“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.