Janelle Monáe — the funky R&B rocker Rolling Stone named Hot Sci-Fi Beyoncé on last year’s Hot List — likes to make an entrance. The OutKast protégé made not one, but three during her brief Wednesday night SXSW set at Stubb’s, first flouncing onto the stage as a female voice-over instructed the audience “no phasers, only chainsaws” were permitted, generating a stunning silhouette as her springy pompadour reflected the spotlight. Her poppy yet bizarre songs recalled Of Montreal’s glammy pastiche, though there were clearly nods to Prince and James Brown in her striking stage show (and frequent count-offs of “One, two, three, four!”).
On “Many Moons” Monáe busted out an extremely funky chicken in her now-traditional crisp white jacket with black lapels. But she dialed everything back to basics for ballad “Smile,” a torchy piece that she belted flawlessly, accompanied only by her stellar, Andre 3000-lookalike guitarist. “Sincerely Jane” was packed with bass and brassy low sounds, conjuring something both retro and futuristic, recalling the early-Sixties vibe Duffy and Adele have spun into success. The only drawback was that though the stage sounded packed with musicians, the guitarist and a drummer were Monáe’s only live accompaniment (layers of backing vocals and other instruments came care/of a backing track). But though it certainly felt like a full-scale pop spectacle crammed onto that modest Stubb’s stage, Monáe made sure to make a very rock & roll exit, crowd-surfing her way through her final number before vanishing for good.
Next, New Zealand Eighties revivalist Ladyhawke ran through an extremely polished set of tightly arranged synth-rock. Opener “Dusk Till Dawn” shimmered with Scissor Sisters boogie, “Magic” throbbed with the power of propulsive but eerie disco and “Another Runaway” recalled both Donna Summer and Pat Benatar with its anthemic yet glittery vibe. Singer Pip Brown stood anchored center-stage strumming her guitar while warm washes of keyboards saturated the night sky and her tight band pulsed along. Picking out the ’80s tunes the group was referencing was a popular exercise (the theme from “Fame”! The opening of Van Halen’s “Jump”!). Wrapping with a three-song whammy of “Back in the Van,” “Paris Is Burning” and the big, bold single “My Delirium,” Ladyhawke definitely brought the party, though the tunes could have used a bit more build-up-and-break-down dynamics. “My Delirium” got a few hands in the air — and what looked like a flying saucer in the sky — as Ladyhawke made a fairly strong case for herself as the indie rock Lady Gaga. The sound may be familiar, but it sure is fun.
Earlier in the day, Christopher R. Weingarten caught these sets:
The Bronx @ Emo’s Jr.
This feral Los Angeles rock band was sweating bullets in front of a rowdy audience of crowd-surfers and fist-pumpers — including one fan dressed in an extra-large Easter Bunny costume. Long considered an “it” band that never received wider appreciation, lead singer Matthew Caughthran reveled in their cult status, bragging about who they were not playing with tonight: They flew solo in a small club, as opposed to opening for major-label rockers the Hives and the Killers, like they did in SXSW 2004.
Ulrich Schnauss @ Elysium
German electronic producer Ulrich Schnauss prods his keyboard with the effortless zeal of someone enjoying breakfast or checking their email. The ensuing shoegaze pop at his Elysium opening set was a blissful, heat-pumping drift that had the audience either bopping along or totally zoned out.
Jucifer @ Emo’s Annex
Under a tent playing a solid wall of sludgy pop, everything about longtime duo Jucifer’s SXSW set can be said in the presentation: A wall of speakers approximately six feet high and 10 feet long, enormous Lucite drums, an unholy torrent of smoke, and lots of sweaty hair — and all of it as loud as it looked.
Vetiver @ Emo’s Jr
Using all the textures you can muster out of acoustic guitars, new Sub Pop signees Vetiver mixed three-part harmonies with a unique, down-home weirdness.
Sleepy Sun @ Emo’s Jr
This super-hyped San Francisco psych band didn’t exactly meet everyone’s expectations as being the coolest game in town… their lead singer hit the stage looking like Crocodile Dundee on a spirit quest. But they more than made for it with sultry slither, some art-shaman shakers and spirited bursts of dark stoner groove.