As the NPR Music brain trust prepares for the big R.E.M. showcase tonight, I actually got the opportunity to sneak off and take in some of SXSW's daytime shows. Beats working in the mines, I'll say that much. Here are a few highlights:
* Bespectacled singer-songwriter Laura Barrett performs bittersweet songs on a kalimba while seated — a tableau that looks an awful lot like a teenage girl sending text messages. But her songs are bittersweet and quite lovely, even as she sets off my twee-dar at times.
* I managed to catch a whopping eight seconds of These United States' afternoon set at Emo's. And what an eight seconds it was! For an actual, song-sized bite of the band's music, here's "First Sight" — which just happened to be yesterday's Song of the Day.
* In a similar bit of bad fortune, I caught only the last 45 seconds of Headlights' tremendous new song, "Get Your Head Around It." I've loved this Illinois pop band ever since its first EP a few years ago, and it's only gotten better since then.
* Speaking of Song of the Day alumni, Michigan singer-songwriter Chris Bathgate sounded wonderful while backed by a seven-piece band, even if they were standing under a tent in a parking lot at the time. Bathgate's bittersweet folk-pop more than stood up to the intricate arrangements — strings! horns! dulcimer! — which should come as no surprise to those who've heard songs such as "Serpentine."
* For those who wonder how the Oklahoma rock band The Evangelicals can make its songs sound so densely layered in a live setting, the answer is, "with enough vocal effects to render between-song patter unintelligible." Still, the group sounded remarkably winning live, capturing its records' mixture of weirdness and warmth.
* I've long loved the star-crossed pop band Troubled Hubble and its terrific singer, Chris Otepka. All five readers of last year's SXSW blog may remember Chris as the guy who drove 18 hours to SXSW 2007, played for 20 minutes, and drove 18 hours home. He's back this year, as The Heligoats, playing two shows instead of one and flying instead of driving. And, of course, his guitar got crushed in transit.
Tonight, look for our live stream of R.E.M. and a honkload of other Athens, Ga., bands — plus whatever I'm able to sneak out and see while Bob Boilen thinks I'm grabbing a beer.