Arcade Fire’s Will Butler goes kaleidoscopic at Maggie Mae’s

“I really like Arcade Fire,” I heard the woman say to the stranger she was making South By small talk with. “But I haven’t listened to Will Butler’s album.” Yet here she was — one of many I overheard having the same conversation — on the crowded puddle-pocked patio upstairs at Maggie Mae’s on a Saturday night. Nothing wrong with going to see the show for that or any reason, but side/solo projects are a funny thing like that. In one way it brings with it a built-in fanbase who will buy what you’re selling (or, since no one seems too keen on buying music now, at least stream it) out of blind loyalty. But it also ends up seeming like a consolation prize for some who think, “I would have rather seen your other project, but here you are and here I am so OK let’s just do this thing, I guess.”

Of course, Will Butler is not Arcade Fire. And that was just fine. Butler recently released his first solo record, and while I found it a bit flat at times in my headphones the songs crackled and sizzled with rock-y energy live. Drenched in sweat Butler ground on the guitar over a trio of female backing vocals and choreographed claps and the steady pulse of drum machine. This was paranoid pop at a playfully frantic pace with Butler’s voice, draped in heavy echo and effects, screaming and cracking out jittery nah-nah-nah’s in a strange psychedelic doo-wop. It was a crowd-pleasing genre stew that got people moving, including at least one guy near me jumping up and down and throwing metal horns.

Maggie Mae’s Patio isn’t exactly my favorite outdoor venue for bigger acts since things can get especially crowded in that sweet spot in front of the stage, but even that and a pair of wet socks couldn’t stop me from finding Will Butler’s sets to be one of the highlights of my rainy SXSW Friday.

Will Butler (the band, not the man) wore matching black sweatshirts with white stencil-style letters with each of their names in all caps: Carrie, Sara, Julie, Miles, and Will. They played with an assortment of keyboards hidden behind custom silver shells and a standing drum kit, while Will Butler (the man, not the band) was on guitar and keys.

Even for those who made it inside Maggie Mae’s for Butler’s packed show getting upstairs to the outdoor stage where Butler would be playing was a one-in-one-out situation nearly an hour before he was to perform, as fans of revived ’70s post-punk act The Pop Group played to a full house of their own.

SXSW scene report: Mosh pits and Arcade Fire members at Mohawk

Jamie Rhoden of Title Fight performs at the Mohawk Thursday, March 19, 2015. (Stephen Spillman / for the AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Jamie Rhoden of Title Fight performs at the Mohawk Thursday, March 19, 2015. (Stephen Spillman / for the AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Of all the parties and showcases at SXSW, House of Vans boasts one of the deepest benches of talent. Stellar acts across genre lines — Speedy Ortiz, Courtney Barnett, Future Islands, Rae Sremmurd, many more — have packed in the crowds for day parties and night showcases the past three days on two different stages at the Mohawk. A long, winding, quickly moving line outside the club on Thursday afternoon for the Pitchfork day party testified to the venue’s draw.

Hitting the outdoor stage after Canadian indie darlings Alvvays at 2:15 p.m. was a man used to playing stadiums: Arcade Fire’s Will Butler. A native of The Woodlands, the multi-instrumentalist released his solo debut “Policy” earlier this month and brings something like stealth star power to SXSW. Butler and his band wore matching black-and-white T-shirts emblazoned with each of their names. (To backing band Carrie, Sara, Julie and Miles: Nice to meet you.) Apart from Arcade Fire’s baroque-disco-maximalist trappings, Butler is a power-glam-pop Svengali mining classic sounds with good-natured aplomb. Highlight: jumping on the keys to embrace the Elton John within for “Witness.” Just a couple hours later, Butler’s older brother Win was scheduled to take the indoor stage with his own own side project, the incredibly different DJ Windows 98.

Pennsylvania shoegaze/hardcore outfit Title Fight followed Will Butler, which was also incredibly different. Unlike Butler, the bulk of the audience on the ground seemed to be attending the party just for them. Proof: As soon as the band started their first song, the packed-in bodies collapsed within themselves for an outstanding SXSW-style mosh pit.

The two men from San Antonio standing next to me (who barreled into the flurry of flailing bodies immediately) said they drove into Austin early just to catch Title Fight. The band’s most recent album, the excellent “Hyperview,” flows with hazy, lazy summer ambience, taking a direction toward chillwave that worried my neighbors. Not to worry. There was plenty of raucous punk to go around, too. It’s a shame that Title Fight isn’t an official SXSW artist this year, because their sound is sorely underrepresented.

View this post on Instagram

A little taste of Title Fight. #SXSW #latergram

A post shared by Eric Webb (@ericwebb89) on