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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

March 18, 2011 at 10:57 AM

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SXSW 2011 post #5: Shabazz Palaces, Tune-Yards, James Blake

Posted by Andrew Matson

My first day at SXSW 2011 was exhausting and inspiring. Three highlights:

Shabazz Palaces

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Seattle experimental hip hop group Shabazz Palaces went in like a lamb, out like a lion with its mid-day set, just outside downtown at the East Side Drive-In.

Facing the Austin skyline, Palaceer Lazaro and Tendai Maraire opened with an improvisational jam, Lazaro finger-triggering beats on his sampler, Maraire singing a repetitive lullaby through Auto-Tune. They ended chanting "I'm free!"

In the middle, they played songs that stunned a hundreds-strong audience flatfooted. Each song featured earthquake-heavy beats and echoing, densely poetic raps from Lazaro, who pelvic thrusted into his rhymes. Maraire assisted on vocals, and a large, circular, wooden mbira. Their music ebbed and flowed, deconstructing itself and building itself back up. It was disorienting and engaging at the same time.

Many songs came from an album out this May on Seattle's Sub Pop Records, "Black Up."

Shabazz's set stood in stark contrast to Seattle rapper Macklemore's, which happened one hour earlier across the street and consisted of easy-to-understand anthems, which his crowd adored. If any other SXSWers went to both sets, they truly got a taste of Seattle hip hop's musical diversity.

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Tune-Yards

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Part of the fun of SXSW is being blown away by a band you have no preconceived notions of. That happened to me with Tune-Yards.

The Oakland group played in Central Presbyterian Church, a vaguely '70s brick/wood building with a giant cross on the wall behind the altar. The main player was Merrill Garbus, a startlingly capable singer and instrumentalist who whispered, screamed, and took her voice everywhere between.

Garbus looped her voice using pedals and machines, looped her drums, looped her percussive violin strumming. The loops became songs, and Garbus thundered over them, singing in various voices — Jamaican, African, gibberish. She pounded on drums while singing and standing up, backed by a bass player whose tone was set to reggae-level fatness, and occasionally a saxophonist. Tough to describe the complete sound. It was violent and beautiful, and reminded me of Sam Cooke, Dirty Projectors, and Paul Simon. But it was all its own thing. At some point I stopped taking notes and just closed my eyes and listened.

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James Blake

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The set that followed at Central Presbyterian was one of the better ones I've seen in a long time.

Booking British dubstep/soul minimalist James Blake in a church was a genius move, because his atmospheric music uses empty space so well, and there were four stories of empty space in there.

The space allowed his songs to breathe, and sheepishly soulful singing voice to float. By the time he finished with his cover of Feist's "Limit To Your Love," the sound levels were adjusted and Blake's pre-programmed bass was enormous. It felt like getting hit with energy waves, because that's what it was. The combination of those heavy vibes with soft, subtle touches was just too much.

Blake composes his own music, but had a guitar player and drummer with him flawlessly recreating his songs. The guitar was electric and mostly played clean, and exceedingly sparingly, a few notes here, a section of fingerpicking there. The drums were chalky and wooden, involving various clicks and clacks, and echoing like dub reggae.

People left the church between songs, perhaps because it was almost 2 AM. But I talked to one woman who said her $700 SXSW badge was worth it, for Blake's performance alone.

For me, it was the set I was most excited to see at SXSW, by an artist who's made some of my favorite music in the past year, and is just now playing concerts in America. My expectations could not have been higher, and James Blake exceeded them.

James Blake plays in Seattle May 19 at the Tractor Tavern

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