Austin – There must be some balance in life, as well as in your SXSW. Translated, that means one might be disappointed by a band once in a while, but may also be completely surprised by another. This night, I had both. I had first heard from Lord Huron in 2011. Their single “Mighty” was a very bold take on the folk rock genre (which I’ve linked to below). Starting from a rainy noise, it was composed almost entirely of a chorus of just wails, guitar-highlights, non-sensical giggling, and melodic shouts, punctuated by vocal intrusions once in awhile. It’s really was like listening to the advance of some army into enemy territories. Sliding into 2013, their full album showed that they have lost a little of that boldness over time, and retreated more to the style of another single on the EP, “The Stranger”. Lonesome Dreams is a album, I felt, developed around the theme melody of the title track. It, and its paraphrases such as Ends of the Earth and Lullaby were good tracks; but given the promise of that single, I had expected perhaps a little too much. Still, since Austin City Limit’s Moody Theater is a venue comparable in size to the Government on Lakeshore, I expected that they would be energetic. There, I was also a little disappointed. They started almost 20 minutes late, and played in a style that’s not distinctly different from other folk rock bands – with an insouciant Californian air, that is. I wonder if the band also felt disappointed at the size of the crowd and adjusted accordingly. All this is not meant to say that Lord Huron gave a poor effort – it is just that I had biased my expectation and this set felt short-changed, although I can’t pinpoint what, exactly.
And then came the pleasant surprise. I had missed a whole bunch of bands by seeing Lord Huron on the other side of Congress. And so I went to BOY at the Church with very little expectation except one sampler (called “Little Numbers”) from NPR, that I had dismissed partially because they were impossible to google if you didn’t know the band members’ names. Yet, I was frankly “mindblasted” by Sonja and Valeska’s songwriting as well as performance. They wouldn’t stop for anything, not even a laptop malfunction that derailed the drums for a Black Keys cover (I think it was Lonely Boy… only folk fans need apply however). “Slam!”, down went the macbook and they kept on without drums in proud defiance. With little except guitars (and another bandmate), they managed to ace 7-8 songs in the set. Based on wiki, this experience came from only playing live shows before they were even signed for a recording. Valeska’s singing was solid but nothing particularly buttery; neither were the English lyrics (which in fact sounded simplistic and bordering on childish). The magic mostly happens in the songwriting. Half way through the set, I climbed to the nearly empty balcony (rare for the Presbyterian Church) for better shots. That’s when they really reeled people in with some of the better numbers, such as Waitress and Skin. Their songs are very catchy, certainly. There are clear hooks. But the “problem” was that it never felt artificial. I couldn’t find angles in transitions – it was (deceptively) smooth and natural as if they weren’t designed to sink multiple-layers-of-serrated-teeth into your eardrums (but of course they were!) I was left trying to find out why I find this music interesting. The acoustic versions, which were reproduced during the set, were better than any of the studio ones (with frivolous bells and whistles that really drags down the pace needlessly). Outside, when BOY was signing the CDs, I thought of the moral of the night: always lower my expectation? But then I wouldn’t come to Austin in the first place, would I?