by Matt Brown
For ensemble artists playing live, successful touring must be an absolute miracle. Imagine the resources needed to coordinate members often numbering in the double digits and to stay both financially and creatively viable as a cohesive performer. It’s always surprising to see these large bands impressively squeezing themselves onto a small stages, and this feat is no less remarkable at an event like SXSW where many bands have under an hour total to set up, check audio, and play a short set.
On the official first day of SXSW music events, I encountered no fewer than two elaborate collectives on somewhat small stages with each concert being a wildly different experience. The first of these was at the Parish main stage on 6th at 11pm, where baroque pop Austinites Mother Falcon set up shop during the city’s own showcase.
Akin to other classical musicians, the band warmed up for their set by tuning up with smooth melodic lines from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Holst’s “Planets” suite. After the overlong sound test, the band started their set with a song that immediately drained almost all interest in the performance. While Mother Falcon’s 2011 debut LP Alhambra was a solid, mellow listen, the sound simply did not translate well to the stage. These were clearly talented musicians playing well together and featuring impressive, soaring vocals, yet they ultimately lacked the songwriting and proper live mixing to be sufficiently stimulating. The band continued playing with little momentum – at odds with their enthusiastic appearance – and halfway through the third tune I was moving on to the next artist.
I continued bouncing around Downtown and stopped by the Action Bronson and South Korean Galaxy Express concerts before closing the night with the 1am Polyphonic Spree show at Red 7 Patio. Having only ever sampled their material before, the band impressed visually from the get-go with their own brass and string section to supplement the rock-oriented equipment as well as outfitting the entire group in fun costumes clearly inspired by the flower-power era. They also smartly channeled the pop artists of yesteryear with a group of seven all-women backup singers whose synchronized dancing contributions throughout were just as valuable as their vocals.
The Polyphonic Spree’s compositions appeared to be structurally simpler and more straightforward than Mother Falcon, but they were better off for it. These guys were definitely in step with each other and knew how to have a good time. Their performance brought to mind similar artists like the Flaming Lips (also appearing at SXSW), with frontman Tim DeLaughter displaying the charisma of Wayne Coyne but without the blatant alienation. The show was also reminiscent of Edward Sharpe in scope, style, and naive sentimental expression but without the feeling they were faking the happy messages.
In reality, The Polyphonic Spree are an accessible pop collective strangely disguising themselves as a bizarre cult band. Regardless, I had a lot of fun at this one and stayed through the entire set (including two unsolicited encores). A great way to cap off the first night of music.
Based off my SXSW experience with these oversized musical outfits, the best shows are going to be the ones who keep it relatively simple and remember to entertain.
Mother Falcon: 5.5/10
Polyphonic Spree: 8.0/10