Django Django and Night Moves at the Metro | Photos and review
To mitigate any jealousy I might feel about colleagues and friends hitting Austin to gorge on potential buzz bands, aging Top 40 acts shoring up their cred, cold Lone Stars and tacos from trucks, I usually try to hit one of the "SXSW tours" coming through town in March. U.K. band Django Django is not an unproven act, rather one championed by NME since 2009. It had a very big 2012 with a Mercury Prize–nominated album. But this year, "Default," a 2011 single from the band's debut, has wormed its way onto FM radio in Chicago, a format which might be discounted in this day and age, but usually means commercial viability—thus 2013 is Django's year in Chicago. And yet, the band is far from overexposed in the States, and a SXSW trip was clearly arranged to change that.
At Django Django's way-sold-out early show at the Metro (it played Austin before and after Chicago, which just goes to show how nutty SXSW has become), the band proved it is as unique as it is genius in translating its abstract, distant, '80s-derived sound into something with the freshness of the next wave, not new wave rehashed.
But first, Night Moves, a Minneapolis band with a debut album on Domino Records, took the stage. The band's Colored Emotions is one of my favorite albums of 2013 so far. It recalls the psychedelic side of T. Rex and Syd Barrett, but embeds it in a light funk feel and adds echoplexy guitar jams. Live, it lives up to the promise of the album. Singer John Pelant (who told us he works at a bakery) achieves an effortless organic dynamic on the microphone, he voice rising and falling and following notes in ways that recall the spine-tingling Jeff Buckley. At the same time, the band (playing as a quartet tonight with two guitars) plays a bit rough around the edges; some endings seemed a bit untied. Guest drummer Jared Isabella, however, has the chops of a pro, producing tight and subtly funky beats at mid-tempo or employing mallets to keep the trip soft and cushy. The only real complaint one could have was the shortness and promptness of the set, which was over and done by 9:30.
While Night Moves might have ticked off my classic-rock-vibe boxes, Django Django satisfies my postpunk hunger, even as its contemporary touches (a video wall with noir images, matching shirts) are meant to be of the current moment.
The band might look like a rock band with bass, guitar, banks of analog synths (one of which, a Roland, would fail during "Skies Over Cairo" and be replaced during the set), but it operates much more like a programmed music application like Ableton Live where rhythm and atmosphere create the backbone of the music. Drummer and producer David Maclean (cousin of Beta Band's John Maclean) is obscured by toms and pads, which he plays almost incessantly in engaging, rolling patterns. Singer Vinny Neff and bassist Jimmy Dixon's cryptic, layered vocals are the focus in their tunes—which have a kind of impersonal, almost militaristic delivery over Maclean's precision machinations.
While the songs might be stripped of emotional histrionics, the band members humanized the experience between songs. Neff took the time to explain that he'd visited Wrigleyville before, and lo and behold, he's actually an Irishman from Derry, not Scottish—a big plus in drunken St. Patrick's weekend Chicago. While not sounding much like them, the band of former Edinburgh art school kids has the mannerisms and haircuts of another trailblazing Scottish indie act, Franz Ferdinand, which was oddly comforting.
The band's recognizable, modern sound shows room for some rock detours. "Firewater" has a westernish bassline and it picks up elements of early rock & roll, echo-drenched Link Wray guitars on "Life's A Beach" and spooky updates on Bo Diddley jams (which the band completes with woodblocks and extra tom-tom thumping).
With only one album to draw on, it was over in a flash of a strobe, but Django Django held up. And there are few bands out there with such an unusual, almost progressive, sound that can also compete on the big-money airwaves. The band's fervent following is clear evidence that slightly challenging music has a wider audience. And there are fewer bands presenting the slightly weird with this kind of warmth.