Opening Metallica's not-so-secret SXSW surprise show Friday night, Los Angeles buzz band Silversun Pickups had the gig of a lifetime. And they knew it: drummer Chris Guanlao couldn't resist taking a snap of the crowd with his digital camera. Winning over approximately 2,000 very antsy Metallica fans is no easy task — especially for a band whose sound is rooted in mid-'90s alternative rock. "It's coming, I promise," said frontman Brian Aubert to the salivating Metallica fans parked at the front of the stage. "The Spin Doctors are coming." With a fuzzy, glowing sound like a meanderthal version of Smashing Pumpkins, the Pickups won over the crowd almost instantly — cheers after the first song and a few pumped fists by the end. When they kicked into the raucous conclusion of "Lazy Eye," the big single from their debut Carnavas, it became clear how the band's new album keeps the power cranking nonstop. (Check out some of Silversun's set, above.)
Earlier in the day, America's most prolific riff merchants, the Hold Steady, kicked off their Club DeVille's set with Separation Sunday's "Hornets! Hornets!," before launching into "Sequestered in Memphis," from their latest album, Stay Positive. The small stage didn't provide the gregarious Craig Finn a lot of room to spazz out, but he did his best with what he had, flailing his arms and holding up his hands beside his head like an indie-rock Richard Nixon. Meanwhile offstage, bromance was blooming, as groups of male buddies linked arms and hopped up and down.
Later that night, Los Angeles' Airborne Toxic Event had Ace's Lounge packed to the rafters (special thanks to the club's owner for sneaking Rock Daily in). The band was dressed dapper and had sharp tunes to match, churning out introspective rock that wasn't afraid to shake its booty. Violist Anna Bulbrook wandered into the crowd and onto an amp, but bassist Noah Harmon took the biggest leap of faith, jumping off his stack onto a stage positioned directly above the venue's bar. Fans were more than happy to go along for the ride, grooving to the Franz Ferdinand-esque dance rock of "Happiness Is Overrated" and singing along to "Innocence" as Harmon bowed his bass and the band whipped themselves into an Arcade Fire-like frenzy.
St. Vincent brought her quirky, shape-shifting songs to Antone's, where she kept the crowd guessing with her Kate Bush-meets-Feist tracks. "Save me from what I want," she crooned as a violin punctuated her thought with plucks and the tune broke into jazzy syncopation. Her music was off-beat, literally and figuratively, but captivating and tuneful all the same.
Playing a black box theater in the back of coffee shop the Hideout, San Francisco's Barn Owl played a 30-minute drone suite that slowly built from the somnambulant hum of two guitars to a gorgeous psychedelic metal climax. Touching on everything from Tibetan chanting to sludgy doom riffs, Barn Owl never produced a sound they couldn't stretch out like taffy, except for maybe the slow pulse of a drummer, who only was on stage for about five minutes total.