There’s a band out on the highway, They’re high steppin’ into town, It’s a rainbow full of sound, It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns. Everybody dancin’. C’mon children, C’mon children, Come on clap your hands. Sun went down in honey and the moon came up in wine, You know stars were spinnin’ dizzy, Lord The band kept us so busy we forgot about the time. – The Music Never Stopped (Barlow/Weir)
For four days the 27th annual SXSW Music Festival was the equivalent of my own living jukebox. A cacophony of sounds emanated from every imaginable space in Austin, Texas – creating a non-stop playground for music fans. This is spring break for adults. It’s an aural buffet of genres. It’s darkened bars and make-shift stages in parking lots. It’s bands playing for as few as ten people in a Mexican restaurant to crowds of thousands in an amphitheater attached to a legendary BBQ joint. It’s a giant choose-your-own-adventure book, with infinite possibilities each day. It’s an intoxicating experience that leaves you both enthralled and exhausted each day, as you hustle from show to show, sometimes fully knowing the band that you’re about to see, while other times just taking a chance on one that you overheard someone talking about.
There is no right way or wrong way to experience SXSW. You can spend your time each day hunting down parties that offer the promise of free booze, or setup shop at one venue that offers two stages of continuous music or stand in line for hours to get into a club show from an act that has put those days of playing small rooms way behind them. You can plan your schedule for weeks leading up to the fest, only to throw all that out the window once you take that first step onto Sixth Street.
It had been four years since I last attended SXSW, and there were some noticeable differences from the last time I was in Austin. First and foremost, the hip-hop world seems to have finally gotten the memo that the fest isn’t just for buzz-y indie bands or bearded Americana acts anymore. The genre is tailor-made for SXSW, as it’s best consumed in 20-plus minute high energy sets. Every hip hop show I passed seemed to be more packed than the next, as the rapid-fire pace gets the audience involved right from the start. The other noticeable difference for me was having a smart phone. Back in 2009 iPhones were still expensive toys for tech geeks, and Twitter was still in its infancy. The well-designed SXSW app was truly a revelation making for easy planning, band discovery and maps to every venue – which can be tricky to find if they are off the beaten path.
Personally, SXSW offered me a mix of both the familiar and new, as I caught roughly forty-or-so acts over my time in Austin. With a big shout out to David Schultz, who is the Jedi Master of SXSW, and someone with whom I had the pleasure of running around town seeing a number of shows with, here are my highlights from this year…
Matthew E. White – Wednesday, March 13 – Stages on Sixth
Matthew E. White’s debut album Big Inner is full of lush, slow-burn, baby-making soul music that would make both Barry White and Issac Hayes proud, so I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to translate to a live setting. What I got caught me completely off-guard, as White offered up one of my favorite performances of the fest. Backed by a five-piece band, the long-haired and bearded singer-songwriter tore through an all-too-brief set without abandon, coming off like the true definition of a Southern Soul band that I even compared to Widespread Panic. This set showed off crunchy guitar, poly-rhythmic drumming and percussion, beefy keyboard, all set to White’s panty-dropping deep baritone croon that was capped off by a remarkable set-closing take on the nearly nine-minute tune Brazos.
Hurray For The Riff Raff – Thursday, March 14 – Stages on Sixth
As I mentioned in my SXSW preview Hurray For The Riff Raff have been at the top of my must-see list for quite some time now, so I was front and center for their Thursday afternoon set. Despite some persistent technical difficulties that plagued their set, the New Orleans-based band had me completely entranced with their brand of country-folk. The five-piece act stuck almost exclusively to material from last year’s Look Out Mama – with stand out takes on Look Out Mamma, Ode To John And Yoko and a set-closing version of Lake Of Fire. Lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra has one of those voices that seems to not make sense coming out of someone with such a tiny frame – it’s dark and mysterious, but fits perfectly well with her world-worn lyrics.
Phosphorescent – Friday, March 15 – Red 7 / Saturday, March 16 – SXSJ – Hotel San Jose
With each passing album Matthew Houck continues to evolve Phosphorescent, moving from an intimate bedroom psych-folk to a Willie Nelson deep-cut tribute act to a rollicking country-rock band. Houck’s latest interpretation for his take on “cosmic American music”, which can heard heard all throughout his new studio album Muchacho, may arguably be his best yet. Walking into Red 7, the meaty seven-piece act was partially into their set, delivering swirling psych-country-rock arriving at some amalgam of if Neil Young fronted the Flying Burrito Brothers. I was so impressed that I headed to see them again the very next day, where they once again delivered the goods. The second Phosphorescent set I saw was highlighted by the group’s stunning take on their new single – Song For Zula, as well as Los Angeles – the winding closing track from 2010’s Here’s to Taking It Easy.
