SXSW 2012, Saturday March 17

Craft Spells

I spent the beginning of my Saturday in Austin awake extremely early and playing a showcase at East Avenue Lounge at noon. Manager of the house, Mandy, made me feel like an old friend. Couple this with the fact that I had gear and was operating on sore feet, I spent much of Saturday day on the East Avenue Lounge premises, wandering back and forth between Atlanta and Minneapolis showcases that the Barbecue Hot Dish event served up.

Jack of Hearts are an Atlanta four piece that go over like a big rock band inside the skin of a new wave influenced experimenter. The guitar tones, flowing through a sea of big, metal effects boxes, were loud. In fact, Jack of Hearts was the loudest thing I’d seen all week, and that was a feat, especially since they played outside. The female drummer employed the ‘Dee Dee’ tactic (slinging her arms high while playing, as to play harder, whether consciously or subconsciously intended), and she was fun to watch. The keyboardist or, shall I say, synthesist, used a Prophet ’08, which added nice waves of tone to sit above the lowness of the bass.

Guitar virtuoso Mark Cruz was also at the event. He played a double-necked acoustic (and I use that term loosely), one hand on each neck the entire time, juggling countering techniques that made his overall style very unique and impressive. The unfortunate thing is that, as with anything stripped down, even the ingenious stuff, after while the set became extremely monotonous. To couple that, I found it odd that Cruz was playing an Ovation – the abhorred brand amongst guitarists who care about tonality. Ovation presents their products as ‘acoustic guitars’ but, in reality, the rounded, plastic backs of most of their instruments only aid in making the sound weak, thin and flat. This was the case this time, too.

I and my crew were able to break away for a little while during the early afternoon to go to the Austin Humane Society’s fundraising showcase at Whiskey Room. Craft Spells, a young, new wave quartet from Stockton, California that never tours was playing, and I was insistent that we experience it live. The set got off to a bad start, with the young frontman complaining about the sound to the point of arrogant annoyance. I’m sorry, but completely backlined sets in odd ‘venues’ at SXSW do tend to spawn sound issues, especially when they try to cater to such a wide range of bands, most fledging onto and fleeing from their stages in tight 30-minute increments. It’s just the nature of the beast, and this guy did seem to have gotten the memo prior.

Eventually, Craft Spells did play. The guitars, both of them, sounded divine, though the center guitar could have curtailed his volume to the lead guys.’ He used a Memory Man in a bit of an atypical way, almost for riff shifts, and that was interesting. The lead guitarist’s pedal switches were smooth and fantastically controlled, even given the probable sound shortcomings. The bassist and drummer missed a note or a beat, though a broken beater did stifle one of the songs. The backing tracks were low in the mix, but the guitar/bass overtones masked that well. The vocals were a letdown. The record comes off almost in a Robert Smith sort of way, lyrically, vocally. But live, I felt as if some hovering label had snatched these kids up, stamped and sent them on their way without even the brief discussion of live vocal tactics, much less lessons on improve or improvement. The leads were low. Notes were missed, or off, flat and colorless. That part was discouraging.

Back at East Avenue Lounge, I caught some Minneapolis acts that really made my day. The first was a set by musician and producer Grant Cutler. Rocking sunglasses and cutoff jeans, he played some very ‘chillwave’ electronic numbers. The backing beats were super simple and unobtrusive (this isn’t bass heavy electronica we’re talking about), utilitarian. And Cutler’s voice was phenomenal, even outside, even while he was accompanying only himself. Additionally, he was a fantastic guy to meet, appreciative and humble. Flip Arkulary, guitarist for The Half Hearts (who also graced the stage that day) and promoter for the showcase, provided me with some additional info about Cutler during his performance. Apparently, he used to be with a big Minneapolis band called Lookbook, which he compared to the Eurhythmics. He also told me that Cutler has produced several records by Minnesotan bands, Zoo Animal included.

Fort Wilson Riot officially ended the afternoon, the sun setting while they played. The duo consists of Amy Hager and Jacob Mullis. I imagine the two switch up instruments and leads during the writing and recording process, but live it went something like this: Mullis handled mostly guitar duties, Hager played keys and they traded off on vocals, sometimes working through harmonies, sometimes simply adding in two-part strengtheners like builds. It was a fun, experimental collection of set songs that they delivered. Most, I later discovered, were derived from their late 2011 EP, Generation Complex. Because Fort Wilson Riot is touring and still filling out tour stops, I made it my personal duty to get Atlanta added to that list. If you see their name on a bill and you like artful electronic pop, check it out.