By Mikael Wood
10:05 AM EDT, March 15, 2013
AUSTIN, Texas -- At South by Southwest, most musicians don't get the luxury of privacy during soundchecks. Preparing for their set early Thursday afternoon at a Pitchfork showcase, the members of L.A.'s Rhye tuned up their instruments in full view of the several hundred hipsters making their way into a warehouse space east of Interstate 35. And with keyboard, bass, drums, violin, cello, trombone and vocals, the group took its time doing it too; even after the show began, frontman Mike Milosh kept making adjustments.
"This is a hard one," he said, referring to the sound of the concrete-floored room. "It's kind of boomy."
Yet Rhye's performance was worth all the fuss. Released earlier this month, the band's debut album, "Woman," is a beautiful electro-soul gem that's attracted plenty of attention for how closely Milosh's voice resembles that of a woman. (Rich Juzwiak nailed it on Gawker, writing that Milosh's singing "is 'Crying Game'-androgynous: capable of fooling masses, but obviously male once you have confirmation that he is.")
That sense of mystery dissipated onstage, of course, where Milosh and the rest of Rhye -- not including his studio partner Robin Hannibal, who doesn't tour with the band -- looked more or less like any number of acts at SXSW this week: stubbly, scruffy, bleary-eyed after what the singer described as a sleepless journey from Berlin.
Remarkably, though, Rhye preserved the delicate beauty of its album, slinking through such songs as "Last Dance" and "Open" -- which Milosh opens by admitting, "I'm a fool for that shake in your thighs" -- with a sensitivity that's hard to find amid the noise and bluster of SXSW.
"Is there a way to make it darker in here?" Milosh asked after "3 Days." "This is nighttime music." The lights never dimmed, but Rhye did manage to quiet the crowd with the lovely a cappella outro it appended to "The Fall."
Sam Beam of Iron and Wine enjoyed a similar hush during his brief set Thursday at Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop, where he performed on a bill assembled by the Seattle public-radio station KEXP. Iron and Wine has an expansive new album due out next month for which Beam collaborated with jazz-associated players such as trumpeter Steven Bernstein and drummer Brian Blade.
But at SXSW, he appeared in his solo-acoustic guise, offering lullaby-like renditions of "Boy With a Coin" and "Upward Over the Mountain" to a packed house that included a fair number of families. The quiet broke only when he asked for requests.
Follow Mikael Wood on Twitter: @mikaelwood
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