two weeks. Desperate locals offered double the $20 face price for spare tickets outside the door. Venue talent booker Kris Youmans even resorted to a Facebook status line to admonish those seeking last-minute guest-list slots. But the event’s most notable characteristic was that the vast majority of the 1,000 who attended weren’t Dallas’ usual hipster-scenester suspects. (Most of those cats were probably verging on catatonia brought on by SXSW exposure). The mainstream music lover was heavily represented at the Granada, and almost to a person they stood, listened and swayed to Bird’s wondrous electro-folk compositions. Few whipped out cell phones to snap a shot or send an OMG-laced text to some poor ticket-less buddy; mouths only opened to either express awe or sing along to Bird’s hyper-literate lyrics. That bodes well for the future of American pop, and here’s why: Dallas music audiences are notoriously detached, finicky and chatty. That this crowd was so enraptured by Bird’s melody mongering speaks to his new-Jack sonic allure: no longer the province of those who champion the movement of popular music beyond recyclable convention, he’s plainly poised to be this year’s Arcade Fire or Decemberists, and maybe eventually this decade’s Dave Matthews.
And though the show was superb, the most endearing facet of it was Bird’s liberal and live use of on-stage loop sampling. Instead of employing seven or eight band members to (sometimes) play deft layers of everything from glockenspiel to noise generator in real time, he and his three on-stage mates constantly constructed soundscapes on one instrument to serve as a song’s armature, then switched to another instrument or sound as that just-captured loop of the first melody repeated. The technique is hugely tough to master (and some choose not to, resorting to backing tracks triggered by a sound man), and Bird and his band are not flawless at it. But the minor hiccups that ensued only added to the humanity and beauty of the show.
Where Mr. Bird gig was melancholy, thick and highly coveted, Langhorne Slim’s late-night turn at the Double Wide was breezy, modest and shamefully attended. About 35 folks took in Slim’s strange, bubbly, dance-able Southern-fried jangle folk (a number of Bird attendees told venue reps that they’d be at the ‘Wide for Slim, but skipped out). The Pennsylvania-born Slim isn’t the student or innovator that Bird is and he hasn’t been around nearly as long, but his presence – a quizzically endearing mix of Jack White and SNL-era Adam Sandler – made him one of last year’s highlights at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, and his aural pocket is close enough to Bird’s that bleed-over from the Granada show should have been copious. Guess not. Blame Sunday?