Marnie Stern at SXSW

Marnie Stern is pretty much my favorite musician right now. Her debut album, In Advance of the Broken Arm (Kill Rock Stars), is a serious contender for my favorite of 2007, and her virtuosic live performances are even better. If you know anyone who can rock an electric guitar half as well as Marnie Stern, I want to hear about it.

New Jersey-based duo Rocket Surgery put on a great opening act.* Drummer Mark Ludas and guitar/keyboard player Joel Kennedy invoke prog-rock, metal, hardcore, and horror movie soundtracks to create some enormous, intense songs. Some of it’s instrumental, some finds the band members sharing vocals, which occasionally evolve into spontaneous-sounding monologue. I’m hard pressed to think of a drummer who moves faster, hits harder, or approaches his performance with such zeal as Ludas, and with he and Kennedy running at full steam, Sunday night’s set certainly won over some new converts. After the band left the stage, a guy next to me, visibly impressed, asked if I knew their name. He appeared to be text messaging someone about them… so let the well-deserved buzz begin!

Then came Puttin’ on the Ritz, another duo that couldn’t have been more different from Rocket Surgery (or Marnie Stern, for that matter). They do sarcastic, half-assed covers of oldies like “Earth Angel,” embellished with dumb skits, most of which involve the band members fighting and standing up on the drum kit. I’m not devoid of a sense of humor, I promise, but this shit was just not funny. The jokes were flat, the covers were pointless, and this ironic, hipster, kitschy bullshit got old years ago.

Thankfully, Marnie Stern reinvigorated the evening with a fantastic homecoming set. Now accompanied by Robby Moncrieff of The Advantage on guitar and drummer Zach Hill of Hella, her sound is bigger and better than ever. Up until recently, Stern’s only tourmates were her guitar and iPod, and even then she was blowing audiences’ minds. At first I was a bit nostalgic for those good, old days, as they sure did showcase her unparalleled guitar chops, but I was quickly won over by her new band’s skills and the way they filled out her sound. Standout tracks from In Advance of the Broken Arm, like “Every Line Means Something” and “Grapefruit,” drove everyone wild, and Stern’s chatty, onstage banter was seriously endearing. We were even treated to a visit from her tiny dog (who’s been with her throughout the tour), while Moncrieff recovered from a guitar mishap.

Two of these bands are going places, and one has probably already gone farther than it ever should have. Hey, two outta three ain’t bad!

*Full disclosure: I know these guys. But here’s the deal: I won’t lie. If I have any personal connection to a band and I think they suck, I just won’t write about them. I don’t feel any pressure to talk up bands I don’t like, whether I know them or not.