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SXSW Saturday: Phantogram, and the end of a very weird week

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After a long few days of indie rock, mixtape rap, pop stars playing small, and smoked meat, it was time to put a bow on the annual South By Southwest festival.

The schedule for Saturday night was strange. In the past, Saturday night shows have always been the biggest, but this year, a number of bands had already left town, and with the likes of Lady Gaga, Coldplay, and Kendrick Lamar having wrapped their high-profile performances, it left a hodgepodge of mid-level indie and hip-hop to send everyone off.

Enter Phantogram, an excellent computer-pop combo whose new album Voices gently nudges their sound towards an even wider audience than the one that picked up on their first buzz-band moment several years ago. Like an overwhelming number of the acts booked at SXSW, they are big enough to get booked on late-night TV but not quite big enough to be played on pop radio or fill larger venues. For a band like Phantogram, a solid showing at SXSW could mean an elevation to that next level.

The New York-based combo was the first band on tap at Saturday night’s taping of Guitar Center Sessions on the roof of a parking garage in downtown Austin (the same spot where Soundgarden shredded the night before), acting as the opening act for Snoop Dogg (which isn’t as jarring a juxtaposition as you might think; Phantogram have dabbled in hip-hop, most notably on Big Boi’s last album). Frontwoman Sarah Barthel’s got a natural charisma, a compelling voice, and a killer haircut. They’re a duo, but they added a pair of bodies to flesh out their sound, which gave them extra rhythmic punch and a guttural low-end throb.

With the base taken care of, Barthel and her partner Josh Carter were able to take care of the top stuff, weaving their cooing vocals, atmospheric guitars, and pulsating keyboards through a handful of deeply melodic cuts like the set-opening “Nothing But Trouble” and the dreamy, entrancing “I Don’t Blame You.” The highlight came toward the end in the form of “Mouthful of Diamonds,” the centerpiece of the group’s 2010 debut Eyelid Movies. Even people in the crowd who didn’t know Phantogram were treating “Mouthful” and its tricky keyboard squiggles as a proper anthem. (One person who didn’t need convincing? Olympic snowboarder Shaun White—a friend who let the band stay at his house while they recorded their last album.)

The sweet swoon of that song provided an ideal end to what had been a strange few days in Austin. This year’s SXSW will forever be colored by the insane car accident that ended with two deaths and 23 serious injuries in the wee hours of Thursday morning. On the other end of the spectrum, the biggest name of this year’s conference was Lady Gaga, who provided an odd keynote address and an even stranger bile-filled performance on what must have been the smallest stage she played since her cabaret days.

Every year, there’s always hand-wringing about how much SXSW has morphed from a gathering of indie aficionados into another opportunity for corporations to take advantage of devotees of all stripes (the same conversation happens at Comic Con ever year). But even in the shadow of the giant Doritos machine and the pedicabs made up to look like the Iron Throne, I managed to find some under-the-radar highlights lurking just beneath the glossy exterior.

Like anything, SXSW is what you make it, and at the very least, I can say I saw both my new favorite metal band and a honky tonk version of “Bad Romance.” That’s got to be worth something.