The fire marshal did a head count at the MTV/VH1/CMT Artists Live in Austin showcase at SXSW on Tuesday night, headlined by Jim James and featuring Guards, Youngblood Hawke, and more. He needed to; the room was packed by the time James prepared to take the stage. It was an elbows-out kind of evening at the Empire Control Room — a converted mechanic’s garage at the intersection of 7th and Red River in Austin — and the bar stayed open late to accommodate the crowd.
At 12:15, Guards started, bringing their brand of ’80s-inspired, uptempo pop-rock to the Empire stage. With a five-piece setup, the band’s set highlighted their versatility. They demonstrated a knack for New Order-inspired numbers; bop-along dance-rock; a slow, pretty song that showcased the dynamic between lead singer Richie Follins and Kaylie Church’s backing vocals; shout-along choruses; and an extended psychedelic jam sequence. The band closed out its set by blowing out the instrumental jam into a howling rocker, demanding the stage lights come down and amping up the ferocity.
Jim James’ headlining set was no less intense or dynamic. Striding onstage in a blazer, James opened with “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.),” the lead track on his recent solo album Regions of Light and Sound of God. He seemed to pick up the energy that Guards had left behind in the room, delivering more psych-rock freakouts during the 7-plus minutes that he stretched out his opener. He kept the focus on the new album’s material as he took on that album’s dance-y “Know Til Now,” delivering another extended take on that song that brought hands, hip-hop-style, into the air.
James carried himself throughout the evening like a true rock singer, often (but not always) eschewing the guitar to hold the mic with both hands as he belted out his words. It complemented the band nicely; despite the fact that he’s out promoting a solo record, his current live set is very much that of a Big Rock Band who enjoy making noise together. At the end of “Dear One,” the band dropped out for a solid, minute-long drum solo before returning to exploding into a mess of joyful noise. Even during the laid-back, Byrds-y ballad “A New Life,” the hand-clapping mellowness had an unexpected intensity to it.
The transition from successful frontman to successful solo artist isn’t always easy. James gives himself the advantage of continuing to perform with a full band that clearly grasps his material, but it’s always a somewhat dicey proposition to pack a room to fire-marshal levels of capacity and then give the assembled fans a set full of songs that are different from the ones that made you famous. But James and the band controlled the Empire Room’s stage with full confidence, and even fans who hoped for a My Morning Jacket song or two in the set’s early going had little to complain about. That’s a night worth getting elbowed by some strangers over.
Jim James does “State Of The Art” at Live in Austin:
Jim James plays “New Life” at Live in Austin:
Guards perform “Silver Lining” at Live in Austin: