At South by Southwest, some of the most memorable sets showed the value of humor in live music.
A few songs into her set Thursday night at South by Southwest, Fiona Apple apologized. Not to the audience, but rather "to the building," an austere Presbyterian church in downtown Austin. She'd been cussing in her songs, profaning the venue. "Not that I go to church or anything..." she said, looking upwards nervously.
The crowd, seated in pews and prohibited for a few rare hours from drinking beer, laughed. That fact in itself is kind of funny, given that Apple's set thus far had been a spit-flacked, seriously emotional confession. But jokey commentary didn't break the spell. It strengthened it. When Apple acknowledged her songs' own unholy vitriol, she let the crowd know that she, too, sensed the weirdness and the magic of that set.
"That wasn't quite a suicide song," Stephin Merritt said between tracks. "This one is."
Apple's show was something of a dramedy amid the comedy that is South by Southwest—an absurd frenzy of thousands of performances, cartoonish corporate branding efforts (Doritos hosted a stage inside a 3-story scaffold made to look like a vending machine), and plentiful free and cheap booze. After five days, performances tend to blur together. The ones that stick out, though, are the sets that created distinct moments. A lot of those moments came from a classic kind of rock-show drama—intense songs played intensely and well. But more often, for me at least, those moments came through humor, a quality that doesn't get talked about enough in relation to live music.
Concert banter is a dicey proposition, at worst serving as filler in a weak set. But it can be an art. Take the Magnetic Fields. Nearly every track they played Friday in the cavernous Moody's Theater came with a dollop of hilarity from indie-pop crank comic Stephin Merritt and his straight woman, Shirley Simms. She'd play a few bars of a song's intro; he'd ask her when she'd be done indulging herself. She'd offer an explanation of a song's lyrics; he'd dispute in deadpan. When the band played two characteristically morose tunes back to back, Merritt segued between them with this charmer: "That wasn't quite a suicide song. This one is."
Stagecraft provides the other quick route to concert as comedy. I cracked up when Santigold's set began on Friday afternoon at Spin's party at Stubb's BBQ . The pop/reggae/electro provocateur was accompanied on stage by two backup dancers trained to move in exact unison. They were actually less backup dancers than fembots: their gestures jerky, their stares expressionless, their dancing unfunky. The two marched together, swung hammers together, and, towards the end of the set, broke character at the same time—free-styling after 40 minutes of locked-styling. Between the bots was the shambling, crown-wearing artiste Santigold. Maybe she hired the dancers to comment on the nature of subjugation or multitudes or whatever. I just thought the routine was hilarious.
If this all this sounds superficial—praising everything but the music—it's worth noting the way that humor works as a musical element. Incongruity theory says that comedy is about surprise: setting up one expectation and delivering a different result. There's no reason for that kind of bait-and-switch to be purely visual or spoken.
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The Saturday showcase for electronica labels Warp Records and Brainfeeder showed how the idea of a punchline can work in instrumental music. From behind a rig at the back of a transformed auto-repair garage, Los Angeles beatmaker Daedelus laid down woozy, shapeshifting sounds that were heavy—the kind of bass that disturbs digestion and provides a scary but pleasurable immersion. The question of when Daedelus would deliver and withhold these full-body bass blasts, and when he would chose to downshift from mere passing-18-wheeler rattle to wind-tunnel blare, provided the set's drama and comedy. He'd establish a pattern and then screw with it; the genius was in how he consistently caught the crowd off guard, eliciting squawks of surprise and "oh SHITS." Imagine an earthquake with a sense of irony.
Of course, there are bands whose shtick is to be jokey, but sometimes they're the least fun of all. I'm thinking of Brooklyn's Javelin, who make a habit of closing their shows with a kazoo cover of Lil Wayne's "A Milli," as they did Wednesday afternoon. It was somewhat of a party-starter, but there was something off. It's fake, racially questionable incongruity—look, white guys with silly instruments playing black music! Which is too bad, because "A Milli" is a hilarious song on its own.
Indeed, hip-hop that's performed earnestly and well is a lot more entertaining. After all, it's a genre built, in part, on punchlines. Some rappers forget this fact live, burying their own cleverness with played-out posturing, breathless shouting, or self-seriousness. Not so for Danny Brown, the flamboyant Detroit rapper who took the stage by himself for an XXL event Tuesday night and with a hype man when I saw him Thursday afternoon at a Pitchfork party. If it wasn't quite a stand-up routine, it wasn't far off. Brown looked like Charlie Chaplin or Jim Carrey with his contortions, eyelash flutters, and incessant tongue flicking. Draped in a sequined, camo-pattern basketball jersey Thursday, he paired each lyrical line with custom-built delivery—an endless mix and mash of postures and tics and enunciations. As he launched into one infamous, hilarious, and profoundly NFSW verse about oral sex, the backing music cut out and Brown's eyes rolled further and further towards the sky as his boasts got more and more outrageous. It was a moment of both physical and musical comedy, and like any good joke or concert, will be pretty hard to forget.