Jack Antonoff's Bleachers Deliver Tight, Assured Live Debut at SXSW

Jack Antonoff was the biggest rock star in the room Wednesday night at Palladia’s Epic.Awesome.Showcase at Austin’s Cedar Door. But the fun. guitarist, playing the first-ever live show with his new band, Bleachers, had no use for big rock star trimmings.

“Can you guys turn off the smoke? I can hardly breathe!” Antonoff directed the crew early during Bleachers’ half-hour, seven-song debut set, as fog wafted across the stage. Of course, one would think Antonoff would be used to such effects, but he had other business to attend to on Wednesday than peering through the haze.

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The fledgling Bleachers may have played to a much smaller crowd than Aloe Blacc, who immediately preceded the quintet, but Antonoff and crew certainly sounded tighter and more assured than most groups would during their inaugural performance. The songs – including the already released single “I Wanna Get Better” and a cover of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More” – were cut from the same semi-theatrical cloth as fun., but with a little more propulsive oomph thanks to two drummers and a heavy emphasis on keyboards and electro-pop style arrangements. The hooky and buoyant “Rollercoaster” sounds like a future hit, while “Wild Heart,” “Shadow” and “Like a River Runs” were solidly crafted ebb-and-flow rock, and “Reckless Love” was a densely packed, somewhat murky ballad.

With its album due later this spring, Bleachers is set to perform at the MTVu Woodie Awards on Thursday in Austin and play the Troubadour in Los Angeles on March 19, with an appearance on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” slated for March 26 and festival appearances in the U.S. and Europe during early summer. And Wednesday’s show certainly established this is not a band that plans to sit on any sidelines.

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Bleachers may have been the compelling story at the Palladia bash -- a non-official SXSW showcase that still generated plenty of buzz and built a substantial audience on the Brazos Street sidewalk as well as inside the venue – but Blacc was its clear draw. Performing the day after his third album, “Lift Your Spirit” was released and he appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Blacc had a packed Cedar Door grooving through a high-octate set that started with his hit “The Man” and rolled through the rootsy hand-clapper “Wake Me Up” and his career-established “I Need a Dollar.” He also got seriously funk on the Pharrell collaboration “Love is the Answer” as well as “Lift Your Spirit’s” title track -- which, ironically, is a deluxe editon bonus track. Look for a post-SXSW bounce from his myriad scheduled shows here, followed by a trek opening for Bruno Mars’ next North American tour.

And while Palladia’s classic-leaning programming showed on the bar’s TV screens, the networks salute to up-and-comers also included a powerful set of electro rock by Phantogram – whose “really pumped” singer Sarah Barthel gave a shout-out to fans on the sidewalk – while Johnnyswim showed up its rich husband-wife vocal harmonies and Sam Smith won friends for his deft pop/soul/electronic blend.