In a little over a week, thousands of music fans, industry insiders and various members of print, online and multimedia outlets – including myself – will descend on Austin, Texas for the annual SXSW Music Festival. Now in its 26th year, the fest was originally intended to be an extension of New York City’s New Music Seminar, but when those plans fell through, a handful of writers from The Austin Chronicle, along with a music booking agent, decided to create a local music festival instead, dubbing it South By Southwest. Over the years the fest has expanded to include both a film and interactive component, but music is still its driving force – as smaller bands will squeeze in as many showcase appearances as possible, looking to capitalize on the fest’s ability to break bands, while the more established acts use the opportunity to preview material from their upcoming releases.
Preparing for SXSW is like a full-time job itself with the dizzying amount of bands playing both the sponsored daytime parties and official night time showcases at dozens of venues around town. Studying the schedule, lineup, venue locations and keeping all your RSVPs in order is bit like preparing for a fantasy league where you’re drafting a team comprised of players from every sport. While SXSW is a bit of a different beast than most other major music festivals, there is one parallel – there is no right or wrong way to approach it, it comes down to personal preferences. For me, that means mixing up genres, mostly seeing bands that are new to me or that I’ve never seen live before, while also squeezing in some that are personal favorites.
With literally hundreds of bands playing over the course of SXSW Music, here are ten acts that are high on my priority list to catch during my time in Austin…
Hurray For The Riff Raff have been on the top of my Must-See short list since last summer, as they released one of my favorite records of 2012 – Look Out Mama. Barely into her twenties, front woman Alynda Lee Segarra has already lived a life that reads like its been lifted straight out of a Jack Kerouac novel – which has included hopping freight trains across the country at age 17. Segarra has channeled those experiences into her music, with wise-beyond-her-years lyrics set to country-infused folk-blues, all punctuated by her cooing warbly vocals.
There are many moments on The Lost Brothers’ 2012 release The Passing of the Night that if you didn’t know better you’d think you were listening to a lost Simon & Garfunkel album from 1964. The Irish duo, who aren’t actually brothers, sound like they’ve stepped right out of Greenwich Village during the height of the folk revival, expertly blending their gorgeous harmonies that echo both Paul and Art’s as well as the Everly Brothers. The band has toured with their like-minded folkie countryman Glen Hansard, while this past weekend they had the opportunity to play a Midnight Ramble when they opened for Marco Benevento and The Midnight Ramble Band.
While they’ll be a number of highly buzzed about bands to emerge from this year’s SXSW, I’m hedging my bet that recent Sub Pop signee Rose Windows will be among them. The Seattle-based act, who will release their full-length debut album The Sun Dogs on June 25, play a heady brand of acid-drenched folk-rock that draws influences from the heyday of psychedelic music channeling the likes of the Incredible String Band, Jefferson Airplane and Black Sabbath. The septet features ethereal vocals courtesy of lead singer Rabia Shaheen Qazi, while the band draws you in thanks to middle eastern ragas mixed with beefy organ, propulsive drums and droning stoner-rock guitar leads.
The Staves are the latest in the line of folkie British imports that are ready to take the United States by storm. The sister act plays an enchanting brand of wispy harmony-laden folk that doesn’t fall too far from the Laura Marling tree, and already have a solid resume to build on having toured with both The Civil Wars and Bon Iver. The trio’s also got some heavyweight help with their debut album, Dead & Born & Grown, which was released last year in the UK, nabbing the formidable duo of Glyn and Ethan Johns to produce it.
Generally speaking SXSW is about the up and coming acts, but for those that aren’t distracted by all the shiny new models, there are a good number of well-established artists playing this year – many of whom put out albums long before the majority of the folks playing this year were even born. Something about seeing Steve Earle’s name on the schedule just screamed out “must see” to me, maybe it’s the fact that Earle is the godfather of alt.country, and brings his old-school rebelliousness to a town that fostered the outlaw country movement that brought us Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe.
Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers are trying everything short of showing up to your hotel to play an impromptu show in order to get you to see them this year. The roots-infused, blue-eyed-soul act have five official appearances on the books, including a slot at the Levon Helm tribute, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them busking along Sixth Street, or even performing a set of covers from their van. Whether they like it or not, Nicki & Co. seem to be on a collision course for many Grace Potter & The Nocturnals comparisons, but stand to walk away from Austin with a lot of new fans as a result.
When you’re scrolling through the SXSW lineup, it’s the weird names that tend stand out of from the pack, and that’s how I landed on Shannon & The Clams. Hailing from Oakland, the band wound up on this list based on the strength of their 2012 single that featured the A Side of Gremlin Crawl, a acid-drenched tune stepped in 1950’s rock n’ roll, girl-group pop, surf-rock and rockabilly, while the B Side is a garage rock cover of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit that rivals anything found on the Nuggets box set. After spending some time poking around YouTube Shannon & The Clams has risen towards the top of the list of bands I’m most excited to check out.
Foxygen has seen their stock steadily rise over the last six months, thanks in part to a strong showing at last fall’s CMJ Music Marathon. The Los Angeles-based band has already released one of the stronger albums of this young year with their sophomore full-length effort We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. The album shows off their take on 1960’s British psych-pop, mixing the swagger of The Rolling Stones with the weirdness of early Pink Floyd and a healthy dash of The Kinks, that seems tailor-made for a Wes Anderson soundtrack. While I tend to avoid hyped-up buzz acts, Foxygen seems like a worthy exception to that rule.
Pokey LaFarge plays music from a bygone-era that most people his age are likely to be completely unaware of. It’s from a time when albums came out on 78s, and when Harry Smith was out on dusty back roads of America making field recordings from the trunk of his car. LaFarge and his South City Three band are an anomaly among the trendy indie-rock acts, looking and sounding as if they stepped straight off the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in the 1920’s. LaFarge is the modern torch-bearer of country-blues, ragtime, western swing, Appalachian folk and old-time jazz, helping to preserve the authentic sounds of American music.
Light In The Attics Records has a proven track record for reissuing fantastic “lost albums” and compilations from semi-obscure acts from the 1960’s and ’70s – they’re the folks that reintroduced the world to the music of Rodriguez. In 2011, the Seattle-based label put out a must-hear compilation by a little known band from South Texas called Kool and Together. The band, who has since reunited, mix deep funk grooves with Motown R&B, Stax soul and rock guitar – arriving at something that sounds like a cross between The Temptations, Parliament and Sly & The Family Stone.
Make sure to check in with Hidden Track next week, as we will have a double-barreled attack. Both Dave Schultz and I will be filing daily reports from SXSW all week long. You can also follow me on Twitter, @j_greenblatt, for up to the minute comings and goings from the trenches.