Because South by Southwest is such an industry event, most bands there perform the most polished, attention-grabbing, crowd-pleasing, accessible set they can put together. You don't see a lot of risk-taking at this festival. The Friday night set by Ryland Bouchard, aka the Robot Ate Me, defied that logic. Bouchard played solo, with a guitar, a drum machine, and an electric accordion that he lay on the ground and played without working the bellows. (Asked by someone afterward how he made his accordion do that, he replied, "Oh, that's because it's an accorgan!" Of course.)
Bouchard played a verse of one of his simple, hopeful songs on the guitar, then stopped playing and started simply clapping in rhythm as an accompaniment to his voice. He had a volunteer come up and sing an impromptu duet with him. He turned on a loop of a swing song, asked, "Anybody want to dance?" grabbed a guy in the audience and started waltzing, then did a moment of break-dancing on the concrete floor. He sang "Crispy Christian Tea Time" (sample lyric: "Sometimes we play crispy Christian tea time with Barbies, tea and toast") while perched on top of one of the monitors. And he did it all with an affect so impossibly, unflappably sincere that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was all in jest -- except that there's some intangible quality about Bouchard that makes it clear that irony is not on the agenda. A veteran musician and festivalgoer commented to me that it was "the most extreme fuck you to the whole SXSW experience" he'd ever seen. It was certainly the strangest set I saw at SXSW, and one of the best.
A number of free downloads are available here ("On Vacation," "They Ate Themselves" and "The Genocide Ball" are my favorites). And there's also a Salon exclusive download of "What Warriors Sing," an exquisite and subtle protest song that Bouchard wrote last year.