Lord Fowl, pride of New Haven, played their South by Southwest showcase at midnight on Thursday, opposite some of the biggest names of the festival. (Just down the street, keynote speaker Dave Grohl was leading his all-star Sound City Players at Stubb's).
Lord Fowl — two guitarists, bassist, drums crowded into a corner — took up nearly half of their small square of dancefloor. The foursome cultivates the fashion of the off-duty garage mechanic — bangs, mullets and oilstain stubble — and plays with workmen's casual strength and laconic efficiency.
Around the walls and on a low mezzanine that almost overhung the band, the punters were squeezed in tight. There was a breathalyzer mounted on the wall, in case of need. A young, solitary dancer twisted at the centre of the floor; her skimpy outfit bore the legend "CENSORED" across her chest.
Lord Fowl plays gritty, raunchy but unassuming rock. Sometimes they sound like Japandroids or The Black Keys, though with less of an eye on the zeitgeist. Their school of rock — practical and rousing — is immune to the vagaries of pop, weathering long winters of synthesizers or mandolins to emerge from dive bars virile and vigorous.
In April, they're mounting a tour down part of the East Coast. At SXSW, such plainness can seem like a rebuke: where's the gimmick? These young men do not trouble themselves pondering how to incorporate dubstep into their act. Unless eschewing gimmicks is itself the gimmick, but Lord Fowl don't fuss over their classicism — they're too busy rocking out. Moon Queen, their latest record is potently unironic, replete with greasy guitar crunch and irrefutable swagger.
What makes a gimmick? You know it when you see it: a detail too good to be true, a gesture too calculating, an aesthetic choice that rings false. But nostalgia for authenticity, for gimmicklessness, is rock's most conservative piety. Not every mandolin is a gimmick.
As the SXSW post-mortems pile up, I predict the Los Angeles pop juggernaut Haim will have won the festival. (You heard it here first). Ridiculously exclusive performances by Prince and Justin Timberlake (who played to a room of 400 well-connected fans) will capture plenty of buzz, but Haim are about to go from an obscurity with a well-received single to global domination. Happily, they may even deserve it.
Haim have yet to release their debut record, but the early singles are so good it's unfair. Haim is three sisters, Este, Danielle and Alana. The youngest could only recently order a beer; the oldest plays bass with the lipstick and grimacing vigor of Gene Simmons, matter-of-factly dousing her naughty banter ("Girls, this is what you put on when you want to get pregnant,") with jets of breath freshener.
Their performance at Stubbs was the last in a typically hectic SXSW schedule, but the sisters showed no signs of fatigue. Haim are gutsier and more kinetic in performance than on their seductive records, filling out their sets with a Led Zep romp and an episode of all-in drumming. Danielle's torrid-but-terse alto and rhythmic phrasing delivery channels Chrissie Hynde. Alana swings her shoulder like she belongs in Destiny's Child. Este incarnates a certain bassist archetype, somewhere between Sid Vicious and Flea: brazenly indifferent, emphatically phallic.
Haim's magnificent mélange of pop tricks — Fleetwood guitars, Rihanna anthems, Bananarama harmonies — is so irresistibly good it can seem like it must be deliberate. (A friend compared them to Voltron.) What if Haim is not three sisters playing their hearts out but a confection contrived by a Californian braintrust or a K-Pop machine? The band started in 2006, so there's been some time for tweaking. They're also now managed by Jay-Z's Roc Nation, and about to tour with Vampire Weekend.
They're certainly disciplined. Haim played the same fantastic set both times I saw them (omitting for some reason "Send Me Down," a standout B-side). They punctuated the songs with precisely the same banter, including an anecdote about playing an adjacent smaller stage last year.
Holding on to good banter is hardly a crime, particularly for a young band. But it casts an odd light on the infectious energy of the band. Is the hair-tossing, snarling drama just a simulacrum, a gimmick? Does that make us suckers? And does it matter when the show is this good?
At Stubb's on Saturday night, I dutifully noted these concerns in my reporter's notebook, then promptly forgot all about them in the rush of the opening bars of each new song.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun