The Utne Reader/Anti- Records music showcase at South by Southwest went off spectacularly, drawing a full crowd to the Cedar Street Courtyard on a muggy, warm Texas night to hear six bands that represented a head-spinning range of genres. The breadth and depth of the bill was a testament to Anti’s wide-net approach. While many labels are dedicated to a particular sound—that one’s a punk label, that one’s electronica, this one’s DIY lo-fi—Anti- is all over the map, in a really good way.
The Montreal band Islands started off the evening with an epic sweep that recalled fellow Montreal denizens the Arcade Fire. If anyone was initially skeptical that singer Nicholas Thorburn’s whiteface was pure pretension, any doubts were soon swept away as he led the band through a dramatic set that played off loud-soft dynamics and the band members’ clear emotional investment in the tunes. With two Asian violinists, a black bass player, and even a hip-hop interlude in the middle of the set, Islands seemed to have many listeners in the crowd wondering just what the hell they were—but wanting to hear more.
Next up was Tim Fite, the comically twisted indie hip-hop artist, who drove audience members into a frenzy with his idiosyncratic nerd shtick. Against a backing sample track, he had them chanting “fuck,” singing along to the pro-arson chorus of “Burn It Down,” and touching themselves as he chanted the old schoolyard rhyme “heads, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes” with a command that was almost scary. His projected visuals and his sidekick brother, Greg, were hilarious, and he left the crowd energized and ready for anything.
Which was a good thing, because Man Man was about to blow off the tops of their heads. It was clear from the stage setup that something strange was about to happen. A drum kit was set up at the front, facing a keyboard, and all kinds of noisemakers were scattered about: a bike horn, a “ring for service” bell, wooden snakes, a metal bowl full of spoons, several extra tom-tom drums. “Have you ever seen them?” Anti- president Andy Kaulkin asked me before they came on. “They’re amazing.” He was right. The band ran onstage wearing tattered all-white clothes and white streaks of face paint, then proceeded to pound out intense, dissonant skronk pop, a spasmodic celebration of the id. Mugging comically and performing seemingly random acts with their noisemakers, Man Man was tribal and trippy and completely original.
Winnipeg, Canada’s Weakerthans then hit the stage and delivered an earnest set of straight-up guitar rock, a decidedly conventional sound after the Man Man experience.
I’m not really a fan of singer John Samson’s slight, nasally voice, but the band rocked harder than I expected and had their uber-fans in the front rows singing along with every song. Guitarist Stephen Carroll and bassist Greg Smith even engaged in some spirited windmill strums, much to the amusement of a stageside Billy Bragg, the showcase headliner.
Like Man Man, DeVotchKa’s setup held clues to what was coming. Stagehands brought out a tuba, a cello, and violins, and a few warmup notes from an accordion merited a loud cheer from the crowd. Then the Denver-based band launched into its Eastern European-flavored chamber pop, melodies wafting into the night air on string arrangements full of romance and yearning. Swarthy, handsome singer Nick Urata seemed to have many women in the crowd swooning as he spilled his heart in song. After their set, the band played an impromptu street concert in front of the venue, busker style.
At last, the headliner: British folk-punk icon Billy Bragg took the stage just after 1 a.m. With just an electric guitar and his typically feisty attitude, Bragg reeled off songs old and new and proved that he’s still the go-to guy for pithy songs about love and politics. “Farmboy,” a song from his forthcoming Mr. Love and Justice album, featured especially soulful guitar playing and singing, a refutation of Bragg’s contention that he’s “not really a singer.” The crowd ate up Bragg classics such as “Accident Waiting to Happen,” “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” “Power in a Union,” and “Looking for a New England,” with people hoisting pints and singing along with their favorites. Of course, Bragg gave a pep talk for the upcoming U.S. election, urging everyone to fight their own cynicism and not blow it this time. By the time he ended with his new ballad “I Keep Faith,” the concertgoers were determined to keep their faith in him.