Caitlin Rose – Friday, March 15 – Club DeVille
I was absolutely wowed by Caitlin Rose. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter is doing country music the right way. It’s gritty and dirty and takes its nods from the Outlaw Country that Austin helped foster in the 1970’s. The adorable Rose, who’s inspired by the likes of Loretta Lynn, Linda Ronstadt and Patsy Cline, was backed by a top-notch band that featured one of the better pedal steel guitar players I’ve seen in quite some time. Rose mainly focused on material from her sophomore effort The Stand-In, which is a huge step forward from her debut and unbeknownst to me includes a cover of the Felice Brothers’ Dallas that transforms the folkie dirge into a country-swing tune much to my delight.
Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside – Thursday, March 14 – Six Lounge
The roof deck at Six Lounge was easily the most in-your-face corporate branded stage I saw music at this year. With a large multi-media set up on the stage, Six Lounge also happened to be the most intimate of places I caught a set at. The crowd was practically standing face-to-face with Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside as the band performed on the barely raised stage. The Portland, Oregon-based act delivered one of those quintessential SXSW performances – a brawny set of booze-fueled surf-rock and bawdy rockabilly, punctuated by quirky front woman Sallie Ford’s vocal stylings. The unforgettable set was highlighted by some playful banter with that crowd that included a brief and hilarious Q&A session with the band, before they kicked into a raucous set-closing Party Kids.
The Lost Brothers – Friday, March 15 – Stages on Sixth
With literally hundreds upon hundreds of bands playing each night, some shows are going to be woefully under-attended. Such was the case for The Lost Brothers who played before a smattering of about 30 people on Friday night at Stages on Sixth. The Irish folk-duo lived up to expectations with their gorgeously tender Everly Brothers inspired harmonies and sound. Their music filled me with memories of my childhood listening to oldies radio with my parents, as their sound channels both late-1950’s rock n’ roll and the early ’60s folk revival.
Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears – Friday, March 15 – Antone’s
After seeing Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears perform I’m kind of dumbfounded that A.) it’s taken me this long to see this band and B) they aren’t getting the heaps of praise that has been lumped onto Gary Clark Jr. The Austin-based act hit the ground running as they played an all-killer, no-filler 40-minute set of blistering Band of Gypsys-inspired guitar-driven funk music that came replete with a three-piece horn section. The packed crowd ate up every minute of it, as Lewis ripped off one fiery lick after another and nodded to Jimi Hendrix late in his set by playing his fire engine red guitar with his teeth.
You Won’t – Friday, March 15 – The Parish
Walking into The Parish during daylight hours is a bit jarring, it’s a dark rock club that feels a bit like a cave. While my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit space, my ears perked to the sounds from the stage as the Boston-based duo You Won’t were laying down some Dylan inspired jangly blues-rock. The magical moment of their set came as the pair took to the floor to perform their last two songs un-amplified. Surrounded by the roughly 30+ people that managed to be there, the first tune was performed with the assistance of a harmonium and a saw, while the second saw lead singer Josh Arnoudse climb on top of a chair and belt out an impassioned theatrical performance that more people should have seen. These are the type of take-away moments that SXSW tend to be about, the ones that stick with you and make you want to see a new discovery again when they hit your town.
Vampire Weekend – Friday March 15 – Radio Day Stage / Saturday, March 16 – Stubb’s
While SXSW isn’t about seeing the “headliners,” I somehow knew that I couldn’t keep myself away from catching Vampire Weekend – which I did not once, but twice. Their first set occurred at the Radio Day Stage in the Convention Center. Curated by National Public Radio, the gigantic conference room is far from the ideal place to see live music. Though a way-too-long bout of instrument tuning cut into the Ivy League prepsters already short scheduled time slot, they delivered a tight six-song set that leaned on “the hits,” and closed with Unbelievers – the lead single from the group’s upcoming studio album Modern Vampires Of The City.
On Saturday night, the band was tasked with officially closing out the festival with a headlining gig at Stubb’s. The venue, which is attached to the legendary BBQ palace, makes this New Yorker jealous as it’s one of the coolest places to see a gig. The band was is in fine form delivering a polished rock show of their infectious indie-pop. Ezra Koenig & Co. cherry-picked material from their two studio albums including fan favorites Oxford Comma, Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, Cousins and Horcata, as well as debuted two new songs – Diane Lane and Step – which we posted earlier this week for your listening pleasure.