It was a surprisingly scorching afternoon in Austin on Friday, but the weather didn’t explain the high number of scantily clad women packed into Stubb’s well after the sun went down to check out N.E.R.D.‘s show. Pharrell Williams and Co. took over the outdoor venue with a set that featured a handful of songs from their forthcoming Seeing Sounds and all of the band’s past singles (save “Provider”). The two drum kits — tandem drum solos! — added a large dose of power, and Williams just could not stop darting around the stage. The atmosphere was like an aggressive rock show, complete with guitar solos and Williams calling for mosh pits. The pits may not have materialized, but muthafuckin’ noise was made, hands were waved in the air, and caring, in that respect, was at a minimum. New track “Everyone Nose” manages to make “All the girls standing in the line for the bathroom” a viable chorus, and closer “She Wants to Move” was a strong reminder that “Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride” remains a fantastic lyric.
A few hours earlier at the same venue, the Cribs showed signs of shaking off the Strokes comparisons, adding a ferocious attack to older tunes like “Mirror Kissers” and newer ones like “Mens Needs, Womens Needs,” during a short set that was both lean and loose. The Kings of Leon’s Nathan Folowill came to check out MGMT‘s extremely well-attended gig, but while the Brooklyn band were stretching out their psych-pop tunes in jammier directions he was raving about the Panics, an Aussie act he’d seen the day prior. “You know how normally when you hear a band you can list the bands that influenced them or that they ripped off straight away?” he asked. “We couldn’t do it for them, they sounded like nothing I’d heard before, really melodic, almost atmospheric.”
Much earlier — at 4 p.m. in a sterile television studio — Dizzee Rascal delivered forty minutes of blistering, grimy hip-hop, flanked by the roster of his Dirtee Stank label. The set drew heavily from his latest, Maths + English (finally seeing a physical U.S. release April 29 after being out in the U.K. for nearly a year), including “Flex,” “Sirens,” and the new America-only track “G.H.E.T.T.O.” He dug back in the catalog for “Stand Up Tall,” “I Luv U” and “Fix Up, Look Sharp,” making sure to reinforce along with the Billy Squier sample that, yes, he’s got the big beat. GZA and Ice Cube need to step up their game Saturday if they hope to take the week’s hip-hop crown (which is currently Dizzee’s white L.A. Dodgers cap) away. Cube was in the late-night crowd at Emo’s for a raucous set by the Clipse, which included nouveau coke rap classics like “We Got it 4 Cheap” and “Mama I’m So Sorry”; live, the Clipse don’t have the muted menace of their recordings, but they make up for it with enthusiasm.
While Dizzee was rocking the Convention Center, the Black Keys chugged away at a killer set at La Zona Rosa. The Akron, Ohio duo still have the backhanded designation of being the second-best two-person blues band in the land, but they just keep getting better and better: they ended a scorching, extremely heavy show with their new song “I Got Mine” from their new Danger Mouse-produced LP Attack & Release, turning the track into an extra-long stomp that dropped down into Hendrix “Voodoo Child, Slight Return” territory before ending very large.
Morgan Quaintance from buzzy British dance-punk quartet Does It Offend You, Yeah? also reached Hendrix levels of ecstasy playing his guitar behind his head (and later dragging it across the low-hanging rafters at Emo’s). The singer-keyboardist-guitarist changed into a Mickey Mouse T-shirt onstage and was also in charge of chanting, cowbell and crowd relations — grinning impishly and begging for noise — while the band churned out squelchy electronic rock from their debut You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into. The amped-up crowd lapped up the Rapture-esque “With a Heavy Heart (I Regret to Inform You),” and danced like crazy to the frenzied “We Are Rockstars” while bassist James Rushent delivered vocodered vocals. Their set wasn’t long, but it swiftly became an epic party. Earlier, Crystal Castles drew a sizable crowd for their ravey video-game electro rock, as mouthpiece Alice Glass screeched and bounced across the stage like Karen O on crack.
The Helio Sequence‘s set at the Sub Pop showcase a few streets away displayed a band that’s had to go through some changes. Earlier in their career, the group’s live sets teetered on that happy line between beautiful and blistering, but due to the throat damage sustained by singer-guitarist Brandon Summers that influenced the gentler approach on the band’s January release, Keep Your Eyes Ahead, the show fell more solidly in the former category. They still gave power to songs like “Don’t Look Away” and “Can’t Say No” by adding huge washes of effects — laden guitars, punctuated with Benjamin Weikel’s particular brand of drumming that refuses to rely on standard patterns. Older track “Harmonica Song,” in particular, was lifted from good to great by a locked-in jam between the two, and made a statement about how much noise two dudes and one laptop can make. Also, the Handsome Furs made out in the background for what seemed like an entire song.
With music blaring from nearly every building and parking lot in Austin, it’s hard to escape the perpetual sound of SXSW. Stephen Brodsky — of the on-hiatus (but inevitably regrouping, he said) Cave In, currently of Pet Genius — grappled with this issue as various forms of Scandinavian metal chugged away next door during his solo electric set at the Hydra Head showcase. Brodsky sprinkled tweaked renditions of Cave In songs among his more recent work. The cathartic climax of “New Moon” ended up being slightly neutered without a full band, but “Come Into Your Own” and the new solo track “Dead Battery” adapted to the format well, even if Brodsky did seem fed up with the blast-beats coming through the wall.