[sxsw2012] Church service makes me nervous: At the pulpit with Charli XCX, Purity Ring and Grimes

Claire Boucher aka Grimes brings the house (of worship) down; photo by Nina Mashurova

On Thursday Morning, Sir Bruce Springsteen, the keynote speaker of this sprawling chaotic mess called SXSW, declared, among other things, that a concert ticket is a “handshake” between fan and artist -- which is a great metaphor and a nice-guy message, but doesn’t apply much to this festival where shows tend to not have tickets and artists are not playing for their usual fans.

This was on my mind as I waited in an unmoving line for an hour and a half outside of Central Presbyterian Church -- in part because people around me kept talking about the speech. And it isn’t as if I went to it or anything: it was super early, and it wasn’t like I was going to wait in line for hours and hours on the off-chance that I might hear The Boss speak. But everyone kept commenting on how nice Springsteen is, and how authoritative and wise he is, and how his rattling off of his influences coupled with his deep affection for music was just wonderfully inspiration.

But all I could think was that there wasn’t much of a handshake going on as I heard the caterwauling of SXSW 2012 comeback kid FIONA APPLE emanating from inside the church -- if anything, I was getting a shaft from the powers that be, who in this case were the evil indie conglomerate Pitchfork, who had apparently conspired nefariously to keep me from seeing three of the acts that I wanted to see most at this festival: CHARLI XCX, PURITY RING, and GRIMES. It was looking grim, as the lines grew and no one was admitted access into the sacred hall of Fiona.

Finally, her singing stopped, the applause rose and then died down, the entire church emptied out (one attendee, on his way out, exclaimed “Woo hoo, Hanson is on next!”), and slowly, agonizingly, we were admitted in. And as I climbed the staircase, and showed my pass and identification, and walked through the foyer and threw open the doors, I finally saw a sight that I had waited hours to see: rows of humble church pews, leading to a glorious red velvet pulpit, where CHARLI XCX was already holding court, shrieking and undulating in front of an enormous cross on the back wall.

Charli’s set was, it seemed, too much for some. After all, this was a Pitchfork crowd that had just been somberly serenaded by an icon of late 90s guilt-pop, so perhaps following that up with a bouncing gyrating chanteuse with an insane amount of energy was an odd choice. But fuck ‘em, Charli XCX was a dynamo, a 20-year-old UK ingenue who barrelled through gum-snapping Samantha-Fox-for-the-10s uptempo singles like “Stay Away” and the incredibly fabulous “Nuclear Seasons” like her life depended on it. If she had any trepidations about dry-humping the air whilst on the pulpit, she wasn’t showing it.  After a half-hour of yearning and aerobic slam-pop, Charli introduced, in her deep accent, her final song of the night, “Mess”, which sounded like “Mass”, which made sense at first when the song’s church-y organ swell built up, only to smack the audience upside the head with it’s early-Killing-Joke-meets-Culture-Club aggro-lilt.

Next up was the incredibly odd PURITY RING, a boy/girl duo from Montreal who meld off-kilter synth pop, supremely treated vocals, and a precocious homemade light show into a concoction that is impressive, intimidating, hypnotic, infuriating, and somewhat overwhelming. Theirs is a futuristic kind of music, confusing and chopped up and yet still filled with the occasional familiarly human moment. Vocalist Megan James has a pretty voice when heard unfiltered, a bashful coo not unlike Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell; but co-conspirator Corin Roddick slyly perverts that signal as he buries the duo’s sense of songcraft, shuttling off tunes and melodies and vocal parts into various chutes and ladders of prog-like intentional complexity. Purity Ring’s songs take a few times to really sink in and resonate, but even one listen, especially in a live setting, clearly indicates the genius at work. The standing ovation they receive at set’s end is genuine and deserved.

By comparison, Claire Boucher a/k/a GRIMES is far more off-the-cuff and, dare I say, dangerous a performer. Whereas Purity Ring’s Roddick carefully builds towering edifices of samples and beats and synth washes, Boucher seems tonight to just be hitting buttons on her synth and sampler as the mood strikes her. Her music is a gorgeously haphazard pile-up of vocals on top of vocals on top of vocals, and the wonderful thing about seeing her do her thing live is that she doesn’t seem all that afraid of having the whole thing collapse in a morass of looped consonants and overlapping beats.

It all seems to come down to Boucher’s infectious nervous energy, a jittery charge that inspires her to jam out on even the most pop-tinged tunes in her arsenal. She chucked out “Oblivion”, the first single from her excellent new Visions album, early on in the set, but seemed to be using the album version of the song as more of a guideline than a holy text. Lots of artists use samples and loops to augment their vocals, but Boucher is unique in the way she finds power and strength in using delay and repetition to turn her voice into a hammering force of nature. At its most powerful, her clarion call almost reaches the extremes of Lisa Gerrard or Kate Bush, but Boucher wisely harnesses this powerful tool in the service of one amazing song after another.

Her set closes with the moving and anthemic “Vanessa”, a crushing number that ebbs and flows, with Boucher pulling it all in and letting it all out in carefully executed sampler wizardry. by the end of the tune, the promoters clearly suspect Boucher of sneaking another tune into the set, and go so far as to turn the house lights on, as if she were an Oscar winner taking too long to thank all the producers. But the unintended affect of the light switch being flicked is that, in this pulpit setting, the massive swelling crescendo of Boucher’s set is finally brought towards the light in a glowing and affirming moment of sheer undulating beauty. Even though a glance at stage left reveals a score of promoters making the “cut the power” hand gesture, it is still a rapturously powerful ending to an exhilarating show.

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