In a packed, sweltering chapel Thursday night, Tune-Yards maestro Merrill Garbus stepped up to the microphone and half whispered, "Can everyone hear me?" Despite the capacity crowd, her words carried through clear to the back. The sacred setting created a pregnant, hushed reverence that might have fazed some performers, but not Garbus. Her unassuming speaking voice belies a powerful singing voice that poured forth live in enveloping loops of African-inspired chants. Coupled with economic arrangements of bass, percussion, ukulele, and sax, Tune-Yards navigated the gulf between (wo)man and machine with inspired panache, drawing effusive hosannas after every song. While crossing The Indestructible Beat of Soweto with Penguin Cafe Orchestra sounds like a novel premise that would quickly wear thin, Garbus and her three compatriots imbued their eclecticism with soulful substance on songs like "Gangsta." This was a genuinely moving performance that made you feel privileged to be a part of it. – Greg Beets
Eric Elbogen inspires mopey bedroom devotionals that usually translate awkwardly onstage, yet over the course of his past few albums, the Seattle songwriter has opened up and found more outwardly directed rhythms as well as relatable themes beyond robots and vampires. While his Blahs may have been Impeccable, Say Hi's latest, Um, Uh Oh (Barsuk), is at least more inspired, if not exactly inspirational. Opening with the acoustic guitar album-closer "Bruises To Prove It," Elbogen set himself behind the drum kit at the center of his trio and began driving hard and restless on the snare with eyes rolled back through "All the Pretty Ones," "Devils," and "Dots on Maps." Most impressive were the sparse and doomed garage R&B bursts of "Shiny Diamonds" and "Sister Needs a Settle," aggressively pulsing like a hard-lined broken heartbeat. Yet Elbogen always appears a bit on edge, so even the emphatic closing of "Lookin' Good" seemed an effort to convince himself more than anyone else. – Doug Freeman
Liam Finn was a cranky wee lad, due in no small part to the never-ending line check that delayed his set by more than 10 minutes. He and his supporting players were finally able to kick things off with "I'll Be Lightning," the title track from his 2007 solo debut. The tiny, bearded, scruffy-haired Finn jacked up the psychedelia-informed tune when he took a seat at a full drum kit downstage, bearing no small resemblance to Animal, the drumming Muppet, as he worked out his frustrations on the skins. Finn further aired his grievances with the venue and SXSW as a whole when he debuted the post-punky "The Struggle." Balancing things out with the sweetly nostalgic "Gather To the Chapel," the son of Crowded House's Neil Finn channeled his father in all things from song structure and vocal styles to the way he held his guitar during the obligatory solo. – Melanie Haupt
Austin City Limits has taped shows during South by Southwest before, but never one like this. Using the PBS staple's new theatre with its expanded capacity, the show was opened up to Festivalgoers, so nearly 2,000 Spreadheads snapped up tickets, hence a cloud of marijuana smoke and a throng of eager fanatics. From the vantage of center stage in the mezzanine, the sound was less than pristine, with Jimmy Herring's guitar much louder than everything else. That's not necessarily disappointing if you're a fan of his high-end screeches and bluesy runs, but the sound at the Moody is supposed to be near perfection. Otherwise, Panic's metallic Southern rock offered few surprises as the Athens, Ga., sextet concentrated on tunes from their last couple of discs, with a rumbling rendition of longtime favorite, Tom Waits' "Goin' Out West," the only true delight. – Jim Caligiuri
YelaWolf doesn't ride the beat, he smothers it. The Alabama native is lightning-quick, smacking percussive stanzas both ghoulish and ghetto. He's an intimidator, gruff and R-rated. Dressed in homeless chic with an unbuttoned industrial jacket showing off his fully tattooed chest, YelaWolf rattled Trunk Muzik to a small but faithful crowd that later took the reins for an astonishing number of bars on "I Wish." In between, YelaWolf's sidewinder raps came off staccato and sharp on Southern hick tales "Box Chevy" and "Daddy's Lambo." He ditched his hat during the latter, drenching his gangly hair in Bud Light before jump-starting "Pop the Trunk," a track that unexpectedly closed his set. An abrupt ending, but YelaWolf left little on the table. – Chase Hoffberger
If anyone was disappointed by the last-minute cancellation of cosmic soul man Cee Lo Green, all was allayed by ATLien by way of Kansas City, Kan., dynamo Janelle Monáe. Perhaps no one else tops Green in sheer charisma and crazy genius. Monáe brought to life the Afro-futuristic soul of The Archandroid with elaborate stagecraft and an arresting performance. Equal parts rock & roll, Broadway musical, and black avant-garde theatre, she was introduced by a tuxedo-and-top-hat-clad carnival barker before shedding a floor-length black robe and careening into the funky fast rap and glittery chorus of "Dance or Die." With a drum-tight band and dancers in ever-more elaborate costumes, Monáe painted a literal and metaphorical picture on "Mushrooms & Roses," wielding the mic in her left hand and a paintbrush in the right. After closing with the epic "Cold War" and an extended walk along the "Tightrope," she surfed atop the adoring crowd. Every once in a while you're blessed to see a visionary artist born to perform. That is Janelle Monáe. – Thomas Fawcett
It was about a dozen years ago that Japan's Zoobombs first dropped themselves on an unsuspecting SXSW audience with a blistering set of Jon Spencer-like trash rock. Since then, the band's evolved into the occasional indulgence of longer "Third Stone From the Sun"-style instrumental noise jams that are only occasionally punctuated by relapses into the quartet's frantic riffing. It's a style frontman Don Matsuo has dubbed "Punk Floyd," though there was nothing of the like on display at the group's Habana showcase. This was vintage Zooboombs, which is to say it was fast and loud with Matsuo channeling a methed-up version of Keith Richards, his musical hero. That should have been discernible from the music, but just to help out, Matsuo wore a T-shirt with the word "Keith" emblazoned across the top and an oversized picture of the Rolling Stone's visage below. If events back home were impacting the band, it was only to increase the steady stream of energy fueling the frenzy. – Michael Bertin
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