[caption id="attachment_661" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="Okkervil River's Will Sheff. Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images"][/caption]
With 1,900-plus bands running around downtown Austin, how do we differentiate between what's what? It's tough, but here's what we noticed coming out of Austin on Day One of SXSW's music fest.
Best Use of Time Travel and Giant Eyeglasses
Queen Sea Big Shark are from Beijing, China, somewhere between the years 2030-2050, coming to our epoch with a sound that's almost nostalgic if it weren't such an interesting fusion. Singer Fu Han -- draped in stretchy red with Geisha'd out facepaint -- brandished a melodica and much charisma for their early set at Emo's Annex, playing like rock 'n' roll metronomes with serious faces all around. A band that's as forward-thinking as their country's internet access isn't.
Most Effective Use of Dad Jeans
Coolrunning's guitarist wears big, blocky dad jeans with a big white button-down shirt tucked into them. It's amazing and we all need to take a cue. The band's '60s/'70s washed-out pop far exceeds the maddening limitations of lo-fi bedroom schlock by being too dense and just too damn enjoyable, making a case for music over skinny fashion that you'd be hard-pressed to find in the confines of SXSW.
Ultimate Use of Two People
Dark Castle is singer/guitarist Stevie Floyd and Rob Shaffer, and they take up more headspace than almost any two-piece working in the genre of extreme metal -- making an exception for the massively loud Sunn O))). Floyd is in possession of some well-shredded, deeply guttural pipes, hawking and barking, while skirting around their dense time signatures and changes. Coupled with Shaffer's just-north-of-standard drumming, you end up in a coma with a furrowed brow.
Best Solo British Guy That Isn't James Blake
Gold Panda's tent-covered set in the late afternoon wasn't in the most ideal location for his music, but nothing at SXSW ever is. Similar to his more-frequently-googled countryman in many ways, the relatively green-to-the-world Gold Panda's show was covered in long, fuzz-ambient passages and some awkward transitions, but eventually ended up in hundreds of people touching the corners of their mouths to their ears coupled with some unsuppressed shoulder shake. It's worth noting that most electronic musicians are boring to watch -- it's the price you pay for playing a computer and an MPC, and having to look at them constantly -- but Gold Panda's energetic presentation was as close to a real show as any laptopper can expect from himself.
Largest Gathering of Plaid Shirts
The standard SXSW uniform for several years running has been the plaid button-down. And that's the crowd for Franco-Swiss folk-rock duo Herman Dune, who gave the check-patterned masses the sort of well-developed, thoughtful songs -- poppy and folky, but with some surprisingly heavy riffs. Perfect songs to listen to while shopping for cowboy shirts.
Punkest Rap Show
Minneapolis hip-hop collective Doomtree took over 6th Street's Flamingo Cantina for the entire night on Wednesday, and marching right in like they owned the place wasn't the only punk-as-fuck maneuver that its members pulled off. There was the moment when emcee Sims jumped off stage and into the crowd to start a mosh pit in the middle of his set; singer-rapper Dessa's super-aggressive, a capella take on "Hallelujah"; and Doomtree flag-bearer P.O.S.' series of scream-along choruses, enthusiastically accompanied by a pogoing throng who knew every word. Most punk rock shows at SXSW aren't this punk.
Band Most Likely to Be on the Verge of Releasing Their Best Album
Okkervil River has been peppered with triumphant highs and, frankly, not a lot of lows. So it's exciting that, after spending the past year as the backing band for fellow Austinite Roky Erickson, they sound as energized as they ever have. Opening their set with rockers like the 2005 stand-out "For Real," and following that with the high-energy "Wake and Be Fine," from the band's forthcoming record I Am Very Far, Okkervil River look to be riding high in 2011.
Additional reporting by Andrew Flanagan.